December 31, 2010
Televising The Drug War
Lilia M. Schwarcz over at the NYRB blog:
[T]he drug war in Rio does not explain the rapid spread of the public fear that has become a central theme in national and international depictions of the country. Movies such as News from a Personal War (João Salles, 1999), Central Station (Walter Salles, 1998), City of God (Fernando Meirelles’s 2002 movie based on Paulo Lins’s 1997 book), and the recent Elite Squad 1 and 2 (José Padilha, 2007 and 2010)—the latter, by the way, has become the biggest box-office success in the history of Brazilian cinema—have had an impact both at home and abroad, and have ensured that the subject of violence is never far from the lips of Brazilians. The more recent movies, in particular, which seem to be produced as quickly as TV series, seek to shock audiences with their graphic depictions of turf wars between drug gangs in the favelas, places ordinary Brazilians would not imagine visiting.
These movies, each with their own aesthetic of violence, are immediately exported, disseminating a feeling of fear and terror that fires the foreign imagination and troubles the local population. For those wishing to get a bit closer to the ground, there is a growing industry of “favela tours” that promise visitors the “thrill” of going into a real favela and finding out what life is like there and experiencing the danger first-hand—all in precise, measured doses, of course.
There is also the endless TV coverage of the chaos in the favelas. In recent days, we have been confronted with a veritable avalanche of images of the anti-drug offensive, a 24/7 reality show, with audiences glued to their front-row seats in their living-rooms, ignoring the evidence of the relatively peaceful streets outside. While Rio’s northern zone was experiencing something like a military invasion, in the south, life went on as normal, apart from hotels and restaurants, whose doors remained cautiously shut—just in case.
Most of this reality show leaves no room for nuance or interpretation: the good guys are on one side and the bandits on the other. I’m not defending drug-trafficking or the violence practiced by its participants—it is certainly true that gang warfare and the wars between the police and the traffickers have become an increasingly worrying and invasive part of everyday life in our major cities. But the prevailing black-and-white logic—according to which the drug trade is exclusive to favela life and doesn’t have implications for the police, politicians, or the population as a whole—is nonsense. It is now clear that drug-trafficking has been as omnipresent among certain corrupt police squads as it has in the favelas.
The trouble is that the ugly reality lives right next door; this is particularly ironic given a long history in Rio of attempts to segregate the poor from the rich.
Redoing Student-Teacher Evaluations with Teacher-Student Evaluations, A Modest Proposal
Rob Weir in Inside Higher Ed [for Maeve Adams and Kara Wittman]:
I've just had one of those semesters in which one of my classes had just enough rotten eggs to jeopardize the barrel. You probably know the eggs in question, the ones suffering from SBS (Spoiled Brat Syndrome). Love that term. It was given to me by one of my students who got tired of hearing from peer whiners. SBS students are those who occasionally come to class, voice a few complaints about how (they’ve heard) you conduct it, insist that you personally take responsibility for improving their grades, register moral outrage when told that you intend to hold them to the same standards as lesser-deserving students, and then disappear for several more weeks.
I get through this kind of class because I’ve learned not to waste my time on SBS sufferers. (Seriously, there’s little you can do to please them, so don’t bother trying.) The end-of-semester problem is that our campuses practice the same one-person/one-vote democratic practices that muddy our civic lives. Everyone gets to fill out a class evaluation, whether they're Einstein or the campus idiot, a perfect attendee or a ghost, a hard worker or an SB. Alas, it only takes a few SBs to pull down your class evaluation scores. I’ve written before about what you should and should not take away from student evaluations. My relaxed views on these notwithstanding, this semester’s brush with SBS students aroused my sense of justice. It's just not fair that students get to evaluate us, but we don’t get to say our piece about them. In theory, of course, our grades are their evaluations, but as many on this site have noted, professors who break the institutional curve do so at their own peril. Let’s just say that C has become the new F and B is now the new C. I say it’s time to give profs parallel rights and allow them to evaluate their students. Distribute machine-scored bubble sheets and make the results on each student available campus wide. Heck, let’s even set up a Rate My Students website.
Based on my university's instructor evaluation form, here is a working draft of what one might look like.
Not Exactly Rocket Science's 11 Lists of Top 10 Science Stories
This is the final part of my review of the year, with a more light-hearted look at the past 12 months. But first, here are parts 1-10.
- Part 1 – “They did what now?”
- Part 2 – Animals bring the awe
- Part 3 – Science and society
- Part 4 – New species
- Part 5 – Best mind hacks
- Part 6 – Early dawns
- Part 7 – Cool videos
- Part 8 – Frenetic genetics
- Part 9 – Twists and lessons
- Part 10 – The future is now
IgNobel tribute awards
First up, a selection of posts that, in the words of the award creators, first make people laugh, and then make them think.
The good news: beer makes some people much more attractive. The bad news: it makes them more attractive to mosquitoes. Anopheles gambiae (the mosquito that transmits malaria) finds the body odour of beer drinkers to be quite tantalising. The authors even suggest (very speculatively and with tongue somewhat planted in cheek) that mosquitoes might have evolved a preference for the smell of beer-drinkers, “possibly due to reduced host defensive behaviours”.
Why is Rape Different?
Naomi Wolf's round II, in Project Syndicate:
As Swedish prosecutors’ sex-crime allegations against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange play out in the international media, one convention of the coverage merits serious scrutiny. We know Assange by name. But his accusers – the two Swedish women who have brought the complaints against him – are consistently identified only as “Miss A” and “Miss W,” and their images are blurred.
News organizations argue that the policy is motivated by respect for the alleged victims. But the same organizations would never report charges of, say, fraud – or, indeed, non-sexual assault – against a suspect who has been named on the basis on anonymous accusations. In fact, despite its good intentions, providing anonymity in sex-crime cases is extremely harmful to women.
The convention of not naming rape accusers is a relic of the Victorian period, when rape and other sex crimes were being codified and reported in ways that prefigure our own era. Rape was seen as “the fate worse than death,” rendering women – who were supposed to be virgins until marriage – “damaged goods.”
Virginia Woolf called the ideal of womanhood in this period “The Angel in the House”: a retiring, fragile creature who could not withstand the rigors of the public arena. Of course, this ideal was a double-edged sword: their ostensible fragility – and their assigned role as icons of sexual purity and ignorance – was used to exclude women from influencing outcomes that affected their own destinies. For example, women could not fully participate under their own names in legal proceedings.
Indeed, one of the rights for which suffragists fought was the right to be convicted of one’s own crimes.
Every technology is a metaphor. That much is clear. The difficult matter is to sort out whether this is a primary or secondary function. Which is to say, did we initially make this universe of instruments, machines, tools, and devices as a way of talking about our condition, only then to discover, post hoc, that all the amassed hardware also proved useful for solving various practical problems (washing dishes, killing neighbors, etc.)? Or did it work the other way around? Did we set out to kill our neighbors, say, and then notice that the sword was a lovely way to say “violence”? At first glance, the latter may seem much more likely. But presumably the sword said “violence” before it was swung. If the question feels abstruse, remember that the stakes are high: Are we apes who learned to talk, or angels who learned to kill?more from Yara Flores at Cabinet here.
‘Now we will live!’... the hungry little boy liked to say ... but the food that he saw was only in his imagination.” So the little boy died, together with three million fellow Ukrainians, in the mass starvation that Stalin created in 1933. “I will meet her ... under the ground,” a young Soviet man said about his wife. Both were shot in the course of Stalin’s Great Terror of 1937 and 1938, which claimed 700,000 victims. “Two hundred thousand Polish citizens were shot by the Soviets or the Germans at the beginning of World War II.” “Only Tania is left,” a little Russian girl wrote in her diary in besieged Leningrad, where the rest of her family and nearly one million other Leningraders starved to death. “I am saying good-bye to you before I die. I am so afraid of this death because they throw small children into the mass graves alive,” a twelve-year-old Jewish girl in Belarus wrote to her father. “She was among the more than five million Jews gassed or shot by the Germans.” So begins Bloodlands, a genuinely shattering report on the ideology, the political strategy, and the daily horror of Soviet and Nazi rule in the region that Timothy Snyder calls the bloodlands. In 1933, when the murderous madness began, the bloodlands were made up of independent Poland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, as well as (within the Soviet Union) Belarus, Ukraine, and some of Soviet Russia’s western provinces. A glance at a map of the same area in 1941 shows that in the intervening years the bloodlands had become two countries: the German Reich and the Soviet Union. Acting in harmony, these two countries swallowed the region’s other countries.more from Istvan Deak at TNR here.
the bellovian mind
In 1961, Saul Bellow wrote to Susan Glassman, who would become his third wife: “Have you ever visited a clothing factory, heard the sewing machines rrrrhhhahhrrr with the loudness in the middle of the phrase? I feel like that myself, like the operator sliding in the cloth. Only the machinery is internal and the seams never end”. If you had to pick a single passage from Saul Bellow: Letters, so richly characteristic on every page, to capture the writer’s essence, this would be it. That roar is the key signature of his inner life, which he bestows on every one of his fictional surrogates. The first step in creating a character, for Bellow, is not to imagine what he looks like or what will happen to him, but to set moving the vibration, the agitation, the turbulence (there is no more Bellovian word than “turbulent”) that constitutes consciousness. It is audible in Joseph, from Dangling Man: “if I had as many mouths as Siva has arms and kept them going all the time, I still could not do myself justice”. In Henderson of Henderson the Rain King: “Now I have already mentioned that there was a disturbance in my heart, a voice that spoke there and said, I want, I want, I want! It happened every afternoon, and when I tried to suppress it it got even stronger”. In Ravelstein: “one of those large men . . . whose hands shake when there are small chores to perform. The cause was not weakness but a tremendous eager energy that shook him when it was discharged”.more from Adam Kirsch at the TLS here.
For auld lang syne, my dear,
For auld lang syne,
We'll take a cup o' kindness yet
For auld lang syne
We twa hae run aboot the braes
And pou'd the gowans fine;
we've wander'd mony a weary foot
Sin' auld lang syne
We two hae paidled i' the burn,
Frae mornin' sun till dine;
But seas between us braid hae roar'd
Sin' auld lang syne
And here's a hand, my trusty friend,
And gie's a hand o' thine;
We'll take a cup o' kindness yet
For auld lang syne
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot
and days of auld lang syne?
For auld lang syne, my dear,
For auld lang syne,
We'll take a cup o' kindness yet
For auld lang syne
by Robert Burns
Old long since
Old Lang Syne
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind ?
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and old lang syne ?
For old lang syne, my dear,
for old lang syne,
we'll take a cup of kindness yet,
for old lang syne.
We two have run about the slopes,
and picked the daisies fine ;
But we’ve wandered many a weary foot,
since old lang syne.
We two have paddled in the stream,
from morning sun till dine† ;
But seas between us broad have roared
since old lang syne.
And there’s a hand my trusty friend !
And give us a hand o’ thine !
And we’ll take a right good-will draught,
for old lang syne
And surely you’ll buy your pint cup !
and surely I’ll buy mine !
And we'll take a cup o’ kindness yet,
for old lang syne.
Gaming the Emotions
From Harvard Magazine:
Video games may have a reputation for being violent and overly stimulating, but in a new study led by Harvard psychiatry professors, one video game appears to help kids with severe anger problems gain control of their emotions. The pilot study at Children’s Hospital Boston tests an intervention that features a video game based on the 1980s arcade favorite Space Invaders. Players shoot down space aliens, but with an important modification: they wear a monitor on one pinkie that tracks heart rate as they play. If that indicator rises above resting levels—signaling that they’re overexcited—players lose the ability to shoot.
The truth about tolerance
Tariq Ramadan’s The Quest for Meaning is very much a ‘spirit of the age’ book. One of the most influential intellectual trends today is to seek refuge in nature, to search for meaning not in the human-made world but in the natural or biological world. This can be seen in the current fashion for evolutionary psychology, neuroscience, behavioural economics and environmentalism. Another powerful intellectual trend is what we might call a twenty-first-century version of perspectivism, which one-sidedly emphasises the intuitive and contingent aspects of human experience. And The Quest for Meaning tightly embraces both of these fashionable approaches to the world.
Although Ramadan’s book is presented as a spiritual meditation on the problems of existence, it is actually an eclectic mixture of current intellectual prejudices and old-fashioned appeals to revelation and dogma. What is fascinating about the book is the manner in which it leaps from discussing clusters of neurons to issuing poetic homilies about the nature of meaning. Statements such as ‘We are heading for the realm of consciousness and mind where all wisdoms remind us that it is shores that make the ocean one, and that it is the plurality of human journeys that shapes the common humanity of men’ sound like first drafts of the script for Lost. However, while Ramadan’s musings are elliptical, they nonetheless convey a clear message: that truth is very relative, or, as he puts it, ‘we have to begin humbly, by admitting that we have nothing more than points of view’. The only thing we share, he says, is our difference and diversity.
December 30, 2010
Forget a Theory of Everything; The New Game in Town, A Simulation of Everything
Gareth Morgan in the BBC:
An international group of scientists are aiming to create a simulator that can replicate everything happening on Earth - from global weather patterns and the spread of diseases to international financial transactions or congestion on Milton Keynes' roads.
Nicknamed the Living Earth Simulator (LES), the project aims to advance the scientific understanding of what is taking place on the planet, encapsulating the human actions that shape societies and the environmental forces that define the physical world.
"Many problems we have today - including social and economic instabilities, wars, disease spreading - are related to human behaviour, but there is apparently a serious lack of understanding regarding how society and the economy work," says Dr Helbing, of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, who chairs the FuturICT project which aims to create the simulator.
Thanks to projects such as the Large Hadron Collider, the particle accelerator built by Cern, scientists know more about the early universe than they do about our own planet, claims Dr Helbing.
What is needed is a knowledge accelerator, to collide different branches of knowledge, he says.
"Revealing the hidden laws and processes underlying societies constitutes the most pressing scientific grand challenge of our century."
The result would be the LES. It would be able to predict the spread of infectious diseases, such as Swine Flu, identify methods for tackling climate change or even spot the inklings of an impending financial crisis, he says.
But how would such colossal system work?
See also this discussion on "Why Do We Need Predictions?" in the NYT.
Political Views 'Hard-Wired' Into Your Brain
Richard Alleyne in The Telegraph:
Scientists have found that people with conservative views have brains with larger amygdalas, almond shaped areas in the centre of the brain often associated with anxiety and emotions.
On the otherhand, they have a smaller anterior cingulate, an area at the front of the brain associated with courage and looking on the bright side of life.
The "exciting" correlation was found by scientists at University College London who scanned the brains of two members of parliament and a number of students.
They found that the size of the two areas of the brain directly related to the political views of the volunteers.
However as they were all adults it was hard to say whether their brains had been born that way or had developed through experience.
Prof Geraint Rees, who led the research, said: "We were very surprised to find that there was an area of the brain that we could predict political attitude.
Making sense of Modernism
Tim Black reviews Gabriel Josipovici’s Whatever Happened to Modernism?, in Spiked:
Despite his gain in knowledge and power, Christopher Marlowe’s sixteenth-century Doctor Faustus strikes an increasingly saturnine pose. His freedom from Christian authority, bought at such great cost from Mephistopheles, comes to be experienced as loss: not just loss of grace, but loss of meaning and of purpose, too. At the last, as we hear him here, he strives once more for the re-enchantment of the world. He can even see that symbol of the sacramental universe, ‘Christ’s blood’, ‘stream[ing] in the firmament’. But it’s too late; God has departed. In his wake, modern Faustian man is free, but rootless, liberated but cut adrift from the resources that had once furnished his life with meaning.
Such is the similarly plaintive refrain that runs through Professor Gabriel Josipovici’s Whatever Happened to Modernism?. Not that you would know this, given the silly-season furore that greeted the author’s much-publicised criticism of the greats of contemporary Anglo-American literature. Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan, even Philip Roth – all are, admittedly, the recipients of Josopivici’s critical sting. ‘Reading Barnes’, Jospovici writes – and the Guardian gleefully quoted – ‘like reading so many of the other English writers of his generation, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Blake Morrison, or a critic from an older generation who belongs with them, John Carey, leaves me feeling that I and the world have been made smaller and meaner’. If these ‘precise’, ‘cynical’, and unrelentingly ‘ironical’ writers, having snuck out from under ‘Philip Larkin’s overcoat’, clearly annoy Josopivici, then at least he finds Philip Roth, a man frequently and perhaps unthinkingly hailed as ‘our greatest living writer’, funny and thought-provoking. ‘[B]ut only as good journalism can be funny and thought-provoking’, Jospivici adds, just in case his personal enjoyment be mistaken for objective literary praise.
But there is far more to Whatever Happened to Modernism? than a desire to right wrongful veneration. For a start, his barbs towards Amis and friends come in the penultimate chapter of 15. They are the result of a grand historico-philosophical perspective, not its starting point. And it is in this perspective, in this attempt to convey what modernism was and is, that this little book’s ambiguous value lies - ambiguous because its tremendous insight into the nature of Modernism reveals, and revels in, the most reactionary of sentiments: a disillusionment with Enlightenment, with reason, in short with the whole human-centricity of Western civilisation since Luther pinned up his 95 theses in Wittemburg in 1517.
WikiLeaks and Condom Slips
Paul Collins in Lapham's Quarterly:
In a New Hampshire apartment during the winter of 1923, this typewritten notice was fastened squarely against a closed door:
NOBODY MAY COME INTO THIS ROOM IF THE DOOR IS SHUT TIGHT (IF IT IS SHUT NOT QUITE LATCHED IT IS ALL RIGHT) WITHOUT KNOCKING. THE PERSON IN THIS ROOM IF HE AGREES THAT ONE SHALL COME IN WILL SAY “COME IN,” OR SOMETHING LIKE THAT AND IF HE DOES NOT AGREE TO IT HE WILL SAY “NOT YET, PLEASE,” OR SOMETHING LIKE THAT. THE DOOR MAY BE SHUT IF NOBODY IS IN THE ROOM BUT IF A PERSON WANTS TO COME IN, KNOCKS AND HEARS NO ANSWER THAT MEANS THERE IS NO ONE IN THE ROOM AND HE MUST NOT GO IN.
REASON. IF THE DOOR IS SHUT TIGHT AND A PERSON IS IN THE ROOM THE SHUT DOOR MEANS THAT THE PERSON IN THE ROOM WISHES TO BE LEFT ALONE.
Through the door could be heard furious clacking and carriage returns: the sound, in fact, of an eight-year-old girl writing her first novel.
In 1923, typewriters were hardly a child’s plaything, but to those following the family of critic and editor Wilson Follett, it was a grand educational experiment. He’d already written of his daughter Barbara in Harper’s, describing a girl who by the age of three was consumed with letters and words. “She was always seeing A’s in the gables of houses and H’s in football goalposts,” he recalled. One day she’d wandered into Wilson’s office and discovered his typewriter.
“Tell me a story about it,” she demanded.
This was Barbara’s way of asking for any explanation, and after he demonstrated the wondrous machine, she took to it fiercely. A typewriter, her parents realized, could unleash a torrential flow of thoughts from a gifted child who still lacked the coordination to write in pencil.
“In a multitude of ways,” Wilson Follett reported, “we become more and more convinced of the expediency of letting the typewriter be, so far as a machine can, the center and genesis of the first processes.”
By five, Barbara was being homeschooled by her mother, and writing a tale titled The Life of the Spinning Wheel, the Rocking-Horse, and the Rabbit. Her fascination with flowers and butterflies bloomed from her typewriter into wild and exuberant poems and fairy tales. By 1922, at the age of seven, she was versifying upon music...
[H/t: Jennifer Ouellette]
Vijay Iyer in Jazz Times:
Lately I’ve been pulled into discussions about three disparate issues, each with its own frame of reference: the dire economic climate and its effect on the arts, the abundance of jazz education programs, and the obvious significance of social networking sites in our lives. On the surface they don’t really have much to do with each other, but if we consider them together we might better understand America’s current jazz climate.
In summer 2009 I was enlisted to debate the conservative arts critic Terry Teachout about the supposed problem of declining “participation in the arts” among Americans. Some doomsday figures from the National Endowment for the Arts seemed to show that “jazz audiences” were getting both older and scarcer. Upon examination of the data, which, of course, was collected during a recession, Teachout still concluded that the problem was jazz’s fault. He speculated that we musicians had abandoned our audience in moving the music toward an esoteric art and away from populist entertainment. (I suppose he meant to include Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Sonny Rollins, Max Roach, Anthony Braxton and all those other culprits in his accusations.)
I saw this as a reactionary, blame-the-victim argument. The reality is that public and institutional support for the arts in the U.S. has systematically declined over the last 30 years. Meanwhile, as the top 1 percent of private earners amassed unprecedented amounts of increasingly tax-free wealth, they mostly failed to invest in the production, presentation, preservation and infrastructure of jazz.
Which brings us to today’s America: not enough gigs to go around and almost no jazz on television or radio or even onstage, if you don’t live in a major city.
On Early Warning Signs
George Sugihara in Seed Magazine:
At a closed meeting held in Boston in October 2009, the room was packed with high-flyers in foreign policy and finance: Henry Kissinger, Paul Volcker, Andy Haldane, and Joseph Stiglitz, among others, as well as representatives of sovereign wealth funds, pensions, and endowments worth more than a trillion dollars—a significant slice of the world’s wealth. The session opened with the following telling question: “Have the last couple of years shown that our traditional finance/risk models are irretrievably broken and that models and approaches from other fields (for example, ecology) may offer a better understanding of the interconnectedness and fragility of complex financial systems?”
Science is a creative human enterprise. Discoveries are made in the context of our creations: our models and hypotheses about how the world works. Big failures, however, can be a wake-up call about entrenched views, and nothing produces humility or gains attention faster than an event that blindsides so many so immediately.
Examples of catastrophic and systemic changes have been gathering in a variety of fields, typically in specialized contexts with little cross-connection. Only recently have we begun to look for generic patterns in the web of linked causes and effects that puts disparate events into a common framework—a framework that operates on a sufficiently high level to include geologic climate shifts, epileptic seizures, market and fishery crashes, and rapid shifts from healthy ecosystems to biological deserts.
The main themes of this framework are twofold: First, they are all complex systems of interconnected and interdependent parts. Second, they are nonlinear, non-equilibrium systems that can undergo rapid and drastic state changes.
Nichi Vendola, the Italian Obama
Chase Madar in Le Monde Diplomatique (photo from Wikipedia):
Silvio Berlusconi’s gift for the battuta – wisecrack – has been a great help to his political career. But there are limits. He tried to bounce back from the revelation that he intervened to secure the release from prison of a 17-year old Moroccan bellydancer, “Ruby Heartstealer”, who had been at his private parties, by saying “it’s better to go crazy over beautiful girls than be gay”. This did not go over well and in no way blocked public disgust with his “bunga-bunga” lifestyle. The crack was aimed at the Italian left’s new star, Nichi Vendola.
Nichi Vendola is the governor of Apulia, heel of the peninsular boot, one of Italy’s poorest and most socially conservative regions. That it should elect (and re-elect) a governor with a background in the Rifondazione Comunista (RC, Communist Refoundation party) which he helped found in 1991 (1), but is also openly gay, is counterintuitive, even if Vendola is a professed Catholic. He is now one of Italy’s most popular politicians and may lead a coalition of left and centre-left parties in the national elections of 2013. He is a charismatic scrapper, and has the Italian right worried.
Vendola can use the battuta, too. In November he enraged the rightwing governor of prosperous, northern Lombardy by declaring it the most “mobbed-up” region in Italy. (That a southerner would criticise the north for its failure to control the ’Ndrangheta and Camorra is a novelty.) Reversing decades of anti-communist Stalin-baiting, Vendola condemns Berlusconi for embracing Vladimir Putin and the “business is business” approach to buying energy from authoritarian states like Russia and Libya. When asked if he might become the first gay prime minister, Vendola confides that there has already been one, whose identity he has sworn never to tell. He easily quotes the 19th century poet Giacomo Leopardi, and the poet and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini – another gay Catholic leftist and subject of Vendola’s undergraduate thesis in literature – and also the New Testament and his former bishop, Don Tonino Bello, who in is the process of being beatified.
A Demos poll last November found Vendola was the best-liked politician in Italy, more popular than either leader of the largest centre-left parties, the Partito Democratico and Italia dei Valori.
The Real Reason That the Bailouts May Not Work
Mark Blyth in The Huffington Post:
A recent WSJ article on banks in trouble focused on the fact that many of these banks were TARP recipients: QED, TARP was bad and the bailouts didn't work. While state bashing is nothing new in the pages of the WSJ, it's worth remembering what the bailouts were actually designed to do: stop the global payments system freezing up. It was not designed to bailout some community lender in the West who got in over their heads in commercial real estate. It is also worth putting these prospective failures in perspective. The median size of these banks was $439 million. Compare that to the balance sheet of Bank of America and the combined $4.2 billion tied up in these banks is a drop in the bucket. Moreover, while 98 failing banks seem a lot, we should remember that between 1985 and 1992 2109 banks failed, so let's not get too excited about this most recent spate of casualties.
So why the focused attention on these relatively normal events? Perhaps the answer lies in the continuing campaign played so deftly by the banks and their allies to turn the largest ever private sector failure into a public sector failure, thereby getting themselves off the hook for the mess that they made. To take just two examples, the minority report of the Financial Crisis Commission blamed Fannie and Freddie for the crisis, despite the fact that the crisis hit over 20 countries and yet only one of them has Fannie and Freddie. Similarly, the global banking crisis has been turned into a crisis of profligate sovereigns, sidestepping the fact that the debt bloating states' balance sheets are bailout costs and lost revenues, not runaway social programs. Mere facts, it seems, can't compete with a good ideology. However, the WSJ may be more right than they know. The bailouts may not ultimately work, but for an entirely different set of reasons.
Also see Mark's piece in Triple Crisis, here
This giant atlas moth’s broad wings
could be the map of China.
Here are two Great Walls. And there
on the Manchurian tip of each forewing
are dragon heads to scare off predators.
But what are those windows in the map,
where crystal scales let in the light?
As if earth’s skin has windows
and at certain times of the evening
they open. The newly emerged atlas
perches on my hand, and it trembles –
like a new world, warming up for its first flight.
by Pascale Petit
from The Treekeeper’s Tale
publisher: Seren, Bridgend, © 2008
Gathering Storm: Walter Benjamin remains difficult to classify
It’s always been hard to pin Benjamin down. Aberrant Marxist, heretical Jew, maverick social theorist, deconstructive spirit—he has been many things to many people. It is equally hard to describe what he did, in part because Americans don’t really make intellectuals like him. Benjamin, whose most important work was written in Berlin during the ’20s and then in Paris during the ’30s, wasn’t just a book reviewer, although he wanted to be the best one in Germany. He was hardly a journalist, but a good deal of his considerable production was written for newspapers. He was not a philosopher, but he is treated like one. To use a quaint expression, he was a man of letters. Even that does not do him justice.
Lucky Foods for the New Year
My Italian grandfather was known to eat a lot of strange things: pickled eels, tripe and anything slimy that would be considered disgusting to most children. For New Year’s Day his favorite food was a giant gelatinous sausage called cotechino, cut into sections and smeared with mustard. My brother and I joked that the sausage must have been made from the worst of the pig, like the eyes.
As an adult, I developed a taste for cotechino (which contains plenty of pig fat, but no eyeballs), and have learned that this delicacy, and pork in general, is often considered a propitious food to eat at the beginning of the year. Many of our holiday customs go back to when we were an agrarian society. “In many parts of Europe, pigs were easier to grow than cows because they take up less space and eat anything,” says Janet Chrzan, a nutritional anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania. “And pigs were slaughtered around the time of the winter solstice.” Food has always been a powerful symbol, especially during rites of passage, such as the start of a new year. “It’s hard to know which came first – the belief in the food being lucky, or the tradition of eating it because it was available, and then attaching meaning to it,” says food historian and author Andrew F. Smith.
December 29, 2010
Hug it out, bitch
The emos who hang out in Mexico City’s Insurgentes Circle, distant relations of our own kohl-eyed musical mopes, face constant harassment from corrupt police and local punks. Some of them have also been forced to contend with the intrusive questions of a handsome, weathered, impeccably dressed gentleman of 82 who occasionally likes to listen, uncomprehending, to their lingo. “They invent language all the time,” says Carlos Fuentes, Mexico’s most prominent author, who still spends hours wandering the vast plazas and narrow alleys of his country’s capital. “It’s a language I, at times, cannot understand.” Destiny and Desire is the 24th novel by Fuentes, one of the architects of the sixties’ “Latin American Boom” in literature (along with friends “Gabo” García Márquez, Julio Cortázar, and 2010 Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa). The novel is a tracking shot of modern Mexico City as seen through the eyes of two ambitious frenemies, Josué and Jericó (Cain and Abel is the working archetype), caught in the swirl of dirty politics, narco-trafficking, and a burgeoning telecommunications monopoly. Its more surreal touches—potent symbolism, magic, long polemics, and disorienting leaps in time—bring to mind the best of Latin Boomer lit, including Fuentes’s own classic, The Death of Artemio Cruz, published in English in 1964. It also showcases Fuentes’s need to stay current in his ninth decade—as in the incongruous phrase “Hug it out, bitch,” which telegraphs Jericó’s mysterious international activities.more from Boris Kachka at New York Magazine here.
foucault and W
In the late 1960s, George Bush Jr was at Yale, branding the asses of pledges to the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity with a hot coathanger. Michel Foucault was at the Societé française de philosophie, considering the question, ‘What is an author?’ The two, needless to say, never met. Foucault may have visited Texas on one of his lecture tours, but Junior, as far as it is known, never took his S&M revelry beyond the Ivy League – novelists will have to invent a chance encounter in a basement club in Austin. Moreover, Junior’s general ignorance of all things, except for professional sports, naturally extended to the nation known as France. On his first trip to Paris in 2002, Junior, now president of the United States, stood beside Jacques Chirac at a press conference and said: ‘He’s always saying that the food here is fantastic and I’m going to give him a chance to show me tonight.’ Foucault found his theories embodied, sometimes unconvincingly, in writers such as Proust or Flaubert. He died in 1984, while Junior was still an ageing frat boy, and didn’t live to see this far more applicable text. For the questions that he, even then, declared hopelessly obsolete are the very ones that should not be asked about Decision Points ‘by’ George W. Bush (or by ‘George W. Bush’): ‘Who really spoke? Is it really he and not someone else? With what authenticity or originality? And what part of his deepest self did he express in his discourse?’more from Eliot Weinberger at the LRB here.
undoing the “reign of non-mediation,”
Matthew Engelke is right: religion is about mediation. Ironically so, because it is about the divine; but because the divine is never directly available, religion must instead be about how the divine is indirectly manifest. Thus, as Régis Debray has shown in his God: an Itinerary, monotheism, which is apparently the most other-worldly and non-mediated of creeds, has had to identify itself in concrete terms, which may bizarrely include preference for some landscapes over others, or for association with some animals over others. Because religion is about mediation, it naturally refuses any duality of nature and culture. Reality, as the true nature of things, is sacred, but it must be mediated by particular human relations and practices. Culture, therefore, can be neither merely arbitrary nor totally opposed to nature, since it is what truly discloses the latter. Since all, or nearly all, human cultures have been religious, it is therefore unsurprising that, as Marshall Sahlins has pointed out in The Western Illusion of Human Nature, they do not recognize a nature/culture divide. Instead, they define themselves in groups of kinship with other natural beings and with the gods, animals being typically defined as types of human, not humans as types of animals.more from John Milbank at Immanent Frame here.
While strolling last month through one of the dimly lit backrooms in a wing of the National Galleries of Scotland, my inner eye still tingling with thousands of Impressionistic afterimages, pudgy Rubensian cherubs, and gothic quadrangles, one irreverent painting leapt out at me in a very contemporary sort of way. It was part of an early-16th-century triptych showing what appeared to be a solemn, middle-aged clergyman in gilded ecclesiastical robes commanding three naked adolescent boys before him in a bathtub.
Now, I must say, my first thought on seeing this salacious image was that the Catholic Church has been a hebephilic haven for far longer than anyone realized. But my uneasiness was put to rest once I leaned in to read the caption, which stated that the Dutch artist Gerard David, a prolific religious iconographer based in Bruges, Belgium, was merely painting a scene of starvation cannibalism. Phew! What a relief it was only an innocent case of anthropophagy (the eating of human flesh by humans) and nothing more sinister than that. The boys had been killed by a butcher, you see, and their carcasses were salting in a makeshift vat awaiting ingestion by famished townspeople. Fortunately, that most notorious child-lover himself, St. Nicholas, just happened to be passing through town when he caught wind of the boy-eating scandal and resurrected the lads in the tub.
Why Europe Is, and Will Remain, Powerful
Predictions of European decline rely on an outmoded understanding of power. On all issues that require power with - rather than over - others, Europe has impressive capacity.
Joseph Nye in The Utopian:
The key question in assessing Europe’s resources is whether Europe will develop enough political and social-cultural cohesion to act as one on a wide range of international issues, or whether it will remain a limited grouping of countries with strongly different nationalisms and foreign policies. In other words, what is Europe’s power conversion capability?
The answer varies with different issues. On questions of trade and influence within the World Trade Organization, Europe is the equal of the United States and able to balance American power. The creation of the European Monetary Union and the launching of the Euro at the beginning of 1999 made Europe’s role in monetary affairs and the International Monetary Fund nearly equal to that of the U.S. (though the 2010 crisis over Greek debt dented confidence in the Euro.) On anti-trust issues, the size and attraction of the European market has meant that American firms seeking to merge have had to seek approval from the European Commission as well as the U.S. Justice Department. In the cyber world, the EU is setting the global standards for privacy protection.
At the same time, Europe faces significant limits on its degree of unity. National identities remain stronger than a common European identity, despite six decades of integration, and national interests, while subdued in comparison to the past, still matter. The enlargement of the European Union to include 27 states (with more to come) means that European institutions are likely to remain sui generis, and unlikely to produce a strong federal Europe or a single state.
Amygdala at the centre of your social network
How many friends do you have? A rough answer can be predicted by the size of a small, almond-shaped brain structure that is present in a wide range of vertebrates, scientists report today in Nature Neuroscience. The researchers studied the amygdala, which is involved in inter-personal functions such as interpreting emotional facial expressions, reacting to visual threats and trusting strangers. Inter-species comparisons in non-human primates have previously shown that amygdala volume is associated with troop size, suggesting that the brain region supports skills necessary for a complex social life1. On the basis of these past findings, psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett of Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, wondered whether a larger amygdala size allows some humans to build a richer social world.
Barrett's team measured the amygdala volume in 58 healthy adults using brain images gathered during magnetic resonance imaging sessions. To construct social networks, the researchers asked the volunteers how many people they kept in regular contact with, and how many groups those individuals belonged to. They found that participants who had bigger and more complex social networks had larger amygdala volumes. This effect did not depend on the age of the volunteers or their own perceived social support or life satisfaction, suggesting that happiness is not the underlying causal factor that links the size of this brain structure in an individual to their number of friends2.
December 28, 2010
Brian Hayes in American Scientist:
Dennis Baron’s extended essay A Better Pencil looks back over the entire history of writing technologies (clay tablets, pens, pencils, typewriters), but the focus is on the recent transition to digital devices. His title implies a question. Is the computer really a better pencil? Will it lead to better writing? There is a faction that thinks otherwise:
These computerphobes are convinced that the machines will corrupt our writers, turn books into endangered species, and litter the landscape with self-publishing authors. In addition, computers will rot our brains, destroy family life, put an end to polite conversation, wreak havoc with the English language, invade our privacy, steal our identity, and expose us to predators waiting to pervert us or to sell us things that we don’t need.
Putting this bill of indictment in perspective, Baron points out that just about every other new writing instrument has also been seen as a threat to literacy and a corrupter of youth. The eraser had a particularly bad reputation, under the thesis that “if the technology makes error correction easy, students will make more errors.” I have to add that my own view of the computer as a writing instrument has always been that it’s not so much a better pencil as a better eraser, allowing me to fix my mistakes and change my mind incessantly, without ever rubbing a hole in the page. The first time I held down the delete key on an early IBM PC and watched whole sentences and paragraphs disappear, one character at a time, as if sucked through a straw—that was a vision of a better future for writers.
Why doesn't the latest sunset fall on the longest day of the year?
If the summer solstice falls on the longest day, why doesn't it also coincide with the earliest sunrise and the latest sunset?
Rebecca Jenkins in ABC News [Australia]:
As a rule the sun isn't a very reliable time keeper, Watson points out, mainly because the Earth orbits the sun in an elliptical pattern, running faster when it is closest to the sun in January and slower when it is furthest away from the sun in July.
"It's slightly faster in [the Southern Hemisphere] summer than in our winter," says Watson.
This quirk means that the length of a solar day — the time between two solar noons (when the sun is at the highest point in the sky) — is not always the 24 hours we measure on a clock. It's about 20 seconds longer in January and around 40 seconds shorter in July.
But while the solar day is getting longer during December and into January, the clock still only registers 24 hours. The difference between actual solar time and clock time changes by about 30 seconds every day, Watson explains. And that extra time effectively delays the following sunrise according to our clocks.
At the same time, the Earth's axial tilt means we are getting a few seconds more daylight every day in the Southern Hemisphere in the lead up to summer solstice, but this has a small effect on the sunset and sunrise times compared with the much larger difference between solar time and clock time.
The earliest sunrise occurs before the Earth hits its speedy orbit during December. And while the number of actual daylight hours starts getting shorter after the solstice, sunset is still delayed by the solar/clock time difference until the Earth's solar orbit starts slowing down again in January.
It is this effect that leads to the staggering of the earliest sunrise, the solstice and the latest sunset.
The Science and Stupidity of Homeopathy
Hartosh Bal Singh in Open:
A week ago, the front page of the country’s largest selling English newspaper, The Times of India, announced ‘IIT-B team shows how homeopathy works.’ The article then rather credulously went on to state, ‘Six months after the British Medical Association rubbished homeopathy as witchcraft with no scientific basis, IIT scientists have said the sweet white pills work on the principle of nanotechnology.’ This was a news report that obviously made it past the best procedure for vetting that exists in the newspaper; after all, it appeared on the front page. And if so, it is a reflection of the kind of material the media is willing to swallow and regurgitate without verification.
The newspaper quotes from a paper by a graduate student from IIT-B chemical engineering department ‘published in the latest issue of Homeopathy, a peer-reviewed journal from reputed medical publishing firm Elsevier’, titled ‘Extreme homeopathic dilutions retain starting materials: A nanoparticulate perspective’. The paper is available online and it claims that even at extreme dilution some nanoparticles of the original starting materials are found in the solution.
But consider what the newspaper has said, and compare what the IIT-B researchers claim in their paper, ‘We have found that the concentrations reach a plateau at the 6c potency and beyond. Further, we have shown that despite large differences in the degree of dilution from 6c to 200c (1012 to 10400), there were no major differences in the nature of the particles (shape and size) of the starting material and their absolute concentrations (in pg/ml).’ In other words, their claimed results show that across the range of ‘potencies’ (the more dilute a homeopathic medicine the stronger it is supposed to be) of homeopathic medicine the concentration of nanoparticles is the same. If so, relatively ‘weak’ homeopathic medicines should have the same effect as more ‘strong’ medicine. This actually invalidates the whole idea of homeopathy.
Julian Assange's short-sighted book deal
From The Economist:
The big news of the day is Julian Assange's book deal. The Wikileaks founder has secured more than $1m in advances for his autobiography from Alfred A. Knopf, a New York publisher, and Canongate based in Britain. A manuscript is expected sometime next year. "I don't want to write this book, but I have to," Mr Assange told the Sunday Times. "I have already spent £200,000 for legal costs and I need to defend myself and to keep WikiLeaks afloat." Struggling writers around the world are crying crocodile tears for this man. Woe is he and his handsome advance.
The deal is impressive, but there are signs that Mr Assange's rush to shake hands with big publishers was penny-wise, pound-foolish. As it stands, the contract barely covers his existing legal costs, which he says are approaching £500,000. Knopf will surely do its best to rush the book into print, but its cut of final sales will be considerable. A typical contract would give Knopf electronic rights and Mr Assange 25% of net profits. As the towheaded Australian already has a cult following, it might've been savvier for him to self-publish an autobiography and sell it via Amazon, which offers authors 70% of net profits for e-books sold in America (though the book must be priced between $2.99 and $9.99); Barnes & Noble and Apple offer similar royalty rates.
Christopher Hitchens: my hero of 2010 —Richard Dawkins
Richard Dawkins in The Guardian:
Eloquent, witty, literate, intelligent, knowledgeable, brave, erudite, hard-working, honest (who could forget his clean-through skewering of Mother Teresa's hypocrisy?), arguably the most formidable debater alive today yet at the same time the most gentlemanly, Christopher Hitchens is a giant of the mind and a model of courage. A lesser man would have seized the excuse of a mortal illness to duck responsibility and take it easy. Not this soldier. He will not go gentle into that good night; but instead of a futile raging against the dying of the light he rages, with redoubled energy (and concentrated power in his vibrant, Richard Burton tones) against the same obscurantist, vicious or just plain silly targets as have long engaged him. But he never rants. His is a controlled, disciplined rage, and don't get on the wrong side of it.
Like Bertrand Russell, Hitch "would scorn to shiver with terror at the thought of annihilation". He laughs off the spiritual vultures eager for a death-bed conversion, and dismisses – but with unfailingly gracious courtesy – the many schadenfreudian prayers for his recovery. As Daniel Dennett said, in similar circumstances, "And did you also sacrifice a goat?"
a writ of majestic, even equitable, sweep
On a lazy afternoon in February 1961, Wilbert Rideau decided to rob a bank in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Rideau, a smart but impulsive eighth-grade dropout from a violent home, had counted on making a quick, clean getaway, just like the ones he'd seen in the movies, but his plans unraveled during the heist when a phone call to the bank revealed that the police were closing in. Rideau took three hostages, commandeered a car and, as darkness fell, got lost on the back roads outside town. At a bayou crossing the passengers bolted, and Rideau opened fire. Two survived and vanished into the night, but the third, a teller named Julia Ferguson, was wounded by the gunfire and then stabbed to death by Rideau with a hunting knife. A 19-year-old black man had killed a white woman. In no time, Rideau was under arrest. Outside the jail, a mob formed. "Hang that nigger," a voice called out. But the officers held their man, confident that justice would be swift and severe. "It was a good little town back then," a deputy sheriff later explained to a reporter. "Ever'body did their job. The prosecutors, the law enforcement.... You didn't have to worry about lynching because they lynched 'em for you." The trial, as Rideau recalls in his gripping memoir In the Place of Justice, was "merely a formality," played out by white attorneys before a white judge and an all-white jury. "I was the only black in sight, a fly in a bowl of milk," he writes. The place was Calcasieu Parish, at the height of the backlash against the civil rights movement, when Louisiana lawmakers had voted to close down the state's public schools rather than integrate them. Rideau was guilty of terrible crimes—armed robbery, kidnapping and homicide—but the district attorney stretched and suppressed evidence to prove premeditation, a necessary condition for a capital conviction.more from Robert Perkinson at The Nation here.
The Hidden History of the Espionage Act
On July 24, 1915, the World War was raging in Europe and the belligerents were vying for the sympathy of the neutral United States. In Lower Manhattan, on a Sixth Avenue elevated train, Secret Service agents were tailing George Sylvester Viereck, a German propagandist and a mysterious companion of his—who was, unbeknown to the agents, Heinrich F. Albert, an attaché in the German Embassy. When Viereck got off at 23rd Street, one agent followed him; Albert continued on to 50th Street, where he suddenly looked up from his newspaper, noticed he had reached his stop, and hurried off the car, leaving behind a brown briefcase that the second agent promptly seized. A chase ensued, but the purloined bag ultimately made it to Treasury Secretary William McAdoo, who shared it with President Woodrow Wilson. The documents that Wilson and McAdoo beheld detailed a sweeping secret campaign, linked to high-ranking German officials, of espionage, sabotage, and propaganda. There were plans to take over American newspapers, bankroll films, send hired lecturers on the Chautauqua circuit, and create pseudo-indigenous movements to agitate on behalf of pro-German policies. More disturbing were schemes to provoke strikes in armaments factories; to corner the supply of liquid chlorine, an ingredient in poison gas, in order to keep it from Allied hands; even to acquire the Wright Brothers' Aeroplane Company and use its patents on Germany's behalf.more from David Greenberg at Slate here.
The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian
Every day, for the almost two years I worked as a staff librarian at the Suffolk County House of Correction at South Bay, the pattern was the same: Seconds after they were released from their units, inmates would not walk, they would run — as though catapulted — towards the prison’s library. Many inmates, especially those in a hurry, arrived with some specific order of business. They would grab a book of case law, or they’d check out a newspaper or magazine and take a seat at the library’s long table. They might disappear into the labyrinth of bookshelves. Many would line up to speak with me. They’d pose legal questions, talk about their families and health concerns, describe their spiritual and educational quests. Time and resources were short, and the needs were urgent. The library was a site of activity, of perpetual motion. In the public debate about our penal system, prison libraries tend to be a point of controversy. Some critics worry that tax money is misspent on coddling convicted felons. Some go further, and stoke public fear that prison libraries are giving violent convicts access to materials that will incite them. The concept of books in prison has been contentious since at least the 19th century, when prison chronicler Enoch Cobb Wines wrote that some government officials considered prison libraries to be “of doubtful influence.”more from Avi Steinberg at the Boston Globe here.
In Pursuit of a Mind Map, Slice by Slice
From The New York Times:
Dr. Jeff Lichtman likes his brains sliced thin — very, very thin. Dr. Lichtman and his team of researchers at Harvard have built some unusual contraptions that carve off slivers of mouse brains as part of a quest to understand how the mind works. Their goal is to run slice after minuscule slice under a powerful electron microscope, develop detailed pictures of the brain’s complex wiring and then stitch the images back together. In short, they want to build a full map of the mind.
The field, at a very nascent stage, is called connectomics, and the neuroscientists pursuing it compare their work to early efforts in genetics. What they are doing, these scientists say, is akin to trying to crack the human genome — only this time around, they want to find how memories, personality traits and skills are stored.
They want to find a connectome, or the mental makeup of a person.
Denis Dutton, 9 February 1944 – 28 December 2010
I am saddened to report that I just received an email from Sonia Dutton, Denis's daughter, informing me that her beloved father has died. Denis had been battling prostate cancer for some time. He was 66 years old. For those of you who are not familiar with Denis's work, I will simply quote from his Wikipedia entry:
Denis Dutton was an academic, web entrepreneur and libertarian media commentator/activist. He was a professor of philosophy at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand. He was also a co-founder and co-editor of the websites Arts & Letters Daily, ClimateDebateDaily.com and cybereditions.com.
Dutton was from Los Angeles, California and was educated at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He taught at several US universities before emigrating to New Zealand: the University of California, Santa Barbara and the University of Michigan–Dearborn. From 2008 to 2010 he was the acting head of the Philosophy school at Canterbury.
He was one of the founding members of New Zealand Skeptics.
Arts & Letters Daily, of which Denis was the founder and longtime editor, was one of the main inspirations for my starting 3 Quarks Daily. Indeed, the "Daily" in our own name comes in imitation of Denis's site, which had set the gold standard that we have aspired to match in our own curating of slightly different intellectual content on the web. Despite the fact that we were competitors of sorts, Denis was kind and supportive to me personally, and added 3QD to the "favorite websites" section of A & L Daily within weeks after I had started this site in 2004 (and we retain that honor to this day).
Over the years, Denis and I corresponded frequently about various subjects, including the Dutton School which he started in India (my mother started a school in Pakistan, so this was a common interest), his academic work, and, of course, our websites. He once called 3QD "a brilliant web resource and a terrific accomplishment," which gave me quite a thrill. We often linked to his work and reviews of his work here at 3QD, and also engaged his work more directly, such as when my nephew Asad Raza wrote a critical review of his book The Art Instinct, and I defended Denis in the comments section. In his writing and thinking, Denis was inventively provocative, erudite, and always forward-looking. In addition to A & L Daily and the other similar websites which he started, I always enjoyed looking at his personal website which often contained great gems of reading material.
One of the many instantiations of his sharp sense of humor was the Bad Writing Contest that he started while editor of Philosophy and Literature, a journal put out by Johns Hopkins University Press since 1977. I quote Wikipedia again:
In 1998, the contest awarded first place to University of California-Berkeley Professor Judith Butler, for a sentence which appeared in the journal diacritics:
The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.
Dutton said, "To ask what this means is to miss the point. This sentence beats readers into submission and instructs them that they are in the presence of a great and deep mind. Actual communication has nothing to do with it." Butler challenged the charges of academic pedantry and obscurantism in the pages of the New York Times and the affair briefly became a cause célèbre in the world of academic theorists.
Denis also clearly understood that to run a successful website devoted to curating intellectual content on the web, one must first marry a woman named Margit. That he understood this and acted upon it before I did gave him a headstart and left me trying to catch up! (In other words, by sheer coincidence, we both married women with the not-exactly-common name Margit.)
On behalf of everyone at 3 Quarks Daily I extend my deepest sympathies to Margit, Sonia, and Ben.
December 27, 2010
Another round with Michael Bérubé
Famed ice-hockey scholar and literary critic Michael Bérubé has written in several places about the notorious Science Wars, but not always to my satisfaction, especially as we both march under the banner of post-Rortyan pragmatism. We've gone a few rounds in the past, and I haven't yet been able to make my objections clear to him; but his recent article (see also here, for an invigorating comment thread) gives me a chance to try to do better in this space.
One of Michael's concerns is to defend "theory" and "science studies" in a broad sense from its attackers like Alan Sokal (of Sokal Hoax fame). He admits that things got a little out of hand in the 80s, what with the pony-tailed left-academic brigade making the humanities look bad with (in Michael's sublimely witty rendition) "their queering this and their Piss Christ that and their deconstructing the Other". The Hoax seemed to many to burst that Theoretic bubble and restore sanity to the academic realm, or at least provide a clear criterion for same (which, alas, not everyone meets, even now). But what is its real significance when science seems now to be threatened from another front?
As Michael relates, "[i]n my academic-left circles, Sokal’s name was mud, his hoax an example of extraordinary bad faith" while "everywhere else [...] Sokal was a hero, the guy who finally exposed the naked emperor." Michael's verdict, and mine, is more mixed. In our view, Sokal got them good, no question: anyone who knows what the axiom of choice is (or the axiom of identity, or even non-linear dynamics), would catch the joke immediately. And they didn't. This sorry result corroborates Sokal's charge that, as Michael puts it, the Social Text crowd "were overstepping their disciplinary bounds and doing 'science studies' without any substantial knowledge of science." This is a problem, because if this is right, then they can't be familiar enough with the practices of science to say anything useful about it theoretically, as they claim to do.
On the other hand, Sokal and his fans seem to think that the hoax proved a graver charge than mere ignorance and Dunning-Kruger style hubris: that is, that among the "howlers" inserted by Sokal but missed as such by Social Text were blatantly nonsensical claims, self-refuting in the familiar way, by goofy French types like Derrida and Lyotard to the effect that objectivity is a phallogocentric myth, that there's no real world, and so on. This failure supposedly established that science studies types are soft on, or even sold on, the sort of anything-goes relativism (again supposedly) found in English departments and across the Channel.
Michael wants to preserve a role for Theory's constructive claims, so he provides a corrective designed to acknowledge the former of Sokal's charges and deflect the latter. If successful, this will allow the academic left to overcome its tradition of self-laceration long enough to confront its common enemy: right-wing irrationalism and its politicized attacks on evolutionary theory and climate science. In a way, this means that he is trying to do well what Sokal did poorly, which is to show that it is not the very idea of science and rationality, but instead adolescent rebellion against same, which -- especially now -- serves anti-progressive aims. This is better, again, in Michael's view, because it leaves room for the real contributions socially-minded theory can provide, rather than discarding them as pernicious nonsense and ceding the entire task to the sciences.
I will focus here on one promising but elusive slogan in Michael's corrective; but in true hermeneutic fashion, I will insist that, well, it depends on what he means.
I must refer you to Michael's article for the details; here let me focus on Michael's charge that Sokal's use of "the phrase 'objective reality (both natural and social)' [...] makes the terrible mistake of conflating two different things, and of suggesting that the analysis of social reality should proceed like the analysis of physical reality–as if the pursuit of social justice is a matter of discovering the physical properties of the universe." Michael's response resists this conflation, preserving "social reality" as a separate domain from the physical, one which thus responds to different methods, and so resists the scientistic overreaching which so worries humanists. At the same time, it deflects the suggestion that interpretive types lack any sense of the objectivity of physical reality -- that they think that oxygen, Neptune, and X-rays (Michael's examples) are "merely socially constructed" -- and thus not "real" or "objective" phenomena.
Michael's rhetorical strategy is well thought out and consequently very effective, especially in mending fences between science 'n' rationality types and literary types on the left, enabling them to resist both major sorts of right-wing attacks on academia, to wit:
1) those academics are all postmodern skeptics who reject the very idea of objectivity and thus objective morality, like that homosex is eeevil;
2) those academics are all materialist dogmatists who reject transcendent values in favor of their (doomed) faith in modern empirical science and utterly un-Aristotelian Enlightenment "rationality"
where the rhetorical strategy of the latter has recently borrowed a page (drawn "aid and comfort," one might say, borrowing the language of treason) from postmodernism itself, i.e. moving from the original charge that
3) transcendent values are real [= platonism] so atheistic materialism is false (etc.)
4) materialism is just one perspective on reality, and others are just as good even if they cannot be proven (and only scientistic dogmatism says otherwise).
This is the threat Michael is concerned to meet. He sees that achieving a united front among what it is now fashionable in political contexts to call the "reality-based community" requires that some of that community overcome, and be seen to overcome, their apparent allergy to, well, reality. The promising slogan Michael unveils for this purpose, which I would like to examine here, is this:
"[T]he world really is divvied up into “brute fact” and “social fact,” just as philosopher John Searle says it is, but the distinction between brute fact and social fact is itself a social fact, not a brute fact, which is why the history of science is so interesting. Moreover, there are many things–like Down syndrome, as my second son has taught me–that reside squarely at the intersection between brute fact and social fact, such that new social facts (like policies of inclusion and early intervention) can help determine the brute facts of people’s lives (like their health and well-being)."
The phrase I have bolded is a good line, all right. But let's see if it can really do what we want. Taken in the context of his description of what science-studiers can get wrong -- a failure to acknowledge the independence of reality as captured in the idea of "brute fact" -- this dictum makes it sound like that distinction between brute and social fact maps onto that between the natural and social sciences, as a characterization of each's proper domain. This is what I will dispute.
Not only is that not necessarily right, but it leaves mysterious why, even if it is right, this should be the case, as it appeals to the very idea of "socially constructed fact" whose application in this context is obscure. Of course as a pragmatist Michael has a ready reply for both worries. For some pragmatists at least, truth is "what works." Now this itself can sound like the goofy French; but all it really needs to mean is that once we have determined what to say -- and as we have seen, saying this seems to further our goals as outlined above -- then, as Rorty would insist, one should ask no further questions as to whether it is "really true," which is what I seem to be doing.
But does it really work? This will depend on what we are interested in and what exactly would count as "working" in that context. Complicating this judgment, however, is the inconvenient fact that Michael and I do not share exactly the same interests. While I deplore some of the same deplorables as does Michael (creationist sophistry as well as science 'n' rationality fanboys like Sokal and Gross & Levitt), my main concern is not with "science studies," let alone the academic left, but instead with pragmatism's ongoing fight against its traditional philosophical opponents: platonists and Cartesians, whether creationist or materialist. From this perspective, even Michael's clever gloss on Searle's distinction can backfire if we're not careful. If this is true, then one might wonder about the longer-term practicality of this move.
The short version of why this is is that this mended fence is unstable. The notion of objectivity cannot simply be construed as the object of its own -- properly rigorous and detached -- form of inquiry. As a global constraint on inquiry, it must be reconstrued in a way which -- diplomacy be damned -- causes metaphysical realists like Searle and Sokal some real theoretical pain, or our alliance will fall apart when, if this ever happens, the battle is joined and push comes to theoretical shove. For if modernism is not rid of its poisonous Cartesian heritage, anti-modernists (both post- and pre-) will have perfectly good points to use against us. (I say "us" provisionally here; for myself, I see little functional difference between a post-Kantian project of "modernism criticizing itself" and something worth calling "postmodernism." Unfortunately, as Rorty also recognized, the latter term has become toxic.)
I don't have much space left for a longer version, but I'll give it a go. As I've already said, however it is construed -- even as itself a "social fact," as per Michael's corrective -- Searle's distinction between "brute fact" and "social fact" is most naturally taken to map onto that between natural and social science, as a characterization of each's proper domain. In other words, the idea is (as determined, on Michael's version, by the latter) that natural science is inquiry (into brute fact) and social science is interpretation (of social fact).
Once this Searlean dichotomy is conceded to the defender of "brute fact," though, it is cold comfort to retain its actual manifestation as an instance of a "social fact." What we should say instead, on my view, is ironically similar to what Sokal said in "conflating" natural and social reality: i.e., that everything -- both natural science and social science -- is both interpretation and inquiry: whenever we say -- or hear, or read -- anything, we are concerned both with how things are and with what words mean (as well as a few other things, like our or our interlocutor's purposes in saying that rather than something else).
The way to understand the difference between Michael's and my hermeneuticism, in other words, is that Michael, like Rorty, is concerned with the constructive nature of the first-person plural perspective: things are a certain way for us, such that any one of us could be wrong about them, but only because we have agreed among ourselves that they are that way. Michael's corrective assures natural scientists that this cannot be a universal fact in the self-undermining postmodern sense. My view, on the other hand, follows Donald Davidson in concentrating on the first-person singular agent in the process of interpretation -- that is, of language use. As I see it, Davidson shows that just as the interpretation of meaning includes an ineliminable aspect of doxastic commitment to how things are in reality (or in other words, belief), inquiry into how things are includes an ineliminable aspect of interpretation -- that is, of sensitivity to the interpretive aspect of language use. In Davidson-speak, we must affirm the holism of belief and meaning, and thereby reject the Cartesian scheme/content dualism.
Like Michael's version, this 1) leaves a distinction in place between a determination of how things are and one of what to say for more subjective, e.g., instrumental, reasons; while 2) recognizing the ultimately hermeneutic constitution of that distinction. But seeing that distinction as hermeneutic in my sense means that the former does not determine a "brute fact" as opposed to a "social fact." It's just a fact like any other: in its relation to the world as it is, it provides a doxastic constraint on the continuing process of interpretation/inquiry. Again, Michael's version makes it sound as if that hermeneutically determined distinction is this: that science does inquiry and the humanities do interpretation. This is not a hermeneutic point at all for me. Everyone does both, because every utterance in whatever context manifests a commitment to both belief and meaning.
So what is that distinction then, on a Davidsonian view? It's this: when we take ourselves to understand each other -- that we speak "the same language" -- we tend to take meaning as fixed and concentrate on fixing belief. Similarly, when we are concerned to determine the meaning of an alien utterance, we can only do so by seeing the two of us as sharing an objective world, tying the circumstances of the utterance to our shared surroundings, and thus to what it is about, by our own lights as manifested in our beliefs about it. This is the real import of Davidson's much-misunderstood "principle of charity," which in fact applies just as much to myself as to others. Reality, for me, is necessarily reality as I believe it to be; yet I may still acknowledge that my beliefs, qua beliefs, may need to be revised -- or, in other words, that a better-situated interlocutor may properly interpret them as (saying something) false.
But why does this entail inflicting theoretical pain on realists, given that the notion of objectivity is retained rather than (as Rorty urged) given up? Metaphysical realists like Searle believe we need to hang onto the Cartesian notion of an "objective world" lest we fall into a relativism or idealism which dispenses with the commonsense idea that "saying doesn't make it so" -- or, in other words, that our beliefs can be false. But we don't need this conception of objectivity (or "brute facts") to preserve this idea. For Davidson, the very point of the concept of belief is to mark the potential difference between what we believe and how things are. It simply does so without tying the notion of objectivity in the realist manner to a thing so designated, rather than simply denoting an external rational constraint on what we say. (As John McDowell points out, Davidson himself gets into trouble in misconstruing the nature of "rational constraint" in this sense.) Recognizing this constraint -- an interpretive rather than metaphysical one -- is all it takes to cause us, or even require us by our own lights, to modify our beliefs in order to get things right in inquiry, and thus turn our backs on relativism and skepticism. In fact it is the realist who runs into skeptical difficulties, often relying simply on a practical determination that skeptical worries cause not too little, but too much trouble for us to take them seriously (that is, they render science impossible). Once this is understood, there's nothing for the notion of "brute fact" to do.
What's wrong with blackmail?
Imagine someone named Sue finds herself in possession of some information about Bob that he would prefer she not reveal to anyone else. So she offers him a deal: “Pay me $10,000 and I’ll keep my mouth shut.” Is that wrong?
Most people intuitively feel the answer is yes. But it’s surprisingly tricky to explain, in a coherent, consistent manner, why that should be the case. The paradox of blackmail has bedeviled legal scholars and philosophers of law for years: while it’s typically legal to reveal information about someone, as long as that information is accurate and legally-obtained, it’s illegal to threaten to do so as a way of soliciting money from him.
Unlike with extortion, where the perpetrator is threatening to do something illegal if she isn’t paid (e.g., “Give me $10,000 or I’ll burn down your house”), with blackmail the perpetrator is threatening to do something legal. If the act itself – revealing the information – isn’t bad enough to be criminalized, then why is merely threatening to commit the act so terrible?
This paradox is often expressed in terms of blackmail being a criminal act composed entirely of uncriminal parts. Telling someone you'd like $10,000 isn’t a crime; revealing someone’s secret isn’t a crime; and yet, telling someone you'd either like $10,000 or you're going to reveal his secret is a crime. How can that be?
Some scholars have countered that there is no logical reason to think that several unobjectionable parts can't add up to an objectionable whole. Philosopher Saul Smilansky, in the book 10 Moral Paradoxes, makes this case using the examples of bigamy and prostitution: It’s legal to marry one woman, and it’s legal to marry another woman, but it’s not legal to marry both. It’s legal to give someone money, and it’s legal to have sex, but it’s not legal to give someone money for sex. Blackmail may not be a complete aberration.
However, Smilansky acknowledges, even if there's no contradiction entailed by blackmail being illegal despite its component parts all being legal, we still need some explanation for why this particular combination of parts produces an objectionable result. He writes, “The way in which the ‘alchemy’ of the novel emergence of badness or wrongness operates in ‘ordinary blackmail’ remains mysterious… If one may threaten to do what one is (otherwise) allowed to do, offering not to so act in return for monetary compensation does not seem capable of bringing forth the sense of radical and novel heinousness that blackmail arouses.”
Interestingly, the source of that heinousness seems to be utterly different for different kinds of blackmail. For example, if Bob’s secret isn't hurting anyone else, but is merely a personal detail whose revelation would embarrass him, then it’s straightforward to explain the heinousness of Sue's blackmail. In these cases (for example, a past lover blackmailing Bob over details of their sex life), the heinousness comes from harming a person who’s done nothing wrong.
But what if the information pertains to a crime Bob himself is committing? For example, let’s say Bob is a CEO who is stealing from his company. In that case, most people would argue that Sue has a moral obligation to report Bob’s secret. In blackmailing Bob, Sue is threatening to do something – report the secret – that is not only legal, but moral! So whence the heinousness? In these cases, blackmail seems reprehensible not because it wrongs Bob himself, the ostensible “victim” of the blackmail, but because it wrongs the third party whom Bob’s secret crime is harming; the company’s shareholders, for example, or society as a whole. Sue’s blackmail is heinous, therefore, because she is choosing her own monetary gain over justice for Bob’s victims.
Another way of looking at the paradox in general is that if we were to legalize blackmail, we wouldn’t be granting Sue the right to do anything worse to Bob than what she is already permitted to do. Given that Sue is currently legally entitled to reveal secrets about Bob, allowing her to offer Bob a choice between that course of action and an alternate one isn’t making him any worse off than he would be if she simply exercised her legal right instead. It’s a basic principle of economic theory: offering someone additional options on top of what he currently has can’t make him worse off.
For that reason, outlawing blackmail can be seen as a way of restricting people’s freedoms. Think about it from a self-interested point of view: if someone has the power to spread information about you, wouldn’t you like to be offered the option to prevent that from happening by paying money? If you would be happier paying someone off than having your secret revealed, and the person who knows your secret is also happier being paid off than revealing the secret, then blackmail seems like a mutually beneficial trade. On what grounds, then, should such trades be outlawed?
I think the first step towards resolving the paradox is to recognize that our moral condemnation of an act isn’t just about the harm that it causes, but also our visceral reaction to the kind of person who would commit such an act. Being exploitative is a despicable trait in most people’s eyes, even when the exploitation isn’t making anyone worse off than he already was. (You can see this principle in the public reaction to “price gougers,” people who sell badly-needed supplies to the survivors of some tragedy, setting exorbitant prices because they know the customers will be desperate. Clearly, having the option to buy water for $20 a bottle is not making anyone worse off than they would be without such an option at all, but people nevertheless deplore the price-gouger’s character for taking advantage of the tragedy.)
However, if we want to legislate purely on utilitarian grounds, rather than on our aversion to unsavory characters, the question of whether blackmail should be legal becomes an interesting empirical balancing act between the gossipers, gossipees, and third parties. The answer to that balancing act hinges on a counterfactual question: "Would Sue have revealed Bob's secret anyway, even if she couldn't blackmail him?" If there are enough instances in which Sue would have revealed Bob’s secret anyway, then maybe both the Sues and the Bobs of the world are better off being free to enter into contractual agreements in which Sue trades her right to gossip about a particular secret, in exchange for some monetary compensation from Bob. That trade leaves both Sue and Bob better off than they were, or they wouldn’t have entered into it.
By contrast, there may be many situations in which Sue would not otherwise have revealed Bob's secret, and so legalizing blackmail incentivizes her to blackmail him rather than simply leaving him alone. In these cases, allowing Sue to blackmail Bob is supplanting the outcome "Sue leaves Bob alone," rather than the outcome "Sue reveals Bob's secret." In other words, legalizing blackmail helps people who would otherwise have lost their privacy and would like the option to pay to retain it, and it hurts people who would otherwise have retained their privacy but now must pay money or lose it.
Finally, we can’t forget to add the third parties’ interests to the utilitarian balance sheet: what are the benefits of gossip to the public? If they are sufficiently large, then allowing blackmail could be bad even when it benefits both Sue and Bob, simply because it would reduce the number of juicy secrets the rest of us get to hear – in other words, if writer Elbert Hubbard hit the target when he wrote, “Gossip is vice enjoyed vicariously.”
Every Superhero Needs His Own Theme Music
Audio is a most seductive medium. In 2004, when the IPOD was but a finicky, clicky-hard drived baby, New York Times reporter Warren St. John went to New York’s streets to chart what effect the device had on the urban landscape and the human relationships within. Were New Yorkers becoming as atomized, as isolated, as Californians were in their cars? Baristas and bagel bar owners were quoted lamenting that Ipod listeners were holding up the line, not hearing the cashier shout “Next!” New Yorkers love their imagined tribes, and one likened Ipod owners to one, identifiable only by those little white wires. Another tribal said the machine “makes him feel as though he is in his own music video.”
This last idea is the only one in the article that still seems relevant: somehow our bagel lines move smoothly again even if we’re all plugged in, but the idea of creating one’s own little cinemascape, audience of one, is stickier. The listener St. John quoted isn’t at all concerned by the idea of being in his own music video. It is rather an empowering, joyous thing, one any urban dweller who moves through the city freely and possesses such a device might relate to. Indeed, the idea that the Ipod might have a pernicious, or at least complicated side, struck Apple as “wacky” in St. John’s article ''it's a little wacky to look at it that way, when the iPod has brought so much happiness into people's lives.''
The social aspects of music enjoyment – at a concert or a club, or even through Ipods and mobile phones (Wayne Marshall's teenagers “clustered around a tinny piece of plastic broadcasting a trebly slice of the latest pop hit”), are recognized as important, or demonized, parts of the urban tapestry. There’s a lot being said about what this all means for the public space. Here though, I want to focus on the private space: that more intimate, profoundly antisocial relationship, between oneself, one’s music, and one’s earbuds. When you’re not sharing, when its just for you. What does it mean to be in one’s own music video?
In a 2009 paper, Miriam Simun interviewed Londoners about the listening habits of their morning commute. Londoners describe how they use MP3 players shut the world out, to create distance, to speed up the time of their daily errands, or to entertain and prevent boredom, to “keep yourself” as one of Simun’s interviewees puts it “more separate from the madness around you.” People also want to do this at the office, at the gym: what does it mean if you need to be “blocked from the madness” everywhere you go?
Blocking the madness, or just beating the boredom, means making one’s experience much like a media artifact: it means creating a sense of expectation, or drama, emotion or performance for only oneself. Writing about the latter experience, back in those early days when the bagel line was potentially stalled forever, Michael Bull, a University of Sussex professor dubbed “Dr Ipod” by the media, likened the IPOD experience to that of creating a cinematic world:
“It's also very cinematic. The music allows you to construct narratives about what's going on. Or you use it to control thoughts. A lot of people don't like to be alone with their thoughts. The best way to avoid that is to listen to music.”
You have to sit down to watch a film, devote your attention to it in a way that is conscious or half conscious. You have to choose to linger over a photograph or a painting. Music or spoken word is simultaneously less encompassing of one’s attention and thus more encompassing of one’s life, and has become, in little over a century since its invention, ever more intimate, moving from our living rooms to our cars to earbuds themselves.
Bull argued that this mini cinematic experience we create for ourselves (mini in terms of audience, at least, though maximal in terms of scope) was more than just aesthetic, that the IPOD was making urban life better, because it “allowed people to find pleasure in the place they’re existing.” These were the take-homes the press focused on, and Bull was made to seem rather optimistic about the whole thing: the MP3 player as a provider of choice: "It's a much more active process even though it's dependent on the machinery." By choosing music (or podcasts on anything from chess to Italian language to current affairs) to play in your ears, you change the message from inputs pointed at you to inputs you have chosen.
Bull’s academic work belies a more measured understanding than the breathy coverage of his ideas in the mid 2000s suggests: our intimate relationship with audio makes up for a lack of some kind, and is, like many intimate relationships, one of attraction and repulsion. Writing about how people create bespoke audio environments in their cars, Bull noted “auditory media embody a form of compensatory metaphysics whereby subjects seek solutions to their everyday life.” (http://tcs.sagepub.com/content/21/4-5/243.abstract ).
(2:12:23 pm) bradass87: so... it was a massive data spillage... facilitated by numerous factors... both physically, technically, and culturally
There are obvious practical implications to Manning’s statement in the world of data security, and access. But his culpability or motivations aside, its interesting to think how normal listening to music at your desk has become. Whereas once, deskwork must have been unbearably boring and perhaps stunningly efficient, now its normal to rock out to dance music at your desk, while you draft threatening letters, edit affidavits, perfect power points, or allegedly download terabytes of classified information.
Much of merit has been written in media studies about the complicated seductions of photographs and the moving image, of films and music videos. But audio itself is just as subtle in its seduction, and as it evolves, ever more personally enveloping. It represents a sort of personal branding of oneself to oneself: nobody knows what’s going on behind your ear buds – whether its Gaga or Genesis, NPR or Rush Limbaugh, you are performing yourself to yourself for yourself only. That way the mask perhaps need never come off, one never need “be alone” with one’s thoughts.
There is some heady hubris that comes from setting your life to music: banal moments acquire emotional heft, and one’s dash to get a sandwich at lunch acquires some extra swagger. It’s a feeling most of us, in the past, could’ve only enjoyed in a clearly public space – the club – or a clearly private one – the car, your living room. Taking that purely private pleasure in public, but in secret, is a relatively new thing. As Kanye West, in his song Power observes:
I guess every superhero need his own theme music
No man should have all that power
The clocks tickin, I just count the hours
Stop trippin, I’m trippin off the power.
“The only God worth keeping is a God that cannot be kept.
The only God worth talking about is a God that cannot be talked about.
…God is present when I confront You.” *
by Jim Culleny
I and Thou (stern and bow)
may have plowed from then to now
(but can’t make way from now to then
through angry seas) split apart
end from end
I and Thou must make amends
and join ourselves bow to stern
one with one from now till now
—as of now! or we will burn
I and Thou, one with one
into the red eye of the sun
—being we, being now
being one, you and
Let’s forgive each other darlin’, let’s go down to the greenwood glen
Let’s forgive each other darlin’, let’s go down to the greenwood glen
Let’s put our heads together, let’s put old matters to an end **
* Walter Kaufmann; prologue to I and Thou by Martin Buber
** Bob Dylan; Rollin’ and Tumblin’, Modern Times
This Land Was Your Land
by Jeff Strabone
Why is it that people who argue against the government's role in the economy don't likewise advocate for the flip side: that corporations should not be allowed to influence government? Is there an industrialized democracy more in need of checking corporate power over government policy than the United States? I expect that in any society, in any era, the powerful will have more sway over the making of laws than the powerless. Here in the U.S., corporate influence does not just distort our laws: it distorts our land. The power of the petroleum and automobile industries is inscribed in our very topography, and recent decisions by Republican governors to scuttle federally-funded rail projects suggest that their power to warp the landscape remains as strong as their power to warp democracy. The two go hand in hand.
Corporate power leaves its mark on the world in many ways. Coalmines and mercury-poisoned rivers are the most obvious examples. But what about strip malls and highways and the everyday landscape that many people take for granted as they drive a few miles to the nearest supermarket? Aren't they as American as the amber waves of grain that are the stuff of national song? Let us ask ourselves, how did they get here and what do they tell us about our national inability to build the high-speed rail lines that are the pride of so many other countries?
As I went walking that ribbon of highway,
I saw above me that endless skyway,
I saw below me that golden valley,
This land was made for you and me.
Already, in 1940, the highway had made its mark on the land and on popular song. Although walking a highway may have been an attractive prospect in 1940, it is hard to imagine now. Today we have entire cities, let alone highways, where it is impossible to get anywhere by walking. And the ribbon of highway has become a chain around our necks.
Our imaginations are likewise in chains: many Americans simply cannot imagine that their cities could be designed any differently than they are today. I experienced this last year when I spent the 2009–2010 academic year in Tampa, Florida, a city with no possibility of movement without the automobile.
I do not operate motor vehicles, nor have I ever had a license to do so. By abstaining from owning and driving motor vehicles, I can refrain from contributing to all of the following woes: choking the planet with fuel emissions; propping up tyrannical petro-regimes rife with religious fanaticism; spending a significant portion of my life in a self-enclosed pod; and so on.
Some of the people I met in Tampa thought I was nuts for not driving. A student journalist even interviewed me for an article on the paucity of bike lanes on campus. Apparently, he could not find any other faculty who bicycled to work every day. What struck me most were the responses I got when I encouraged people to organize locally for public transportation. They agreed that a public transit system would be a good thing, but no one could imagine how it could ever come to pass in a city as spread out as Tampa. It was as if their daily enclosures in their four-wheeled pods had similarly foreclosed their ability to imagine taking back the land of their city.
How did our car-trammelled cities get the way they are, and how do they stay that way? There is nothing natural about a city or a town that makes walking impossible. It gets that way by design, by the choices that government—and the interests that dominate government—make. And more bad choices are being made every day.
Law shapes reality, as I like to say. We know what a bank is or what a mortgage is because the law defines these things. Law can also shape the land. And when governments give way to powerful corporate interests, the land will be shaped in accordance with the demands of those interests.
Take the strip mall, for instance, the most dominant feature of Tampa's landscape and one that forces many Americans to drive if they want to buy anything. Mile after mile of strip malls is what one sees everywhere in Tampa. Strip malls don't just pop up on their own: government ushers them into existence. Just as New York City manages to keep out Wal-Mart, so every town dominated by strip malls has written for itself the laws and regulations and zoning ordinances that facilitate the construction of strip malls.
The federal government may have played the biggest role in promoting the spread of the strip mall. Many Americans remember President Eisenhower's creation of the interstate highway system, brought into existence by the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956. Less well-known is the provision in the Internal Revenue Code of 1954 regarding 'accelerated depreciation'.
Dolores Hayden, professor of architecture at Yale, has argued in Building Suburbia: Green Fields and Urban Growth, 1820–2000 (2003), that the accelerated depreciation provision in the tax code incentivized the construction of strip malls. The law created a new accounting method for calculating depreciation which made shopping centers attractive tax shelters. Strip mall owners could defer much of their corporate income tax until later years. The result: many strip malls were sold every seven years to avoid having to make the deferred payments at all. Only new buildings were eligible for accelerated depreciation. Ye olde mom-and-pop shops were out of luck as the strip mall sprawled from sea to shining sea.
Government policies that steer us toward a petrol- and automobile-dependent existence are not just relics of the 1950s. Powerful forces are again at work trying to keep the country topographically enthralled to the automobile. Recently-elected Republican governors have stopped rail projects dead in their tracks, so to speak.
The New York Times reported on October 7, 2010 that Chris Christie, Republican governor of New Jersey, had refused $3 billion in federal aid for an already-underway new commuter train tunnel under the Hudson River to Manhattan. This was reportedly 'more money than had been committed to any other transit project in America'. Christie's explanation was simply that, as governor, he did not want to honor New Jersey's share of the cost if the project ran over budget. According to the Times:
In scrapping the project, Mr. Christie is forfeiting the $3 billion from the federal government and jeopardizing as much from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. The state may also have to repay the federal government for its share of the $600 million that has already been spent on the tunnel.
The tunnel, which would have stretched under the Hudson from North Bergen, N.J., to a new station deep below 34th Street in Manhattan, was intended to double the number of trains that could enter the city from the west each day. The project's planners said the additional trains would alleviate congestion on local roads, reduce pollution, help the growth of the region's economy and raise property values for suburban homeowners.
The tunnel was also supposed to provide jobs for 6,000 construction workers just as some other big transit infrastructure projects in the city, like the Second Avenue subway, were winding down.
Instead, the contractors hired to dig the tunnel will soon start laying off workers.
Elsewhere, Republican Governor-elect Scott Walker of Wisconsin released this statement, two days after his election last month, on his decision to block a planned high-speed rail line between Madison and Milwaukee:
Since learning about the state's agreement with the federal government we have been exploring all legal options to stop the train from moving forward, and we believe this is a step in the right direction. We are continuing to work with members of congress on redirecting this money to fixing our crumbing roads and bridges.
Walker's decision will cost the state $810 million in federal funds and all the construction jobs that went with it. And no, the Obama administration will not allow the rail funds to be used for anything but rail, something the governor-elect surely knows. By turning down the federal funds, Wisconsin taxpayers will still be contributing to the federal revenues that fund high-speed rail projects elsewhere; they just won't reap any of the benefits. New Republican governors-elect in Florida and Ohio have made similar noises.
When do state governments turn down billions in federal funds for construction projects? When those projects would build alternatives to automobile travel.
Elsewhere around the world, trains are symbols of national pride and international cooperation: the Channel Tunnel between the United Kingdom and France; the Øresund Bridge between Denmark and Sweden. Wikipedia credits Japan's Shinkansen as the first high-speed rail system. Construction began in 1959, just three years after Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 in the U.S. Shinkansen service began in 1964, in time for the Tokyo Olympics. One could cite many facts and figures about impressive high-speed rail achievements around the world: China's 4421 kilometers of high-speed rail currently in operation; the Shanghai Maglev Train's 268 mph speed; Spain's 1761 kilometers of high-speed rail under construction. What's most depressing about Wikipedia's table comparing the thirteen countries with high-speed rail is that the U.S. does not appear anywhere on it.
I don't want to take people's cars away. I just want the government to let us take our land back. One way to do that is to build the infrastructure to provide alternatives to the car and to write tax laws and zoning ordinances that favor types of development other than the strip mall. I want to live in a land where people can walk to the store, greet their neighbors, enjoy common space, have chance encounters on the street—a land whose topography is not a visual reminder that the laws are written for the powerful and that the rest of us had better agree to warp our lifestyles and our imaginations so that the hegemony of petroleum can endure.
I want to live in a land where Woody Guthrie's third verse can still be true:
I roamed and I rambled and I followed my footsteps,
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts,
While all around me a voice was sounding,
This land was made for you and me.
The corporate-distorted lay of the land in the United States in the twenty-first century is not an accident and it is not the result of the invisible hand of the free market. It is the result of definite decisions made by the dirty hands of corporate interests and governments held accountable by too few. It can be undone by new decisions to build public transportation and to encourage forms of retail commerce other than the strip mall and the big-box store. Everything you see when you drive to work is the result of decisions by government and the continuing enforcement of those decisions.
This land may have been made for you and me but, like our government, it has been distorted beyond recognition. The fight for high-speed rail and transportation infrastructure generally is in part about jobs and ecology, but it is also about something more: it is the best chance we have had since the 1950s to inscribe a new set of values in the land. We can only hope that the new rail projects that will be built in the sensible states will spur the rest of the country to want to take their land and their government back from the car and the oil can.
Moharram and me
I laugh now, at how, as a child, I understood the narrative of Moharram and still (I think) managed to get the point of all the fuss.
I was left to understand the narrative of Moharram mostly on my own—because my parents, while observing its essential features for the first ten days of it weren’t really interested in instilling religion in me. I pieced it all together through my grandmother, who was very interested in telling me the “facts.” And I picked it up through various other sources of information available to me which included Pakistan Times, Radio Pakistan, the war with India and movies about cowboys and Indians. Through all of them I tried to patch together and make relevant the stories told to me about the events of 1400 years ago when the prophet’s grandson and family, the good guys, were besieged at Kerbela, denied water, died fighting for justice and did not submit to Yezid’s overwhelming force of bad guys. I imagined the heat, the desert, the overwhelming military force of the oppressor. And I concluded from the people around me that all this sorrow led to an abundance of poetry and painting. And when politics was added into the discussion mix with wine then the heroism of Kerbela was sure to be remembered. My father always read to us a Marsiya by Mir Anis’s on the tenth of Moharram. It was also mentioned many times over that Faiz Ahmed Faiz had written a Marsiya after Sadequain chacha had told him that an Urdu poet isn’t a real poet unless he has written a marsiya.
Last Christmas eve, when asked about how Moharram was proceeding for me given that the lunar calendar placed the first ten days of Moharram during December 18-28th I came up with my usual answer, that as usual, I had done nothing. I am a Shi’a and identify myself as one. And during Moharram or any time of the year I can weep and feel the pain personally at the mention of the plight of the innocents, the family of the prophet Mohammad, at Kerbela, in 680 AD and in their journey to and imprisonment in Damascus. I am moved deeply at the very mention of Hussain’s sacrifice at Kerbala, particularly the trials of his sister Zainab and her exemplary and courageous conduct. Such is the power of this immortal narrative of courage and resolve against tyranny, as received and passed on through the centuries from Zainab, the daughter of Imam Ali, the sister of Imam Husain and Hazrat Abbas, the witness and narrator of Kerbala. Such is the affect of the story of Kerbela as received from Zainab that through the centuries it has been expressed through dirges, passion plays and laments about struggle and resistance and it is for me and for millions of others an article of faith.
But as a child a little knowledge left me shaken and not stirred. As a child I lived in an enclave in Pakistan nestled between Mirpur and Mangla on the border with India. Water and rivers dominated my world—Mangla dam where my father was an engineer and where American contractors were building a massive dam was the world I grew up in, insulated from the larger Pakistani society. I tried to make sense of Moharram within the context of the world I lived in. I grew up in what would be labeled, in today’s world of fear and apologies, as a secular-agnostic Shi’a Muslim family. My upbringing as a child was isolated from the larger Pakistani society and confined to a rural enclave where an international community was busy building the largest earth filled dam of the time. And then, of course, there was the atmosphere of war in 1965, we were close to the Indian border and the constant fear of India attacking was very frightening for me.
On Christmas eve my first grade American teacher borrowed me from my parents---not clear why I was borrowed or lent---but it was because my teacher and her husband didn’t have children of their own to shower presents upon on or to spend Christmas with and so I got to be the proxy. In hindsight, I would hazard a guess that they were young missionaries, who, like my grandmother, were seeking to save my sweet soul.
My grandmother who lived with us—disapproved of my being loaned out at Christmas. She was sure that it would come to no good. She had registered her protest by telling me quietly that the Christians had forgotten who they were since they didn’t believe in the real book. The real book? Yes, the old one, called the old testament. And I believed Amma for I knew that my grandmother would know, she was as old as the old Testament herself, so of course she would have understood the old Testament. Her white long braid of hair, her many tiny looped earrings on either earlobe, her bent back, her velveteen vest with its engraved crystal buttons, over her white kurta and velvet choridar, her silver pandan—and her purified silver drinking and eating utensils separate from ours and her unique curses such as “Moa namurad! Lazy good for nothing!” All of these details were a testament to me that she was just as old as the real old Testament. I understood that it was a very old book—older than the one that was wrapped in a satin coverlet with a brocade edging and ribbons that sat up on a shelf or next to her sadjdiga on her janamaz on the takath where she prayed. Also, she made sure that I understood, what my parents had not made clear to me: that we were, amongst all the groupings of believers, the real believers. According to her this was so: “Because we are Shi’as and Syed and we belong to the prophet’s family.”
“Just us?” I asked
“Yes. The other believers have forgotten, but we are true, we are those who will always remember.” Amma replied solemnly.
“What happened to the old testament?” I asked.
“Well--It had gotten lost—“
“How?—Did someone throw it away? “
“Yes, she had laughed, “They had thrown it away.”
I asked her where. She didn’t have a clear answer. I asked her “Did they throw it away out of the window?” Out, away and distance were to me measured by indoor and outdoor to our house.
“Yes” she replied, “Out the window, a long time ago in a very old town.”
A few months later I happened to be in what appeared to me to be a very old town. I had gone with my parents and Amma to a funeral in a town with narrow streets. It was a town near Jhelum called Dhomeli. There, I saw a woman my grandmother’s age toss some peanut shells and orange peels out the window into the street below. Hot, bothered and overwhelmed as I was, sitting in a room with very few windows and too many women in black wailing and sobbing and mourning, a sight that frightened me, I concluded that this was the town where the old testament had been thrown out of the window.
I had, till then, therefore, in terms of religion been exposed to the azaan, my grandmother praying five times a day, my grandmother looking for the new moon each month then shutting her eyes tight upon sighting it as she called me to her and then upon my arrival at her side she opened her eyes and breathed her paan and fennel scented breath on me—the first face she had seen after the auspicious sighting of the moon, upon which she blew prayers and good wishes. In addition to this my exposure to religion included listening to the incomparable and rather formidable oratory of Maulana Rashid Turabi and specially on Ashura Sham e Gariban broadcasted on Radio Pakistan; eating my mother’s kitchara on Ashura; and oh yes---being lent out one Christmas. My parents did not slaughter any animal at Eid but we did get new shoes from Bata and new clothes on that day and received five or ten rupees as our Eid gift or as it is called, Eidhi. Savian or vermicelli, in thick sweetened milk was a feature. Religion, for me, therefore was composed of a twice yearly event of blister inducing patent leather black shoes, white socks, new clothes, a crisp five rupee note and savian. And of course marsiyas and Sham e Ghariban to listern to on the radio and Kitchra to eat. Eids featured twice and Moharram once a year.
Newspapers, however, arrived every day and dominated our daily rituals of breakfast, lunch, dinner and afternoon tea conversations. My father, literally draped in the newspaper, held spread open in front of him, presided over these meals with heartfelt, fervent oratory on the state of affairs. This was the time of the 1965 war between India and Pakistan and like everyone else around us we had a trench dug out as a bomb shelter in our garden under the Jaman tree in case the Indians attacked. And we had the glass panes on all the windows news papered up to block in any ray of errant light during the blackouts once the sirens started.
In 1965 at that great age of five I had never seen an Indian at least not one that wasn’t a Hollywood production. Partition had occurred only fifteen years before and the borders were sealed before I was born. To me they were the enemy who would attack Pakistan just like they attacked the pioneers who lived in log cabins. I knew how the Indians could be. I had seen them at our local cinema: Why, there he was, John Wayne battling them! Oh yes, those Indians swooping into settlements, scalping and yelping and galloping towards the poor hapless pioneers defending themselves in log cabins. And I knew that because of them there were refugees living in tents as a result of the war, homeless Kashmiris, whom my mother helped when she visited hospitals and refugee camps with clothing, food and medicines as did other moms. I also knew that my mother and father and grandmother felt homeless too—they often talked about partition. I couldn’t understand how they could have come from India. And why did they sound so sad about leaving? There was sorrow. This was a mystery unresolved and the only possible answer was that they must have been pioneers--fleeing the bad guys. The Hollywood westerns distorted everything. It was all very confusing.
My grandmother told me the stories of Kerbala and I retrofitted them to the movies I had seen. It was unbearable that one horrible Red Indian had taken his bow and arrow and shot a baby right through his thirsty throat on the side of the good guys. My Amma cried so much when she would tell me the story of Kerbela. And I knew that I was related to all of them, all those babies, girls, boys, sisters, brothers, cousins moms, dads, uncles and aunts. And all the sorrow that came of it was as much mine as it was theirs. It was a burden. And I couldn’t help them and they had died of thirst. I couldn’t help them. I was guilty.
We lived away from cities and towns and our access to majlises in Moharram would have required an effort which my parents did not make. We did, however, listen to majlises which were relayed on Radio Pakistan. Particularly the one on the night of the tenth of Moharram or Ashura , the majlis for the Sham e Ghariban---the evening of those who had lost everything—the evening of the bereft. It was delivered by the venerated Maulana Rasheed Turabi. The children were made to listen, which we did giggling, squirming and being admonished to be quiet by the grown-ups around us. I was always alarmed by how the grown- ups would sob and weep through the duration of the fire and brimstone emanating from the Philips radio set.
Amma insisted on leaving for Karachi in advance of Moharram to participate with her kinfolk in the fun and pageantry of an Amroha moharram which had been left behind in India at partition and was now replicated and recreated in a mohalla in Karachi. She pined for India all the time. And so she wouldn’t miss Moharram the Amroha way for anything, especially not for what would appear to her as tiresomely dour conversations of justice and sacrifice that her son and daughter in law insisted on engaging in—so she was put on the Tezgham from Dina a month earlier to be able to spend a rollicking and very busy month of majlis hopping from one family home to another for majlises, niaz and nazar and weeping and beating her bosom in an act of mourning deep within the bosom of her vast Amroha clan in Karachi.
Meanwhile in Mangla it was clear to me watching the adults gathered around the Philipps phonogram in paroxysms of sorrow as all of us listened to majlis on Ashura as relayed by Radio Pakistan—that the tragedy of Kerbela was a family tragedy. What else would explain such deeply felt emotion and weeping? It was obvious that Imam Hussain and Abbas and Zainab and Sakina, and Asghar were relatives of ours--- Abbas and Imam Hussain were uncles—from my mother’s side of the family of course, because my mother was involved with charity work for Kashmiri refugees who too were left bereft, parted from their homes and were good guys. And she often spoke about a cousin of hers, an uncle of mine who was a commando in the Pakistan military and who had disappeared in Kashmir during the war. Also a good guy.
I therefore surmised, at age five, that Imam Hussain, was an army commando in the Pakistan army and maybe he was Kashmiri. For some reason he had taken his family with him to war—and they were very, very thirsty. Also, they were refugees, Kashmiris of course and they lived in tents. Until the cruel Red Indian, Yezid, burnt down their tents. And the Red Indians had prevented Imam Hussain and his family from drinking water from the big river—like the Jhelum which flowed past our house, and through Kashmir. I had heard my father talk about the importance of the river during the war how the Indians could block its waters across the border—but for some reason inexplicably during the oratory of Moharram the river was referred to on the radio as the Euphrates and during the worried conversations about the war, as Jhelum. But then, I knew, Radio Pakistan---that broadcasted the Marisyas and the Majlises each year which made the the adults weep---and the Pakistan Times which published the news that enraged my father were not to be trusted. After all it was a military dictatorship that ruled the country and lied through every channel it could find. That’s what everyone said. Or, rather, everyone I knew. My father said so all the time. The Euphrates being confused with the Jhelum river, could be the censor board messing with my mind.
The weeping and the faith coalesced around the injustice of a denial of water. It was all very personal and very sorrowful. War, then, as I understood it was about water. And it was about thirsty and hungry refugees and children being killed senselessly. Faith was about loyalty, it was about always standing in unity with those who were denied justice, who were oppressed and who were therefore innocent. And, of course, to consider them as being related to me. It was about having the discipline not to giggle during a majlis.
Somehow, it all added up. It was all about water. It was about thirst. It was always about being on the side of those who are thirsty.
So it is this narrative of pain and compassion received from family and friends of a family and friends and their struggle and endurance against wrong that I acknowledge as my definition of my faith.
She stands on this side of the Euphrates the side denied water, throat parched, eyes flooded— She searches for her loved ones: brothers, cousins, nephews, sons. The battle has ended and now there is the wilderness: night has descended and settled in the desert. The smoldering light from the burning tents all around is reflected in her river of tears and emblazons her vision. And she knows that tonight her journey begins, as a hostage under occupation. It is up to her to ensure for all eternity the outcome of this battle between good and evil. Those who are assembled on the other side participate in this massacre of the prophet’s family. They too consider themselves Muslims, they call themselves believers, followers of the Prophet. On either side, there are Yezids, Alis Hussains, Saads, Akbars and Abbas. They too will claim to be on the side of the righteous. There will be different versions of the truth—and those who weren’t there to witness the event will not know who to believe. They will have to rely on what rings true. The story will live on, through her. Does she scream into the night—this is my body—killed here this is my blood split here---Or does she scream in agony the battle cry: Oh Thirst! She is Zainab, the grand-daughter of the Prophet Mohammad. She is the daughter of Fatima, who was the daughter of the Prophet Mohammad. She is the daughter of Ali. She is the sister of Hussain and Abbas. She is the mother of On and Mohammad. She is the aunt of Akber, Asghar and Sakina. All the way from the scene of the crime at Kerbela to the court of Yezid in Damascus--Zainab in chains will tell the people along the way what has happened. She will be the witness and narrator.
She is Zainab the daughter of Ali. The carrier of the story. She is the loving selfless leader, the guardian, the defender and the protector of those who must endure in their struggle. She is courage. The care taker and defender of war victims, orphans, the sick and dying. She is the embodiment of motherhood.
Those who love, those in the plains, those on terraced mountains tending fields, those in deserts, those who spend their days tending their flock , those in servitude, those imprisoned, those in hospital, those in pain, those who struggle will know the meaning of her cry: Oh injustice! Oh Thirst!
Spark Gaps and Circuits: Probing the holes in Fiction
Writers are risk-averse. Necessarily so, because writing is really a sort of willful blindness, each sentence depending on all the ones preceding it, the way digging a tunnel depends on each shovel scoop. Experimentation is potentially catastrophic (or worse, embarrassing). With the exception of a few scurries into modernism and postmodernism prose has barely evolved since Charles Dickens’ era, at least compared with its poetic and visual counterparts. The reason for this is partly that writing is intelligible on a granular level; word for word, there is far less room for ambiguity between words than brushstrokes on a painting. A word that isn’t understood is moot; like a blockage in the aforementioned tunnel. That goes double for syntax. A reader can endure a fair amount of acrobatics for a short duration, like a poem, but kicking through 75,000 words of strange… is difficult. Good writing is clear, concise and almost always formally conventional, that is, on the page. Drafting and re-writing do, in theory, let an author step back and intervene in a more architectural manner, but such interventions are powerful and jarring and are used sparingly, often only in the most dire of circumstances. Drafting is more akin to buttressing than transmutation. Shifting tense, or modes of narration (from a first-person “I” to an omniscient third-person, for example) can easily collapse a text. Yet as rigid a channel as prose writing may be, there are a few zones of complete ambiguity in a piece of prose, which have become the site of a rich, strange and evolving alchemy.
Readers of unsolicited texts –‘ slush piles’ in publishing industry argot – develop an uncanny ability to identify monstrous prose from a mere glance. Some of this is obvious: choosing a quirky font, for example, is never a good sign; but there are other more subtle queues. A series of monotonously sized paragraphs marching down the page is an unambiguous tell that something has been written by a rank amateur. Paragraph breaks may not have semantic content, but they contribute something tangible to a text. Same goes for any other whitespace. An author who doesn’t manipulate his or her spaces is likely not paying much attention to anything else in his or her prose. But this suggests something else as well. Absence of text may not ‘say’ something but it does do something.
The paragraph break is probably smallest unit of absence in a prose text. Words and sentences map onto reality pretty well, since, for the most part one’s internal monologue seems to consist of words and sentences – or at least sentence fragments, and it is easy to imagine punctuation marks as pauses for breath, a querulous chirp, or sudden spurt of rage; but a paragraph is a strange and unnatural thing. It is an artificial break; a gap in what should be a continuous feed of chatter from the brain. Higher-orders of division are more peculiar still – sections, chapters, books, volumes and sets – some are vestiges of the printer’s trade, others evolved from older forms, but all share one quality: they interrupt text, break it into a segment, and by doing so delineate a beginning and an end to a discrete unit of information; or to put it another way, they force a feed of information into a rigid form.
Captured, text circulates: it has a beginning, an end, and, ostensibly, a way to reel back to the beginning all over again.
The larger the gap, or to put it another way, the more of an impediment to the reader an interruption becomes – ranging from a few milliseconds flex of one’s ocular muscle through a line of blank space, to closing a book and (perhaps) starting over – the stronger the circulation. Within a text, each a paragraph break transfers momentum, a quantum of flexion, almost like a heartbeat. Alone, this is meaningless, but as paragraphs accrete, they develop a rhythm, one that a skilled operator can use to modulate the momentum of a piece of writing, or even alter its meaning.
A slightly larger gap – the double space break – is “big” enough that it is often used to mark the passage of time and space, so a reader isn’t forced to slog through the traffic en route to dénouement, for example. Here the heartbeat becomes something a little larger, a more deliberate interruption, with a beginning and end that is easier to notice on the page: a shock. The asterisk, a larger (or perhaps more accurately, a starker) impediment creates a more jarring gap than a mere blank space, a longer leap through time and space, or a more poignant sudden precipitation of a cluster of thoughts. Likewise, being forced to begin a new chapter, book or volume is starker still. In each space, the reader is asked to project all of the information that he or she has previously accreted into the gap, to fill that chasm with all that preceded it, devour and digest it, and then tackle the text anew.
Clarice Lispector's (1964) The Passion of G.H. takes this moment of repose and magnifies it. She begins each chapter by repeating the last sentence (or sometimes just the last sentence fragment) from the preceding chapter, and places it into a new context: a mnemonic that sharply intensifies the sense of transmission between chunks of text, in effect, yanking the accretion forwards, and hurtling the text along. The Passion of G.H. forms a circuit between its beginning and end – “I keep looking, looking. Trying to understand. Trying to give what I have gone through to someone else, and I don’t know who, but I don’t want to be alone with that experience;” (3) and “[t]he world interdepended with me—that was the confidence I had reached: the world interdepended with me, and I am not understanding what I say, never! never again shall I understand what I saw… (173).” Lispector’s text is more than blind projection, it is as if a transmission is being accelerated through a series of spark gaps, amplified, intensified, until the beginning collides with the end.
These metaphoric collisions can be strong enough to actually dismantle time and space. Robert Coover’s short story, “The Babysitter” from Pricksongs and Descants (1969) amplifies its transmission even more intensely than Lispector, decoupling a story from time and space entirely using small, jagged paragraphs (broken apart with astrices) that read like TV channels being changed – you can almost hear sputter of static in-between – to probe multiple timelines and points of view (a teenage babysitter, her boyfriend, her young charge, and his predatory father): A crisis averted. A crisis occurs. A crisis is about to occur. All these things happen simultaneously, everywhere and nowhere all at once. Causality, time and space are splayed open, rendered meaningless through duplication and re-deployment. Coover’s text no longer ‘reads’ linear, it is almost a cubist perspective of a story; it reads like a grid.
Imagining a text like Coover’s unraveling in a grid implies that there would be a space for it to unravel onto (or perhaps into). And in a way there is. Reading can be imagined as something of a spatial experience, in that text consists of a push-pull between three dimensions: the text on the page, the author, and the reader. Czar Gutierrez, a young Peruvian poet turned novelist, manages to actually enter this fictive plane and use it to toss and turn his subject matter, inspired by the World Trade Center, not only in space, and time but also abstract metaphor, technological data and in the public eye.
In 80M84RD3R0 (2008), the first chapters of which appear in translation in the current issue of NY Tyrant magazine, Gutierrez tears apart his paragraphs and sentences. He uses bullets, subheads, numerals, capitalization, and lists to typographically rend (and contain) his subject, then grounds it by repeating imagery from startling perspectives. Within three pages (that is two chapters, and 11 ‘tempos’) knees spread apart become towers, semen trickling down a thigh becomes a jet contrail that crosses another and suddenly explodes into the realm of pure physics, an event which is being observed and recorded by satellite, and the perspective is plunged back into pure sensory experience, into meaninglessness and finally into nothing at all. The last two “tempos” read: “10. I WANT TO WEAVE A NET with my bones but I end up converted into a deformed polar icecap, into a poem covered in moss, crushed in its edges, burned at its core, bathed by the silent and spectral and cathodic rain of a television without weather that, as it feeds me, converts me into plasma. //11S. FOREVER.” Of course, Gutierrez is a noted poet and DJ, and though he calls 80M84RD3R0 a novel, if there is a limit to how much experimentation a piece of prose can bear and remain a piece of prose, he is certainly pressing upon against it, perhaps pushing past it and approaching the threshold of a new, more intoxicating form.
Jacob Hashimoto. Slip into Vapor. 2005
Acrylic, paper/dacron, wood.
Dinner Table Science: My 3 Favorite Findings of 2010
Last year, at Christmas dinner with my husband’s family, I was stumped by a seemingly simple question: “What was the biggest scientific discovery of 2009?” What a great question, I remember thinking, as the papers and news I’d read over the past year churned through my mind, struggling to bubble up to consciousness. For a biology graduate student, it should have been easy; I should have been able to come up with something, anything, that was a notable scientific achievement, yet also engaging enough to be of interest to my in-laws. (The overlap between these two spheres of science is smaller than you might think. In fact, as I tried in vain to pull an answer from the murky depths of my memory, I was beginning to believe it was non-existent.)
I fumbled for a long minute, and exchanged a blank glance with my husband (who was also a grad student) – he too was at a loss. (After all, not all research comes with the headline-grabbing, NASA-approved stamp of extra-terrestrial life.*) One of us eventually bumbled towards an answer (I think it was the Mars rover’s discovery of water), but I vowed at that moment to be better prepared in 2010.
So today, I present you with three science-y things from 2010 that you can talk about around the dinner table. Some were striking enough for me to remember on my own, others were featured in ScienceNOW’s excellent compilation of the most popular stories of the year, or Nature magazine’s top science articles of 2010. All have two things in common: 1. They make great conversation starters. 2. You don’t have to be a scientist to understand them.
#3. Men with good dance moves attract women.
The Gist: What exactly is a ‘good’ dance move? Researchers at Northumbria University in the UK identified the essential elements of a man’s good moves by devising a way to separate the attractiveness of the dancer from the attractiveness of the dance. When attempting to quantify a woman’s perception of a man’s dancing ability, it’s nearly impossible to control for the appearance of the dancer. His height, clothing, body shape, and facial features can all influence her impression of his skills.
To remove these confounding factors, the authors in the study used 3D motion-capture technology to create computer-generated avatars. Each dancing male wore 38 reflective markers distributed from his wrists to his neck to his ankles, and danced to a 30-second clip of music in front of a camera that recorded every shake, twist, bump, and grind. Videos were played for women, and researchers analyzed body position, movements, and speed.
The Controversy: No real controversy (or surprises) here. Heterosexual women like men (or at least purple gender-neutral computer avatars) who can dance. The authors speculated that good dance moves could signify important qualities in a potential mate (such as coordination, health, vigor, and athletic prowess). Don’t fret if you’re a badly dancing heterosexual male though; this study offers instructional advice. My favorite tip? Get that right knee moving. According to the study’s authors, it was one of the most important signs of dance quality.
Why I like it: It may not be ‘the greatest scientific discovery of 2010’, but it’s worth watching the videos of good and bad dancing avatars on YouTube. (I’m not the only one who likes them; combined, the videos have nearly 740,000 hits- not bad for a scientific article.) There’s no word yet on whether the ‘good’ moves have sparked a new dance craze, but I’m holding out hope.
#2. Barefoot runners generate less impact force than their shod counterparts.
The Gist: In the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Kenya won 5 gold medals in track and field. All of their golds were for mid- or long-distance events, and all of their winning runners were from the Rift Valley Province. Kenyans from the Rift Valley are known for their incredible endurance, which has been attributed to everything from an automobile-free lifestyle (they run to and from school), to homeland geography (they live and run at altitude), to genetics. Oh, and they grow up running barefoot.
At the beginning of 2010, runner and Harvard human evolutionary biologist, Daniel Lieberman, published a long awaited study that sought to answer a simple question: Do runners with shoes run differently than those without? Lieberman’s group compared the foot-strike patterns and forces of 5 different sets of runners, including athletes from the Rift Valley and the US. His team of researchers found that barefoot runners tended to strike the ground with their fore- or mid-foot, whereas shod runners typically hit with their heel. Why does this matter? Lieberman showed that forefoot striking reduces foot-to-ground collision forces nearly 3-fold.
If running shoes enable rear-foot striking, and rear-foot striking increases impact forces on the body, what’s the point of wearing shoes? It’s a good question (some would say revolutionary), and likely part of the reason Lieberman’s study made the cover of Nature magazine.
The Controversy: Lieberman’s paper was met with disbelief and derision on one side (podiatrists and running shoe companies decried the implied invalidation of their trades) and joyful righteousness on the other (barefoot running devotees basked in the vindication of their sport.) In the 11 months since the paper has been published, sales of minimal or ‘barefoot-style’ footwear have boomed (as have new barefoot-related running injuries).
So should you ditch your running shoes completely? Podiatrists and barefoot runners agree on one thing: any attempt to change running style should be done gradually. In an interview with Runner’s World magazine (which has remained thick with running shoe advertisements), Lieberman is careful to note that their study does not make any connection between running shoes and injuries, or advocate going shoeless. (Though you may see him running barefoot through Cambridge.)
Why I like it: I love when conventional wisdom (i.e. running shoes = good) is turned on its head. Running shoes came into popularity in the 70s, and, despite little supporting evidence, have been considered an athletic necessity ever since. For some people, running shoes may be necessary, but for others, they could be making things worse.
This year, I started running in minimal shoes. From heel to toe, the soles of my running shoes are 4mm thick; a typical running shoe heel is about 24mm (~1 inch). Admittedly, my sample size is small, but after years of struggling with plantar fasciitis, I was ready to try almost anything. Today, my foot injuries are gone, and it’s hard not to root for the barefoot runners.
#1. Biologists create first bacterium with synthetic genome.
The Gist: In May 2010, researchers at the J. Craig Venter Institute announced they had created “the first self-replicating species on the planet whose parent is a computer.” The claim, though slightly hyperbolic, sparked intense philosophical debate about the definition of life, and the ethics of creating it. Venter’s Institute synthesized and stitched together large swaths of DNA (more than a million base pairs total), and inserted the assembled chromosome into a bacterial cell whose own DNA had been removed.
The artificially generated genome was based on the sequence of the Mycoplasma mycoides (a bacterial parasite that causes lung disease in cows), and implanted into the empty husk of close relative, Mycoplasma capricolum. When the M. mycoides/M. capricolum hybrid grew and replicated, only the synthetic M. mycoides remained: thus, according to Venter, a new species was born.
The Controversy: Craig Venter’s announcement was hailed as the first demonstration of “synthetic life,” the first man-made species. Technically, this isn’t completely accurate. Though the genome was synthesized from scratch, it was copied from a previously existing life form (M. mycoides) and transplanted into a living (albeit vacant) cell. Without the M. capricolum shell, the naked artificial chromosome would have been homeless, forever unprotected and inanimate.
And the ethics of creating this life form? Is it, as Venter said, “perhaps a giant philosophical change in how we view life”? Or is it just the next, inevitable step in the evolution of a science that will eventually tailor different bacterial genomes for different biological tasks?
Why I like it: Time magazine has called him the ‘Gene Maverick’. To Forbes.com, he’s a ‘Gene Celebrity’. To me, Craig Venter is an irresistible mixture of unabashed ego and scientific diva that’s hard not to appreciate. I like him. I can’t help it. In 2007, the J. Craig Venter Institute sequenced the first complete genome of an individual human being. The DNA source? Craig Venter. The name of the completed sequence? HumanReference, or HuRef (in other words, they christened Venter’s genome the reference sequence for humankind).
To differentiate between synthetic vs. natural bacterial DNA in their artificial life form, Venter’s team inserted their coded names, and a quote from James Joyce into the synthetic bacterium’s genome: “To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life.” Bold words, Dr. Venter. I can’t wait to see what’s next.
*Footnote: Earlier this month, NASA announced the discovery of a life form that could substitute arsenic for phosphorus as an essential component of DNA. They called it an “astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life.” Despite the splashy claims, the original publishers of this research (Science magazine) didn’t include it in their ‘breakthroughs of 2010’. In their words, because “the paper ran late in the year, we feel it is prudent to allow for further analysis before giving it a nod.”
Stories We Tell
by Hasan Altaf
Reading about Pakistan has become, for me, a fraught experience. Every time I see the country mentioned in a headline, my first reaction – the news or analysis being so unending, and so uniformly disheartening – is to hold my breath. I don’t know how other people interpret our current ticking-time-bomb situation, but to me, it feels like a particularly bizarre and dramatic existential crisis, dragging on and on without end. I can never resist the articles, but it’s an exercise in masochism.
For that reason, I was both eager and anxious to read two recent collections of Pakistan-centered writing. The cover of Granta’s Pakistan issue, designed like one of the brightly painted trucks that were the representation of our country in what seems like a happier time, was a pleasant surprise; by itself, it did a great deal to alleviate my nervousness. The Life’s Too Short literary review was impressive for its novelty, its uniqueness – and its sheer audacity, too: In the middle of the madness, life goes on, life is lived, and life is always too short.
Beyond theme, the two collections have little in common, and they leave the reader with very different impressions. At first read, Granta seems more familiar, more in sync with other contemporary coverage of Pakistan. It’s not all beards and bombs, but none of the pieces seem too far away from the country we read about every day in the New York Times or the BBC – it has that sense to it, of bated breath, of decades of decay, of disaster around every corner.
The other anthology is kind of jarring; reading it, you would never know that this country has become a war zone, a deathtrap, a state whose list of failures grows by the day. In these stories, Pakistan is just a place, where people live and die, get by or don’t, fail and succeed, love and hate – as people do everywhere, anywhere. These are really the more familiar stories: what we did today, where we went, where we came from – but in the context of Pakistan, somehow I did not expect such ordinariness.
It would be oversimplifying to say that the difference between the two is that of macro and micro, capital-H History and ordinary stories. It’s more likely that the collections simply reflect their different intentions. Granta is geared to the “international market,” which in this context means, I imagine, the Western market, and that market has certain expectations from Pakistani writing. The Life’s Too Short anthology will probably not be read as much, outside of the country, and so does not have to meet those expectations.
There is a semantic difference, too, which is important. Granta published a Pakistan issue: The theme, the unifier, is “the country” itself, whatever that means, Pakistan as a concept. The other, when it advertised earlier for submissions, asked for writing “by Pakistanis,” and on its cover highlights writing “from Pakistan.” Granta takes the concept of Pakistan and examines it in light of our current situation; the other creates a Pakistan, or many Pakistans, out of the lives and stories of Pakistanis.
Given that they are engaged in such different projects, it doesn’t make sense to me to really measure the two collections against one another, but reading them together made me think about what it means to be writing, now, about Pakistan. Cynical as it may sound, this is an excellent moment to be a Pakistani writer: The mess and the mayhem make a fertile ground, and there is, for now, always someone willing to listen. This comes, though, with a kind of responsibility, or if that is too strong a word, a set of expectations and considerations that other writers do not have (although most corners of the world have been or will be in this strange spotlight at some point). What we say about the country now has a resonance that it would be foolish to deny.
I don’t see how anyone writing about Pakistan now, writing anything, could fail to at least indirectly touch on the current situation; it would be like writing about Atlanta in the 1800s and never mentioning slavery, writing about Europe in the 1940s without even hinting at a war. This is our environment, now; violence is part of the fabric of our lives, more so than it was before. But a story made up of beards and bombs, with perhaps an honor killing every now and then for spice, would be an uninteresting polemic with little to say about reality. It would be writing directly to an expectation, giving some readers exactly what they want and expect – and if that’s all it does, then what would be the point of writing?
People confront the current situation every day, but in small ways; the war may be general, but the battles are specific. A father whose son is disappeared; a child whose mosque is suicide-bombed or drone attacked into oblivion; a woman trying to drive across a dysfunctional city; even someone waiting for hours and hours for their lights to come back on – these are the battles, the small, individual ways in which Pakistanis live Pakistan. In some pieces in the Life’s Too Short anthology, the situation lurks like this, as background noise, part of the set – but never the star.
So perhaps we have a dual challenge, a double responsibility. In writing, the important thing is always going to be the particular, the individual, but ignoring the general would be disingenuous and blind. Maybe successful writing about Pakistan has to speak to both these challenges at once. Because both are important – no individual exists alone, and there is no experience that is without context.
In Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work, the Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat touches upon the difficulty of this balancing act. When the place you’re writing about has become such an “issue,” then of course your work will be interpreted, by some, in that light. But for writers, the unique and the particular have to be the focus. She quotes a letter she wrote to a character in one of her earlier books: “And so I write this to you now, Sophie, as I write it to myself, praying that the singularity of your experience be allowed to exist.” The singular has to come first – for writers, at least, a bottom-up approach makes more sense than a top-down.
It’s a difficult balance, a tightrope act in which falling to either side is dangerous. In my view, one of the strongest masters of this art is Joan Didion, in her fiction and, especially, her essays. Books like Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Where I Was From and even Political Fictions tell stories, individual stories, particular stories, and somehow a larger theme emerges. Her books say something about an era, a place, a culture, while allowing singular experiences the right to exist.
We read a writer like Didion, now, with hindsight, and this kind of balance is much harder to do in the moment, especially when the moment is so bizarre, but I think this may be the only way to really deal, on paper, with Pakistan. You can’t write about Pakistan and get to Pakistanis – it has to be the other way around. Pakistan must be approached as Pakistanis, through Pakistanis, through singular experiences, through the stories we tell ourselves. We need these stories, even if they are never written down and exist only in words over coffee or just in our heads. These are the stories that get us through the day, through the “situation,” through the concept.
The Thirty Years' Reform
If you’ve paid attention to American politics over the last two years (real politics, not beauty contest gossip) it’s understandable if you’re sick of hearing about health care reform. It was a daily topic for nearly a year leading up to the historic legislation passed in March 2010, has not receded much since, and will likely be a top issue again in 2011 with Republican efforts to repeal health care reform in both the House and the Supreme Court. If you’re not in the health care industry and don’t know much about its inner workings, all of this may be snooze-inducing, especially since you’ve probably heard that the current round of reforms isn’t very radical and keeps the current system pretty much in place--just expands it to an approximation of the universal coverage other developed nations already have. But health care reform will not go away, and for good reason: like a leech-wielding barber of old, America’s health care industry is slowly bleeding it dry.
Unfortunately, nothing that has been done by the Democrats so far, and nothing that is likely to be done by the Republicans over the next year or two, will make a large dent in the most massive problem created by America’s health care sector today: it costs nearly $1 trillion dollars too much, each year, and the cost is growing at a rate faster than the economy. To put that in perspective, America’s expenditure on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined, over nine years, is bit over $1 trillion dollars. To put it another way, an extra $3,000 is spent by the average American every year on health care without, for all we can tell, contributing to a better quality of life or a single day more of it, compared to European and other industrialized nations. (see here, here and here.)
The rate of growth is as much a problem as the absolute cost. The projected increase in health care spending for the Federal government constitutes almost the entire long run projected growth in national debt. Without health care, there is no looming fiscal crisis for the United States, but with health care’s current trajectory, either the US will have a fiscal collapse in the lifetime of most people reading this, or taxes will have to rise to levels higher than the “socialist” nations that Americans are so determined to reject, just to pay for the government portion of health care.
Of course, that which cannot go up forever, won’t. Since the incremental gains and losses from reform during the (first) Obama administration won’t reduce the overspending, after the current round of reforms and Republican counter-reforms there will be yet another wave of reforms to come. Some of these reforms may arise from seeds planted deep in the health reform act of 2010 (PPACA), but many will not, and in any case each payment reform will be fought anew as it arises. These battles will be even more difficult, divisive, and painful than anything we’ve see thus far. These are the grinding battles that were, and continue to be, deliberately avoided by both political parties because they are too explosive, and the politicians know that they cannot present deep reforms to cut the cost of care by 30-40% that surmount the combined forces of industry lobbies and misplaced public perceptions and demands (the cuts mostly need to come to the price of medical services, not the volume of those services).
And that is the tragedy. Deep reform can’t happen now because those industries for which health care expenses are booked as revenue are too strong, and they are too strong because they have broad support from the voting public. In almost every congressional district, hospitals and health care systems are among the largest employers. In almost every district, seniors are the most important age demographic, and they are easily mobilized to vote against cuts in spending on health care based on fears of care denied. And this, of course, is exactly what lobbyists from the physician and hospital industries warn will happen if spending is cut. Majorities from both parties have been acclimated to the idea that as little as possible should get in the way of the relationship between doctor and patient, particularly from government or private insurers with an eye on the total bill and a desire to get the best bang for the buck. The most minor voluntary rationing in the form of end-of-life planning was demagogued into “death panels” during the last round of reform, and similar modest measures will probably meet similar hysterical responses in the near future, from left and from right.
On top of these influences, the public has been led to believe in a series of myths about high medical costs and thinks that a few quick fixes can solve most problems. Two of the biggest myths are that the high costs are created by private insurance profits and by malpractice claims. As a result, only policy wonks who aren’t too smitten by partisan affiliation know that these two factors account for only about 2% of total health care costs in the United States, combined. When higher private insurance administration and defensive medicine costs are factored in, the total impact from these sources reaches about 7% or 8%. This is roughly double the share and quadruple the total dollars paid by other nations, but still no golden road to solving America’s problem (more like a solution to one-fifth of it, if all spending that is out of line with other nations is removed).
So what happens next? Tectonic forces will gradually increase the calls to take on the core of our higher costs, namely the services provided in hospitals, outpatient clinics, radiology centers and physician offices. This is also where most of the jobs are, and reducing costs by hundreds of billions means hundreds of thousands will likely be laid off. Of course, this is a wee problem, because in an economy with 9.6% employment, the last thing the US (and world) needs is an additional half a million or more newly unemployed. In fact, all job growth in the United States over the last 10 years came from health care expansion, and it is the only industry that continued to grow in the Great Recession. America will need to learn not only how to absorb more job losses, but to create net new jobs that are not in health care, something it has not been able to do consistently for many years.
Without deft policies, the labor that is liberated for more productive occupations will instead simply create new long-term unemployed, and instead of operating more efficiently, hospitals and clinics will instead go bankrupt. But the economic obstacles to successful change will not, I suspect, hold a candle to the political and perceptual obstacles. Until we, by which I mean Americans, are able to overcome them, the slow drip from the nation’s veins into the sponge of the health care system will continue.
Meanwhile, the left tends to blame insurers and pharma (mostly insurers) and seeks remedies to those perceived problems. The right tends to blame trial lawyers, unhealthy lifestyles and oxymoronic welfare state Nazis, and seeks a competing but equally misguided set of remedies to those perceived problems. Policy wonks meanwhile tend to blame misaligned payment incentives that create a vast billing engine rather than a true health care system and that don’t subject costs to the discipline of global budgets like nearly every other nation does (more about that another time).
America as a whole certainly has earned its health care system. Millions have worked hard to create the most expensive, inefficient and callous system among the nations that have the resources to do better. Extricating ourselves from this predicament is a monumental undertaking that will likely transform American attitudes about what health care is supposed to accomplish, what level of bureaucratic interference to improve cost and quality is appropriate, how health care fits into and serves the national economy, and even towards greater trust in government as steward. Of course, unlike in the movies, failure is an option, but whatever the outcome, health care reform has only just begun.
Disclosure: Jonathan Halvorson has been employed in managed care in various capacities since 2004.
Reflections on the Density of City Life
I: Reflectvertising in Tokyo’s Liquid Desert
The white neon apple, visible all the way down Chuo Avenue, makes finding the Ginza Apple Store deceptively easy. I say ‘deceptively’ because it’s not until you’re about to enter that you realize you've been chasing after a reflection, a perfect double emblazoned on the frosted glass of the Matsuya Department store directly across the street. Tokyo’s upturned desert of glass preserves, from its former days as sand, the ability to proliferate mirages and fata morgana, sends wanderers deeper and deeper into the wild.
Restaurant reflectvertisements are slung around Tokyo's street-corners, billboard reflections dragged over the curved surfaces of its slow-moving
taxi cabs. Storefront neon sloshes about like oil in narrow waterways, luring then repelling, tempting then deterring. Looking out over this liquid Sahara, it’s hard to say whether reflectvertisements fall more on the side of visiting or intruding, hanging out or loitering. What can be said is that this economy of intangible light operates very differently from the economy of invisible air over which radio, television, and cellular companies bid so ravenously. And while all things may not pass amicably between reflectvertising neighbors in Tokyo, more notable than the tallying of strife is the mood of the city excited by all this uneven thrumming.
However much dictionaries may want us to think of reflections as “the throwing back by a body or surface of light, heat, or sound, without absorbing it” I can’t help but feel that while reflections may bounce coldly off individual surfaces in Tokyo, taken together, they soak throughly into the warm skin of the city.
II: The Relative Pressures of City Life
Whenever I happen to lay my hand against the side of a skyscraper in Tokyo or New York, I wonder why it is that these structures don’t get hot from all the millions of pounds of vertical pressure coursing down through them. Where does it all go? As it passes into the streets, through nut vendors, and out the exhaust pipes of busses, might it be possible to follow it into subway tunnels or trace it up elevator shafts back to the top floors of office buildings? City smells, city sounds, and so many of
the city’s weighty little annoyances push us along the same stress-strain curve as its towering buildings, at every turn making trial of our tensile strength. When late for a business meeting, wouldn't we do better to measure the long wait for an elevator in pascals rather than in seconds, with a barometer rather than with a wristwatch? We inhabitants of megacities are little Titans, miniature Atlases, each hefting a little of the city's load on our aching shoulders.
When I was a child, I’d greet my father at the door, and, tired after a hard day’s work, he’d always make me the same deal. “I'll give you a piggyback ride to the kitchen,” he’d say, “but only if you carry this heavy briefcase for me.” Giving out a groan as he dropped his burden into my extended hand, and then, lifting me up onto his back, he’d march about, play-acting an unfettered lightness of being. I have a sneaking suspicion that the logic of city life turns on a similar principle; that the city carries our freight upon its shoulders as long as we bear a small measure of its upon ours. Despite common sense telling us all this heavy-lifting ought to result in more, not less, cumulative pressure, what keeps the operation moving, both for my father and for the city, is not a diminishing of pressure, but the inverse; its amplification, spiked with a communal ecstasy over the senselessness of it all.
III. Post-gravity Architecture
We are such devotees of the earth that if it weren't for gravity holding us to it, we'd surely invent something else to. In 2003 the Tate Museum held a design contest with post-gravity architecture as its theme. The challenge the submissions posed to gravity, however, was slight. Nearly every one looked like the kind of pond organisms you'd find under a microscope. For these folks, the architecture of post-gravity amounted to little more than an architecture of un-wet water.
Maybe we’ve had it all wrong about how gravity holds us to the surface of the planet. If by ‘post-gravity’ we were to mean re-working gravity by working through (and then beyond) our presumptions about it, then I think we would find that post-gravity has already long been at work in our global cities. Take for example the dialogue with gravity initiated in Arata Isozaki's 1962 tree-like concept-city, “clusters in the air.” Yes, Isozaki's buildings hover high above the earth, but not without at the same time stretching long arms back down to the ground, as if to grab a fistful of dirt as a souvenir, as if to remind itself of the feel of still-hot-asphalt after sunset. Or what about the disembodied walking legs of Peter Eisenman's unbuilt Möebis Strip, the Koolhaas
CCTV building in Shanghai, the Edo-Tokyo Museum, or any of a dozen other structures that look as though they’re ready to walk off at any moment? Architectures of departure such as these allow us to leave the earth, not through outright disavowal of it, but by running tests on an increasingly fine connection to it. Perhaps our ultimate escape from earth is to be effected not in the blunt refusal of gravity, but in light dismissals, something akin to the way a woman at a party drives off an unwelcome approach by holding onto her end of the conversation just firmly enough so as not to appear rude.
IV: The Primordial Foundations of the City
If the city weren’t being continually laced and relaced by filaments of light and threads of tension, would ‘city life’ exist at all? A friend asked me recently if I had any idea why pigeons are so numerous in big cities. My guess - perhaps a common one - was that these birds must be endowed with remarkably tolerant stomachs (we don’t call them 'feathered rats' and 'gutter birds' for nothing, right)? Turns out that our city pigeons are properly called ‘rock pigeons,’ a name belying their cliff-dwelling heritage. When the outcroppings upon which pigeons once lived were cut into slabs, ferried downstream, and piled back up into apartment blocks and office buildings, the dumb birds probably never so much as noticed. What’s it to them, anyway? For pigeons, what distinguishes a cliff’s edge and a building’s ledge is a difference that makes no difference at all. For pigeons, we might say, the city never happened.
While these birds may not ever think about the city, a city without pigeons is almost unthinkable. We move parallel to pigeons when we build our own little nests on stony heights and when we scrabble about for what crumbs we can get. If we recoil at the very thought of eating this bird, then we are properly observing dietary taboos, bringing our dealings with pigeons closer to what has long been investigated by anthropologists as totemic practices. The pigeon is our totem, city life’s animal spirit. We move along with the pigeon and mimic it down to its primordial indifference to distinctions. To a pigeon, to look at a rock face and a concrete façade is to look at one and the same thing. For us, the cityscape of reflections is as tangible as a city of things; our anxieties weigh on us as heavily as an armful of groceries. We can't shake these pressures of city life. And even in that brief moment when, after an interminable wait, the elevator doors slide open, the pressure cascades off our shoulders, and we're overcome by weightlessness - even in this moment, we can be sure that our freedom from the city's gravity will hold only until the doors slide open again on the ground floor and we are shoved right back into the thick of city life.