Monday, December 31, 2012
by Rishidev Chaudhuri
A recent study on the relationship between positive emotions, social connectedness and a measure of heart health has been getting a lot of attention in the popular media. 1 It's an interesting addition to the emerging scientific literature on the uses and effects of meditative practices and on the mechanism of the placebo effect (which seems to be shorthand for a wide variety of fascinating and under-studied phenomena)2. These are both compelling topics, and perhaps good subjects for a future blog post, but the study was also interesting because it's one of a growing minority of studies that look at compassion meditations rather than concentration or mindfulness meditations.
Compassion meditations, roughly, are a family of exercises where you try to practice compassion by cultivating love and good wishes towards other people3. One way of doing this is to picture a series of people and wish them well in turn (taking your time over each and, typically, moving from yourself to people you like, then to people you are indifferent to and then to people you dislike). Another practice is to look at people as you make your way in the world and, for each person, say to yourself, "Like me, this person wants to be happy and avoid suffering”. Yet another is, in the midst of encountering another person, to every so often ask yourself “What is preventing me from being present with this person?”
Over the last few years, there's been a gradual increase in the number of scientific studies looking at compassion meditations. This is promising, not because these practices should be entirely understood by their effects on physiology, nor because the scientific lens is necessarily the best way to see them, but because it points to greater visibility and more general interest.
It's easy to see why scientists would be reluctant to study these practices; despite their age, they can seem like fluffy New Age exhortations, akin to telling someone, “Now let's all love each other.” When I was first introduced to these techniques, about a decade ago, I remember thinking they were silly. Mindfulness meditation, where you attempt to become aware of your thoughts and feelings as they happen, seemed like an intriguing way of probing at the structure of subjective experience; it could be criticized methodologically for being unverifiable, ungeneralizable and so on, but it seemed to have intellectually sound goals. Similarly, concentration meditation, where you train one-pointed focus, seemed like a useful training regimen: everyone wishes they could concentrate better. But compassion meditations seemed like an exercise in unfounded benevolence for people who couldn't be bothered to think carefully about ethics.
In the intervening years, though, my views on ethics have changed, and I've come to believe that these practices are very valuable and potentially quite radical. It seems more and more that ethics is less a matter of reasoning from detached principles but, crucially, a matter of practice. It isn't that ethical principles don't exist, or that reason shouldn't be a guide to action, but there seem to be a number of principles, with overlapping spheres of validity, and deciding which ones to apply and how is inextricably bound up with context, habit and lived performance (which suggests a view closer to virtue ethics than, say, deontology). At least on an everyday level, it seems that when I'm frustrated with myself for not being kinder or more empathetic it's not because I don't know what I should be doing but because I find myself unable to, or insufficiently perceptive or distracted or lazy. All the impediments seem to be impediments of practice.
I've also become increasingly sympathetic to a certain form of behaviorism: to the view that thinking and feeling should be thought of as behaviors (or clusters of behavior), and that rather than thinking of actions as expressions of a separate internal state, we should think of actions and intentions as part of what we mean when we talk about particular internal states.
This suggests a shift of focus to practice and performance, and it's here where compassion meditation seems most useful. To me, it's best understood as a way of carving out and formalizing a space in which to practice being compassionate or empathetic or loving, rather than simply exhorting yourself to, or believing that if you're really truly convinced of a certain ethical orientation then you'll naturally live according to it. It inverts the usual relationship between thought and behavior and acknowledges that thought is often founded on behavior4. And it embraces process. Rather than measuring up to a detached ethical standard, or simply expressing an ethical thought that lies within the self, you're encouraged to think in terms of cultivating a self, with all the setbacks and slow improvement that entails.
This view of self-cultivation seems like it can be valuably applied to the ways we think of love and relationships (both romantic and not). We're often told that a relationship (especially romantic) requires work and compromise, which makes it sound like an uninspiring combination of Sisyphus and treaty negotiations. But this does contain a good deal of wisdom, which is that it is misleading to think of love or friendship just as the welling up of an already established, internal state that you simply stumble upon in yourself, and that instead it should be thought of as a set of performances and practices that can be fruitfully cultivated.
In many ways, none of this should be surprising. We think of children as developing empathy by being taught to practice it, and we don't think of them as irretrievably wicked if they find it difficult. It's liberating to apply the same standards to the adult. Viewed from another angle, though, these practices do smuggle in a certain view of the self, as contingent and created, and subdue notions of authenticity and self-discovery to those of self-cultivation. I imagine most people are not willing to give up the idea of a self to be discovered, but perhaps this is a contradiction we should embrace. It's almost reassuring that we get to jump back and forth between contradictory views of the self, alternately creating and uncovering.
1Kok, B. E. et al. How positive emotions build physical health: Perceived positive social connections account for the upward spiral between positive emotions and vagal tone. Psychological Science (in press).
3The ones I'm thinking of (and the ones that seem to be studied) come from Buddhist traditions. There are others, but I'm not very familiar with them.
4These sorts of inversions seem to pop up a lot. For example, you're supposedly more likely to feel positively towards someone if you do them a favor. This can be understood as the need to rationalize your behavior after the fact, but to me it seems more compelling to just collapse the state and the action and to say that doing someone a favor is part of what it means to like them.
Actions always planned are never completed.
Yesterday I told myself I’d finish on Sunday
the project I started two years ago
but I can never trust myself to carry through
when it comes to carpentry, so
I swore an oath this time and pricked my thumb
and smeared a blood spot on my forehead like a tilak,
faced the four cardinal directions in turn bowing,
crossed myself, right fingers first to blood,
then chest, left shoulder first then right
like the kid I once was, almost devout
but not quite convinced hammer and nails
were enough to coax the angels out
The state withers away in Pakistan
by Omar Ali
3 days ago the Pakistani Taliban raided an outpost of the levies, a paramilitary force recruited primarily from the Afridi tribesmen of the Khyber agency. Poorly equipped, poorly paid and left to stand on the frontlines of the war against the Taliban with little or no backup from the army, the levies lost 3 men and another 23 were captured. The next day the “local administration” spent a busy day contacting “tribal elders” to negotiate with the Taliban for the release of those poor men. But the talks failed and
the captives were executed and their bodies dumped a couple of miles outside the city. This is not the first time the local Taliban have captured levies or other paramilitary forces and it is not the first time they have executed them.
On the same day, a related anti-Shia militant group blew up three buses carrying Shia pilgrims to Iran.
20 or so people were killed. Dozens more injured. Again, this is not the first time such an act was commited. In fact scores of other pilgrims have lost their lives on that very road in the last few years and more will probably do so in the months and years to come.
There are literally dozens of such videos. In most of them the Taliban make speeches about the fact that these soldiers are working for the apostate Pakistani regime alongside the US and other infidel powers, and anyone who works for that regime will face the same fate. In the case of Shias the message is even simpler: they are heretics and they must all die. But the Taliban are not the only people doing the killing. There are several videos of Pakistani soldiers executing Taliban prisoners or beating them up. There are also videos of children killed by Pakistani or American bombing. There is a video somewhere of American soldiers urinating on dead bodies. Not as gruesome as some of the work done by Taliban videographers, but as Hamid Gul has repeatedly pointed out, the Americans are pussies.
War is hell. We know that. But what struck me about these news items was this: in both cases (the attack on Peshawar and the attacks in Mastung) the “local authorities” generally know where to find the attackers (they frequently negotiate with them, they send “elders” out to talk to them, the attackers don’t even hide their faces in most videos, large numbers of armed men don’t just drop in from the moon and disappear back into the mother ship, etc.). And these are certainly not the first such attacks, so the “authorities” have had more than enough time to find out that something is rotten a few miles from their provincial capital. Yet there is remarkably little response. The local deputy commissioner or political agent is not held responsible, nor do the various other local “law enforcement” mechanisms swing into action as if something terrible has happened. The army, armed with thousands of tanks and artillery pieces, stationed in tens of thousands in the same cities, proud of being the “seventh nuclear power in the world”, does not swing into action. Prime ministers and Presidents don’t fly in to take charge of the situation.
On the contrary, there is remarkable vagueness and confusion about what is happening and who is responsible for dealing with it. The provincial government (an elected regime that has lost hundreds of party workers to the Taliban, most recently the senior provincial minister) is not asked why they don’t do something because it is widely understood that they are not in charge and it’s not up to them to “do something”. The civil bureaucracy and police have no jurisdiction or else wriggle out with vague insinuations that it’s all in the army’s domain. The army, recipient of billions in US aid for “anti-terrorism efforts” and the institution that is de facto (if not de jure) responsible for tackling these killers is extremely vague about their identity. In Baluchistan they pretend to have simply washed their hands of the whole matter. In KP (Peshawar) they say they are fighting “an amorphous enemy”, which presumably means they are off the hook.
There may be many reasons why the Pakistani army is so reluctant to fight the Pakistani Taliban. Lack of capacity is sometimes cited. Others believe it is complicity, not inability, which prevents any action. But this is not a post focused on why the army does or does not fight its former blue-eyed boys in the Jihadist movement. My point today is simpler: There is a state called Pakistan. It exists (whether it was a good idea or not is another story; you can see my views on that). It has a structure. That structure; corrupt, inefficient, “unequal, sexist, racist, neo-imperialist”, whatever, can fall apart. If it falls apart, you will have anarchy and civil war. Neither is a pleasant experience. And once that happens, it can take decades to settle on new arrangements. What follows in the interim is usually extremely unpleasant. Humpty Dumpty is not put together again with kid gloves. Ask Chinese people who lived between 1911 and 1976 for details.
"Strategic depth" and the "leveraging of asymmetrical assets to support national policy priorities" is National Defense University level stuff. The neo-liberal world order and its disastrous consequences are arguments for which you need a university degree (and no, the “neoliberal world order” does not necessarily and automatically demand civil war and anarchy). But no state, not Leninist Russia, not Maoist China, not George Washington’s America, not the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, tolerated, AT ALL, the existence of free-lance bands of armed men. The illiterate (but capable) Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia understood this. Modern India, which is very much a work in progress and is as incompetent and corrupt a regime as any in Pakistan, seems to understand this. EVERYONE seems to understand, it but the Pakistani army high command does not? Don’t they teach this in National Defense University before they teach all about DIMEFIL and its importance in Pakistani Afghan policy?
I will digress here with a few words for my Westernized Pakistani Leftist friends (everyone else can jump ahead). Yes, yes, we all hate the neo-liberal new world order. But dear well-meaning darling souls, if the shit hits the fan in Pakistan, it won’t be happening in some other country where we can cheer the revolution and its transformation of “power relations” while bemoaning its inevitable but understandable “excesses”. We are talking about this happening in Pakistan itself. We still have friends and family there. Mummy and Daddy’s little house in Model Town, Uncle Jimmy’s pleasant little farmhouse in Bani Gala. Do keep in mind, they are also IN Pakistan.
Let me try and simplify this argument (all this directed at my Westernized elite liberal friends only):
1. All modern states are evil. All war is evil. All power is evil.
2. Colonial powers are evil. Western colonial powers were especially evil (if you don’t wish to apply the term “colonial” to the Russian or the Arab empire, I will accept that too). And US neo-colonialism is very very very especially evil.
3. We hate this evil way of organizing human society and would love to transcend it. We must transcend it. The sooner, the better.
4. But until we do so, or until someone else does so (lets be humble enough to recognize that if comrade Mao and comrade Lenin couldn’t do it with ruthless armed revolutionaries at their disposal, we are not likely to do it with a keyboard), there are a few elementary features that every state has to aim for, even if it does not immediately achieve them. If state A is unable to implement them in area X, then state B must do so very quickly after pushing out state A. Elementary stuff. The suppression of mob violence and non-state militias. Don’t do that and you have chaos and/or civil war and revolution on your hands.
5. It is hard to find an example of in which the sequence of chaos/civil-war/revolution led directly to a better life for the great mass of the people alive when the chaos set in.
6. It is especially important not to try this experiment in Pakistan. We are from Pakistan. What exists is bad, but it’s not hopeless. It can be improved. Break it and you will have a mess on your hands that is guaranteed to be worse than what exists today.
OK, back to the main point. I am not saying Pakistan’s ruling elite is already done for. They will probably act against these groups at some point after having made the job extra hard for themselves. And though the confrontation will be bloody and prolonged, the state will probably prevail in the end. Modern states are very resilient and are hard to defeat by non-state actors (another more powerful state chipping in, as in East Pakistan in 1971, is a different matter). Cuba comes to mind as an exception, but counter examples are far more numerous.
In fact there are rumors that the army may have struck a new deal with the US that involves US approval for an army-backed “caretaker” regime. Some new move is said to be afoot with Allama Tahir ul Qadri providing “moderate Muslim” cover, with the MQM and anyone else over whom the army (or, in this case, the London police) has enough leverage, lining up to “demand” a new caretaker regime. But the whole exercise smells too much of past interventions and lacks even the manufactured legitimacy that attended those attempts at nation building. I am not hopeful that any new “government of all talents”, especially one based on transparently false premises like the Tahir-ul-Qadri/MQM revolutionary wave, will solve our ideological conundrum. We all understand that it breaks GHQs heart to fight against the very forces they thought would lead them to conquests from Khorasan to Kashmir. And yes, it is difficult for many Pakistanis to accept that people sincerely committed to Islam and Islamic supremacy are now to be ruthlessly crushed by the country that prides itself as the citadel of Islam. But mistakes were made and karma is a bitch. Someone somewhere will have to bite the bullet. The point is that it will be no easier to do that with a new caretaker regime than it is with the (admittedly incompetent) Zardari regime. Because the principal obstacle to taking decisive action is not corruption or mechanistic institutional weaknesses. Corrupt and incompetent police forces and armies can still defeat major rebellions (with a little help from their friends. See Taiping rebellion in China). What is lacking here is will; it seems it’s very painful for GHQ to muster the will to act against Islam and the “ideology of Pakistan”. But as noted above, things have become so bad, they have become clear. Pakistan’s ruling elite can either relinquish control in large areas or clear those areas. Controlled burn and other holding strategies that accept such a level of violence against state forces may have been a way to have our American aid and eat our jihadi cake too, but that whole strategy has now become non-viable. Negotiations and “peaceful solution” are beautiful ideals, but the other side is armed and ready to kill. No state can permit such force to remain active within its domain and appear not to care. To do so it to undermine the viability of the state itself. The viability of the Pakistani state may be just a theoretical problem for the Guardian newspaper, but its life and death for the Pakistani elite... OUR elite. If things fall apart, they will not be easy to put together again.
The choices are simple. The Pakistani state can permanently abandon large areas to armed forces that refuse to recognize its authority (and will then face the prospect of fighting these forces wherever the new border is drawn, since their ambitions are vast). Or it can re-establish control. Everything else comes after this first elementary choice is made. Its time to choose.
Finally, a few words for friends who think a post-Pakistan solution would be best. How do you plan to get there? Between what exists now and what may exist after Pakistan is no more, lie civil war and massive disorder. And organized forces will have to fight it out in that transition. Which forces do you imagine doing that work, and why do you expect them to do it to your liking?
PS: On an unrelated note, I notice that Zizek has called out the poco crowd:
Also, I really hate all of this politically correct, cultural studies bullshit. If you mention the phrase “postcolonialism,” I say, “Fuck it!” Postcolonialism is the invention of some rich guys from India who saw that they could make a good career in top Western universities by playing on the guilt of white liberals.
There is likely to be an urge among the more intelligent and established postcolonial types to let the matter go (as with states, there are elementary first principles in academic disputes and number one is the "mutual bullshit protection clause"). But in this realm I am with the revolutionaries. Don’t worry about collateral damage and self-inflicted wounds. Ignore the business about airing dirty laundry in public. Let Zizek have it with all keyboards blazing. I urge my "postcolonial-culture studies" brethren (and sisteren) to please respond to Zizek. Harshly.
“There are no beautiful surfaces without a terrible depth.” ― Friedrich Nietzsche
PS: thanks to Myra Macdonald, whose post inspired this one over the weekend.
Sunday, December 30, 2012
A Blueprint for a Quantum Propulsion Machine
From MIT Technology Review:
The quantum vacuum has fascinated physicists ever since Hendrik Casimir and Dirk Polder suggested in 1948 that it would exert a force on a pair of narrowly separated conducting plates. Their idea was eventually confirmed when the force was measured in 1997. Just how to exploit this force is still not clear, however.
In recent years, a new way of thinking about the quantum vacuum has emerged which has vastly more potential. And today, one physicist describes how it could be used to create propulsion.
Before we discuss that, let’s track back a little. According to quantum mechanics, any vacuum will be filled with electromagnetic waves leaping in and out of existence. It turns out that these waves can have various measurable effects, such as the Casimir-Polder force.
The new approach focuses on the momentum associated with these electromagnetic fields rather than the force they exert. The question is whether it is possible to modify this momentum because, if you can, you should receive an equal and opposite kick. That’s what rocket scientists call propulsion.
Today, Alex Feigel at the Soreq Nuclear Research Center, a government lab in Yavne Israel, suggests an entirely new way to modify the momentum of the quantum vacuum and how this can be exploited to generate propulsion.
The Criminal Trial and Punishment of Animals: A Case Study in Shame and Necessity
Justin E. H. Smith at Academia.edu:
The fact that animals were for a long period of European history tried and punished ascriminals is, to the extent that this is known at all, generally bracketed or dismissed as amere curiosity, a cultural quirk. Yet as a few scholars have understood over the past twocenturies or so, this fact lies at the intersection of a number of fundamental questions of jurisprudence, moral philosophy, philosophical anthropology (particularly the study of ritual and sacrifice, and the relationship between humans and animals), the history of religion and of the emergence of a secular sphere. The idea that animals are suitable for trial and punishment strikes us today as so completely erroneous because our jurisprudence is based on the conviction that in order to be an appropriate target of blameand punishment, a being must be a rational, moral agent. This means in turn that in order for the trial and prosecution of animals to make sense within a given culture, that culturemust be operating either with a very different conception of where the boundaries of suchagency lie, or it must have a very different conception of what it is we are doing when we blame and punish. It is eminently worthwhile moreover to figure out where the differencelies, since in doing so we may hope to gain new insight into the philosophicalcommitments underlying our own conception of agency, or our own understanding of the purpose and justice of punishment, or both.
Best Table Tennis Shots of 2012
Our Brains Weren’t Hardwired To Catch Con Artists
Berit Brogaard in Psychology Today:
It's the second night at the same restaurant. You order the Chilean cabernet. It's reasonably priced at $32. The waiter disappears and after what seems to be hours he comes back with a different Chilean wine—not one on the wine list. "We are out of the Chilean cabernet," he says and decisively places the new bottle on the table. "But I can give you this exclusive Chilean blend for only $7 more. It’s an excellent bottle." As if in a trance you quietly nod in agreement. The con artist opens and pours. Déjà vu! Except last time it was a French Syrah. This time you and your partner agreed you wouldn't spend more than around $30 on wine, yet once again you ended up with a bottle closer to $40. Sales trick or not, it’s plainly obvious that you bought right into it.
You walk into a computer store intending to purchase one of those teensy $300 notebooks for your teen daughter but walk out with a $2,300 MacBook Air. It didn't feel like a spur-of-the-moment buy. Somewhere along the way your intentions shifted, and at the time you actually thought it was a brilliant idea to reach into your pocket for an additional $2,000. You are not quite sure how it happened, and now it’s too late.
Men and Women Can't Be "Just Friends"
From Scientific American:
Can heterosexual men and women ever be “just friends”? Few other questions have provoked debates as intense, family dinners as awkward, literature as lurid, or movies as memorable. Still, the question remains unanswered. Daily experience suggests that non-romantic friendships between males and females are not only possible, but common—men and women live, work, and play side-by-side, and generally seem to be able to avoid spontaneously sleeping together. However, the possibility remains that this apparently platonic coexistence is merely a façade, an elaborate dance covering up countless sexual impulses bubbling just beneath the surface.
New research suggests that there may be some truth to this possibility—that we may think we’re capable of being “just friends” with members of the opposite sex, but the opportunity (or perceived opportunity) for “romance” is often lurking just around the corner, waiting to pounce at the most inopportune moment. In order to investigate the viability of truly platonic opposite-sex friendships—a topic that has been explored more on the silver screen than in the science lab—researchers brought 88 pairs of undergraduate opposite-sex friends into…a science lab. Privacy was paramount—for example, imagine the fallout if two friends learned that one—and only one—had unspoken romantic feelings for the other throughout their relationship. In order to ensure honest responses, the researchers not only followed standard protocols regarding anonymity and confidentiality, but also required both friends to agree—verbally, and in front of each other—to refrain from discussing the study, even after they had left the testing facility. These friendship pairs were then separated, and each member of each pair was asked a series of questions related to his or her romantic feelings (or lack thereof) toward the friend with whom they were taking the study.
The results suggest large gender differences in how men and women experience opposite-sex friendships. Men were much more attracted to their female friends than vice versa.
Person of the Year 2012 Runner-Up: Malala Yousafzai, the Fighter
From Time Magazine:
Ayesha Mir didn’t go to school on Tuesday, Nov. 27, the day after a security guard found a shrapnel-packed bomb under her family’s car. The 17-year-old Pakistani girl assumed, as did most people who learned about the bomb, that it was intended for her father, the television news presenter Hamid Mir, who often takes on the Taliban in his nightly news broadcasts. Traumatized by the near miss, Ayesha spent most of the day curled up in a corner of her couch, unsure whom to be angrier with: the would-be assassins or her father for putting himself in danger. She desperately wanted someone to help her make sense of things. At around 10:30 p.m., she got her wish. Ayesha’s father had just come home from work, and he handed her his BlackBerry. “She wants to speak to you,” he said. The voice on the phone was weak and cracked, but it still carried the confidence that Ayesha and millions of other Pakistanis had come to know through several high-profile speeches and TV appearances.
“This is Malala,” said the girl on the other end of the line. Malala Yousafzai, 15, was calling from the hospital in Birmingham, England, where under heavy guard she has been undergoing treatment since Oct. 16. “I understand that what happened was tragic, but you need to stay strong,” Malala told Ayesha. “You cannot give up.” It was one of the few times Malala had called anyone in Pakistan since she was flown to England for specialized medical treatment after a Taliban assassin climbed onto her school bus, called out for her by name and shot her in the head on Oct. 9. Her brain is protected by a titanium plate that replaced a section of her skull removed to allow for swelling. But she spoke rapidly to the older girl in Urdu, encouraging her to stand up for her father even if doing so brought risks. As an outspoken champion of girls’ right to an education, Malala knew all about risk — and fear and consequences — when it comes to taking on the Taliban. “The way she spoke was so inspirational,” Ayesha says. “She made me realize that my father was fighting our enemies and that it was something I should be proud of, not afraid.” The next day Ayesha returned to school. And with that call, Malala began to return to what she seems born to do — passing her courage on to others.
Marriage is not
a house or even a tent
it is before that, and colder:
The edge of the forest, the edge
of the desert
the unpainted stairs
at the back where we squat
outside, eating popcorn
where painfully and with wonder
at having survived even
we are learning to make fire
by Margaret Atwood
Saturday, December 29, 2012
Debating ‘Django Unchained’
First, Hillary Crosley in The Root:
As all of the Django Unchained reviews hit the Internet, I'm sure plenty of African Americans will list why they hate Quentin Tarantino's new film about a slave's journey for revenge -- but not me. A friend and I recently attended a screening for the film, which opens on Christmas Day, followed by an awkward question-and-answer session with the director. We were two of perhaps 10 black people in the theater -- that's what makes what happened next so awkward.
In the film, Django (Jamie Foxx) is purchased by Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a German dentist-turned-bounty hunter, and the two pair up to collect the bodies and ransoms of outlaws across the South. Because Django is such a natural, Schultz asks him to work with him through the winter in exchange for his help finding the former slave's wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), who was sold to a different plantation. The search for Hildy leads the duo to the plantation of Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) -- which he shares with his head house slave, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) -- and bloody drama ensues.
Then, Ishmael Reed over at the WSJ's Speakeasy:
Also at The Root, Henry Louis Gates has a 3 part interview with Quentin Tarantino.
I had a pretty good idea of where “Django Unchained” was going from the first credit. It went to the Weinstein Company. The Weinstein Company once fought a legal battle (settled out of court) over the right to distribute “Precious,” which is, in my opinion, the worst film ever made about black life. The company’s name in the credits for “Django” also meant that the movie was aimed at a mainstream audience.
Though German, the bounty hunter character played by German-Austrian actor Christoph Waltz seemed to speak with a British accent, which is all the rage in the media, though I need subtitles to understand what Piers Morgan is saying half the time. The German dentist dazzles the screen with his eloquent talk and vocabulary and puts together constructions like “shan’t.” I would loved to have been present at the marketing meetings about this movie. The cynicism must have been as thick as cigar smoke.
Montana Monadology: Louis Riel in Exile
Justin E. H. Smith in his own blog:
If you are half-learned in philosophy and prone to dissociative mental disorders, you might wish to reconsider your plan to retreat to a cabin in Montana. It's been tried before, probably more times than you know.
Ted Kaczynski tied for top, at 98.9 percent, in the logic course he took at Harvard with W. V. O. Quine, though he left no lasting impression on the professor. And anarcho-primitivism is in the end --is it not?-- a sort of application of the law of the excluded middle: it's either the earth or us. It is somewhat more difficult to trace the Montana manifestos of the Canadian Métis resistance fighter Louis Riel back to his philosophical education at the Sulpician College of Montreal in the 1850s, but as with the Unabomber after him we can be certain that there were decades-old classroom lectures ringing in his head, in the silence of his cabin, as he set about putting his thoughts to paper.
Riel was in exile in the Montana Territory, having ducked across the border in the aftermath of the 1870 Red River rebellion in Manitoba. He was of Franco-Ojibwa ancestry, and a Métis: a label non-Canadians know better in its Spanish rendering, 'mestizo', yet one that has its own distinctive meaning in the Canadian context. During the rebellion he had ordered the execution of the Orangeman Thomas Scott, in order, it is speculated, to send Canada a little message about who was in charge out on the Prairie. Riel began to imagine himself the divinely chosen leader of all Métis, and took on the biblical name of ‘David’.
Nilanjana Roy over at her website:
That girl, the one without the name. The one just like us. The one whose battered body stood for all the anonymous women in this country whose rapes and deaths are a footnote in the left-hand column of the newspaper.
Sometimes, when we talk about the history of women in India, we speak in shorthand. The Mathura rape case. The Vishaka guidelines. The Bhanwari Devi case, the Suryanelli affair, the Soni Sori allegations, the business at Kunan Pushpora. Each of these, the names of women and places, mapping a geography of pain; unspeakable damage inflicted on women’s bodies, on the map of India, where you can, if you want, create a constantly updating map of violence against women.
For some, amnesia becomes a way of self-defence: there is only so much darkness you can swallow. They turn away from all the places that have become shorthand for violence beyond measure, preferring not to know about Kashmir or the outrages in Chattisgarh, choosing to forget the Bombay New Year assault, trying not to remember the deaths of a Pallavi Purkayastha, a Thangjam Manorama, Surekha and Priyanka Bhotmange, the mass rapes that marked the riots in Gujarat. Even for those who stay in touch, it isn’t possible for your empathy to keep abreast with the scale of male violence against women in India: who can follow all of the one-paragraph, three-line cases? The three-year-old raped before she can speak, the teenager assaulted by an uncle, the 65-year-old raped as closure to a property dispute, the slum householder raped and violently assaulted on her way to the bathroom. After a while, even memory hardens.
In another essay, Sæterbakken writes, “We are never fully and completely ourselves because our lacks, our weaknesses, and our fears make up an essential dimension within us.” As evidenced in Andreas Feldt, Sæterbakken believes that our wounds are essential to who we are, as individuals and as a collective, and should not be avoided, or even healed; in fact, they are often meant to stay open so we can remain sensitive to our surroundings. “Melancholia satisfies us by preventing us from reaching satisfaction,” he writes, “it calms us by keeping our anxiety alive, it gives us peace by prolonging the state of emergency that answers to the name Humankind.” For Sæterbakken, even art cannot offer salvation or fulfillment. On the contrary, it reminds us “of the nothingness we know awaits us,” but in this reminder of absolute denial of life we find confirmation of our existence. If we cannot experience the silence of death, which is without music, literature, or sensation, in life, then we must seek out and experience art which draws attention to the paradox of existing as a being incapable of becoming fully aware of itself and its potential. This is the art Sæterbakken offers us.more from at The Quarterly Conversation here.
the joy of comfort
Comfort once contended that bloody-mindedness was the greatest human virtue. It was certainly the virtue by which he lived, and the reason he was able to pursue his parallel careers in literature and medicine. In 1935 he blew the fingers off his left hand while making fireworks to celebrate the Silver Jubilee of George V. His aunt, assuming that he would remain a lifelong invalid, wrote him a cheque for £50. His response was to go to South America and compose a travelogue called The Silver River. In the preface he wrote: "I do not believe the fable that men read travel books to escape from reality: they read to escape into it, from a crazy wonderland of armaments, cant, political speeches at once insincere and illiterate, propaganda, and social injustice which the lunacy of humanity has constructed over a period of years." When it was published, Alex Comfort was 18.more from Matthew Sweet at The Guardian here.
the romantic scientist
Although Sacks tells the reader he will concentrate on “ ‘organic’ psychoses — the transient psychoses sometimes associated with delirium, epilepsy, drug use and certain medical conditions,” he includes a chapter, “On the Threshold of Sleep,” that treats hypnagogic hallucinations, the vivid imagery many people see before they fall asleep, and another, “The Haunted Mind,” which describes bereavement and traumatic hallucinations that would be classified as psychiatric not neurological phenomena. As Sacks knows, separating the physiological from the psychological is a philosophical conundrum that continues to plague both science and philosophy. But one of the pleasures of reading “Hallucinations” is understanding how complex human reality often trumps attempts to categorize it. As the 19th-century neurologist Jean Martin Charcot once remarked (and Freud recorded): “Theory is good, but it doesn’t prevent things from existing.”more from Siri Hustvedt at the NY Times here.
Like Math? Thank Your Motivation, Not IQ
From Scientific American:
Looks like Tiger Mom had it half-right: Motivation to work hard and good study techniques, not IQ, lead to better math skills, a new study shows. But there's a catch: The findings, published this month in the journal Child Development, show that keeping children's heads in the math books by force probably won't help. The analysis of more than 3,500 German children found those who started out solidly in the middle of the pack in 5th grade could jump to the 63rd percentile by 8th grade if they were very motivated and used effective learning strategies, said lead author Kou Murayama, a psychology researcher at the University of California Los Angeles. "The growth in math achievement was predicted by motivation and learning strategies," Murayama told LiveScience. "Given that IQ did not show this kind of effect, we think this is impressive."
From The New York Times:
There’s a touching paradox in the first chapter of Jami Attenberg’s caustic, entertaining and bighearted new novel, “The Middlesteins.” Edie, 5 years old and 62 pounds, is already too solid, in her mother’s estimation, too big for her age. But how can her mother not feed her, when she and her husband feel that food is “made of love, and love . . . made of food”? How can these parents deny Edie life-giving nourishment when Edie’s father, a Jewish immigrant from Ukraine, nearly starved on his journey to Chicago and has never been able to get enough to eat since? Even though it’s clear that young Edie suffers under her own weight — she huffs and puffs up the stairs “like someone’s gassy old uncle after a meal” — her mother can’t refuse her the liverwurst and rye bread she loves. This is a Jewish mother after all, and those of us who’ve had one know that the message, when it comes to food, is always have a little more. It’s an attitude that comes not just from love, but also from fear; a history fraught with disaster and hunger gives rise to the feeling that one must always be prepared. Therefore, bubbeleh, have another matzo ball.
Food keeps us alive, yes. But it can also kill us. That subject has become a cultural obsession, inciting cautionary documentaries (HBO’s “Weight of the Nation” series), reality TV shows (“The Biggest Loser” and “Dance Your Ass Off”), large-scale civic regulations (New York’s banning of trans fats and oversize sugary drinks), and, at the White House, an enormous kitchen garden carved from the first lawn, along with a book (Michelle Obama’s “American Grown”) and a presidential call for action to improve America’s eating habits. This novel takes the issue personally: Edie Middlestein, the novel’s larger-than-life protagonist, is killing herself by overeating, and her family can’t bear to watch.
At 60 years old or so, Edie weighs in at more than 300 pounds and suffers from diabetes so severe she requires stents in both legs.
—Three poems by Manash Bhattacharjee in rememberance
of Ghalib's 215th birthday (December 27th)
At Ghalib’s Tomb -1
Look how death forges
New ties and
Throws old ones asunder.
Asadullah lies a few yards
While Bahadur Shah sleeps
In another country.
At Ghalib’s Tomb -2
Your pleas for a poet’s dues went unrequited
Now admirers bribe to enter your tomb.
You drank endless clouds and moonlights
But no one is allowed to toast where you lie.
Your kafir heart swayed between Kaaba and Kaleesa
A disinterested butcher now overlooks your grave.
Children feed liver to the hawks who visit you
Together they pay oblivious tributes to your guts.
You longed to purify existence contemplating the Ganga
Beggars about your tomb sleep careless of flies.
You lit the empire’s dying lamp before a new darkness fell
It hurt you when old virtues were sold to shopkeepers.
Your couplet suddenly wafts like incense through the bazaar
Your heart was always heavier than your eloquence
Your grave is the final irony of your ironies
Your bones erode time and your words breathe the world.
Ghalib & Others
Tagore bled sorrows and named it heart
Your heart spilled into tears you called blood
Mir felt blood from the eyes isn’t tears
You said blood spoke inmost as tears
Mir lost himself upon her and waited to return
You never found the place where you lost her
Dehlvi risked the ruses of hope and named it waiting
You knew waiting was a trick to forget death
Darwish was a peeler awaiting a caress in clouds
You were flames waiting to be extinguished by dawn
Rilke lost her even before he could draw her near
You hid her behind curtains and gave yourself no peace
Khusrau hugged love’s fire by drowning in its waters
You hid the fire in your eyes and trembled like dews
Rumi was liquid glass broken by the beloved’s touch
You were the wine haunted by her infidel ripples
Friday, December 28, 2012
The Delhi Gang Rape and Ensuing Protests ... a Missive from India by Anuradha Roy
I came back to Delhi from travels elsewhere on Christmas eve. The roads were windswept and foggy and, unusually for any Indian city, almost deserted. Through a drive of about 20 kilometres, there was not a single pedestrian for long stretches. There were fewer than usual cars, hardly any auto rickshaws. Enormous state transport buses sailed past with no occupants other than the driver and conductor.
In response to the brutal gang rape in Delhi on 16th December of a young student, the state had taken several steps, the results of which I was witnessing from the window of my taxi from the airport: the Delhi metro, by which an average of about 1.8 million people travel every day, had been shut down; the state had cordoned off the entire central vista of Delhi where the protesters had been attacked the day before by the police, with water cannon (in freezing December weather), tear gas and batons. It had also set in force something called Section 144, which makes it punishable for more than five people to gather anywhere.
Gandhi described British colonial rule over India as ‘satanic’. It is hard to find any other word to describe the way India is ruled now.
The daily violence against women in India is nauseating enough but people are yet more livid because of the state’s routine indifference to it.
Sunday Rumpus Interview with Erika Rae
Donna Johnson interviews Erika Rae, author of Devangelical, in Rumpus:
Rumpus: I find it interesting that modern Evangelicals discuss “how far to go.” The religious milieu I came from, the Holiness tent revival movement, said don’t do it, period. Cut off your hands, tongue, and any other offending member…but don’t do it. What was never mentioned was that everyone was doing it, especially the preachers. Your church was more modern in its approach. As you put it in the book, you were trying to be “hot for God, not for each other,” and even go so far as to suggest that one of the church youth group’s main functions was to provide an alternative to sex. How did that work out for you?
Rae: Our denomination had branched off the Holiness movement, too, but was definitely a bit more integrated into modern culture than what I remember reading about your group in your book, Holy Ghost Girl. (It still blows me away how you managed to actually leave that!) One guest preacher we had at our university actually made cards up for us, color-coded for each base level (and a few in between) like a Homeland Security warning system. Hand-holding was next to green on one end of the spectrum, and intercourse was next to red on the other. “Heavy petting” was somewhere in the yellow-orange level and oral sex was right next to intercourse, of course, and was a bright blood orange. There were then dotted lines between the major color changes to show you, beyond a shadow of a doubt, which color progressions were like a middle finger in God’s face. Those cards were very helpful, of course. I am just sure college students were pulling them out while parked in the backs of their old beaters overlooking the city and checking them for reference.
The church I grew up in attempted to prolong these desires until marriage by refocusing our attention onto a radical relationship with Jesus, our “groom.” Other churches encourage teenage girls to pledge their purity to God and to their daddies. But while people may be able to resist inserting plug into socket, there are plenty of loopholes.
How The Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas And The Israeli Right Became Co-Dependents In An Abusive Relationship
Over at the BBC's Save Your Kisses for Me blog, Adam Curtis makes the case:
In May 1960 a group of Mossad agents kidnapped Adolf Eichmann in Argentina. They drugged him and flew him to Israel on an El Al plane disguised as a member of the plane's crew.The kidnapping was a world-wide sensation because Eichmann had been one of the main organisers of the Final Solution - the mass extermination of the Jews.
A year later the Israelis put Eichmann on trial in Jerusalem. He was encased in a bulletproof glass booth - and it became a powerful image of this terrifying figure who had organised the Holocaust sitting on show in the midst of the new state of Israel.
A number of historians have argued that Eichmann's trial created an enormous shock to Israeli society because for the fifteen years after the second world war no one in Israel - or in the Jewish communities in America - really talked about the Holocaust. It was if it was forgotten and wiped.
Hundreds of thousand of survivors from the death camps came to Israel, but the mood among them was to look towards the future - turning their faces towards a better future promised by the Zionist dream, and trying to forget the horrors of the past.
Above all they didn't want to be seen as victims in an optimistic age. The leader of the American Jewish Committee wrote that
"Jewish organizations should avoid representing the Jew as weak, victimized and suffering" Because it reinforced "long ingrained stereotypes - the hunted wanderer, inured to universal hatred and contempt"
Other historians have challenged this argument - and it can quickly lead into the dead end of arguments about how the memory of the Holocaust has been used and abused.
But I have found a really interesting film shot in Israel in 1961 during the Eichmann trial. It asks ordinary Israelis - including some on a kibbutz - what they feel about Eichmann and his effect on their world. Some approve - but the majority feeling is that this should have been forgotten - and is doing real harm to the new country of Israel.
One woman who speaks very powerfully finishes - "I would be happy if he had never entered this country"
But that was only the beginning of the terrible corrosive effect Eichmann was going to have not just on Israeli optimism about their society - but on the whole western liberal belief that human beings could be transformed for the better.
Kracauer was all that and more
Kracauer published his magnum opus, Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality, in 1960. This speculative treatise on “the intrinsic nature of photographic film” was respectfully received, at least initially; it was written up in The New York Times by both the paper’s Hollywood business reporter, Murray Schumach, and its lead critic, Bosley Crowther. The latter would subsequently cite one of Kracauer’s most flavorsome passages on the photographic qualities of the street (“the arena of fleeting impressions and chance encounters”) in writing about the use of Paris as a location in nouvelle vague films. Theory of Film was not, however, universally acclaimed. Novelist and former film critic Wallace Markfield pilloried Kracauer (and Tyler) in Commentary, once Kracauer’s prime venue, and it is fair to say that Kracauer’s reputation never quite recovered from Pauline Kael’s populist takedown, “Is There a Cure for Film Criticism?”, published in the British film journal Sight and Sound in 1962, a year before her celebrated attack in Film Quarterly on auteurism and Andrew Sarris.more from J. Hoberman at The Nation here.
the days of digest
In a meeting between President Ronald Reagan and Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, when the friends were both in high office, the president asked Mulroney, “Brian, did you read that article in the Reader’s Digest that trees cause pollution?” Mulroney was exasperated. “I knew him and liked him well enough that I didn’t get into an argument. I just said, ‘I gave up reading Reader’s Digest, Ron,’” he later told a journalist. Reagan was a lifetime reader of the Digest. He once used an article from the magazine to slur the nuclear freeze movement as being comprised partly of Soviet agents. It was terrifying to contemplate the most powerful man in the world getting foreign policy ideas from a pocket-sized general-interest family magazine, but Reagan was not alone. For decades, Reader’s Digest was the primary source of information and opinions about international affairs for tens of millions of Americans. The magazine did not just run any articles about foreign policy, however; the Digest had a clear right-wing perspective, which had a tremendous, though often ignored, influence during the Cold War.more from Jordan Michael Smith at Dissent here.