Monday, March 31, 2014
Billiards, Chaos, and the 2014 Abel Prize
by Jonathan Kujawa
On March 26th it was announced that Yakov Sinai, a mathematician at Princeton University and the Landau Institute for Theoretical Physics, had won the 2014 Abel Prize. The Abel prize was established in 2001 by the government of Norway and was first given 2003. Unlike the more famous Fields Medal, which (in)famously can only be granted to those under the age of forty, the Abel prize recognizes an individual for the breadth and depth of their entire career. It has quickly become the highest award one can earn in mathematics. Indeed, the list of prizewinners over the past ten years reads like a who's who of influential mathematicians.
Dr. Sinai won the prize "for his fundamental contributions to dynamical systems, ergodic theory, and mathematical physics". Fortunately, I'm completely unqualified to tell you about Dr. Sinai's work. I say fortunately because Jordan Ellenberg already does an excellent job explaining Dr. Sinai's work in layman's terms as part of the announcement of the winner. You can watch the video here. Dr. Ellenberg gives a very nice twenty-minute overview of Dr. Sinai's work starting at the nine minute mark. Highly recommended!
I also say fortunately because it gives me the excuse to tell you about some cool math. A big part of Dr. Sinai's work is in the area of "Dynamical Systems." This is a rare case where the name of a mathematical discipline actually tells you what the field is all about. Simply put, researchers in dynamical systems are interested in studying how a given system changes over time. The artist Tristan Perich explores the same territory by examining the upredictable dynamics of using computer code to draw in an unsheltered environment.
This is the sort of math you would be interested in if you want to model and predict the weather, the climate, the stock market, the reaction in the combustion chamber of an engine or in a nuclear explosion, etc. Of course these are all wildly difficult problems. Even with all our modern computing power it's hard to make progress. So here we'll instead think about much, much simpler examples which still exhibit some of the same interesting phenomena.
A boring first example is the second hand on a clock. As each second ticks by the second hand turns another one-sixtieth of the way around the clock face. This system is completely deterministic: if I know where it is now, then I know its entire past and future .
This is the clockwork universe of Newtonian physics. If we knew the location, velocity, etc., of every particle in the universe at a given moment, then we could calculate the past and future with perfect accuracy. As it doesn't leave room for independent actions, the prospect of a clockwork universe is equally alarming to religious and free-will types. Indeed, Newton himself rejected such a simplistic view of the universe :
The six primary Planets are revolv'd about the Sun, in circles concentric with the Sun, and with motions directed towards the same parts, and almost in the same plane.... But it is not to be conceived that mere mechanical causes could give birth to so many regular motions.... This most beautiful System of the Sun,
Planets, and Comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being.
-- Newton in Principia Mathematica
But the universe is much more interesting than a clock. A dynamical system is chaotic if slight variations at the start evolve into dramatic differences in the future. Many real world systems are highly chaotic. A bit of sun in Texas in August may result in more snow in Chicago in February. If you drop a small bead in glass of carbonated water it will be jostled along a complicated path. That path would have been completely different if you dropped the bead a moment later or into a slightly different place in the glass.
One of Dr. Sinai's early accomplishments was his work with Andrey Kolmogorov where they introduced entropy, a precise way to measure where a dynamical system lies on the continuum between deterministic and chaotic.
It turns out that chaos can happen in even seemingly simple dynamical systems. One place to find such systems is when you have a mathematical rule which uses numbers for both inputs and outputs. Like a snake eating its own tail, you can study what happens if you iterate the rule over and over. That is, you plug in an initial input and then whatever output you get is used as your next input, and the output you get from that is your next input, and so on. What happens if you do this over and over for hundreds or thousands of iterations?
A boring example would be the rule which squares each number. Starting with 2 you get 4, 16, 256, 65,356,.... Nothing too exciting happens. And if you start with a nearby number, say 2.1, then the sequence of numbers you get remains predictably close to 2's sequence. But a slight variation of this where instead you square and add a constant is a classic example of a chaotic dynamical system. When you color each starting input by how quickly the sequence grows you get the Mandelbrot Set. The infinite complexity you see as you zoom in along the edges is a nothing but the fact that even very close points can have dramatically divergent behavior as you iterate.
Another natural question to ask of a dynamical system is: if you let it run long enough, does it ever repeat itself? This is another way to measure the system's predictability. Our clock's second hand repeats itself once a minute like, well, clockwork. For something like the weather it's unlikely to the point of impossibility that it will ever repeat itself. But again we can look for examples between these two extremes.
The famous Collatz conjecture is just such a dynamical system. The rule is quite simple. Start with a natural number (i.e., one of the counting numbers: 1,2,3,4,...). If it's even, divide by two. If it's odd, multiple by three and add one. Repeat over and over again and see what happens. Let's say we start with 5. Since it's odd we triple and add one, getting 16. Which is even, so we divide by two, getting 8. Continuing in this way we get 5,16,8,4,2,1,4,2,1,4,2,1,.... Notice that in this example we eventually obtained 1 and found ourselves trapped in the closed loop of 4,2,1. A closed loop like this in a dynamical system is also called a periodic orbit.
Lothar Collatz conjectured in 1937 that if you start with any natural number, then iterating his rule often enough inevitably leads to 1 and, hence, the closed loop. That is, every starting number leads to a periodic orbit. It's rather addictive to pick numbers and start iterating to see if and when you finally get to 1. You can do this by hand or use one of the online Collatz calculators. People have used computers to verify Collatz's conjecture for every number up to five quintillion! But, of course, that still leaves infinitely many numbers. Indeed, it's an open question if all numbers lead to 1. Paul Erdos is said to have once said that "Mathematics is not yet ripe for such problems."
Lastly, I have to mention dynamical billiards. A bead bobbing about in soda water is an extremely complicated system. Instead of thinking about all those molecules pushing to and fro, we can instead consider a simplified scenario which is somewhat similar . We will instead think about the two-dimensional surface of a billiard table and a single billiard ball. What happens if we give the ball an initial trajectory and watch as it bounces from wall to wall indefinitely ? This is a very simplified model of molecules smashing about in a soda glass, or atoms in a nuclear reaction, or other similar systems.
Once again we find ourselves in a situation where things are simple enough that we can make progress in understanding them but complicated enough to see interesting phenomena. It is known that on a circular or square table everything is determined by the angle of the first bounce of the ball against a wall. If that first angle is a rational multiple of pi radians, then the path of the ball is periodic. It will travel around in a closed path and it's not hard to calculate the path. But if the first angle is an irrational multiple of pi, then the path will never repeat itself. In fact, the ball's path eventually covers the entire billiard table in that given any point on the edge, if you wait long enough the ball will strike as close as you like to that point!
But even with a single ball on a billiard table there is much we don't know. For example, it's known that every billiard table which is an acute triangle (i.e., one in which all three angles are less than 90 degrees) has a starting trajectory which gives a periodic orbit. But this is unknown for other triangular billiard tables. The current state of the art is work by Richard Schwartz which shows that every triangle which has no angles larger than 100 degrees has a starting trajectory which leads to a periodic orbit. But what about a triangle with largest angle 103 degrees? So far nobody knows! Dr. Schwarz has a Java applet on his webpage called McBilliards which lets you play billiards on a triangular table.
Another famous example in this theory is the Bunimovich stadium. Leonid Bunimovich (a student of Sinai) showed that even on the uncomplicated billiard table shaped like a stadium you have chaotic paths. Balls which start nearby with similar trajectories can have widely divergent paths. Dr. Sinai also worked in this part of dynamical systems. In fact, the square billiard table with a circular obstruction in the center is now called the Sinai billiard table.
Lest you think Dr. Sinai received the Abel prize for such simple games, I should be sure to mention that of course he also worked with much more realistic and challenging dynamical systems. But even in these small examples we see it's an amazingly rich and interesting field.
 We are, of course, ignoring friction and all other unpleasantries of the real world.
 One of the arts of mathematics is finding the sweet spot between problems which are so simple as to be boring and so hard we cannot make any progress on them.
Are women too emotional to be effective leaders?
by Quinn O'Neill
It is a widely held view that women are more emotional than men, and some argue that this makes them unsuitable for positions that demand important, cool-headed decision making. The argument often rears its head in discussions about women in politics - particularly as prospective presidents - and I've heard it asserted by both males and females.
The claim that women are more emotional should immediately raise the question of what we mean by emotional. Perhaps we're referring to the intensity at which one experiences an emotion. It's quite possible that women do feel emotion more intensely but this would be difficult to establish with certainty. Emotions are subjective in nature, as are individuals' ratings of the their intensity. Would two people experiencing the same emotion at the same intensity necessarily rate it similarly? It's hard to say.
Alternatively, we might equate emotionality with emotional demonstrativeness. In this sense, a person crying at a sad movie would be deemed more emotional than his or her dry-eyed companion, even if both are feeling equally sad. In this context, one might guess that women are indeed more emotional than men. It seems to me, at least, that they are more likely to cry when watching a sad movie, and more likely to cry in public for other reasons as well. It's important to consider, however, that social norms and expectations differ for men and women when it comes to crying, with it generally being more acceptable for females. If crying were equally acceptable for both sexes, would women still cry more often? Maybe. Maybe not.
It may also be the case that media portrayals of men and women distort our views on gender and crying. In the political domain, Hillary Clinton's tears seemed to garner a lot more media attention - particularly of the negative variety - than those of George Bush junior or senior, Barack Obama, or Joe Biden. Jessica Wakeman, writing for FAIR, detailed the sexist media portrayal of Clinton's emotional display.
Whether we equate emotionality with the intensity of the experience or with demonstrativeness, there's a wide array of emotions to consider aside from sadness. What about anger? When angry, which sex is more likely to punch walls or other people? The vast majority of violent crime is committed by men, and while all incidents may not result from emotions getting the upper hand, I'd guess that a large proportion does. Violent crime certainly isn't the result of the kind of rational, level-headed decision-making we expect of good leaders.
And what about other emotions, like happiness, jealousy, fear, sadness, disgust, and shame? If we're going to make a blanket statement like "women are more emotional than men" or "women are too emotional to lead", should we not consider these too? By "emotional", are we referring to all emotions or just to some? Are women too happy to lead? Too prone to disgust? Too fearful?
It isn't really clear how the intensity of emotional experience or emotional demonstrativeness might impair leadership. What might be problematic, however, is a tendency to let one's emotions influence decision-making. This doesn't mean, of course, that there's no place for empathy and consideration of others' feelings when making important decisions, but that the decisions should be made carefully, in a well-reasoned manner, and with consideration of all of the facts at hand. We might ask then, which gender is more likely to allow emotion to cloud judgement and to influence behavior? Gender differences in this respect are similarly difficult to assess.
Violent and destructive responses to anger would seem more suggestive of unsuitability for leadership than crying at a sad movie, but I wouldn't argue on this basis for exclusive leadership by one sex. There are too many emotions to consider, too many different contexts with different gender norms and expectations, and too much variability among individuals of a given gender.
Even if we define emotionality as a tendency to allow emotion to influence judgment, it's only one of many factors we might consider in suitability for leadership, and arguably not one of the more important ones. Leadership itself is complex, and comes in a variety of styles. Forbes outlined 10 specific qualities that make a great leader: honesty, ability to delegate, communication, sense of humor, confidence, commitment, and ability to inspire. A CNN piece offered 23, including focus, respect, passion, persuasion abilities, compassion, and integrity, among others. None of these qualities require that one refrain from feeling or showing emotion. In fact, some might benefit from greater emotional savvy. Communication, passion, persuasiveness, and compassion, for example, would be enhanced by an ability to understand and engage others emotionally. So, depending on how we define emotionality, it could be an asset in leadership.
Many of these attributes are relatively rare, and rarer still in combination. Take communication, for example. Most of us can communicate basic ideas and information in everyday settings, but the ability to speak effectively in front of large audiences in high pressure circumstances is much less common. To speak confidently and passionately and persuasively and inspirationally in front of thousands of people is a rarer skill set still, and it doesn't come as a package deal with a Y chromosome and a penis. An array of attributes suitable for effective leadership occurs in a minority of members of any gender.
Emotionality aside, evidence abounds that women can be effective leaders. In their ranking of the world's 50 greatest leaders, Fortune included quite a few females, like Angela Merkel, Aung San Suu Kyi, Christine Lagarde, Maria Klawe, Mary Robinson, Ellen Kullman, Susan Wojcicki, Arati Prabhakar, Juliana Rotich, and Gail Kelly. Some women, at least, can be effective leaders.
A study recently published in the Journal of International Affairs suggested that female leadership may be advantageous in some conditions. The authors found that, in ethnically diverse countries, female leaders outperform their male counterparts in growing the gross domestic product, a measure of national economic progress. On average, having a female leader was associated with a 6% higher GDP growth rate than having a male leader.
A separate study described at the Harvard Business Review and MIT News found that teams perform better when they include more women. Author Thomas Malone commented: "The standard argument is that diversity is good and you should have both men and women in a group. But so far, the data show, the more women, the better." Coauthor Anita Woolley added, "We have early evidence that performance may flatten out at the extreme end—that there should be a little gender diversity rather than all women."
Not only is female gender not incompatible with effective leadership, it appears that female representation may be advantageous. It should concern us then that Western countries have relatively low female representation in government. Out of 189 countries, the US ranks 83rd, with women comprising less than 20% of government. The UK is ranked 64th and Canada is 54th. Myths and stereotypes about females in leadership may contribute to this imbalanced representation and prevent government from functioning optimally.
The claim that women are too emotional to be effective leaders is beyond absurd when we consider the vast array of human emotions and gender-specific social norms that dictate how we express them, the multitude of qualities of effective leaders, the variation among individuals within a single gender, and the abundance of evidence for the ability of women to lead effectively. It is a worse-than-baseless generalization that may ultimately handicap our leadership. Such claims should make us angry - and not because we're "emotional" or because we belong to a particular gender, but because we're informed, thinking people who care about our country's future.
Sharing Our Sorrow Via Facebook
by Jalees Rehman
Geteiltes Leid ist halbes Leid ("Shared sorrow is half the sorrow") is a popular German proverb which refers to the importance of sharing bad news and troubling experiences with others. The therapeutic process of sharing takes on many different forms: we may take comfort in the fact that others have experienced similar forms of sorrow, we are often reassured by the empathy and encouragement we receive from friends, and even the mere process of narrating the details of what is troubling us can be beneficial. Finding an attentive audience that is willing to listen to our troubles is not always easy. In a highly mobile, globalized world, some of our best friends may be located thousands of kilometers away, unable to meet face-to-face. The omnipresence of social media networks may provide a solution. We are now able to stay in touch with hundreds of friends and family members, and commiserate with them. But are people as receptive to sorrow shared via Facebook as they are in face-to-face contacts?
A team of researchers headed by Dr. Andrew High at the University of Iowa recently investigated this question and published their findings in the article "Misery rarely gets company: The influence of emotional bandwidth on supportive communication on Facebook". The researchers created three distinct Facebook profiles of a fictitious person named Sara Thomas who had just experienced a break-up. The three profiles were identical in all respects except for how much information was conveyed about the recent (fictitious) break-up. In their article, High and colleagues use the expression "emotional bandwidth" to describe the extent of emotions conveyed in the Facebook profile.
In the low bandwidth scenario, the profile contained the following status update:
"sad and depressed:("
The medium bandwidth profile included a change in relationship status to "single" in the timeline, in addition to the low bandwidth profile update "sad and depressed:(".
Finally, the high emotional bandwidth profile not only contained the updates of the low and medium bandwidth profiles, but also included a picture of a crying woman (the other two profiles had no photo, just the standard Facebook shadow image).
The researchers then surveyed 84 undergraduate students (enrolled in communications courses, average age 20, 53% female) and presented them with screenshots of one of the three profiles.
They asked the students to imagine that the person in the profile was a member of their Facebook network. After reviewing the assigned profile, each student completed a questionnaire asking about their willingness to provide support for Sara Thomas using a 9-point scale (1 = strongly disagree; 9 = strongly agree). The survey contained questions that evaluated the willingness to provide emotional support (e.g. "Express sorrow or regret for her situation") and network support (e.g. "Connect her with people whom she may turn to for help''). In addition to being queried about their willingness to provide distinct forms of support, the students were also asked about their sense of community engendered by Facebook (e.g., "Facebook makes me feel I am a part of a community'') and their preference for online interactions over face-to-face interactions (e.g., "I prefer communicating with other people online rather than face-to-face'').
High and colleagues hypothesized that the high emotional bandwidth profiles would elicit greater support from the students. In face-to-face interactions, it is quite common for us to provide greater support to a person – friend or stranger – if we see them overtly crying and therefore the researchers' hypothesis was quite reasonable. To their surprise, the researchers found the opposite. The willingness to provide emotional or network support was significantly lower among students who viewed the high emotional bandwidth profile! For example, average emotional support scores were 7.8 among students who saw Sara entering the "sad and depressed:(" update (low bandwidth) but the scores were only 6.5 among students who also saw the image of Sara crying and updating her relationship status to single (high bandwidth). Interestingly, students who preferred online interactions over face-to-face interactions or those who felt that Facebook created a strong sense of community responded positively to the high bandwidth profile.
There are some important limitations of the study. The students were asked to evaluate whether they would provide support to a fictitious person by imagining that she was part of their Facebook friends network. This is a rather artificial situation because actual supportive Facebook interactions occur among people who know each other. It is not easy to envision support for a fictitious person whose profile one sees for the first time. Furthermore, "emotional bandwidth" is a broad concept and it is difficult to draw general conclusions about "emotional bandwidth" from the limited differences between the three profiles. Increasing the sample size of the study subjects as well as creating a broader continuum of emotional bandwidth differences (e.g. including profiles which include pictures of a fictitious Sara Thomas who is not crying, using other status updates, etc.), and also considering scenarios that are not just related to break-ups (e.g. creating profiles of a fictitious grieving person who has lost a loved one) would be useful for an in-depth analysis of "emotional bandwidth".
The study by High and colleagues is an intriguing and important foray into the cyberpsychology of emotional self-disclosure and supportive communication on Facebook. This study raises important questions about how cyberbehavior differs from real world face-to-face behavior, and the even more interesting question of why these behaviors are different. Online interactions omit the dynamic gestures, nuanced intonations and other cues which play a critical role in determining our face-to-face behavior. When we share emotions via Facebook, our communication partners are often spatially and temporally displaced. This allows us to carefully "edit" what we disclose about ourselves, but it also allows our audience to edit their responses, unlike the comparatively spontaneous responses of a person sitting next to us. Facebook invites us to use the "Share" button, but we need to remember that online "sharing" is a sharing between heavily edited and crafted selves that is very different from traditional forms of "sharing".
Acknowledgments: The images from the study profiles were provided by Dr. Andrew High, copyright of the images - Dr. Andrew High.
Reference: Misery rarely gets company: The influence of emotional bandwidth on supportive communication on Facebook, AC High, A Oeldorf-Hirsch, S Bellur, Computers in Human Behavior (2014) 34, 79-88
Laying duality on the world,
cleaving philosophers’ minds,
inspiring theologians to settle scores,
he undoes the unity of chaos
splitting it to bits like chips
to feed the dogs of wars
Reaching down, this buff, man-like self
curiously in his prime
with old head coiffed white
raked by wind gusting furiously
through heaven’s open door,
Urizen bends to scribe a zero with his compass,
leaving nothing out, including all
From his plush but sanguinary perch
He loads the dark with That and This
There and Here, Was and Is, tendering to Man
the dubious consciousness of Bliss,
propping all its characters to fall
by Jim Culleny
Graphic: Ancient of Days, by William Blake
"I beheld till the thrones were cast down, and the Ancient of days did sit, whose garment was white as snow, and the hair of his head like the pure wool: his throne was like the fiery flame, and his wheels as burning fire." —Daniel 7:9
The Rationalist and the Romantic
By Namit Arora
A few weeks ago, the Indian publishing house Navayana released an annotated, "critical edition" of Dr. BR Ambedkar’s classic, Annihilation of Caste (AoC). Written in 1936, AoC was meant to be the keynote address at a conference but was never delivered. Unsettled by the scathing text of the speech and faced by Ambedkar’s refusal to water it down, the caste Hindu organizers of the conference had withdrawn their invitation to speak. Ambedkar, an "untouchable", later self-published AoC and two expanded editions, which included MK Gandhi’s response to it and his own rejoinder.
AoC, as S. Anand points out in his editor’s note, happens to be "one of the most obscure as well as one of the most widely read books in India." The Navayana edition of AoC carries a 164-page introduction by Arundhati Roy, The Doctor and the Saint (read an excerpt). The publisher’s apparent strategy was to harness Roy to raise AoC’s readership among savarna (or caste Hindu) elites to whom it was in fact addressed, but who have largely ignored it for over seven decades, even as countless editions of it in many languages have deeply inspired and empowered generations of Dalits.
However, this new edition has drawn a mixed response. Expressions of praise coexist alongside howls of disapproval and allegations of an ugly politics of power and privilege, co-option and misrepresentation. To many Dalit and a few savarna writers and activists, this Roy-Navayana project—Navayana is a small independent publishing house run by Anand, a Brahmin by birth—is a bitter reminder that no Dalit-led edition of AoC can get such attention in the national media, that gimmicks are still needed in this benighted land to "introduce" AoC and Ambedkar to the savarnas, that once again, caste elites like Roy, with little history of scholarly or other serious engagement with caste (as Anand himself suggested about Roy three years ago), are appropriating AoC and admitting the beloved leader of Dalits into their pantheon on their own terms—all while promoting themselves en route: socially, professionally, and financially (see this open letter to Roy and her reply).
Such responses may seem provincial, hypersensitive, or even paranoid to some, but they should not be brushed aside as such. They point to a universally toxic dynamic of power and knowledge to which savarna elites are so alert and sensitive in colonial, orientalist contexts, yet so blind to its parallels within India, propagated by their own class. Is this because it is easier to see prejudice directed from above at one’s own class, versus the prejudice it doles out below? Especially on a fraught topic like caste, one’s social location shapes how one frames and conducts a debate on annihilating caste, its current state, and the heroes and villains in this fight. The folks at Navayana—a leading English language publisher of anti-caste books, including many by Dalit authors—would surely nod in agreement.
What’s notable in this case is the intensity of disapproval—and how it blindsided Navayana—even before many of the protesting Dalits, men as well as women, had read Roy’s full introduction. It was clear that in their estimation, Roy simply had not earned the stripes to be the sole introducer of a "critical edition" of AoC. Or perhaps, having read the excerpt and her interview, many Ambedkarites did not like what they saw as Roy’s facile and unjustified account of Ambedkar’s weaknesses, as in his views on modernity, urbanization, and Adivasis. A legitimate fear is that this edition of AoC, given Roy’s brand, might become the dominant interpretation of the text and its author. Would it not have been more prudent and honorable for Navayana to have also included in this book other "introductions" by Dalits who have engaged the longest with AoC and relate to it differently? Or to publish Roy’s essay as a standalone book? Only time will tell how this project impacts anti-caste struggles and academia’s output in India and abroad. Meanwhile to Anand, a self-described "Ambedkar zealot" who sees himself as a radical champion of the Dalit cause and who I believe published this edition in that spirit, this turn of events—with many Dalit friends and activists questioning his agenda and lumping him with caste Hindus he has ridiculed before—must feel like a sad and painful desertion.
However, it is worth remembering that Roy’s introduction is also a subjective response of a writer to a text that clearly moved her. How good is her introduction, separate from the dubious politics and prudence of its pairing with AoC? Like all living classics, AoC too requires new readings in every age, including of celebrity writers relatively new to Ambedkar, as Roy evidently is. Just as W.E.B. DuBois can teach white folks what it means to be white better than any white person, Ambedkar serves a parallel role for upper-caste folks. That the upper castes will relate to him differently than Dalits do is a truism that should not surprise anyone. And if this "King of the Ghetto"—a status that Roy alleges history has forced on him—is to be appreciated more widely and accorded a richly deserved global stature, he will have to be read and analyzed by non-Dalits. In time, perhaps a big director like Richard Attenborough will even make a big film about him. Non-Indian and savarna writers may be late but they too are entitled to make him their own as they see fit. Others, in turn, are entitled to critique such efforts, as many Dalits and non-Dalits have done with Roy, especially on the website Round Table India, on the YouTube channel Dalit Camera, and in offline forums on university campuses. They have pointed out flaws of logic and empathy, and tried to show how a writer’s analysis and assessments are shaped by her identity, ideology, and privilege. They have argued that this project is an attempt by caste elites to ‘appropriate’ Ambedkar, rather than the laudable sort of cross-fertilization in which the ideas of radical thinkers traverse social boundaries to find homes in new hearts and minds (fortunately, the Internet can now enable more democratic resistance to hegemonic narratives and appropriation). In what follows, I offer my own response to Roy’s introduction and reflect on the portrait of Ambedkar I see in it—an exercise shaped no doubt by my own identity, ideology, and privilege.
Roy’s strategy in her introduction is to first lower Gandhi from the high perch of reverence he still commands among caste Hindus (at least outside Hindutva organizations like the RSS where he is reviled for being an ‘appeaser’ of Muslims), a reverence evident in things as diverse as the iconography of Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement, popular Bollywood fare on ‘Gandhigiri’, and names of flagship government schemes like MGNREGA. This strategy, Roy reckons, is necessary to make room for Ambedkar. Here Roy differs from most mainstream historians who, even when they elevate Ambedkar, do not do so at the expense of Gandhi. "They should both be heroes," said Ramchandra Guha in 2012. "Why must we diminish one figure to praise another? India today needs Gandhi and Ambedkar both." In a recent essay, Caste Iron, I argued that Guha’s is "a specious position given how much the two sides differed on matters of great significance to a liberal democracy, such as advancing equal opportunity, safeguarding minorities, and fighting systemic discrimination." Add to this their approach to caste, religion, politics, and economics. As the scholar Gail Omvedt noted, the two men represented "not simply a confrontation of two idiosyncratic leaders but of two deeply divergent conceptions of the Indian nation itself." Comparing them is to compare more than just two individuals. Roy too finds their major differences irreconcilable, where praising Ambedkar can imply diminishing Gandhi—and vice versa.
Roy revisits Gandhi’s South African past to furnish a persuasive account of his life and mind that is nothing like the staple of history textbooks. Admitting that her account is purposefully selective, since "Gandhi actually said everything and its opposite", Roy points out that in South Africa, Gandhi harbored a host of racial prejudices, identifying more with the whites and upper-class Indians and looking down disdainfully on black Africans and indentured Indians. Roy's portrait of Gandhi—with his views on race, caste, women, labor, religion, and more—helps establish continuity with his later attitudes in India, especially his faith in the varna system, his doctrine of "trusteeship", and his empathy deficit for "untouchables". This deficit was evident in his patronizing stance towards them, opposition to legislative reservations and a separate electorate for them, and his attempts to tackle untouchability after the Poona Pact through the organization Harijan Sevak Sangh, which didn’t admit any "untouchables" in leadership roles (imagine setting up an organization to tackle gender discrimination but not admitting any women in leadership roles). Roy’s focus on Gandhi seems excessive at times—the main body of AoC mentions Gandhi only once—even as it also helps illuminate many attitudes that Ambedkar was up against and the context of their exchange that Ambedkar later appended to the AoC. At least in part, Roy’s essay seems like her way of making sense of, and coming to terms with, her own recent discovery of Gandhi’s inconvenient truths, most of which have long been articulated by Dalit scholars, starting with Ambedkar himself.
Roy’s essay, studded with soaring prose and rhetorical flourishes, also covers a lot more ground: how caste manifests itself in the modern economy and persists in so many professions and institutions of democracy, how the savarnas wield "merit" as their "weapon of choice" to protect their privileges, and the discrimination and violence Dalits still face today. She describes Ambedkar’s family background, his early "encounters with humiliation and injustice", his satyagrahas and other civil rights campaigns for "untouchables" and women, his call for a separate electorate and the events that led to the Poona Pact, the causes of the historic rift between Ambedkar and the Left, and more.
Why has caste survived for so long? Roy cites Ambedkar who blamed it on a system of "graded inequality" in which, he wrote, "there is no such class as a completely unprivileged class except the one which is at the base of the social pyramid. The privileges of the rest are graded ... each class being privileged, every class is interested in maintaining the system." Thus, she concludes, "there is a quotient of Brahminism in everybody, regardless of which caste they belong to [and this] makes it impossible to draw a clear line between victims and oppressors." While true, Roy might have added that those near the top of this pyramid of privilege and resources nevertheless deserve the greatest censure, for they have the fewest excuses for not reforming the system and the institutions they control. Eventually, she writes, such Brahminism "precludes the possibility of social or political solidarity across caste lines" and that is why caste still survives.
More controversially, Roy faults Ambedkar for his views on the Adivasis, claiming that he did not understand them. He saw them as backward, in a "savage state", and in need of civilizing. "Ambedkar speaks about Adivasis in the same patronising way that Gandhi speaks about untouchables", Roy said in an interview. He displayed against them "his own touch of Brahmanism", she writes in the introduction. Quoting Ambedkar from AoC, she asks: "How different are Ambedkar’s words on Adivasis from Gandhi’s words on Untouchables"? Many of these judgments feel gratuitous; I think more sympathetic readings are possible and warranted, but the case she makes, given Ambedkar’s high standards, is at least a head-scratcher. "Ambedkar’s views [on Adivasis] were paternalistic and not too helpful," Omvedt wrote in her review of Roy’s introduction. "[But Roy] suggests that his views about Adivasis were similar to Gandhi’s views towards Untouchables, which is a gross exaggeration." Roy however grinds the axe further and claims that Ambedkar’s "views on Adivasis had serious consequences. In 1950, the Indian Constitution made the state the custodian of Adivasi homelands", making them "squatters on their own land." Whether Ambedkar or anyone else—given the dominant mood of territorial consolidation in the new nation state—ever had any room to maneuver on this front, she does not say.
Also disconcerting is Roy’s assessment that Ambedkar, in a "troubling manner … resorts to using the language of eugenics, a subject that was popular with European fascists." This is not only a gross misreading of the text but also a deplorable juxtaposition. As early as 1916, Ambedkar had rejected any biological dimension to the hierarchy of caste and saw it as a social construct. He reiterates this position in AoC: "[The] Caste system does not demarcate racial division. [The] Caste system is a social division of people of the same race." Eugenics was then a major obsession in the U.S. and Europe, and Ambedkar, in section 5 of AoC, used the then current language of eugenics in an argument—where he was playing devil’s advocate—to debunk any biological superiority of the Brahmins.
Roy has, with great vigor and courage, championed a host of social justice issues in India and abroad, and her moral compass is rare and laudable. Not surprisingly, she extols Ambedkar’s radical egalitarianism across caste, class, and gender, and his language of dignity and rights. She enters more contentious terrain when she evaluates Ambedkar’s approach to modernity. This is the Roy who, in her non-fiction, has argued from positions that could be called anti-modern, anti-industrialization, anti-urbanization, anti-globalization, and even anti-statist. We could see these as pillars of her own utopia, reminiscent more of Gandhi than Ambedkar. Gandhi, she says, "believed (quite rightly) that the state represented violence in a concentrated and organized form". He was "prescient enough to recognize the seed of cataclysm that was implanted in the project of Western modernity." Ambedkar on the other hand, writes Roy, recoiling from the iniquities of the past, "failed to recognize the catastrophic dangers of Western modernity." The very existence of Adivasis, fighting "the pitiless march of modern capitalism", she claims, "poses the most radical questions about modernity and ‘progress’—the ideas that Ambedkar embraced". She adds,
"The impetus towards justice turned Ambedkar’s gaze away from the village towards the city, towards urbanism, modernism, and industrialization—big cities, big dams, big irrigation projects. Ironically, this is the very model of ‘development’ that hundreds of thousands of people today associate with injustice, a model that lays the environment to waste and involves the forcible displacement of millions of people from their villages and homes by mines, dams and other major infrastructural projects."
Many will recognize this recurrent feature in Roy’s writing: daring but simplistic, earnest but overstated, a purveyor of partial truths. She might as well rail against modern medicine because of its side-effects, grossly unequal access, and rampant malpractices. Roy concludes that "The rival utopias of Gandhi and Ambedkar represented the classic battle between tradition and modernity … both were right and both were also grievously wrong". But Gandhi’s fond fantasy of an idyllic village was very much a byproduct of modernity, so a sharper framing of their differences might be Romanticism vs. Enlightenment Rationalism. Gandhi raged against machines, railways, hospitals, modern education, law courts, and explained floods and earthquakes as divine punishment. "Neither railways nor hospitals are a test of a high and pure civilization. At best they are a necessary evil. Neither adds one inch to the moral stature of a nation." Yet he himself traveled the country by rail and relied on modern medicine when he needed it, such as an appendicitis operation in 1924. Unlike other nationalists, he also distrusted the enterprise of writing history, "I believe in the saying that a nation is happy that has no history." By contrast, Ambedkar eulogized "reason, the purpose of which is to enable man to observe, meditate, cogitate, study and discover the beauties of the Universe and enrich his life." He valued "sufficient leisure" that allowed humans to cultivate their minds, adding that "Machinery and modern civilization are thus indispensable for emancipating man from leading the life of a brute". Gandhism "is merely repeating the views of Rousseau, Ruskin, Tolstoy and their school." Gandhism harks "back to squalor, back to poverty and back to ignorance for the vast mass of the people." Ambedkar continued,
"The economics of Gandhism are hopelessly fallacious. The fact that machinery and modern civilisation have produced many evils may be admitted. But these evils are no argument against them. For the evils are not due to machinery and modern civilisation. They are due to wrong social organisation which has made private property and pursuit of personal gain matters of absolute sanctity. If machinery and civilisation have not benefited everybody the remedy is not to condemn machinery and civilisation but to alter the organisation of society so that the benefits will not be usurped by the few but will accrue to all."
Whether emerging nations like India ever had the option of rejecting modernity is not a question that Roy seems to have considered. Did other viable models exist in a world in which power and prosperity accrued to those who embraced modernism, industrialization, urbanism, a constitutional state, science, public health, social security, and liberal education? Couldn’t an alternative model have turned out to be far worse? It is true that modernity has also spawned huge new problems but, as always, the picture of gains and losses is decidedly mixed and very intertwined. What do we make of the fact that there is also a genuine mass appetite for modernity, which has spread not by diktat but by diffusion? If this has set us on a collision course with nature, we might as well blame it on the tragic human "weakness" that has come to seek greater dignity, pleasure, and freedom in the short run of human lives. How voluptuously romantic and ultimately counter-productive for highly modern citizens of a liberal state, such as Roy, to stand opposed to something as manifold and irrepressible as "modernity" itself, rather than focusing on the only path that has been open to us: influence its unfolding, use its tools to reduce its harms, make it more equitable. Isn’t that precisely what Ambedkar, a democratic socialist, would have done?
Roy’s critique of Ambedkar’s fondness for "Western modernity" is of a piece with attitudes evident elsewhere in her writing. It is one thing to cherish and want to preserve certain "traditional ways of life", "cultural diversity", and "ecological harmony" for a people, and to shield the innocent and the unprepared from the ravages of "Western modernity" and globalization. But it is another thing to want that and to also want human rights, a better democracy, free speech, feminism, gay rights, modern medicine, a caste-free society, and 24x7 electricity (or other similar combinations). Our tragedy is that these two desires are not entirely compatible. Consider this: Can gay rights take root in a tradition-bound patriarchal culture without causing or requiring other transformations of the self, social attitudes, and secular law? Will there be no cultural fallout if women start taking charge of their reproductive cycles and life paths? Can the benefits of modern medicine be widely distributed without science education and research, industry, precision manufacturing, markets, competition, profit incentives, lawyers, tax surpluses via economic growth, and so on? Clearly, there are better and worse ways of doing all this (and India has a very poor record to show here), which is often the domain of social justice movements.
It’s one thing to critique the worst aspects of the mixed track record of "Western modernity", say, related to corporate capitalism, income inequality, or ecology—and Roy has frequently done that—but to do so while holding "Western modernity" as the original sin seems not only a lost cause but also cognitively dissonant, for it relies on the same modernity to make its case. "Democracy," Roy has written, "can perhaps no longer be relied upon to deliver the justice and stability we once dreamed it would." What better alternative to democracy we could pursue, she has not said. Her disquiet with the trajectory of Indian democracy, which she claims "has been hollowed out and emptied of meaning", coexists with a formless nostalgia for the pre-modern. “We plunder the earth hoping that accumulating material surplus will make up for the profound, unfathomable thing that we have lost.” Roy longs for a "new modernity" but has not said what in it is not to be found in the capacious tent of "Western modernity" (which, besides predatory strains of capitalism and economic globalization, also houses communism, socialism, environmentalism, zero-growth economics, and so on). All this may help explain why her political commentary—even as she takes on pressing issues with her heart in the right place—has often seemed closer to a loose wail of pain, filled more with the carping of the disillusioned and slogans of a globalized left than lucid analysis or viable solutions.
To question Roy’s approach to modernity does not mean that Ambedkar’s approach to modernity is beyond criticism. Dalit intellectual and social scientist DR Nagaraj offered some in The Flaming Feet and Other Essays. Nagaraj, like Roy, saw partial truths in both Gandhian and Ambedkarite responses to modernity. He held that the advocates of these "contending visions are yet to comprehend each other fully." Persuasive or not, Nagaraj’s critique is a lot more nuanced than Roy’s animus for modernity itself.
"The modern city and its development ethos", wrote Nagaraj, "are bound to annihilate the memories of Dalits and leave them in almost a state of culturelessness. [But] this argument is not usually viewed with sympathy by the majority of Ambedkarites, for they believe there is nothing positive or precious in the memories of Dalits, there is only humiliation and pain." Nagaraj argued that "the disappearance of indigenous technology represents a big civilizational blow to the subaltern castes" but Ambedkarites, lured by the emancipatory potential of modernization and urbanization, failed to see "the treacherous deal that was struck between the forces of modernity and the upper strata of the caste system." This deal may not have been avoidable, and "There is little wisdom in putting the blame at the door of the agents of modernity in India," wrote Nagaraj. But Ambedkarities didn’t fully realize, nor prepare to deal with the problematic fact that concentrated "capital and high-tech-based models of development would in the Indian context inevitably lead to the hegemony of the upper castes over the lower." Keen to escape "certain professions and humiliation in traditional society", Ambedkar did not take a critical attitude towards "the practices of erasure within modern development" and didn’t factor into his analysis "the nature of new technology and the social basis of its ownership."
The same outlook, wrote Nagaraj, led Ambedkarites to also develop "misgivings about traditional cultures", misgivings that tend to be "shared by movements for radical social change." This meant that even the worth of a community’s cultural and "social experience [were] judged from the viewpoint of radical politics." According to Nagaraj,
A sure way of enhancing the self-respect of humiliated communities like the Dalits is to revitalize their cultural forms. But modernists and radicals, particularly Ambedkarites, resent such efforts. For them, any attempt to see creativity in traditional Hindu folk culture is tantamount to supporting the unjust society it has sustained. … [To them] the art of playing drums is linked with the humiliating task of carrying dead animals. The joy of singing oral epics is traditionally associated with the insult of an artist standing outside the houses of upper-caste landlords with a begging bowl. Old culture means humiliation and therefore self-respect essentially means repudiating one’s cultural past. [Such] are the attitudes of the modernists and radicals who are products of historical change and the will to change.
And while it is true, wrote Nagaraj, that the lower castes, aided by reservations, are slowly entering "the exclusive reserves of the upper castes within social administration and political management … many a time such presence seems only of symbolic value", even as the material gaps continue to increase (a point that has assumed greater salience in the last two decades). While Nagaraj pointed out what he saw as blind spots in Ambedkar’s vision, he did not say what alternative paths or policies Ambedkar might have pursued. Ambedkar had however realized "the tragedy of a memoryless community". Through his founding of, and mass conversions to, Navayana Buddhism—which Nagaraj called "one of the most moving chapters of Indian history"—Ambedkar tried "to build a new memory" for Dalits, marking "a decisive break with a certain kind of modernization".
"I did not have to read Ambedkar to understand caste," Roy said at a launch event for this book. "I just had to grow up in an Indian village." This struck me as unusual. How many Dalit thinkers would say the same? I wish she had written about her own journey of awakening to caste iniquities. When did she start thinking about it deeply and seeing things afresh? Personal encounters and discoveries are an effective device in good storytelling. Nonetheless, Roy’s essay, despite its many problems, has already proven useful for the debates it has provoked. It shows that there are indeed irreconcilable differences between Ambedkar and Gandhi. The same can also be said about Ambedkar and Roy.
NB: The article above has been edited since its first appearance.
More writing by Namit Arora?
Every Genuine Encounter Destroys Our Existing World: On Things
by Madhu Kaza
It’s cold outside. New York City is probably exciting as ever out there, but I’m staying in with my soup and my soup spoon and all of the spoons, with books listing this way and that on the shelves, socks and sweaters stuffed into drawers, stray paperclips on the loose, dust storms gathering behind the sofa and an African stone egg that's warming either under my pillow or somewhere under my bed. It would all be uneventful, except that I’ve been rereading Michal Ajvaz’s novel, The Other City.
The Other City begins with the narrator taking refuge from a snowstorm in a bookstore in Prague. Through a series of magical encounters that follow, the novel leads us into “the other city,” which exists as a shadow city just beyond the Prague that is known. The Other City is a labyrinthine and fantastical place where books turn into jungles, the alphabet becomes a virus, oysters attack cities, and fish battle inside glass statues. Through the layering and pile up of surreal imagery Ajvaz conjures a world that is wonderful and terrible, a place of awe.
Though it’s a strange place the Other City is not inaccessible or distant. Ajvaz insists that if we truly learned how to look and pay attention we’d find that we are right at the edge of otherness: “The frontier of our world is not far away; it doesn’t run along the horizon or in the depths. It glimmers faintly close by, in the twilight of our nearest surroundings; out of the corner of our eye we can always glimpse another world, without realizing it.” He notes that we overlook the nooks and crannies, the closets and the dusty spaces of our homes or between our homes where things are happening:
Even inside the space we regard as our property there are places that lie beyond our power, lairs inhabited by creatures whose home is over the border. We are familiar with the strange queasiness we feel when we encounter the reverse side of things, and their inner cavities which refuse to take part in our game: when we shove aside a cabinet during spring-cleaning and we suddenly find ourselves looking at the ironically impassive face of its reverse side, which stares into dark chambers that are mirrored on its surface, when we unscrew the back of the television set and run our fingers over the tangle of wires, when we crawl under the bed for a pencil that rolled away and we suddenly find ourselves in a mysterious cavern, whose walls are covered with magical, trembling wisps of dust, a cavern in which something evil is slowly maturing until one quiet day it will emerge into the light.
Ajvaz tells us not only that is there a world unfolding from the perspective of the spoons in a drawer, the backside of the cabinet, or the space between walls in an apartment, but also that encounters with this world can be frightening. “Every genuine encounter destroys our existing world,” says the narrator. What counts as a genuine encounter must be terrifying because it puts us in contact with the unknown; it makes the familiar strange.
I am reminded of the extraordinary prose piece that opens Julio Cortázar’s Instruction Manual in which the narrator speaks of an urgent need to unhinge oneself from the monotony of daily habit, from “the doggy satisfaction that everything is probably in its place, same woman beside you, same shoes, the same taste of the toothpaste, the same sad houses across the street.” The answer is not to change women, shoes, toothpaste and address; rather it is to change our relationship to our own habits, to open ourselves to genuine encounters. “Go ahead,” the narrator says, “deny up and down that the delicate act of turning the doorknob, that act which may transform everything, is done with the indifferent vigor of a daily reflex.” Like Ajvaz, Cortázar recognizes that opening ourselves up to new encounters with the already known world around us is risky: “Tighten your fingers around a teaspoon, feel its metal pulse, its mistrustful warning. How it hurts to refuse a spoon, to say no to a door, to deny everything that habit has licked to a suitable smoothness.” Yet it’s vital for Cortázar that we defamaliarize ourselves from our routines, from what we already know of daily life and domestic spaces.
What I admire about The Other City, an admittedly difficult and plotless novel more interested in image than story, is how much it is on the side of every animal, plant and thing. The Other City made me think of Francis Ponge’s many prose poems dedicated to things such as “The Oyster,” “The Crate,” “The Pebble,” “The Radio,” and “The Frog.” In “The Pleasures of the Door” Ponge writes about the “happiness of seizing one of these tall barriers to a room by the porcelain knob of its belly” and the satisfaction of hearing “the click of the powerful, well-oiled latch.” This satisfaction is not to be taken for granted, though; nor is it universally known. He writes, “Kings never touch doors. They’re not familiar with this happiness.” For Ajvaz the encounter with things is potentially more ecstatic and more dangerous than it is for Ponge, but there is a similar sympathy for the inanimate. Ajvaz grants a great degree of agency to things. He gestures to a world of things thinging near us, upon us, against us, independent of our knowledge. Like Nietzsche who argued that we cannot see or understand things-in-themselves, that there is no absolute knowledge or mastery of a thing, Ajvaz reminds us how little we see or know of the world around us.
Of course, anything can begin to seem strange if you are in a particular frame of mind. One night when I woke briefly at four in the morning and caught sight of the spines of my books lined up in their bookcases I was spooked by the thought of all the writers who were in the room with me while I slept. I was overwhelmed by thought of so much language keeping quiet in my space. Suddenly, the books seemed alive and the very idea of a book was bizarre, almost mystical. In a less intense way, I have found myself marveling that each ordinary thing in my apartment – my stapler, my desk, my lamp, the electrical power strip-- was conceived, designed and constructed and that it somehow found its way into a particular arrangement in my home. And then there’s the African stone egg that is either under my pillow or under my bed. I love the egg though I don’t really know what it is. Who made it and what is it for?
In Marguerite Duras’ novel The Little Horses of Tarquinia an Italian grocer tells his customers, "No salt. It is a long time since I have understood with salt . . . Shoe polish, me? It is a long time since I have understood with shoe polish." Duras’ novel is not a book about things, and in the context of the book it’s possible that this odd moment of dialogue is meant to indicate a problem in understanding between the Italian grocer and his French customers. It’s not clear. Leaving aside the context of the novel, the strange locution of “understanding with” something is nevertheless striking. To understand something suggests the possibility of mastering it. To “understand with” something is to be in a more uncertain field of relation to a thing, open to discovery. It’s cold outside. I’m staying in. I may begin the search for the stone egg. I might turn to Google to learn what it is. But I might need to look under the bed to understand with it.
Digital C type print.
Uncle Warren Thanks You For Playing
by Misha Lepetic
"Is it the media that induce fascination in the masses,
or is it the masses who direct the media into the spectacle?"
I usually buy my cigarettes at a corner store, on Manhattan's Upper West Side, that, not unusually for such establishments, also does a brisk trade in lottery tickets. Now, buyers of both cigarettes and lottery tickets are placing bets on outcomes with dismally known chances of winning. My fellow consumers are betting that they will win something, and I am betting that I won't (I also console myself with the sentiment that I am having more fun in the process). But in both cases, the terms of exchange are clear – we give our cash to the vendor, and buy the option on the pleasure of suspense, waiting to see if we have won. Beyond the potential payout, there really isn't that much more to discuss: the transactions are discrete and anonymous. And in the end, someone always wins the lottery, and someone always lives to a hundred.
I was reminded of the perceived satisfactions of participating in games of chance with hopeless odds after hearing a recent piece on NPR discussing quite the prize: a cool $1 billion dollars for anyone who nailed a 'perfect bracket.' In other words, the accurate identification of the outcomes of all 63 games of the NCAA men's basketball playoffs. Sponsored by a seemingly oddball trinity of Warren Buffett, Quicken Loans and Yahoo!, the prize is, on the face of it, an exercise in absurdity. But its construction is superb, and worth examining further, for reasons that have little to do with basketball, or probability, but rather for the questions it provokes around the value of information.
Now, bracket competitions have been going on at least since the tournament itself, which kicked off in 1939. Although brackets are common for other sports, there are unlikely subjects, too: saints and philosophers both have been thrown into pitched, single-elimination battle. But the NCAA bracket holds pride of place, not least because the number of participating teams is much greater than most other playoffs. This leads to the absolutely astonishing odds: if each game is treated as an independent coin toss, the odds of a perfect bracket are 1 in 9.2 quintillion, a number that even Neil DeGrasse Tyson might have difficulty contextualizing for us. Of course, the distribution of the initial round favors higher-seeded teams, so barring any first-round upsets, our chances may improve to a balmy 1 in 128 billion.
So we have at least an answer to the initial question of "What odds would make you feel comfortable enough to put up $1 billion?" Of course, if someone had won, Warren Buffett, whose net worth clocks in at about $60 billion these days, would have been on the hook, or rather his firm Berkshire Hathaway, whose market cap is five times the size of Buffett's wealth. (I mention both Buffett and his company because Buffett has thrown in a classic game theory move: he is willing to buy out anyone with a perfect bracket going into the Final Four for, say, $100 million.) In any event, it certainly would have been worth seeing the avuncular Oracle of Omaha show up at the door of the lucky winner with a giant cardboard check, just like Ed McMahon used to do with the Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes. But if the chances of winning are nearly impossible, and there is no cost to enter the contest, we are left with a head-scratcher: who benefits?
There is an obvious pleasure to filling out brackets, of competing for the sake of competition, of measuring ourselves against not just one another but against the unknown. And certainly casual observers of what has become known as the "Buffett bracket" would not be wrong to point out that, on the face of it, Buffett et al. have come up with a great publicity stunt. But a publicity stunt, for all its Barnumesque splashiness, is intrinsically ephemeral. Its principal value lies in the fact that it grabs our attention and confers some brief benefit upon its initiators before sinking beneath the ebb and flow of the 24-hour news cycle. In this age of big data, where the world's most successful technology corporations thrive on dressing up "free" services with ever more finely targeted advertising, we ought to hope that there is a subtler angle.
And there is. Recall the three sponsors of our prize: Berkshire Hathaway, Yahoo! and Quicken Loans. In order to enter the competition, prospective bracketologists (that's a real word) had to visit a Yahoo! page, where they had to first open a Yahoo! account and then fill out a detailed Quicken questionnaire which elicited not just their name, home address, email and phone number, but much more importantly, if they own their home, or plan to purchase one in the future, and, if they own one, the current interest rate on the mortgage. For its part, Berkshire Hathaway receives a fee from Quicken and Yahoo! for insuring the competition, ie, in case the payout actually happens, which never will. Everyone's a winner, baby.
The benefit to these entities – particularly to Quicken, which specializes in mortgage lending – becomes apparent when one combines the quality of the information with the scale of participation. Concerning information, Slate, in one of the few clear-eyed articles on the matter, quotes a mortgage investment banker as saying that "it's not uncommon for companies like Quicken to pay between $50 and $300 for a single high-quality mortgage lead." While Quicken's spokespeople have been at pains to point out that only people who ask will be contacted, the fact is that all of the information on the entry form is required, which allows Quicken to create a massive database from which it can model all sorts of trends and behaviors.
How massive? At first, the organizers limited the number of entrants to 10 million, but based on the response sensibly increased it to 15 million. At this moment it's unclear how many people actually registered, and I doubt that this number will ever be disclosed. But if we take the low range of what Quicken pays for lead generation and assume that 1 million people opt to be contacted (ie, 10% of the low end of the entrant population), Quicken has acquired $50 million of lead generation value, and this does not include any revenue from leads that it manages to close. Even if we knock down the 10% by an order of magnitude, Quicken is still enjoying a $5 million freebie (of course, I am assuming honesty on the part of the respondents).
For its part, Yahoo! gains an equivalent number of users. Obviously, some will already be Yahoo! accountholders, but even if we assume that only half are new users, that is still 5 million fresh fish to subject to new ads, at least for a time. Berkshire Hathaway's benefit, aside from the insurance fee, is less clear, but the language in the contest rules leaves wide open the opportunity for sharing information between Quicken and the conglomerate (and if you have any doubts about the spurious protections afforded by these agreements, have a look at this 60 Minutes report).
So what? People are always giving away something in the hopes that they will gain something that is, in their perception, of even greater value. In the case of the Buffett bracket, even if what they finally get is nothing, I suspect there is still a pleasure in the act of playing – in other words, a bribe. But before discussing bribery, what interests me is the change in what's considered a fair trade. Any economist will maintain that a trade made without coercion is a fair trade, with the libertarian corollary being that people should not be protected from the consequences of their greed and/or stupidity.
But Western law has tended to draw the line at varying points. Nigerian letter scams and boiler room pump-and-dump schemes are illegal precisely because society has decided that there is a point beyond which people need to be protected from their cupidity. And the terms of engagement and success for the Buffett bracket are rather clear: in this sense, the contest is neither a fraud nor a scam. You pay to play, in a way that may not seem obvious or even harmful. But what is not transparent is the purposes for which that data is used, beyond the immediate consequence of the generation of consent, or the persistence of this data. Would people change the way they thought about giving up this information if they knew of the enormous subterranean infrastructure that trafficks in their personal details? Would they value it more? But if there are no mechanisms of valuation (ok, fine: free markets) that make the worth of this information apparent, how do we approach this?
Consider what happens when these mechanisms of valuation are not available to us as individuals. The master-stroke of the Buffett bracket is to force an extraordinary, cognitively unresolvable trade: it somehow makes perfect sense to divulge to some corporation the interest rate on your mortgage in order to gain the right to guess the outcome of a bunch of basketball games (a right which you had anyway, minus the impossible prize). And as proof, millions have chosen to do exactly this. The contest's creators rightly discerned that the value of this information to each individual is trivial, and yet the networked value of the aggregated information is, to those same creators, extremely valuable indeed. Recall a much-abused quote by Stewart Brand: "Information wants to be free." The anthropomorphism implied here is some awful hippie nonsense, but fortunately that is only a fragment. Here is the full quote (with a full exegesis here):
On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it's so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.
In the Buffett bracket we have the resolution of this paradox – of how what is free (as in costless) is transmuted into value (something that is otherwise expensive to obtain). It is quite clear to whom the information is valuable, and the generation of this value is only possible through the vast systems that aggregate millions of bits of data into models that determine and predict behavior, ultimately driving profit. It is also quite clear how lowering the cost of getting information into the system makes it free (again, as in costless). What the internet and the accompanying utter lack of regulation enable is the hyperefficient siphoning off of that information from any willing individual who hasn't the means to determine what his information might actually be worth - which is pretty much no one. As a further consideration, note that most people will forget they entered the contest within weeks of the tournament's end, but that there are no provisions for their information's expiration. We may be done playing the bracket, but the traces of data that we leave behind are never forgotten.
The problem with this analysis (aside from its melodramatic nature) is that it incomplete. There is no resolution at this moment. Regulation that would give private citizens the right to use their information as an object of the commodity economy (ie, for lease as well as for sale) versus the current state, where it has by default fallen into the realm of the gift economy, is about as likely as a perfect bracket. The best that thinkers such as Jaron Lanier – who has written extensively on the subject – can seem to come up with is a system of micropayments, but the problem with technologists is that they tend to have a dismal grasp of the dismal science. In the meantime, what continues to take place is not so much a fraud or a scam, but really a sort of bribery. As automation continues to replace middle class jobs, we are being bribed for what little we have left that is uniquely our own, and, it being of such little worth to us, we find ourselves willingly trading it for the privilege of, as Žižek says, having "an experience" – in this case, the non-chance to win a billion dollars. This is the heart of ideology, in that it does not need to hide itself. After all, Slate and NPR both published insightful articles on the Buffett bracket and what it meant for participants. There is no need to obfuscate the truth, as it is much more useful for large network actors to be (sufficiently) open about their motives and desires. One doesn't have to look very hard to see that the old Wall Street adage – "They take your money and their experience, and turn it into their money and your experience" – has never been more true, or more subtle, since you are brought to believe that you never had the money in the first place.
So what about the state of the Buffett bracket? Sadly enough, no one made it past the first two days of competition. As fate would have it, the first round saw 14th seed Mercer upsetting 3rd seed Duke, which wiped out a large swathe of punters. Better luck next year, kids. In the meantime, the folks at Quicken have a lot of phone calls to make, and I need to go to the corner store to pick up a fresh pack of smokes. I sometimes think about picking up a lottery ticket while I'm at the counter, too, but somehow never seem to get around to it.
A Call for Reform: Student Mental Health on College Campuses
by Kathleen Goodwin
There are many bitter and hopeless thoughts that have plagued me since the night that Wendy Chang took her own life in her Harvard dorm room in April 2012, just 34 days before she would have graduated. However, it wasn't until this past January, when Madison Holleran, a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania, committed suicide in Philadelphia, that I have felt compelled to organize these thoughts to understand what may have prevented these horrifically tragic deaths. Madison was a varsity track runner at Penn and was reported to have a loving family and many friends. She was also so remarkably beautiful that no news source reporting on her death could help but comment on it. Wendy and I were both part of a close-knit student organization and having known and worked with her, I can attest that she was among the most gregarious, creatively talented, and vibrant human beings I have ever encountered. The hundreds of Harvard students who attended Wendy's filled-to-capacity memorial service all voiced similar sentiments describing her uniquely magnetic nature.
In the immediate aftermath of Wendy's suicide, I blamed the environment at Harvard that seemed to value our accomplishments over our happiness. However, when I had my own episodes of anxiety and depression in the year following her death, it was the presence of my roommates, friends, and a few exceptionally helpful university administrators who prevented these issues from spiraling out of control. While I may criticize American colleges for not doing enough to support the mental health of students, I realize that colleges, including Harvard, offer an invaluable opportunity for development within what can be a supportive community. However, many colleges today are failing their students who grapple with mental health issues. Numerous require or compel students who admit to suicidal thoughts or serious mental illness to take a leave of absence, or even to formally withdraw. Most colleges claim that they are not adequately equipped to help students with mental illness and implicitly suggest that it is not their responsibility to provide resources to mentally ill students, especially when these may be diverting resources from students who are "well". I argue that, on the contrary, it is the direct responsibility of these institutions to create a campus environment where students struggling with mental illness can be supported.
Mainstream media has recently latched on to the idea that the four year residential college system is unrealistic. Colleges are often described as "pressure cookers" and "hotbeds of binge-drinking" that are not worth the exorbitant investment. However, I maintain that the opportunity to learn and grow in a bounded setting between childhood and independence is ultimately invaluable. Tuition fees certainly need to be lowered and financial aid programs expanded, but residential colleges themselves should not be abolished. Rather, colleges should take more responsibility for allowing their students to grow, not only academically, but also emotionally, and be prepared for the serious challenges that many students may face when trying to mature into full-fledged adults. I believe colleges have the distinct ability to nurture intelligent, hard-working young people with or without mental health issues and create a more productive student body and society at large.
Wendy and Madison's suicides are the kind of events that stagger a campus—they spark discussions and impassioned calls for change. How could these two incredibly gifted and effervescent women, whose accomplishments and Ivy League educations foretold successful futures, take their own lives? From an outside view, it seems impossible that Madison and Wendy couldn't have realized how loved and admired they were, and how fortunate they were to have had the entire world, quite literally, at their fingertips. In the days following her death the Harvard community repeatedly questioned why someone like Wendy, who possessed too many friends to count in every corner of campus, would want to end her own life. Wendy, who belonged to a long list of diverse and respected student organizations, seemed exceptionally successful at everything she tried in a manner that most students can only dream of. Similarly, Madison the all-star student athlete who seemed to be achieving perfection academically and athletically with ease, ended her life after just one semester at Penn.
The unfortunate reality is that mental illness afflicts without discrimination and regardless of how allegedly bright a future may be, many young people struggle with fatally dark thoughts. Too often the people around them don't realize the depth of this problem until it's far too late. While Wendy and Madison's deaths are encouraging an impetus for reform on their respective campuses, it may not be enough for the silently struggling students whose needs need to be addressed immediately by the institutions they attend.
There is a disconnect between the college admission offices that choose high schoolers based on the potential they see within them as college students and eventual contributors to society, and the college administrators who ask these same students to leave campus when they admit to struggling with mental illness. Young people are selected to attend these institutions based on their minds and yet when these minds become sick they face far more barriers to care and healing than if they contracted a virus or broke a leg. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, approximately 1 in 4 Americans have experienced symptoms that meet the criteria for a mental disorder in the past year and 3 out of 4 chronic mental illness sufferers experience onset by age 24. Causing the NIMH to conclude, "Mental disorders are really the chronic diseases of the young… unlike heart disease or most cancers, young people with mental disorders suffer disability when they are in the prime of life, when they would normally be the most productive." On college campuses specifically, over 30% of nationally surveyed students admitted feeling depressed in the last 12 months and almost 50% felt "overwhelming anxiety". In much the same way that colleges anticipate the majority of students to suffer at some point from the common cold and mononucleosis during their four years on campus, they should expect a substantial incidence of mental disorders among the student body. If a student is not a danger to others and still wishes to attend classes and participate in campus life, then why would colleges not allow them to try to overcome their mental illness in a community of peers, with the benefits of tangible structure and expectations?
Despite overwhelming evidence regarding the prevalence of mental disorders in the general population, there is still incredible stigma, and even ignorance, surrounding such disorders. Both students and college administrations should take it upon themselves to reform universally negative attitudes toward mental illness. However, it seems that in many cases college environments are contributing to the continued silence surrounding mental illness. A number of students have come forward in both intimate and public forums about the difficulty of admitting to mental health struggles. They speak of worrying it is something that no one else is experiencing during their years in college, which are expected to be unequivocally happy and fulfilling. One Harvard student wrote in an email to friends about her lifelong battle to conceal her mental illness:
"Harvard is a place that demands perfection, and I think that that pressure makes us reluctant to share anything about ourselves that isn't perfect. We're hesitant to talk about ourselves in a genuine way — to talk about how we're actually doing, to talk about our successes and our failures..."
She courageously goes on to admit to being diagnosed with multiple mental disorders both before and during her time at Harvard, in the hope of igniting a much-needed dialogue on this issue. The culture she describes is, in my own experience, entirely accurate and conversations with friends, as well as editorials from various college newspapers, confirm that there is a cultivation of "perfection" that masks mental health struggles among college students nation-wide.
While the high pressure environments of modern colleges undoubtedly exacerbate the symptoms of some mental illness sufferers, they are still communities that offer unparalleled support networks for young people. Students themselves need to become comfortable admitting to mental illness and seeking treatment, but it is even more vital for colleges to provide an accommodating and inclusive framework for those students who admit they are struggling. On the contrary, a number of the U.S.'s most prestigious universities have been criticized for their policies regarding undergraduate students with mental health issues. In a widely circulated piece in the Yale Daily News, one student reveals a frightening course of irreversible events when she told her resident advisor that she had experienced suicidal thoughts and admitted to cutting her leg. This student was asked to leave Yale and had to reapply a year later in order to regain her spot. She writes, "Those of us who have admitted, at some point or another, that we are legitimately not okay, have learned that there are real and devastating consequences of telling the truth. Because Yale does not want people who are not okay." The sense of rejection and alienation that colleges project on students when they are suspended from campus for admitting to mental illness only perpetuates the silence and stigma that surrounds mental health issues, and in many cases results in entirely preventable tragedies. As one New York Times article noted, "Of 133 student suicides reported in the American College Counseling Association's survey of 320 institutions last year, fewer than 20 had sought help on campus." In a 2013 article in USA Today, a Brown student tells the story of classmate Okezie Nwoka, who was banned from campus after he was hospitalized for a manic episode while at Brown, then initially denied readmission. The article goes on to cite a discrimination complaint filed against Princeton University on behalf of a young man who attempted suicide and was subsequently forced to "voluntarily" withdraw as a student.
The negative impact of these incidents are suffered not only by the individuals who experience them but also the wider student body who witness what happens to students who come forward with their mental disorders. While there are resources for students suffering from less severe mental health issues, students fear admitting to any sort of mental illness because of both stigma among their peers and ostracization by the college itself. In the weeks following Wendy's death, I felt compelled to present a "perfect" façade, even as I was consumed by pain and confusion. I helped plan her memorial service and the necessary and immediate phone calls, emails, and meetings allowed me to ignore these feelings for months. I cried for Wendy at the designated times but I was calm and focused on logistics during the remaining hours of the day. The following year, when I had my own experiences with anxiety attacks and depressive episodes, I feared discussing this with my friends, family, and Harvard administrators, because it would destroy the image of competence I had worked so hard to maintain throughout college and a potential recommendation of a leave of absence would have prevented me from graduating on time. I hesitated to be honest with myself and others, even though the rational part of me was aware that avoiding treatment is precisely the reason that full-fledged mental disorders and suicidal tendencies develop. While recovering from this period wasn't quick or pretty, the people I eventually reached out to listened to me and legitimized my experience. Ultimately, they all helped me to recover before my symptoms worsened. Thus while many students, myself included, experience entirely treatable forms of anxiety and depression or other mental health struggles, in some cases their symptoms become increasingly severe because they avoided seeking treatment at a point that would have prevented the suffering and danger of acute mental illness.
I ask that both the colleges mentioned in this piece and those everywhere do their best to understand that the best way to prevent the suicides that rock their campuses each year is to embrace the inevitability of mental illness within their student populations and try to treat these illnesses on campus to the best of their abilities. The culture of silence surrounding mental illness, perpetuated by both students and college administrations, must be lifted. Resources certainly exist, although those could also be improved, but students will not seek them if they believe that admitting to mental illness is shameful and they fear being permanently excluded from their college community.
by Brooks Riley
What Is Good Taste?
by Dwight Furrow
I suspect most people would say "good taste" is an ability to discern what other people in your social group (or the social group you aspire to) find attractive. Since most people cannot say much about why they like something, it seems as though good taste is just the ability to identify a shared preference, nothing more.
But looked at from the perspective of artists, musicians, designers, architects, chefs and winemakers, etc. this answer is inadequate. It doesn't explain why creative people, even when they achieve some success, strive to do better. If people find pleasure in what you do and good taste is nothing more than an ability to identify what other people in your social group enjoy, then there is little point in artists trying to get better, since the idea of "better" doesn't refer to any standard aside from "what people like". So it seems like there must be more to good taste than that.
Furthermore, good taste cannot merely be a matter of having a sense of prevailing social conventions because artists and critics often produce unconventional judgments about what is good. Instead, having good taste involves knowing what is truly excellent or of genuine value, which may have little to do with social conventions.
But philosophers have struggled to say more about what good taste is. David Hume, the 18th Century British philosopher, argued that good taste involves "delicacy of sentiment" by which he meant the ability to detect what makes something pleasing or not. In his famous example of the two wine critics, one argued that a wine is good but for a taste of leather he detected; the other argued that the wine is good but for a slight taste of metal. Both were proven right when the container was emptied and a key with a leather thong attached was found at the bottom.
Thus, Hume seemed to think that good taste was roughly what excellent blind tasters have—the ability, acquired through practice and comparison, to taste subtle components of a wine that most non-experts would miss and pass summary judgment on them. The same could be said of the ability to detect subtle, good-making features of a painting or piece of music. The virtue of such analytic tasting of wines is that the detection of discreet components can at least in theory be verified by science and thus aspires to a degree of objectivity. Flavor notes such as "apricot" or "vanilla" are explained by detectable chemical compounds in the wine. The causal theory lends itself to this kind of test of acuity since causal properties can often be independently verified.
Hume's model of taste contains some insight. Someone practiced at discerning elements that ordinary perceivers would miss is an indicator that she has good taste. But I don't think this model is quite right.
Good taste involves evaluating quality, and the quality of a painting, piece of music, or wine is seldom a function of the components of the work taken individually. A wine taster can identify a whole bowl of various fruit aromas wafting from a wine, pronounce the acidity to be bracing and the tannins fine-grained but firm and still have said little about wine quality. Wine quality is a function of structure, balance, complexity, and intensity supplemented by even less concrete features such as deliciousness, power, elegance, gracefulness, or refreshment. None of these features can be detected by analytically breaking down a wine because they are inherently relational, just as describing a painted surface as garish or a piece of music as lyrical would involve relations. No single component can account for them; it is a matter of how the components are related. In wine, even a prominent feature like acidity is not merely a function of Ph; perceived acidity differs substantially from objective measures of acidity and is influenced by the prominence of other components such as sugar and tannin levels. None of these relational properties seem amenable to scientific analysis. I doubt that gas chromatography can identify elegance; a wine's balance cannot be appreciated by measuring PH and sugar levels.
Identifying these aesthetic features involves a holistic judgment, not an analytic one. The wine as a whole must be evaluated just as evaluating painting or music involves judgments about the work as a whole. But although these holistic features in a wine are a product of fruit, acidity, and tannic structure no list of wine components will add up to a wine being balanced, elegant or delicious. Another British philosopher, from the 20th Century, Frank Sibley, argued that this is a general feature of aesthetic judgments. There are no rules that get us from facts about the object, regardless of how subtle, to these holistic aesthetic judgments.
Hence, the problem of good taste. What do you discern when you identify elegance, grace, or deliciousness in a wine? It's not like picking out oak flavors. It's a judgment about how everything comes together—a set of relations that emerge from facts about the wine but are not identical to any particular collection of facts. If it is not an analytic ability, what sort of ability is it?
I think Kant, another 18th Century philosopher, gets us closer to an answer. When I judge something to be beautiful, I do so because I like it. But what about it do I like? For Kant, the pleasure I get from a genuinely beautiful object does not lie in the fact I find it agreeable or pretty. Rather, I enjoy how it makes me think. It stimulates contemplation of a particular kind. Kant called this the free play of understanding and imagination.
Interpreting Kant is a rather perilous journey but I think he has in mind something like this.
A beautiful object exhibits an order or unity that cannot be fully described. Neither words nor aesthetic principles are sufficient. There are no rules, he argues, that govern our use of the term "beauty" and, in any case, feelings of pleasure will be an unreliable guide to when we are in the presence of beauty. He apparently thinks that each object exhibits beauty in a different way so we can't simply point to a set of features that generally cause us to judge something beautiful. We can't understand a beautiful object like we understand tables or chairs that have determinate, repeatable properties. Yet, in great works of art there is something there that we want to learn more about, patterns that we want to learn to follow, a unity we must strive to grasp. A beautiful object can't mean anything we want it to mean. With beautiful objects we have to search for what they mean and that requires imagination. We have to imaginatively search for a principle that helps us to better understand the object, although we are doomed to fail because, given the indeterminacy of beauty, there is always more to be said. It is this searching activity that we find enjoyable—an intellectual fascination with trying discover all the dimensions that a work has to give. Thus, an aesthetic judgment is not based on the object as much as it is based on our reaction to our reflection on the object.
Of course, some objects won't repay that much attention. We explore them for awhile, get bored because we've come to identify and articulate everything important about them, and move on. But according to Kant, an object is genuinely beautiful if it sustains our interest in reflecting on it indefinitely because all attempts to fully understand it fail. The object has an order that constantly opens new ways of understanding it because no particular principle is ever adequate. Beautiful objects are intriguing, mysterious, not fully understood, yet at the same time balanced, harmonious, and well put together.
Thus, taste, on Kant's view must refer to our ability to determine whether an object is worth reflecting on, whether it will repay our attention and produce endless fascination. A person of good taste discovers new patterns to explore, finds unexpected avenues of meaning, and responds with feelings and insights that generate new ways of describing something.
Kant, of course, would never have assented to using his theory to understand the enjoyment of wine or food. "Mouth taste" he argued is a matter of immediately liking or not liking something and does not provoke contemplation as the appreciation of fine art does. But on this point, I think Kant was wrong.
For example, this kind of indeterminate play between our concept of what something is and an intriguing, sensual experience that we cannot quite place in any traditional category is precisely what Modernist cuisine (aka molecular gastronomy) aims for. The moments of uncertainty, surprise, and deconstructive gestures of their dishes provoke the kind of intellectual playfulness that Kant thought was the essence of aesthetic experience. When the flavors are genuinely delicious and we experience the harmony and unity of the flavor profile along with the intellectual pleasures of searching for indeterminate meaning, a judgment that the object is beautiful seems appropriate.
Caviar made from sodium alginate and calcium, burning sherbets, spaghetti made from vegetables produce precisely this kind of response. They challenge the intellect and force our imagination to restructure our conceptual framework just as Kant suggested.
Kant was right to point to this kind of experience as genuinely aesthetic but wrong in his judgment that food could not be the object of such an experience. One wonders what the old professor, who never ventured more than 10 miles from his home in Königsberg, had on his plate for dinner.
But what about wine? Wine too is mysterious and a provocation to further exploration, but it fascinates differently from the mysteries of Modernist cuisine. Its capacity for evolution in the bottle and in the glass and the volatile esters that leap from its surface mean that each bottle promises new and different perceptions, and each sip can reveal hidden layers of flavors and fleeting aromas. Great wines have the ability to arrest our habitual heedlessness and distracted preoccupation and rivet our attention on something awe-inspiring yet utterly inconsequential, without aim or purpose, lacking in survival value, monetary reward, or salutary advance in our assets. These experiences are almost always the result of paradox—power combined with finesse, elegance with carnality, surface sheen and depth.
When we are so transfixed by the sensory surface of the world, we stand outside that nexus of practical concerns and settling of accounts that makes up the everyday. Shorn of that identity we drink in the flavors seduced by the thought that there is goodness in the world—whole, unadulterated, without measure. This is part of the attraction of great art and music as well—a moment of ecstasy.
It is not at all clear that Kant's free play of the understanding and imagination quite captures the sheer sensuality of these experiences, whether the object be wine, music, or a work of visual art. It is more like receptively opening up to sensation rather than an intellectual search for a principle. In the end, Kant's view seems too intellectual, too bound up with understanding to account for our fascination with the sensuous surface of things, the pure enjoyment of appearances.
So I fear we are not quite there in our pursuit of good taste.
Maybe if I open another bottle the answer will become clear.
For more ruminations on the philosophy of food and wine visit Edible Arts.
Interrogating a Poet
by Shadab Zeest Hashmi
Distance is journey’s squinting twin; it courts vision. My country, you will understand, came from vision’s egg. It came from a dreamer of journeys—a poet who entertained nightly the spirits of distant poets: Plato, Ghazali, Rumi, Hafiz, Goethe— sojourners all. What distilled from their vapor was the map of my country.
You can find black and white reels of the millions who made the journey into this dreamer’s land—on trains, oxcarts, on foot. Jour is day, and journey, the work wheel with dreams for spokes we turn daily.
The souring of his dream may also be seen best on a journey; myopic distance fusing radii surreptitiously, organically— vision brought into clear focus: New hay turning into gold— new sweat.
We learn to avoid shadows. We walk in the light cast by our own missteps.
Why must you always talk about the past?
Time is an unattached door. It opens unexpectedly and remains open only for those who know to sing to the pastpresentfuture and work their own destiny.
Note that we make the journey in retrograde motion, like planets, or better, like Khwaja Nasruddin, the real father of the fabliau, who preferred to travel facing the opposite way, and traveled by donkey— a beast that served as his alter ego: humble, comical, industrious, stubborn and forgiving of the burden it carried. Khwaja was anything but backward in thinking. His grip on perspective was firm, wrestler-like. He lived in a time similar to our own: too slick, too beautiful, too cunning and cruel. Even the Sufis were bending their wisdom to suit desires, poisoning watchdogs so as to steal past the sleeping soul. Khwaja the buffoon made whole villages roar with laughter at his antics until they cried. They understood soon and they understood well that they were crying and laughing at themselves. Khawja was a saint, a sufi of the future—his way of entering the future was to survey the scenes he passed, to grin at tradition and poke the prides of the day. By stoking the past, he lit up the future. The poet looks for just that kind of transformation, in slow time, "civilizational" time. New time is a mirage, a blind dash. In the words of an American sage, the poet Roethke: “Art is the means we have of undoing the damage of haste. It's what everything else isn't.”
But a country in crisis, such as yours, has no use for poetry.
When in distress, we turn to words that vivify us. This energy is ours and ours alone. We put it to work.
Poetry turns a stampede into a dance. It rings the only bell we can all hear.
Sunday, March 30, 2014
An Attempt to Discover the Laws of Literature
Joshua Rothman profiles Franco Moretti's efforts at 'distant reading' in the New Yorker (via Andrew Sullivan):
Franco Moretti, a professor at Stanford, whose essay collection “Distant Reading” just won the National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism, fascinates critics in large part because he does want to answer the question definitively. He thinks that literary criticism ought to be a science. In 2005, in a book called “Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History,” he used computer-generated visualizations to map, among other things, the emergence of new genres. In 2010, he founded the Stanford Literary Lab, which is dedicated to analyzing literature with software. The basic idea in Moretti’s work is that, if you really want to understand literature, you can’t just read a few books or poems over and over (“Hamlet,” “Anna Karenina,” “The Waste Land”). Instead, you have to work with hundreds or even thousands of texts at a time. By turning those books into data, and analyzing that data, you can discover facts about literature in general—facts that are true not just about a small number of canonized works but about what the critic Margaret Cohen has called the “Great Unread.” At the Literary Lab, for example, Moretti is involved in a project to map the relationships between characters in hundreds of plays, from the time of ancient Greece through the nineteenth century. These maps—which look like spiderwebs, rather than org charts—can then be compared; in theory, the comparisons could reveal something about how character relationships have changed through time, or how they differ from genre to genre. Moretti believes that these types of analyses can highlight what he calls “the regularity of the literary field. Its patterns, its slowness.” They can show us the forest rather than the trees.
Moretti’s work has helped to make “computational criticism,” and the digital humanities more generally, into a real intellectual movement. When, the week before last, Stanford announced that undergraduates would be able to enroll in “joint majors” combining computer science with either English or music, it was hard not to see it as a sign of Moretti’s influence. Yet Moretti has critics. They point out that, so far, the results of his investigations have been either wrong or underwhelming. (A typical Moretti finding is that, in eighteenth-century Britain, for instance, the titles of novels grew shorter as the market for novels grew larger—a fact that is “interesting” only in quotes.) And yet these sorts of objections haven’t dimmed the enthusiasm for Moretti’s work.
The Top of the World
Doug Henwood reviews Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century, in Bookforum:
The core message of this enormous and enormously important book can be delivered in a few lines: Left to its own devices, wealth inevitably tends to concentrate in capitalist economies. There is no “natural” mechanism inherent in the structure of such economies for inhibiting, much less reversing, that tendency. Only crises like war and depression, or political interventions like taxation (which, to the upper classes, would be a crisis), can do the trick. And Thomas Piketty has two centuries of data to prove his point.
In more technical terms, the central argument of Capital in the Twenty-First Century is that as long as the rate of return on capital, r, exceeds the rate of broad growth in national income, g—that is, r > g—capital will concentrate. It is an empirical fact that the rate of return on capital—income in the form of profits, dividends, rents, and the like, divided by the value of the assets that produce the income—has averaged 4–5 percent over the last two centuries or so. It is also an empirical fact that the growth rate in GDP per capita has averaged 1–2 percent. There are periods and places where growth is faster, of course: the United States in younger days, Japan from the 1950s through the 1980s, China over the last thirty years. But these are exceptions—and the two earlier examples have reverted to the mean. So if that 4–5 percent return is largely saved rather than being bombed, taxed, or dissipated away, it will accumulate into an ever-greater mass relative to average incomes. That may seem like common sense to anyone who’s lived through the last few decades, but it’s always nice to have evidence back up common sense, which isn’t always reliable.
There’s another trend that intensifies the upward concentration of wealth: Fortunes themselves are ratcheting upward; within the proverbial 1 percent, the 0.1 percent are doing better than the remaining 0.9 percent, and the 0.01 percent are doing better than the remaining 0.09 percent, and so on. The bigger the fortune, the higher the return.
More here. Also see these reviews of the book by Jacob Hacker, Paul Pierson, Heather Boushey, and Branko Milanovic.
Les Blank on his Love for Gap-Toothed Women
T'ai Chi Ch'uan, first American film
The Big Sleep - Chapter 1
"Nymphomaniac: Vol. 1": Fishers of Men, Meaning
Lowry Pressly in The LA Review of Books:
It’s funny — and quite telling — that now that von Trier has made an unmistakably Sadean film, the majority of critical attention is focused not on the sadistic but on the allegedly pornographic aspects of the film. Though there is plenty of sex in Nymphomaniac — just not as much in the pared down version distributed here in the US as many expected or hoped for — as in the more transgressive works of Sade, the site of the film’s eroticism is in its discourse, in the telling of the story and not intermittent montages of T&A. Thus, from Juliette: “You have killed me with voluptuousness. Let’s sit down and discuss.” If he could hear the film press titter, surely the Marquis would be rolling (with mordant laughter) in his grave. And given that he was given a full Christian burial against his express wishes, that’s probably not all he’d be doing.
The term “nymphomania” comes to us (or persists, rather) as the result of a Victorian renaming of an ancient construction of female sexuality as psychopathology, which survived even as far as a few editions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. (It was finally abandoned in 1987.) As a diagnosis, nymphomania was applied to displays of female sexuality that were considered “excessive,” which could mean anything from the harboring of sexual fantasies to being attracted to men other than one’s husband. Like most diagnoses that infer a disfigurement of the subject from observations of her behavior, it tells us more about the society that came up with it than about nymphomaniacs themselves. Nymphomania reminds us that what we recognize as deviant in others unsettles us. We often find it easier, or at least psychologically safer, to posit a pathological source for the behavior rather than confront it in ourselves.
A “Lost Interview” With Michel Foucault
Via Open Culture:
Between Hegemony and Distrust: Representative democracy in the Internet era
Nadia Urbanati in Eurozine:
Democracy is undergoing a series of metamorphoses, even though its fundamental norms are not subject to legal and formal changes. From Italy comes my third example. In the 1990s, Beppe Grillo, already known to the wider public as a comedian, gave up national television and re-invented his career in theatres and public demonstrations as tangentopoli (the nationwide political corruption that public prosecutors brought to light in 1992) directed the broader public's attention toward just how corrupt and corruptible politicians had become. In the early years of the twenty-first century, Grillo came to the fore of a movement that reacted against the proliferation of political corruption with satirical condemnation. By 2005, he had transformed himself from a soapbox speaker into a real political agitator. This was in no small part thanks to the creation of a personal blog, beppegrillo.it, designed and sponsored by Gianroberto Casaleggio's Internet and publishing firm, an operation at the forefront of communications management and digital marketing. (The blog attracted the interest of the international press, which rated it one of the best of its kind and earned the admiration and support of Joseph Stiglitz). Thus Grillo integrated two kinds of forum, the physical piazza and the virtual piazza, and made participation through the expression of opinions the engine of a new movement of contestation and participation. However, Grillo did not merely want to lead a movement of protest and opinion. He used his experience of technological innovation in a truly original way: to create a brand new and unique political actor. In just a few years, Grillo's blog became an arena of opinion formation, communication, propaganda and mobilization: it conveyed information on and criticism of local and national politics, global capitalism and consumerism, speculation related to pharmaceutical patents and the destructive exploitation of the environment, among others. Thus Grillo broached issues that were traditionally the concern of the Greens in a country that, in contrast to protestant European countries, has never had an ecological party capable of influencing national politics. Indeed, Grillo's blog was exceptional for the way in which it married ecological and political criticism and made environmental themes central to the charge that democracy as practised in capitalist societies, and especially in Italy and Europe, had suffered a loss of legitimacy.
Within a few years, Grillo's initiative transformed itself from an opinion-based movement into a political movement without losing its original non-party and increasingly anti-party character. Going by the name "Movimento 5 Stelle" (Five-star Movement or "M5S"), Grillo's group first scored well in administrative elections, and won control of the borough council and the position of mayor in Parma, one of the richest industrial cities of the North; finally, it reached parliament with the equivalent of 25 per cent of the vote in the elections of 24 and 25 February 2013. Although it didn't formally rewrite the constitution, M5S did effect the revision of political practice as organized and run by political parties. That is, M5S introduced an element of "directness" into representative democracy, giving birth to what I shall use an oxymoron to describe: direct representative democracy. Since "directness" pertains here to the visual and communicative, we may also refer to this as the birth of a live broadcasting representative democracy, as distinct from direct participation in the sense of the classical meaning of political autonomy.
Beating the Drum: Dwyer Murphy interviews Jesmyn Ward
Over at Guernica:
Guernica: You said a moment ago that some people thought your first novel was “just a Southern book.” Does Southern literature get treated as a niche genre, with a limited audience, in your experience?
Jesmyn Ward: Publishing companies put labels on these books. For me, the labels are Southern and black and woman. For some reason, they think an audience depends on the author’s identity, and every time they add another box, the audience gets smaller in their minds. You know those numbers showing that in the workplace, a person of color has to work ten times harder or more efficiently than a white colleague? I hate to say this, but I feel like that’s the case with literature, too. I’m not saying I have to write a book that’s ten times better than my counterparts, but I do think that I have to concentrate my efforts on writing something that will really engage people’s humanity and will tie readers to my characters regardless of race. I have to prove that I can connect with a wider audience. I think I accomplished that with Salvage. I went to Mystic, Connecticut, for example, to a wonderful bookstore there, full of people who couldn’t have been further from the place I come from, but they really responded to my work and saw my characters as human beings and loved them that way.
Guernica: You’ve been more willing than many novelists to engage with bigger political and social issues. Do you regret there aren’t more out there with you?
Jesmyn Ward: I understand why some writers resist it. They fear being boxed in, relegated to a category of political or socially conscious fiction. But I just don’t think I have a choice. I’m writing about the things I see all around me. Growing up in Mississippi, I’ve seen how these backward ideas about class and race and healthcare and education and housing and racism impact everyday lives. For example, my mother wouldn’t let me go to my homecoming dance because the yacht club where they were having the dance threw a fundraiser for David Duke, an ex-Klan member, when he was running for governor of Louisiana. So I grew up seeing how personal politics could be. It’s something I can’t avoid if I’m telling the truth about this place and writing about this community and Mississippi honestly.
Jennifer Saul on Implicit Bias
Over at Philosphy Bites:
Are we more biased than we imagine? In this episode of the Philosophy Bitespodcast Jennifer Saul investigates a range of ways in which we are prone to implict bias and the philosophical implications of these biases.
The anatomy of a turning point: Remembering Sherwin Nuland
Emily McManus in TED:
Surgeon, author and speaker Sherwin Nuland died on March 3, 2014, at age 83. The author of a dozen books — including the award-winning How We Die, a clear-eyed look at life’s last chapter — Nuland came to TED in 2001 to tell a story he’d never told before. The world-renowned surgeon, clinical professor of surgery at Yale and best-selling author began his talk with a history of mental health and mental illness … and gradually began to weave in his own story, of a depression so crippling, so impossible to shift, that in his 40s he was in line for a lobotomy. But his young doctor made a bold suggestion, and then stuck to it in the face of widespread doubt: Nuland would try electric shock therapy.
It’s a stunning talk. TED’s own Tom Rielly, who saw the talk live, remembers:
“Sherwin’s talk took us on a journey into the hell of his darkest depression and his improbable journey back. From literally sleeping in the gutter to recovering his life via a caring young doctor who kept him from being lobotomized, Nuland’s powerful storytelling nearly stopped the Monterey conference room from breathing, and then ultimately allowed a tearful catharsis. Nuland affected me more powerfully than any talk before or since. Having lived with the illness for more than 30 years I know how easily it could have been I who was prostrate on the street. I will always be grateful to him for showing me the power of honesty even about the things that terrify.”
Afghan war rugs
Nigel Lendon in HimalSouthAsian:
In late 1989 the last troops of the Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan had left after a decade of resistance by the various factions of the mujahideen. During this period one finds an extraordinary profusion of visual media opposing the Soviet occupation. Contradictions abound in the visual record of this unhappy decade, and the non-traditional narrative carpets of this period constitute a form of indigenous modernism which occurred independently of other modes of contemporary visual art elsewhere in the world.
The rugs produced as a consequence of the Pakistani diaspora are more radically non-traditional than those which emerged from Iran. From the early 1980s a wide range of anti-Soviet propaganda was produced in Islamabad, and smuggled into Afghanistan. Therefore it is not surprising to find examples of imagery in war rugs reflecting a common propagandistic intent. In this rug,President Najibullah, who ruled until 1992, is represented as a puppet of the Soviet Union. In examples such as this one finds quite complex pictorial fields combined in the one image. The upper register is organised as patterned militaria, from which emerges the giant hand of the Soviet puppeteer (marked with the distorted hammer and sickle) holding the figure of the Afghan President. The central register is taken up by the map of Afghanistan, and Najibullah is shown as under attack from all sides by mujahideen. In contrast, in the lower register (representing Baluchistan), one sees the peaceful past, represented as an idyllic scene of Kuchi nomads.
I take my wine jug out among the flowers
to drink alone, without friends.
I raise my cup to entice the moon.
That, and my shadow, makes us three.
But the moon doesn't drink,
and my shadow silently follows.
I will travel with moon and shadow,
happy to the end of spring.
When I sing, the moon dances.
When I dance, my shadow dances, too.
We share life's joys when sober.
Drunk, each goes a separate way.
Constant friends, although we wander,
we'll meet again in the Milky Way.