Monday, March 23, 2015
A Chronicle of the Minutiae
by Namit Arora
A review of Odysseus Abroad, a novel by Amit Chaudhuri.
Ananda Sen, the young Bengali protagonist in Amit Chaudhuri’s sixth novel, Odysseus Abroad, is an aspiring poet, singer of ragas, and seeker of the romantic spark in London, 1985. Raised in Bombay but with ancestral roots in Sylhet, Bangladesh, Ananda has been studying English literature for over two years at a university in London—all details that also describe Chaudhuri’s own past. Ananda’s maternal uncle, Radhesh Majumdar—a character based on Chaudhuri’s own uncle—is in London too, in a Belsize Park bedsit for 24 years. Odysseus Abroad is a portrait of Ananda, Radhesh, and their relationship, rendered through their memories, everyday experiences, and responses to contemporary British culture.
Odysseus Abroad is not a traditional novel. It has no plot, no existential crisis, no darkness lurking in any soul; nor does it abound in moral conflicts or messy heartbreaks. In a recent interview, Chaudhuri, professor of contemporary literature at a British university, claimed to have ‘rejected the monumental superstructure of the novel in favour of the everyday rhythms of the day.’ Sadly, in Odysseus Abroad, this feels like the author taking away the cake and not offering any pudding either.
The novel opens with Ananda, 22, who dreams of getting published in Poetry Review, practices singing twice a day, and frets about his noisy Indian neighbors above and below his flat. From the daily rhythm of noises—creaking floorboards, kitchen sounds, a new kind of ‘angry, insistent’ music called ‘rap’—he has figured out the patterns of life of the young Gujaratis upstairs. Though ‘disengaged from Indian politics’, he is ‘dilettantishly addicted to British politicians—the debates; the mock outrage; the amazing menu of accents’ on TV. We learn that his privileged class status in India—marked by a ‘cursory but proud knowledge of Bengali literature’, ‘lettuce sandwiches as a teatime snack’, speaking English at home, ‘a diet of Agatha Christie and Earl Stanley Gardner’ in his early teens—meant that he remained largely oblivious to class until he came to England.
Financed by his parents, he lives frugally, eats Chinese takeout, suffers from acidity, and masturbates often—his two sexual encounters with others are limited to ‘coitus with prostitutes’ in Bombay, which had settled that he is not gay. He reads the Oxford Companion to Modern British Literature, and—idly and preciously—dwells on ‘cherished lines and phrases’ by and about Shakespeare, Shelley, Auden, Keats, Larkin, and others. Wasn’t it only in England, he wonders, that he had discovered the beauty of the word ‘summer’ (as in ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’)? About Larkin’s three slim volumes of poetry, wasn’t there ‘something wonderful about their antithetical efflorescence, their muted hostility to their own existence’? Alongside such reflections, Ananda imagines his own poems to be ‘frozen pieces of music’ shaped by viraha—an Indian variant of eros suffused with a sense of separation from, and longing for, the nameless beloved.
Ananda’s first two years in London were painful. He felt ‘terribly excluded’ from his social milieu. He stopped attending lectures and only appeared for his tutorials, during which he had some amusing interactions with three tutors, including a beautiful young feminist. His fellow students filled ‘him with nervousness and distrust because of their pink complexions and blue eyes’. He finds himself developing ‘a strange unconscious familiarity’ with all non-Caucasians in London, who ‘could be presumed upon in a way that the white man couldn’t.’ Unlike non-Caucasians, whose ‘consciousnesses were fuzzier, less individual, and softer, like their physical features—noses, jawlines, bodies’, the ‘very clarity and perfection of features made each version of [the white man] separate, singular, and quietly nervous-making’ to Ananda.
He meets his uncle once or twice a week. ‘They got on each other’s nerves, but had grown fond of the frisson. He was Ananda’s sole friend in London—and Ananda his.’ Ananda’s parents, before his birth, had lived in the same building in Belsize Park where Radhesh had arrived and still lives. Radhesh reminisces about his time in London with Ananda’s parents and their childhood in Sylhet. His account abounds in quotidian details, trifling resentments, and repetitive musings. Radhesh never married and Ananda even suspects him to be a virgin. His big regret in life is to not have become a director at Philipp Bros, a shipping company where he worked as a Chartered Shipbroker, before he was made redundant. Now a pensioner, he obsessively cleans his bowels every morning, rarely bathes, wears an old three-piece suit, watches B-grade action films, relates ghost encounters, and reads the Pan Book of Horror Stories. He defends Tagore as the only worthy poet ever, dismisses Western civilization and its technological marvels as ‘a brash, superficial form of energy’, and sees himself as a pillar of his family for sending money to relatives in various ‘corners of Bengal and Assam’. Even Ananda cannot tolerate him without mild irritation.
The only chronological actions in the novel are the ordinary events of a day in Ananda’s life. He meets his tutor, pays his rent, and visits Radhesh at the latter’s bedsit that afternoon. They engage in desultory talk, wander a few streets, and dine at an Indian restaurant. The novel does evoke a sense of place, especially the streets of London. Many South Asian immigrants may recognize aspects of their experience in Britain—their fears, responses, patterns of life—but the novel offers little beyond the occasional pleasure of recognition or amusing repartee. More often than not, its two main characters seem tediously self-absorbed; it’s hard to care for them or their trivial concerns. Chaudhuri’s prose is well-wrought and very readable but almost always his portraiture amounts to little more than a parade of small vignettes, pedestrian observations, and superficial cultural and personal idiosyncrasies.
Contrast Ananda’s story with another quasi-autobiographical story, of the young South African protagonist in JM Coetzee’s Youth (2003), also an aspiring poet and artist who arrives in London and takes up residence in a Belsize Park bedsit. Like Ananda, his life in London is dreary and hard, devoid of any romantic sparks to sweep him away. His awkward social and sexual encounters lead him to think that ‘he is still a child ignorant of his place in the world, frightened, indecisive. What is he doing in this huge, cold city where merely to stay alive means holding tight all the time, trying not to fall?’ Ananda rarely offers us such probing self-reflection. Youth, unlike Odysseus Abroad, is a dazzling portrait of a young man’s inner life and his growing artistic, emotional, and moral self-awareness.
Chaudhuri has been called a miniature artist. This is a claim about form—the size of his canvas—not the quality of its content. Miniature artistry can be moving and profound. What’s problematic with Odysseus Abroad is not the form but the content. If the miniature artist depicts the mundane and the impressionistic, as Chaudhuri does, at the expense of the many deep and invisible motive forces in our lives, we’re left with a mere chronicle of the minutiae. What artists offer to the world is up to them but shouldn’t we demand more from the art we applaud? To call this a retelling of the tale of Odysseus and Telemachus seems pretentious. Rather, it’s a middling, if lovingly told, story of two unheroic immigrants. Odysseus Abroad is not only a portrait of the banal, it’s also a banal portrait.
More writing by Namit Arora?
Fatwas and fundamental truths
by Mandy de Waal
A South African literary event called 'The Time of the Writer' was to have been a moment of celebration for local writer Zainub Priya Dala. The author's debut novel, called What About Meera, was due to have been launched at the Durban festival.
Instead Dala was nursing injuries after being attacked at knifepoint with a brick and called [Salman] "Rushdie's Bitch!" The attack – which shocked and outraged SA's literary community – happened one day after Dala had expressed an appreciation of Rushdie's work.
"Dala was followed from the festival hotel and was harassed by three men in a vehicle who pushed her car off the road," a statement by Dala's publishers read. "When she stopped, two of the men advanced to her car, one holding a knife to her throat and the other hitting her in the face with a brick while calling her ‘Rushdie's bitch'. She has been treated by her doctor for soft-tissue trauma, and has reported the incident to the police."
The author – who is also a therapist who counsels autistic children – said through her publishers that she believed the attack stemmed from her voicing support for Rushdie's writing style. Dala was at a school's writing forum and was asked which writers she admired. She offered a list of writers including Arundhati Roy, and said that she "liked Salman Rushdie's literary style." After saying she appreciated Rushdie, a number of teachers and students stood up and walked out in protest. The next day Dala was attacked.
After discovering what happened to Dala, Rushdie Tweeted: "I'm so sorry to hear this. I hope you're recovering well. All good wishes." Dala's response? "Thank you. I have my family and children around me and am recovering."
SA literary site, www.bookslive.co.za stated that "the assault counts as an extension of Rushdie's complicated history with South Africa." BooksLive explained that Rushdie "was famously ‘disinvited' from a literary festival in 1988, after the Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa was issued against him and his novel, The Satanic Verses."
Rushdie was invited to South Africa 27 years back by a top investigative newspaper to give a public lecture on censorship. He was due to have shared a platform with Booker prize winners Nadine Gordimer and JM Coetzee.
As news of the invitation spread, the paper received threats of violence. The Africa Muslim Agency demanded that the invitation be withdrawn, and The Islamic Missionary Society stated that "there was every likelihood that [Rushdie] would be assaulted." The Islamic society warned that blood would flow. "There are secret Muslim hit squads who have vowed to avenge the honour of the Holy Prophet Muhammed," it stated.
After long, careful and painful negotiation by multiple parties involved in the event, the invitation was withdrawn, an outcome that JM Coetzee condemned. "Islamic fundamentalism in its activist manifestation is bad news. Religious fundamentalism in general is bad news. We know about religious fundamentalism in South Africa. Calvinist fundamentalism has been an unmitigated force of benightedness in our history," Coetzee told a meeting in Cape Town.
"Wherever there is a bleeding sore on the body of the world, the same hard-eyed narrow-minded fanatics are busy, indifferent to life, in love with death. Behind them always come the mullahs, the rabbis, the predikante [ministers], giving their blessings," Coetzee added.
"There is nothing more inimical to writing than the spirit of fundamentalism. Fundamentalism abhors the play of signs, the endlessness of writing. Fundamentalism means nothing more or less than going back to an origin and staying there. It stands for one founding book and thereafter no more books," he said.
"As the various books of the various fundamentalisms, each claiming to be the one true book, fantasise themselves to be signed in fire or engraved in stone, so they aspire to strike dead every rival book, petrifying the sinuous, protean, forward-gliding life of the letters on their pages, turning them into physical objects to be anathematised, things of horror not to be touched, not to be looked upon," said Coetzee.
In the wake of this awful attack on freedom of speech and on a promising young writer, how does one show support for Dala? As anchor, author and journalist, Imran Garda eloquently tweeted, we support Dala by buying her book. By championing the "endlessness of writing" - her writing - we eloquently add to the roar of writers globally who condemn this heinous act.
Mandy de Waal is a writer and journalist based in Cape Town South Africa. Follow her on Twitter: @mandyLdewaal
Fireflies and Fiery Fatherly Love: An Excerpt from What About Meera by ZP Dala
South Africa: Clash of the Booker titans in The Guardian.
Frances Stark. Pull After Push, 2010.
Paint, printed matter, linen tape, stickers on panel
All The Wrong Places
by Lisa Lieberman
Hollywood, California, Summer 1941
I believe that the person you are when you're eight years old is the person you really are.
I was creeping up on Geoffrey as he sat meditating on the lawn—not that I could be invisible, my girl's body draped in my mother's mink coat—but Geoffrey was in one of his trances. I could have danced naked in front of him and he'd have continued to stare into the void.
Sometimes I did go naked; lots of people did at Walden Lodge in those days. My father was known as a bohemian and bathing suits were optional around the pool, although you had to dress for dinner in the lodge. Winters could be chilly even in Southern California, but there were always a few diehards who went skinny dipping regardless of the weather. Starlets who'd do anything to get a part in one of Father's pictures. Englishmen, like Geoffrey, who'd gone to boarding schools where they made you bathe in cold water, year-round. He got used to it, found it invigorating. "Manly," as my brother Gray put it, the arch tone in his voice laced with affection.
"Gray, darling. How would you know?" said Vivien, my mother, in the same tone, minus the affection.
I paused to kick off Vivien's high heels, which kept sinking into the earth. Barefoot, I moved stealthily over the silky grass, stalking my prey. The air smelled of citrus, the overripe sweetness of oranges that had fallen on the ground and were beginning to rot in the sun. We picked as many as we could, but there were always fruits we couldn't reach.
Years later, when I was in Sicily filming a B-movie with Adrian, beautiful, wounding Adrian, we stayed in a pensione in Taormina. Three months with my love in Italia! The movie was forgettable but I finagled a print from the director, mostly because of my scenes with Adrian. The Italian actress they got to dub my dialogue had this wonderful, husky voice. It's a treat watching us in Italian, where you don't have to pretend to follow the plot.
The pensione had a swimming pool set in a terraced garden that reminded me of Father's, complete with lemon trees. For breakfast, they served us juice made from blood oranges. I couldn't get over the ruby red pulp. That was Sicily, always surprising you with its vibrancy. Of course, I was passionately in love at the time and everything seemed bright and intense—especially in contrast to England, where Gray and I had been living for several years by that time on account of the blacklist. I swear it had rained every single day we'd been in London. I'd grown accustomed to the dreariness, everything subdued, even the kitten I found near our flat in Soho, a pitiful blue Persian with copper eyes.
"Her name is Fog," I informed my brother, "and we're keeping her." Not that he would have denied me anything at that point in our bleak exile. I was seventeen when we arrived and had just given up my newborn son for adoption. I was desperate for something to love. As was he, poor Gray, although being seventeen, I thought only about my own sorrows.
Geoffrey was wearing a khaki jacket over baggy shorts, one of those belted safari outfits with multiple pockets. He looked like an insect, a grasshopper, maybe, his spindly legs folded awkwardly beneath him, Indian fashion. That's what they called it then, Indian fashion, and I imagined him as an American Indian, sitting cross-legged on the ground. But Geoffrey was being the other kind of Indian, the Hindu kind. Every morning he did an hour of yoga, followed by a dip in the pool, au naturel. He was before his time, a visionary. I'll give him that. Walden Lodge is now a fashionable spa where celebrities go to lose weight and detox. Clothing is optional, I've heard, and yoga is all the rage.
I drew the mink coat over my head like a hood and tied the sleeves around my neck, to free up my paws for pouncing. With a snarl, I launched myself at Geoffrey, catching him squarely in the middle of his chest and knocking him backward onto the ground.
"Ouf!" he gasped. "I've just been attacked by a . . . what kind of creature are you, Cara child?"
"I'm a cheetah. I'm extremely fast. You didn't have a chance," I consoled him as I brushed him off and helped him resume his yogi pose.
"A cheetah?" He still sounded a bit winded. "Are cheetahs native to this region? If so, it's the first I've heard of it." Geoffrey once told me that he'd been picked on at school for being a know-it-all.
"Very well. I'm a puma, then. I'm still pretty fast and I've been known to eat humans. In one sitting."
He extracted his monogrammed cigarette case from a pocket. "Do you mind? I always smoke at times like this," he said. "Calms the nerves."
Strange, now that I think of it. Those were his exact words when I found him standing over Vivien's body.
* * * * *
Lisa Lieberman's debut historical noir has just been published in hardcover by Five Star. Fans of Lisa's film reviews will get a kick from All The Wrong Places, a mystery set in exotic European locales which pays tribute to the films of the forties and fifties, capped off with a thrilling finale straight out of Hitchcock. Order it from your favorite independent bookseller or buy it online from Amazon.
Monday, March 16, 2015
by Hari Balasubramanian
A selection of facts, research and personal encounters involving beavers and their habitat.
In October 2007, an 835-meter long beaver dam was discovered on Google Earth. It remains the longest one found so far. The dam was in the "thick wildness of Northern Alberta", in Wood Buffalo National Park. In July 2014 someone called Rob Mark, an amateur explorer from New Jersey, managed to reach the dam. He reports that it was incredibly difficult terrain to get through. The mosquitoes in Alberta were much worse than the Amazonian rain forest; they sounded like helicopters and bit through his clothes. When Mark finally got to the dam, a resident beaver announced its displeasure with angry slaps of its flat tail on the water.
It was wonderful and somehow liberating to hear this last detail. To the beaver of course, the effort that had gone into this journey of discovery – the sort that seems to matter a lot of us humans – meant absolutely nothing; it only counted as an intrusion.
But I do understand why Mark made the journey. I've been chasing beavers myself in the conservation areas of Amherst, Massachusetts (where I live). Last year, I designed my summer and fall hikes so as to cover as many beaver ponds as possible: like a traveling salesman trying to cover all customer locations efficiently. One evening, with light fading fast, I was walking along the Fort River, a tributary of the Connecticut. Suddenly, there was a tremendous splash as if a boulder had been thrown from a considerable height into the water. It was October, and with winter fast approaching, the beavers were trying to dam the river. A red maple tree, leaves still clinging to its branches, had been felled. But it wasn't the tree that had caused the splash; the tree had been brought down perhaps a couple of days ago. The deep, explosive noise – impossible though that seemed – was the flat tail of a beaver hitting against the running water! As if to dissuade me from exploring further, the beaver produced yet another equally noisy warning.
Intrigued, I visited Amherst town offices a couple of days later, to ask if someone there had information on beavers in conservation areas. A town official heard me out, but he was concerned: "It would be unacceptable if the Fort River was being dammed as you say. This would flood nearby homes. Beavers change the ground water level so even people with homes that are far away from beaver dams notice flooding in their basements and are puzzled. I need to send my land manager out immediately." A bearded stranger, who happened to be passing by and had overheard, stopped and said eagerly: "Do you need to take care of beavers? Because I know someone who does a very good job." In effect he was claiming he knew a Beaver Hitman.
These reactions left no doubt about the beaver's modern status as a pest in residential areas. But there is another kind of status this natural engineer has, and it has to do, among other things, with how well it retains water on the landscape even in periods of drought and creates conditions where diverse types of wildlife can thrive. Let's take a closer look.
The North American beaver, Castor Canadensis, is a large, furry rodent. Most beavers are dark-brown, though some have lighter coats. The darker ones I sighted early on in Amherst reminded me of the big, scary rats I used to spot back in India, disappearing into the gutters and plumbing tunnels of railway stations. But beavers are actually closer to squirrels and marmots than to rats. They diverged 90-100 million years ago from their closest living relatives  and have since then charted a unique course as ecosystem engineers.
Those of you who are unfamiliar, here are some important details about the North American beaver (you can also check out this info-graphic):
1. A busy, mostly nocturnal and semi-aquatic creature, the beaver brings down trees by chewing on their trunks with its powerful teeth. Living in the vicinity of rivers and streams, the beaver builds dams and lodges with mud, material collected from the fallen trees, and stone. A vegetarian, the beaver feeds on barks, twigs, leaves and aquatic vegetation. Dams are usually not as large as the one discovered in Alberta: it's more common to spot dams like this one I found last October in Amherst.
2. Dams allow the beaver to create deep ponds which predators have a hard time accessing. To further protect themselves, beavers build multi-chambered lodges in the ponds that only have entrances underwater. The lodge is where a family stays. A family consists of two parents that typically mate for life, and their offspring. In places where the water freezes, temperatures in the lodge stay in a narrow range between 0.8-1.6 degree Celsius, even as the outside maximum and minimum fluctuate between -21 and -6.8 degree Celsius . While in the lodge, the beavers live off a nearby cache of twigs and branches collected before winter begins.
3. Once widespread in North America, beavers were trapped and their fur used to create hats fashionable in Europe from the 17th-19th centuries. The fur trade between Native Americans and Europeans brought numbers down dramatically. In many states, like Massachusetts and New York, beavers disappeared completely. In the 20th century, they were reintroduced in many wilderness areas in the United States and Canada, and have made a very strong recovery.
Mitigating the Effects of Drought
In 1941, beavers were re-introduced into Elk Island National Park in south-central Alberta. Park wardens kept detailed records and maps of how many beavers were active and in which ponds. Here was a long term natural experiment, a unique opportunity to quantify the impact of beavers. A researcher named Glynnis Hood began looking at this data spanning 54 years, from 1948-2002 .
In the years following the reintroduction, there were very few beavers. But fifty years later, the number of active lodges in the ponds had gone up significantly. And so, it turned out, had the area of open water. When Hood her co-author Suzanne Bayley looked at the area of open water – measured by digitizing aerial photographs taken in the park over the 54 year period – they found that it was strongly positively correlated with the number of active beaver lodges.
The authors also looked at a host of other variables, such as mean maximum annual temperature, precipitation and rainfall in the months and years leading up to a particular year. These variables, along with the number of active and inactive beaver lodges, were tried as inputs to a statistical model, a regression. The goal was to identify which variables best explained the area of open water. The authors found that the number of active beaver lodges was by far the most significant factor, comfortably surpassing temperature and precipitation.
What's so special, you might ask: beavers simply chase water, which might explain the correlation. But there was an important catch: 2002 was the driest year on record, with the lowest precipitation, yet ponds with active beaver in them had nine times more open water compared to the exact same ponds in 1950, a year that had 47% more precipitation compared to 2002 but no beaver activity! If we take the mean annual precipitation 2-years prior to a particular year we get the following results for 1948, 1950, 1996 and 2001. The numbers here are based my visual inspection of the graphs in the Hood and Bayley paper  (I do not have access to the raw numbers, so these are only approximately accurate values). The data below is for ponds that did not have active beaver in them in 1948 and 1950, but did have active beaver colonies in 1996 and 2001.
Notice that while the precipitation levels in 1948 and 1950 are fairly similar to those in 1996 and 2001, differences in open water area are huge!
Hood explains the implications in the PBS Nature documentary, Leave It To Beavers: "In 2002, we had the worst drought on record. The only places where we had water in natural areas was where we had beaver. And farmers were actually seeking out neighbors who had beavers on their landscape to water their cattle. So with beavers back on the land, even during the worst drought on record, they were mitigating the effects of drought and keeping water on the landscape."
How exactly did beavers manage this? "In part, they were digging these channels," Hood says. "The bottom of a beaver pond is really, really convoluted, it's flying through the Grand Canyon, where you've got these deep, furrowed valleys and dynamic pond bottoms. Deeper ponds keep more water because you have less evaporation coming off of them. Beavers were using that to their advantage, digging deeper and deeper and allowing water to focus in here, so the ponds with beaver had water, and ponds without beaver didn't, plain and simple." [short video]
Enabling a Diversity of Wildlife
When a species engineers the retention and flow of a natural resource as important as water, its presence naturally influences the well-being and prevalence of a host of other species. For millions of years, beavers have co-evolved with a wide variety of organisms that take advantage of the engineered habitat. "Minks, muskrats, and bats forage in and around beaver ponds. Salamanders, frogs, turtles, water snakes, herons, grebes, ducks, rails, swallows, hawks, owls, flycatchers, and kingfishers all rely quite heavily on beaver-created habitats" . It's no surprise that the beaver is considered a keystone species.
Beavers eventually abandon their ponds and move on to create new ones. The abandoned ponds then turn into meadows where, after many years, trees of the type the beaver felled now may take root again. This means that at any time there are a patchwork of different habitats, each benefiting a different set of species. Beaver landscapes thus produce results that are far more robust and interesting from a species diversity viewpoint compared to reservoirs and ponds created by human dams, which are not as dynamic.
Enter a beaver pond and you'll notice immediately that something is different. To me, the most striking thing about these ponds is how disorderly they are; they are the opposite of manicured, symmetric lawns and well kept gardens. The still water of the pond sets up the tranquil mood, but otherwise there are logs and broken stumps haphazardly strewn and poking out of the water at odd angles; dead but still standing trees with no leaves, trees that died when the beaver flooded the area. My favorite pond is adjacent to a relatively busy road in south Amherst. In late summer and early fall, a great variety of birds are active there. Woodpeckers, cedar waxwings, wood thrushes, blue jays, goldfinches, cardinals, chickadees, warblers: I saw them all regularly and easily, and always returned from my walks thrilled and rejuvenated.
Most striking of all, a Great Blue Heron would fly in and perch itself on one the dead but standing trees. It happened so often, that I started counting: on 5 successive visits to the same pond, I saw a heron 4 times. I wondered if there was an explicit connection. Turns out that the Great Blue Heron made a convincing recovery in Massachusetts in the 20th century thanks to habitat created by beavers, who were making their own 20th century comeback: "As trees are flooded by rising waters they provide nesting habitat for colonies of great blue herons." . In the book, Beaver: Its Life and Impact , I found this sentence: "The great blue heron exists in the Adirondack Mountains [of New York State] because of the dead standing trees that have been killed by beavers."
All this chasing of beavers in the summer and fall had an interesting personal consequence. One day my wife and I were set to drive to a theater to watch the much acclaimed Bollywood movie, Haider. Just before we left, I noticed a tick entrenched in my upper back. We brought out a magnifying glass: it was a deer tick, the kind which can transmit bacteria that cause Lyme disease. In seeking beavers, I had walked through so many trails thick with vegetation brushing constantly against me that a tick bite at some point was inevitable. So no movie that day – and I still haven't seen Haider! -- instead, I went to a walk-in clinic to get the tick removed. Fortunately, I'd spotted the tick early and there have been no symptoms of Lyme so far. But it did deter, to some extent, my beaver-pond tours for the rest of the season; and maybe this year too. The beavers could use a little privacy.
1. Muller-Schwarze, D. (2011). The beaver: its life and impact. Cornell University Press.
2. Hood, G. A., & Bayley, S. E. (2008). Beaver (Castor canadensis) mitigate the effects of climate on the area of open water in boreal wetlands in western Canada. Biological Conservation, 141(2), 556-567. pdf
3. Scott Jackson and Thomas Decker, 2004, Beavers in Massachusetts, pdf. The lovely black and white illustrations used in this essay are from this document. The illustrator's name is Nancy Haver. Scott Jackson, a professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, was kind enough to speak to me for 45 minutes.
Imtiaz Dharker. Untitled.
Drawing by a most talented poet!
Thanks to Nargis Raza.
by Mathangi Krishnamurthy
I tremble in anticipation of beginning to write this piece. I want to write about Japan, you see? And I want to write about having traveled to Japan. This, as you may have surmised, is a hopeless task. For Japan is overlain with meaning as umami-like and as un-graspable as the coating of wasabi on your peas. See? I did it already. I gave you a familiar metaphor, and I gave you a visceral sensation to inhabit. Done and dusted, and here I give you Japan in a sealed aluminium foil package. But surely there is more I can say? Surely I can give you many more metaphors to make clear the fact that I do not grasp anything at all.
This, in writing, is not admissible. The least, one has to be able to say, is that one does not find things familiar, and hence one dislikes the place. Hark then to the first of the Great Mughals, Babur telling us how he hates India because it lacks wine, melons, and gardens. I must at least feel like Malinowski, who sits notebook in hand, frustrated and complaining about the Trobrianders, and yet forging along seeking meaning. And yet, I do not want to write of strong likes or dislikes, because my travels produced none.
A friend and I made plans to go to Japan during the Chinese New Year. This was only the beginning of our various confusions. Inspired by Junot Diaz's article where he implores one to visit Fukuoka, we booked tickets instead to Tokyo, and the bullet-train to Kyoto. Also, I ignored how his visions of chicken sashimi did not account for my vegetarianism. I read nothing, I anticipated nothing. Armed with a passport and visa, I set of to conquer the Far East.
Arriving at the end of winter, in the middle of an already hectic year, I landed in Tokyo on a cold, rainy day and walked into a universally familiar neon-lit airport populated by tourists and residents also clad in orange neon platform shoes. After having sleepily concluded that the country seemed to have put in place some sort of national costume, I awoke to the epiphany that I had mistaken a set of people traveling together for all of Japan. Maybe the neon shoes helped them keep track of each other. Disciplinarity with flair, I concluded. I liked the sound of this country already, even if I only liked people in its transitional spaces.
My first evening at the airport also involved my first successful act of cultural negotiation, or in other words, the Japanese toilet. The Japanese toilet is a work of art. Never mind the warmed seat, or the accompanying music. Focus instead on the intricacy of the washing arrangements provided from within the humble commode – shower (warm and cold), bidet, and spray. I did not want to leave. Zizek, I thought, might want to look at redoing his terribly entertaining discussion on toilets and ideology.
This cultural translation aside, everything else about Japan remained untranslated. Very few signs English, and most people launched into rapid Japanese at the sight of my decidedly un-Japanese face. I realize this is also a cliched reference. Japan, lost in translation, and therefore continually inscrutable should clearly be a project that I refuse participation in, if only to salvage my academic credentials.
Yet, this lack of translation produced the one thing so decidedly Japanese that days after returning, I am struck by epiphany. Silence. My travels produced silence. I heard nothing that I understood; I needed to say nothing to induce understanding. There is an incredible liberty in being released from language. It produces quietude, thought, ignorance, and non-curiosity. Sounds wafted past in non-language and did not register, and I pointed at things to make myself understood. My traveling companion did one better, and made gargling noises at drugstore personnel to indicate her needs for cough syrup.
In parallel, it also produced a sharp attentiveness to a world of objects. Subway station maps, convenience stores, signboards, posters, buildings, graffiti, teddy bears by riverbanks, screen-printed doors and shutters, sweets of all shapes and sizes and persuasions, wrapping paper, stationery, policemen's bicycles with specially crafted slots for batons, sticks with tiny toys dangling from one end and held up music-conductor-like by tour organizers, and lace doilies on cab seats.
We also noticed people's faces. In the absence of communication, we stared long and hard, hoping that faces would give something away. While we received no insights, and were stared at as many times as we looked, we noticed what is common knowledge about Japan's aging population. Wikipedia informs me solemnly that in 2011 around 23% of the country's population were over 65, while 11.4% were already over 75. This is a grave concern for an already indebted country, and a general area of interest for this world that privileges the excesses of an able, working, and productive young population. Except that in this country of gerontology's excesses, we espied this aging population on their feet and up and about far more than any teenyboppers I've ever had the good fortune of knowing. In a tiny Kyoto lane we sat ourselves down in a café owned and staffed by an elderly lady and gentlemen who brought us coffee, even as another entertained us with his tales of having been on the Buddhist trail in India. Everywhere we went, even as we complained about having to walk endlessly, we saw other aging Japanese walking and working about their daily lives. All the taxi drivers who ferried us around were over 65, treated our lack of both linguistic and topological knowledge with gentle courtesy, and steered us our ways anyway. The country might well need to start offering lessons in knowing how to age gracefully.
We were also lost very often. That terribly useful instrument of modern life, Google Maps, was a spectacular failure for us in Japan. All signs and signals showed up, but in Japanese. We gazed long and hard into our telephone screens, and then walked on perplexed. As a result, we walked many kilometers a day circling around our destinations, and attempting many a conversation. J.R.R.Tolkien might have produced in us the notion that not all who wander are lost, but we most certainly were; and in perpetuity at that. But then, the pleasure of being lost is only available on holiday.
One morning, in the process of being so lost, we set out in search of the famed Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden. Many subway stops, and many wrong turns later, we found our way into one of its gates by the time it was afternoon. Bundling up our jackets, we wandered around in search of some sign of an early cherry blossom, if only to have pictures to show how our travels to Japan had not been in vain. As we wandered, we grew quieter, and the sun came out. We walked to the open spaces that displayed resplendent lone trees with early pink blushes. In true Japanese form, a horde of photographers bearing frightening looking zoom lenses of various sizes had gathered around, and were clicking away in apocalyptic frenzy. Even as we heard the whirring of shutters, three little green birds with disproportionaly large white eyes were putting on a show. They strutted and somersaulted and whizzed past the blossoms, waiting for the cameras to catch them. For a moment, everything came together.
Pico Iyer writes eloquently about how "The Japanese room is a training in inwardness", and how clutter in a room produces a mind that "gets dizzy and overwhelmed; if there is just one, it grows so calm and spacious – so attentive – that in that one it can find a universe." It is true that I traveled through Japan, a rather oblivious spectator. I more often than not did not find things. Neither a love for seafood, nor a working knowledge of Japanese, nor Mt. Fuji. I tried, albeit halfheartedly, and then resumed wandering, slowly. But I grew quiet, and let go of plans, itineraries, tourist cravings, and meaning. I let things happen slowly.
Encounters with the Other take on different modalities. They produce resistance, anger, curiosity, dissent, enthusiasm, and friction. My encounters with Japan produced things I cannot seem to be able to articulate. I imagine I will have to go back.
Monday, March 09, 2015
This Essay is Still not about American Sniper or Even the Travesty of Boyhood Not Winning Best Picture
by Akim Reinhardt
Last month I offered about 2,000 words on the meaninglessness of life.
"Life is meaningless," I said. "Nothing matters, nothing at all."
I suggested that "meaning and truth are just illusions that humans chatter about incessantly because they can't stomach the sheer meaninglessness of it all."
Indeed, your birth was an act of unfathomable randomness, as is the very existence of life on Earth and the rise of humanity. We delude ourselves by creating and embracing meaning. But the absence of truth is the only truth I know and meaninglessness is the only thing I have.
"And today," I said last month, "I just can't bring myself to pretend otherwise."
But 4 Mondays ago isn't everyday. The fact is, many days, perhaps most, I do pretend that things matter and that truth exists and that morality is real.
I pretend even though I know I'm pretending. I can't help myself. I'm not a guru of nihilism with single-minded purpose of pulling back the curtain to reveal the empty chair where you thought sits the wizard. I'm not a sociopath incapable ascertaining that anything might matter beyond me.
I'm just a regular person for the most part. One with a devilish smile and more corduroy than the average person does or should have in their wardrobe, perhaps. But regular in most ways. And so even though I know deep down that life is meaningless, I usually give in to the temptation to pretend that things do matter. Pretending this way comes naturally, and to a large degree I'm happy with the results.
Thus, last month's 2,000 words about why life is meaningless and how nothing matters, are now complemented by these 2,000 words about why and what I pretend is meaningful and matters.
People want to find meaning in life. To do so they embrace belief systems both vast and small. And their actions, in turn, are shaped by those beliefs.
Pretending to find meaning in life is a universal human trait. And when people pretend something is meaningful, they're usually not pretending in the play acting sense of the word. Rather, they truly believe many different pretenses about life's meaning, and they often act accordingly.
Thus, if you believe something is real, then it is real in some sense. It's real to you, and it informs your behavior. You might be wrong in an objective sense. The thing you believe might actually be make believe, but it's real to you, and the consequences of your belief are also real. So while there may not be any meaning to what we pretend is meaningful, it is important nonetheless.
It would be näive to suggest, as some do, that humans are one-dimensional beings who can be completely understood through beliefs systems they embrace and espouse. To the contrary, even the most dogmatic person is capable of betraying their values, of harboring heretical thoughts, of taking actions that defy their professed beliefs, or of engaging in simple hypocrisies. Indeed, to do so is itself a defining characteristic of humanity.
Belief systems then are best understood as a framework that influences actions to varying degrees at various times. But that influence is very real even if it is faulty. On the one hand, even ardent believers stray from time to time. On the other, even the uncommitted act in accordance with vague and banal belief systems much of the time.
As an atheist who doesn't accept supernatural explanations, and as a skeptic more generally, there's no prescribed book of truth in whose pages I can locate the meaning of life or a framework for my actions.
Furthermore, I don't merely reject dogma, I loathe it. Dogma makes people stupid to the point of being insufferable. So instead, whenever I have elected to pretend that life has meaning and that things matter, I've had to figure it out for myself.
What is one to do?
I, for one, have decided to consciously consider what I should pretend matters. I work hard to construct a moral framework that seems right and an ethical system that seems responsible. I try to locate the intersection between my gut and my brain, and from that position I determine what I should pretend matters.
After 47 years on this planet, here's what I've come up with. Let's start with the bad.
1. Wonton cruelty is bad
Suffering and pain are real. We can debate what they mean, if anything, but there's no debating the reality of physical and psychological/emotional pain. Sometimes shit hurts.
Life cannot be pain free. Allowances must be made for suffering and pain that is reasonably self-inflicted (eg. fasting), willingly received (eg. a rough game that one enjoys playing), or necessary for a greater good (eg. a medical procedure). But beyond such exceptions, pain and suffering are awful and I generally strive hard to avoid inflicting them upon other beings.
I'm not perfect. I fuck up. I hurt people sometimes. Skinny motherfucker like me, it's mostly the psychological or emotional variety. But that hardly makes it any better. By accident, carelessness, or weakness, I hurt others from time to time. I almost always regret it and try to learn from it by becoming more conscientious and aware of myself and others in the hope of avoiding the repeats.
I believe that sadism (again, allowing for what two consenting adults might do), is about as bad as human behavior gets. Intentionally causing the pain and suffering of another being for no justifiable reason, relegates a person to the lowest rung of humanity in that moment.
2. Killing is necessary but should be done with discretion and respect
No lives have meaning, which is just one of many reasons why I believe that human lives are not in fact more important than the lives of other sentient animals. Other sentient beings want to live just as much as we do. Perhaps even more so given that they rarely, if ever, commit suicide. Your life might be meaningless, but it's your meaningless life, and theirs is theirs, the only one any of us will ever have. And so killing other beings, human or otherwise, requires justification and care.
The most obvious justification is that all living things must kill and devour other living things in order to continue living. Such a cycle of life and death is not a moral issue in and of itself; it's just the nature of death and life on planet Earth. In an absolute sense, there's nothing moral or immoral about a lion killing and eating a gazelle. But there is also no relative morality since lions and gazelles are incapable of contemplating the morality of their existence.
As living beings, humans must also kill other living things to survive. But since we can contemplate the morality of our killing, we should. And while we are designed to be omnivorous, the fact is we can live very healthy lives by killing just plants for food. Here in the developed world of the 21st century, we need not kill animals for food. Meat is an unessential luxury item, and plants do not seem to be sentient.
So I refrain from eating mammals and birds.
Yet I continue eating fish. Why? Because I am a hypocrite. Or at the very least, inconsistent. I'm very human that way.
In a functional sense, I simply don't pretend that killing fish is wrong while I do pretend that killing mammals is wrong. I'm on the fence about birds, but once upon a time, giving them up was a good excuse not to eat my mother's chicken.
Did I mention that this is not a proselytizing essay? I have enough awareness of my own shortcomings to realize that I shouldn't be seeking converts, and I'm certainly not trying to create any dogma.
Anyway, I wouldn't go so far as to say that life is sacred. However, I choose to respect the desire of all mammals to live. Maybe it's because they're so much like us. Either way, that's enough for me to avoid killing them or to ask someone to kill them for me.
And when I do kill, I try to do so respectfully and to minimize pain. For example, when I go fishing, I fish to eat. And when I catch a fish, I kill it instead of throwing it into a cooler to suffocate to death. One sharp, strong blow to the head. Then I silently acknowledge the fish's loss of life and my role in it. It's not a prayer or a ritual. It's just an effort to remain conscious of the decisions I make and why.
Okay, enough of the bad. Now for the good.
1. Bring joy
I suppose this is the opposite of don't be cruel.
It's important to remember that joy is always circumstantial. So joy is difficult to find at times, and it is always fleeting, which makes it precious.
In the rough draft to this essay, I accidentally misspelled "fleeting" as "fleeing." That might actually be more apt. Joy finds you, sits on your lap, brings comfort, and then runs away like a cat frightened by the sound of your laughter.
Cherish it. Create it, for yourself and others when opportunity arises.
2. Be thoughtful
In the end, you have to figure it out for yourself. Whatever "it" is.
Your best chance of doing so is to sharpen your mind. Always strive to be smarter. And don't measure that by a tally knowledge. Rather, hone your ability to think. Strive to understand nuance and complexity. Be intellectually honest. Be courageous. Challenge yourself. Instead of merely accumulating knowledge, accept that the more you learn, the less you know; it is better to have a sliver of the big picture than most of a small one.
Being thoughtful is important because your beliefs do shape your actions. If you have shoddy beliefs, your actions will often follow suit. And so think instead of merely accepting what your eyes see or what everyone else tells is you true. The person who will not think for him or herself is more spectator than participant in their own life. Socrates was right. The unexamined life is not worth living.
Case in point: everything I've said in these two essays may be wrong. In fact, it probably is. Use your noodle. Recognize it.
While I don't believe it is possible to discern a purpose to our lives, I do pretend to find meaning in the way we live them.
So far as I can tell, the human quest for meaning is largely inescapable. Even if, like me, you attempt to peer through all the make believe and own up to the meaninglessness of it all, you're still apt to continue pretending life has various meanings. The human urge to do so is very strong.
As someone who rejects dogma, finding a meaningful life I can pretend is real is itself a work in progress. It's life by trial, and the consequences are as varied as life itself.
Along the way, I continue to interrogate the values and ideas that I'm willing to pretend are real. If a pretended ideal will define me or represent me, then it must remain palatable to me over time as I continue to taste test it again and again amid changing circumstances. What I pretend is meaningful today, I may disavow tomorrow. So don't hold me to anything I've said here. Rather, walk with me along this road, thoughtfully agreeing or disagreeing as you see fit, until the time comes when you feel you must take a different path. And I will wish you all the best on your journey.
Akim Reinhardt has a website. Sometimes he pretends it's meaningful, but deep down he knows better.
Zbigniew Rybczyński. Tango, 1981.
Thanks to Ryan Moritz.
by Leanne Ogasawara
“Life is a shipwreck, but we must not forget to sing in the lifeboats.” --Voltaire
In heaven, there will be no more sea journeys, says Virgil. For much of human history, to journey by ship across open waters was thought of almost as an act of transgression. It was something requiring great temerity and audacity. It was therefore something not to be taken lightly.
Crossing boundaries, such journeys often ended in ruin.
Metaphors are Blumenberg's main philosophical project. According to Blumenberg, so fundamental to philosophy are they that they stand in for truth. He says:
The relevance of absolute metaphors, their historical truth . . . is pragmatic in a very broad sense. By providing a point of orientation, the content of absolute metaphors determines a particular attitude or conduct [Verhalten]; they give structure to a world, representing the nonexperienceable, nonapprehensible totality of the real. (Paradigms, 14)
That is to say, metaphors light up for us an irreducible and untranslatable truth about the "totality of the real."
What about shipwrecks then? What is it about the metaphor of being shipwrecked that lights up our understanding of being? Or putting it another way, what essential elements of being human are being illuminated by this metaphor according to Blumenberg?
Vous êtes embarqués, says Pascal.
This is the epithet of Blumenbeg's essay. Life is a journey; indeed, we are already embarked. This is akin to Heidegger saying we are born into thrown-ness. Our human condition cannot be grasped outside of our everyday projects and situatedness. Everything we know is dependent on our environment (umwelt) and is a necessary reflection of these temporal and cultural limits. But we are also on personal voyages of discovery.
Well, that is maybe the rub. Many people turn their back on the sea and journeys. Our culture now is particularly risk-averse and so maybe this above is all more about the hero's journey...? For maybe heroes alone are brave enough to risk storms and drowning? Montaigne, for example, following Horace strongly recommended NOT going to sea--not ever. Since the rational choice for man is to stay on shore.
Heroes risk everything by setting out to sea.
No, I don't think that's true. For the winds of fate are arbitrary and storms and disaster might find us no matter what--which is why this metaphor was so popular with the Stoic philosophers. For them, the goal was to cultivate one's character so that no matter what disaster strike, the philosopher will be capable of coming out of the catastrophe unharmed by the strength his own self-possession alone. Thus, Montaigne wrote:
The mariner of old said to Neptune in a great tempest, "O God! thou mayest save me if thou wilt, and if thou wilt thou mayest destroy me; but whether or no, I will steer my rudder true."
Man is shipwrecked in his own existence, says Blumenberg. I love that. My mom would call it a blessing in disguise. I would call it just the way the cookie crumbles.
It’s like Candide, if he hadn't been kicked out of his homeland, if he hadn't met with a shipwreck and washed unto Lisbon shores only there to be almost killed in a mega-earthquake; if he gone up against the Inquisition, if he hadn't traveled across America on foot, if he hadn't killed a baron, if he hadn't lost all his sheep in Eldorado, well, then he wouldn't have ended up sitting there in Constantinople eating some nice candied citron and pistachios where he would dream of spending his days cultivating his garden...
For only after all that catastrophe could Montaigne say: I want death to find me planting my cabbages... or perhaps as Tao Yuanming would have it, plucking chrysanthemums under the eastern fence (採菊東籬下)
Drinking Wine (#5)--Tao Yuanming
I’ve built my house where others dwell
And yet there is no clamor of carriages and horses
You ask me how this is possible-- (And so I say):
When the heart is far, one is transported
I pluck chrysanthemums under the eastern fence
And serenely I gaze at the southern mountains
At dusk, the mountain air is good
Flocks of flying birds are returning home
In this, there is a great truth
But wanting to explain it, I forget the words (牡丹訳）
Tao Yuanming#39;s poem is perhaps only interesting because the poet had previously passed the highest level of the examination system (科挙) and had lived the dazzling life of a scholar--but only then, after achieving a high level of accomplishment and cultivation in the world had left it to live in seclusion. That is, it would not have been as interesting if the poet had been born and never left that hut--for this poem is infused with the journey that came before it. It reminds one of something the Japanese monk Yoshida Kenko had written-- that the goal of Zen is to swim out into deep waters with the only real purpose to be finding oneself back up in the shallows again. Back in the shallows but with new vision.
Scattering blossoms, fallen leaves 飛花落葉-- life is a "sea of change" but this idea of gaining new vision is something universally embraced in many cultures as part of the hero's journey. Everything being a matter of the heart → 心持次第.
This is where Nietzsche's brilliance really shines, I think. For it was Nietzsche who insisted (no he delighted!!) that not only are we already embarked but that we are already shipwrecked.... shipwrecked in the existence of our own lives. Happiness, says Nietzsche is the liberation of the shipwrecked man, rolling back onto firm shore--for this is the New World.
In the horizon of the infinite.—We have left the land and have embarked. We have burned our bridges behind us—indeed, we have gone farther and destroyed the land behind us. Now, little ship, look out! Beside you is the ocean: to be sure, it does not always roar, and at times it lies spread out like silk and gold and reveries of graciousness. But hours will come when you will realize that it is infinite and that there is nothing more awesome than infinity. Oh, the poor bird that felt free and now strikes the walls of this cage! Woe, when you feel homesick for the land as if it had offered more freedom—and there is no longer any "land."
He says--evoking Columbus-- "the moral earth too is round.... there is another world to be discovered--and more than one. Embark, philosophers!"
When I first read this above as a young lady of 18, I was so happy I almost cried.
Odysseus in exile. The ultimate reluctant hero-- all he ever really wanted to do was return home. But as everyone knows, an odyssey is ultimately about the arbitrariness of fate. And exile never a matter of location --but rather is a matter of meaning; for as the Poet Cavafy says, "the Lestrygonians, the Cyclopes and the fierce Poseidon: these are all things we carry within our souls.
Robert Harrison, in an old Entitled Opinions show about Heidegger, talked about Odysseus' Second Journey. The one that occurred after he finally arrived back to Ithaka. Made to set out one more time; this time he was to carry an oar and walk as far as he could go until reaching a land where people didn't know salt or seafaring ships, and there, he was to plant his oar deeply into the ground and perform a sacrifice to Poseidon.
It's interesting, isn't it? The way a shipwrecked Hero must wander into exile/meaninglessness-- that is, he is required to go to a "place" where he is world-less, ground-less, and sight-less. To walk to a place where the meaning of an "oar" is no longer meaningful, and there, to plant it in the ground to make new meaning.
Is this not the existential journey par excellance? For as Harrison explains, those that do not undergo these journeys into foreign lands and instead stay at home without undergoing this kind of "estrangement" will forever remain estranged--estranged right there in their own homelands.
Getting my Jew on
by Sarah Firisen
I haven't spent a lot of time in churches over the years, being born a Jew and becoming an atheist as a teenager, it’s not a common hangout place for me. But when I have, weddings, christenings, sitting in the back during mass at various European cathedrals, there’s been a solemn stillness over the place, most people quietly paying attention to the priest-like person at the front talking until the moment when it was time for the whole congregation to sing a hymn in unison. Sitting in the ladies gallery of the conservative synagogue – shul - where my cousin’s daughter was bat mitzvahed yesterday, I was struck by how different a Shabbat service is from a Sunday morning in a church; it’s not quiet. For almost all of the service, all the men daven (pray) along with the Rabbi. They do it at slightly different speeds, so there’s little synchronicity involved. But behind this chanting, prayer and singing, there’s the buzz of conversation; Jews are pretty noisy in shul. The women, banished upstairs and not part of most of the service, have very little to do but chat with their neighbors. But even the men walk the aisles, shaking hands, pretty openly having conversations. It’s part of the melody of the service that it be interspersed with an occasional loud “shhhh” which brings the volume level down for about 30 seconds.
These sights and sounds are ones I remember well from childhood. In fact, even though this shul was not the one I grew up attending, it could have been; everything about it reminded me of a childhood spent attending Hebrew school and Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah services. And despite an adulthood spent firmly rejecting not just my own religion, but all religion and belief in God, to my surprise these memories were very pleasant and comforting to me. I've always felt something in the melodic patterns of Jewish chanting and music that has a pull on my DNA, not just taking me back through my own childhood, but linking me to the history, joy and sufferings of generations of my family.
I spoke to my Aunt on Friday night and we commented on how surprised we both are that her son, my cousin, has turned into such a practicing Jew and so involved with his shul community. But as I watched him below me interacting with this community, beaming with pride as his daughter gave her bat mitzvah speech, I understood why he’s chosen to “get his Jew on”. I have no idea what his actual beliefs in God are or aren’t. If I had to guess, I might say that many if not most of the people around me in that shul yesterday don’t have a really strong, active, serious belief in God. I know this sounds pretty radical, but I actually have long thought this about many “religious” people. In some kind of vague way they say they believe in God, but certainly very little about their actions implies they really do. The God of the Old Testament is a pretty demanding, unforgiving entity; he goes around smiting whole groups of people on very little provocation. If you really believed in him and in these stories, you'd probably follow his rules to the letter. But of course, most people don’t. They're what my father used to call “a la carte Jews”, picking and choosing the bits of a religion they feel like following – and I don't just mean Jews, I mean all religions – without any fear that he’s going to turn them all into pillars of salt.
But of course, what my cousin has chosen to immerse himself in really has very little to do with an actual belief in God; it’s about community and tradition. It’s about a shared set of values and rules and the order that can bring to a chaotic often very cruel world. And while I chose not to participate in this community and share their values, I can very much see the appeal of doing so. I can certainly see the appeal of raising children within this community. As I watched my cousin’s daughter participate in her rite of passage into this community, I did, just for a moment, regret that I've chosen not to give this to my children. Even though my ex-husband shares my views on religion and God, he started a tradition years ago of buying the children a little Chanukah present and making a brisket for dinner that night. At some point, we started our own very non-traditional Passover Seder that involved me telling the Passover story during dinner and pausing every few minutes to say “of course this is all just a silly story; you know none of it is true, right?” We ended the meal by playing the Passover songs on YouTube because neither the ex nor I really know how the songs go, but I had lovely memories of my grandmother singing them to me when I was a child.
Even as we were engaging in these pretty poor imitations of the real Jewish traditions, I realized that what we were doing was utterly irrational; we don't believe in the religion, we've chosen not to raise our children within it, so why are we sitting around telling them the stories and singing the songs? I think we did it because we felt some sense of loss at not giving them the exposure to their families’ traditions and culture. For the most part, I feel we've set them free to choose to believe or not believe whatever they want, to celebrate whatever they want, not bound by family and community expectations and judgments. But a very little part of me, a part that definitely was a little louder this weekend, feels sad that I haven't given them this and that I've chosen to walk away from it myself.
So as I got my Jew on this weekend. And as I did I thought, “if this were all there were to religion, people sharing food and music and friendship, I'd be okay doing this sometimes”. Aren't most religions usually more about community and food and music and traditions and holidays than they are about anything else? And on the surface of it, it’s difficult to see why your food, community, holidays and music need to clash with someone else’s. I have a dear Muslim friend who is as immersed in his culture and tradition as my cousin is in his; why does there have to be such a conflict in these two men both saying whatever words they want to whatever entity they may or may not believe while feeling part of welcoming communities?
I realize that so much of what passes as religious battles, both cultural and literal battles, really have nothing to do with religion. They're about land and power; they're about politics and poverty. They're very often about deep rooted personal issues that somehow get played out in the public arena – it’s almost become an article of faith that the louder an evangelical preacher storms against homosexuality, the more likely it is that he'll be caught in an airport bathroom at some point trying to solicit gay sex. But most people practicing their religions are just average people trying to provide their children with a moral compass, a sense of tradition, a community. And as I watched this community yesterday perform its rituals, I felt a genuine affection for the traditions I was raised with. But as I walk away tomorrow, I’ll be equally happy that I’ve chosen a path that allows me, and my children, to make our value judgments and moral choices from a position that isn't in thrall to those traditions.
Cultural Styles in the 21st Century, or the High Tech Debt to Africa
by Bill Benzon
By the middle of the previous century anthropologists had come to argue that each culture has its own patterns and that those patterns pervaded its social practices, its practical arts, it’s beliefes and attitudes, and its expressive culture. The central expression of this conception can be found in Ruth Benedict's seminal study of Patterns of Culture. She argued her thesis by showing that the Pueblos of the American Southwest were Apollonian in their formality and emotional reserve, the Dobu of Melanesia were Paranoid in their bending of patterns of hostility into functioning social structures, while the peoples of America's Northwest Coast were Dionysian in their search for religious ecstasy. Cultures are not miscellaneous grab-bags of traits, they are patterned wholes.
So it is with European America and African America. Each of these cultures has a pattern, but those patterns have been blending and crossing for centuries. I have come to believe, for example, that the high tech world, though dominated by Americans of European descent, owes an enormous cultural debt to improvisational patterns of African American descent. Think of the difference between performances by a symphony orchestra and a bebop quintet. The orchestra is a large ensemble with a large number of well-defined specialists and it performs music that has been prepared beforehand under the direction of conductor who has ultimate control over every aspect of the performance. The bebop quartet is quite different, with much of the music made up on the spot. While one of the members more likely than not will be the leader, he (or she) does not dictate the performance.
In the next section of this “essay” I present a lyrical and impressionistic account of the America blending of Africa and Europe in the software world. Then I calm down and run through the same material in a more conventional matter, looking at basketball and football as embodying very different visions of organizational style and execution. At the middle of the previous century we have, for example, the steel industry and the automobile industry as examples of football-like organizational style. But the flourishing of software and related businesses in the last quarter of the century called for a more basketball-like style.
A Rhapsodic Invocation of the Software Mysteries
Why is America the software center of the Universe? Because it is also the Rap-Rock-Funk-Soul-Jazz-Blues center of the Universe. What does that have to do with the If-Then-Else imperatives of byte busting? Technology is not just technique. It is style and attitude. You can't write great software if your soul was nurtured on the mechanical clockwork and internal combustion rhythms of the Machine Age. You must free yourself from the linear flow of mechanical time and learn to improvise order from the creative chaos lurking in the multiple intersecting flows of the digital domain.
Roll over Beethoven, let Satchmo come over!
Cases in point: Steve Wozniak took time out from Apple to produce rock and roll concerts. Microsoft was co-founded by a guitar-playing Jimi Hendrix fan, Paul Allen. Software guru Alan GUI Kay, formerly of Xerox, Atari, and Apple, worked his way through graduate school as a jazz musician. Lotus founder Mitch Kapor took to riding the informatic frontier with Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow.
These high-tech funkateers didn’t come out of nowhere. In the Roaring 20s the sons and daughters of Henry “Assembly-Line” Ford and Tom “Light-Bulb” Edison cruised the night spots of African America dancing to the improvisations of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, and all the other pioneering funkateers. Getting juiced, they got loose, and mechanical tick tock began to die.
Their sons and daughters dug Elvis the Pelvis and blew Bob Dylan's changing winds into the high-tech studio wizardry of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band. When Woodstock Nation faded into decaying reels of audiotape and videotape the young, the hip and the restless decided that communes were 19th century and created the video game and PC industry. (Pro-tip: See John Markoff, What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry, 2005).
In the last decades of the 20th century a cultural force emerged on the scene. Tempered in battle with Ronald Raygun and his Bush League Wrecking Crew, hip-hop reached back to the rhythms which created humankind on the African savannas and, through digital sampling, crossed those rhythms with our recorded musical legacy. Silicon Age rappers insinuated body-heart rhythm into the digital warp and woof of emerging cultural patterns. The anger cuts through accretions of industrial armor and creates room to grow, letting the neurons branch in new patterns.
That's where it all begins: the nervous system. While the genes lay down the basic plan, the detailed wiring is worked out through extended and intimate interaction with the environment. To update William Wordsworth, the jazz child is mother to the cybernetic man. The dancing you do at ten forms the matrix out of which you think when you are twenty. If you grow up to mechanical rhythms, digital dancing is unnatural. To be a natural born child of the 21st century you must dance at the wedding between the soul of John von Neumann and the science of Daniel Louis Armstrong.
* * * * *
And now, let’s turn down the heat a bit. Let’s relax. Take a couple of deep breaths. Think.
Basketball and Football
But it’s not just music, though music IS central. Let's consider two brief examples from sports, which are a microcosm of the larger society. Let’s look at basketball and football.
Football involves highly specialized players organized into elaborately structured units, enacting preplanned plays, and directed by a quarterback representing the coach (as the conductor of an orchestra represents the composer of a composition). Each team has eleven players on the field at a time, with the players being trained for very specialized roles. There is an offensive squad and a defensive squad—not to mention special-purpose units for executing and returning kicks. Each of these squads is, in turn, divided into a line and a backfield, with further specialization in each of these divisions. The offensive team is headed by the quarterback while the defense is similarly directed by one of the backfield players. The flow of the game is divided into four quarters each of which is punctuated by the individual plays of the game. The plays are divided into sets of four, called “downs”, with the players conferring between plays to decide what to do on the next play, or, at least, to confirm instructions sent in by the coach.
Basketball uses a smaller number of players, five, whose roles are less rigorously specialized. There is no distinction between offensive and defensive squads. And, while there are differentiated roles—a center, two guards and two forwards—this differentiation is not nearly so extensive as that in football. For example, on the offensive squad in football, there is a dramatic distinction between the interior line, whose players do not routinely handle the ball, and the backfield, whose players are supposed to handle the ball. No such distinction exists in basketball; all players are expected to handle the ball and to score. Beyond this, basketball involves a free flowing style of play which is quite different from discrete plays of football.
It makes sense to think of a football game as being composed while a basketball game is improvised. In both cases, the coaches ultimately decide how the came is to be played. But the roles of basketball players are, essentially, more fluid and various than those of football players, giving the individual players considerably more autonomy on the playing field. A football coach can easily intervene after each play, and does so routinely after each set of downs. Basketball coaches cannot, and do not, intervene so directly and so often. Consequently, the basketball team exercises a higher level of decision-making than the football team ordinarily does. African-Americans dominate basketball and, while they are prominent in football, they have been kept from the key role of quarterback, the director of the coach’s composition. Football thus is still largely a European-American sport, reflecting European-American cultural patterns.
Given this analysis of football and basketball, it is clear that, if we compare these two sports to music, then football resembles classical music while basketball resembles jazz. Football is composed while basketball is improvised. The football coach, or his defensive and offensive representatives, calls the plays according to a preset plan. The individual players then execute their specific assignment in each play. Basketball coaches act more like the jazz composer/arranger, who creates a melody and a set of chord changes, and then lets the players improvise their own moves for finding their way through the tune. The coach sets guidelines about the pace and style of the game, but game itself unfolds so fast that the players are responsible for the moves they make.
At this point it shouldn't be too difficult to see a resemblance between classical music and football, on the one hand, and the structure and style such corporations as General Motors and United States Steel. These corporations have highly specialized and compartmentalized work forces organized into deep hierarchies, just as football teams and symphony orchestras have many players with very specialized functions.
When I consider jazz and basketball in this context, what comes most quickly to my mind is the advice of management gurus about the need for a very fluid corporate structure, one which changes quickly and has multifunctional workers organized into relatively flat structures. Thus, in Liberation Management Tom Peters uses the carnival as one of his key metaphors. Carnivals run lean, quickly adapt to changing markets, and have employees who play multiple roles. Carnivals, and the corporation of the twenty-first century, are improvisatory. Likewise, when Michael Maccoby talks of the need for “corporate men and women who can work interdependently within a corporate structure that stimulates and rewards individual initiative and continual improvement” he describes a pattern of vigorous individuality in service of a group creation which is a fundamental requirement of jazz.
Duke Ellington's sidemen were all individualists who played their best music in Ellington's band; leaders such as Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, and Miles Davis were known for so successfully fostering the growth of their musicians that many of them went on to become leaders themselves. Jazz culture stresses the importance of finding your own voice, your own style, even to the basic sound you get from your instrument. In contrast, classical culture stresses adherence to an ideal sound and is doubtful about individuality, even from virtuoso soloists.
This similarity between high-tech management and improvisation is more than an abstraction to me. I have some direct experience of this relationship. In the previous century I spent two years writing technical documentation for MapInfo, Corp., which makes software for geographic data analysis—population distribution, market information, facilities location, etc. While the sixty to eighty mostly-young employees were not cut from the same mold—salespersons and programmers, for example, tend to be quite different—rock and roll was certainly the musical common denominator. After all, most of the employees were born After Elvis. Sean O'Sullivan, one of the young founders and formerly Chairman of the Board, would end many of his electronic mail communications with an exhortation to “rock and roll.” Half a year after I left, he resigned to pursue a career in rock and roll. Further, to adapt to its rapid growth MapInfo revised its management structure at least two times in the two years I was employed there and two times again in the year and a half after I left. Change was explicitly recognized as being essential to survival. Being able to initiate change thus becomes a competitive advantage.
Such anecdotes do not a historical truth make. But they are telling anecdotes. And my general impression is that they could be multiplied many times over.
However, these improvisatory corporations are not, for the most part, owned and managed by African Americans. Thus they exhibit a pattern which reverses that Henry Louis Gates, Jr. finds in various important African-American novels (for example, Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man). These novels use Western form to express African-American content. The high-tech corporations have an African-American style with a European-American technological content and management. Between the informal mores and prejudices of the corporate world and the unfortunate relationship between much of African America and the educational system, the corporate world remains largely European American. However, to the extent that these more fluid corporations are run by relatively young men and women, they are run by people who have, for example, grown up listening and dancing to rock and roll and have thus been significantly influenced by African-American expressive style.
One final contrast suggests itself. Classical music is the expression of a fully formed culture. Europe was under no pressure to conform to any standards other than its own. We know what a fully realized compositional culture and society are like. Jazz, however, is the creation of people under constant pressure to conform to conditions imposed on them. As critic Martin Williams asserted in his essay on “The Meaning of a Music”, “Jazz is the music of a people who have been told by their circumstances that they are unworthy. And in jazz, these people discover their own worthiness.” There is a sense, then, that jazz is the most advanced creation of an improvisational culture which has not yet fully revealed and realized itself. Whether or not this century will see that realization is question as open as it is exciting.
* * * * *
Monday, March 02, 2015
Gordon Parks. Couple, with man playing cello. 1980.
Current exhibition at MFA, Boston.
Does Thinking About God Increase Our Willingness to Make Risky Decisions?
by Jalees Rehman
There are at least two ways of how the topic of trust in God is broached in Friday sermons that I have attended in the United States. Some imams lament the decrease of trust in God in the age of modernity. Instead of trusting God that He is looking out for the believers, modern day Muslims believe that they can control their destiny on their own without any Divine assistance. These imams see this lack of trust in God as a sign of weakening faith and an overall demise in piety. But in recent years, I have also heard an increasing number of sermons mentioning an important story from the Muslim tradition. In this story, Prophet Muhammad asked a Bedouin why he was leaving his camel untied and thus taking the risk that this valuable animal might wander off and disappear. When the Bedouin responded that he placed his trust in God who would ensure that the animal stayed put, the Prophet told him that he still needed to first tie up his camel and then place his trust in God. Sermons referring to this story admonish their audience to avoid the trap of fatalism. Just because you trust God does not mean that it obviates the need for rational and responsible action by each individual.
It is much easier for me to identify with the camel-tying camp because I find it rather challenging to take risks exclusively based on the trust in an inscrutable and minimally communicative entity. Both, believers and non-believers, take risks in personal matters such as finance or health. However, in my experience, many believers who make a risky financial decision or take a health risk by rejecting a medical treatment backed by strong scientific evidence tend to invoke the name of God when explaining why they took the risk. There is a sense that God is there to back them up and provide some security if the risky decision leads to a detrimental outcome. It would therefore not be far-fetched to conclude that invoking the name of God may increase risk-taking behavior, especially in people with firm religious beliefs. Nevertheless, psychological research in the past decades has suggested the opposite: Religiosity and reminders of God seem to be associated with a reduction in risk-taking behavior.
Daniella Kupor and her colleagues at Stanford University have recently published the paper "Anticipating Divine Protection? Reminders of God Can Increase Nonmoral Risk Taking" which takes a new look at the link between invoking the name of God and risky behaviors. The researchers hypothesized that reminders of God may have opposite effects on varying types of risk-taking behavior. For example, risk-taking behavior that is deemed ‘immoral' such as taking sexual risks or cheating may be suppressed by invoking God, whereas taking non-moral risks, such as making risky investments or sky-diving, might be increased because reminders of God provide a sense of security. According to Kupor and colleagues, it is important to classify the type of risky behavior in relation to how society perceives God's approval or disapproval of the behavior. The researchers conducted a variety of experiments to test this hypothesis using online study participants.
One of the experiments involved running ads on a social media network and then assessing the rate of how often the social media users clicked on slightly different wordings of the ad texts. The researchers ran the ads 452,051 times on accounts registered to users over the age of 18 years residing in the United States. The participants either saw ads for non-moral risk-taking behavior (skydiving), moral risk-taking behavior (bribery) or a control behavior (playing video games) and each ad came either in a 'God version' or a standard version.
Here are the two versions of the skydiving ad (both versions had a picture of a person skydiving):
God knows what you are missing! Find skydiving near you. Click here, feel the thrill!
You don't know what you are missing! Find skydiving near you. Click here, feel the thrill!
The percentage of users who clicked on the skydiving ad in the ‘God version' was twice as high as in the group which saw the standard "You don't know what you are missing" phrasing! One explanation for the significantly higher ad success rate is that "God knows…." might have struck the ad viewers as being rather unusual and piqued their curiosity. Instead of this being a reflection of increased propensity to take risks, perhaps the viewers just wanted to find out what was meant by "God knows…". However, the response to the bribery ad suggests that it isn't just mere curiosity. These are the two versions of the bribery ad (both versions had an image of two hands exchanging money):
Learn How to Bribe!
God knows what you are missing! Learn how to bribe with little risk of getting caught!
Learn How to Bribe!
You don't know what you are missing! Learn how to bribe with little risk of getting caught!
In this case, the ‘God version' cut down the percentage of clicks to less than half of the standard version. The researchers concluded that invoking the name of God prevented the users from wanting to find out more about bribery because they consciously or subconsciously associated bribery with being immoral and rejected by God.
These findings are quite remarkable because they suggest that a a single mention of the word ‘God' in an ad can have opposite effects on two different types of risk-taking, the non-moral thrill of sky-diving versus the immoral risk of taking bribes.
Clicking on an ad for a potentially risky behavior is not quite the same as actually engaging in that behavior. This is why the researchers also conducted a separate study in which participants were asked to answer a set of questions after viewing certain colors. Participants could choose between Option 1 (a short 2 minute survey and receiving an additional 25 cents as a reward) or Option 2 (four minute survey, no additional financial incentive). The participants were also informed that Option 1 was more risky with the following label:
Eye Hazard: Option 1 not for individuals under 18. The bright colors in this task may damage the retina and cornea in the eyes. In extreme cases it can also cause macular degeneration.
In reality, neither of the two options was damaging to the eyes of the participants but the participants did not know this. This set-up allowed the researchers to assess the likelihood of the participants taking the risk of potentially injurious light exposure to their eyes. To test the impact of God reminders, the researchers assigned the participants to read one of two texts, both of which were adapted from Wikipedia, before deciding on Option 1 or Option 2:
Text used for participants in the control group:
"In 2006, the International Astronomers' Union passed a resolution outlining three conditions for an object to be called a planet. First, the object must orbit the sun; second, the object must be a sphere; and third, it must have cleared the neighborhood around its orbit. Pluto does not meet the third condition, and is thus not a planet."
Text used for the participants in the ‘God reminder' group:
"God is often thought of as a supreme being. Theologians have described God as having many attributes, including omniscience (infinite knowledge), omnipotence (unlimited power), omnipresence (present everywhere), and omnibenevolence (perfect goodness). God has also been conceived as being incorporeal (immaterial), a personal being, and the "greatest conceivable existent."
As hypothesized by the researchers, a significantly higher proportion of participants chose the supposedly harmful Option 1 in the ‘God reminder' group (96%) than in the control group (84%). Reading a single paragraph about God's attributes was apparently sufficient to lull more participants into the risk of exposing their eyes to potential harm. The overall high percentage of participants choosing Option 1 even in the control condition is probably due to the fact that it offered a greater financial reward (although it seems a bit odd that participants were willing to sell out their retinas for a quarter, but maybe they did not really take the risk very seriously).
A limitation of the study is that it does not provide any information on whether the impact of mentioning God was dependent on the religious beliefs of the participants. Do ‘God reminders' affect believers as well atheists and agnostics or do they only work in people who clearly identify with a religious tradition? Another limitation is that even though many of the observed differences between the ‘God condition' and the control conditions were statistically significant, the actual differences in numbers were less impressive. For example, in the sky-diving ad experiment, the click-through rate was about 0.03% in the standard ad and 0.06% in the ‘God condition'. This is a doubling but how meaningful is this doubling when the overall click rates are so low? Even the difference between the two groups who read the Wikipedia texts and chose Option 1 (96% vs. 84%) does not seem very impressive. However, one has to bear in mind that all of these interventions were very subtle – inserting a single mention of God into a social media ad or asking participants to read a single paragraph about God.
People who live in societies which are suffused with religion such as the United States or Pakistan are continuously reminded of God, whether they glance at their banknotes, turn on the TV or take a pledge of allegiance in school. If the mere mention of God in an ad can already sway some of us to increase our willingness to take risks, what impact does the continuous barrage of God mentions have on our overall risk-taking behavior? Despite its limitations, the work by Kupor and colleagues provides a fascinating new insight on the link between reminders of God and risk-taking behavior. By demonstrating the need to replace blanket statements regarding the relationship between God, religiosity and risk-taking with a more subtle distinction between moral and non-moral risky behaviors, the researchers are paving the way for fascinating future studies on how religion and mentions of God influence human behavior and decision-making.
Kupor DM, Laurin L, Levav J. "Anticipating Divine Protection? Reminders of God Can Increase Nonmoral Risk Taking" Psychological Science(2015) doi: 10.1177/0956797614563108
Everything Was Within Reach
"New York isn't your fantasy.
You're the fantasy in New York's imagination."
~ John DeVore, New York Doesn't Love You
There is a time-honored genre of literature that masochistically trucks with the fatalism and rejection of living in, loving and eventually leaving New York City. I know this is a real genre, because the fact that there is an anthology proves it. Writers especially, perhaps due to the ephemerality of their profession, seem to have an axe to grind when it comes to leaving New York. It's not that no other city generates this passion; rather, no other city has fetishized and memorialized this ambivalence to such an extent. To these writers, leaving New York is tantamount to an admission of failure, and they passionately rationalize the ways in which they have not failed. But New York evolves, like any other city, and it is worth asking if the reasons for leaving these days are substantially different from those of previous decades.
Joan Didion's 1967 classic essay "Goodbye To All That" sets the confessional tone that is implied in all of these narratives: "But most particularly I want to explain to you, and in the process perhaps to myself, why I no longer live in New York." Didion's narrative concerns the years required for the imperceptible shading from wide-eyed ingénue to a vaguely numb and indifferent denizen. Her prose is compassionate, and wears the weariness of experience lightly: "It was a very long time indeed before I stopped believing in new faces...Everything that was said to me I seemed to have heard before, and I could no longer listen". In the end, she does not fling New York away in disgust – she accompanies her husband to Los Angeles for a sabbatical away from the city. As a result she leaves New York almost accidentally, like remembering a few days after the fact that you forgot your umbrella in a restaurant, then deciding it wasn't worth the trouble of going back to get it.
Contrast this genteel regretfulness with John DeVore's recent aphoristic punch-up, "New York Doesn't Love You":
New York will kick you in the hole, but it will never stab you in the back. It will, however, stab you multiple times right in your face.
No one "wins" New York. Ha, ha.
You will lose. Everyone loses. The point is losing in the most unexpected, poignant way possible for as long as you can.
Complaining is the only right you have as a New Yorker. Whining is what children do. To complain is to tell the truth. People who refuse to complain, and insist on having a positive outlook, are monsters. Their optimism is a poison. If given the chance they will sell you out.
DeVore lives in a different New York from Didion: he doesn't really elaborate on what success might actually look like, for himself or for anyone else. Your plan, whatever it may be, will go wrong. Fifty years of water flowing underneath the Brooklyn Bridge will do that.
The fact that people ever talk about "making it" in New York – or what I call the Curse of Sinatra – is to confuse means and ends. Success doesn't go any further than not failing, and preferably you are failing less often than you are not failing. After 15 years in the city, most of the people I know who have succeeded (by failing less often than not failing) have, like some ragged tribe of castaways, burrowed themselves into fortunate living circumstances, and know that they can never leave, no matter how gross or expensive their neighborhood has become, because there is a snowball's chance in hell that they will ever get such a good deal anywhere else in town, at least anywhere within a 20-minute walk of a subway station. Forget the street preachers; in New York, real estate is the only form of salvation.
It's a little-known fact that Franz Kafka also wrote his own paean to leaving New York. I know, I know, Kafka hardly ever left Prague, but bear with me, because I propose that what we have here is the urtext of the genre.
By way of introduction, I'll note that we should approach Kafka most cautiously when he beguiles us with an innocuous title. Nowhere is this as effortless as in the posthumous ‘A Little Fable', which I reproduce here in its entirety:
"Alas," said the mouse, "the whole world is growing smaller every day. At the beginning it was so big that I was afraid, I kept running and running, and I was glad when I saw walls far away to the right and left, but these long walls have narrowed so quickly that I am in the last chamber already, and there in the corner stands the trap that I am running into."
"You only need to change your direction," said the cat, and ate it up.
That sudden, implacably violent turn in the narrative: Where the hell did the cat come from? Wasn't the mouse's destiny to run into the trap at the convergence of the ever-narrowing walls, which even it saw quite clearly? The final six or so words are the literary equivalent of a punch in the face. But unlike the mouse, we are survivors of this tale, and as such have the luxury to go back and re-read it. At which point we realize our naïveté – from the start, the mouse wasn't in conversation with us, but with the cat. Kafka's compression is so extreme that time folds in on itself. The mouse exists in an eternal state of, if I may invent a tense, always-already-about-to-be eaten.
Of course, in order to keep the story short, the mouse must get eaten, but the trace that lingers, like smoke, is the mouse's incomprehension at its imminent fate. For the expectation of one doom, dogmatic and resigned, is usurped by another, wholly unanticipated one. The mouse may think, ‘Well, here's this cat, he seems a fine fellow and I'll tell him the sorry tale of my life of quiet desperation', whereas Kafka, never one to get in the way of a universe that gladly does the murdering of its own accord, simply allows the cat to get on with being a cat when presented with such an opportunity as a trapped, frightened mouse.
The sharpest irony in this little tale, however, is the cat's message. It is a death sentence masquerading as advice, and presented as if it were the simplest thing to do. As if the mouse could just turn around and walk off into a new direction. I like how Kafka chooses language as the means by which the cat ‘toys' with the mouse. In contrast, the only action is that of being eaten. That part – death – is silent. The cat plays the straight man in the pas de deux of narrator and executioner. The truth is that there is no other direction in which the mouse can go; the fate of the mouse is not just imminent, but, in the form of the cat, it is also immanent.
That cat, my friends, is New York. You think you're all set up to agreeably drink yourself to a gentle death on the Red Hook waterfront and then you get hit by a bus – or a tax audit. Whichever is worse, really. Or as DeVore puts it, "If New York were a cat, it would eat your face after you collapsed in the kitchen from a heart attack." This is the kind of place where it may take years for indifferent betrayal to fully blossom, but when it strikes, the end is swift.
But these days it really doesn't take years. This is the crucial difference between Didion leaving New York in 1967 and her exasperated descendants throwing up their hands in 2015. New York has changed, and why shouldn't it? The salient bit is that it is no longer the heady cocktail of danger and stimulation that drove a certain kind of artist and writer to come here.
In "Here Is New York" E.B. White proposes a rigidly delineated taxonomy describing New Yorkers: there are the natives, the commuters and the arrivals. White asserts that it takes all three constituencies to create New York as it existed in 1949, and this truth holds today. The natives are the city's institutional memory, and its commuters the blood that pumps economic oxygen into and out of Manhattan, giving New York its rhythm. But what can this last group, the arrivals – which is really the instigator of the very idea of the possibility of a romantic notion of New York – what can it hope for today?
He hasn't left yet, but in his own pre-emptive missive, David Byrne writes about what drove him and his peers to settle downtown in the 1970s:
One knew in advance that life in New York would not be easy, but there were cheap rents in cold-water lofts without heat, and the excitement of being here made up for those hardships.
The world of After Hours, Liquid Sky and Downtown 81, let alone the home movies of Nelson Sullivan and Wild Style's director Charlie Ahearn – when going south of 14th Street quite literally meant taking your life into your own hands, when the words Alphabet City actually meant a quantitatively different world from the East Village – this world is no more. On the positive side of this Faustian bargain, we have gained an almost laughably safe city, where you can stumble anywhere in Manhattan and most of Brooklyn and Queens blind drunk because you know an Uber car will show up faster than Lt. Kilgore's napalm airstrike in ‘Apocalypse Now'. On the other side of the ledger, we have a city where the organic emergence of new forms of practice is basically throttled, and the margin for error is nearly zero.
While David Byrne may still be dithering about leaving, others have already done so. The musician and producer (and native New Yorker) Moby penned a similar letter a few months later, and the headline is pretty much all you need to know: "I Left New York For LA Because Creativity Requires The Freedom To Fail". Others have been following suit: in December the venerable Galapagos Art Space, after twenty years in Brooklyn, is decamping to Detroit. In explaining, Galapagos Director Robert Elmes channels Moby:
What drew us to Detroit is the realization that cities need three ingredients to attract or retain artists: time, space, and other artists. In NYC artists have one foot in a full time career and one foot in what is now a dream to find an affordable studio and to move their sculpture studio out of their kitchen because they have an ultimatum from three of their four roommates.
Who can resist upgrading to 600,000 square feet of space? This is what DeVore is really talking about. You spend your time earning the money to earn the access to space, and your principal activity with other artists is spent leveraging the leftover crumbs into something that might approximate artistic practice. That, and complaining. Which is your right. New York no longer abides the leisurely pace of a seeping alienation, à la Joan Didion. And in the end your plans are more likely to be torpedoed by a crappy credit score before you get fed up at not getting that gallery show that always seemed just within reach.
And yet, and yet. If you take a trip out to Queens, almost to the end of the 7 train, you will find the Queens Museum, and inside the museum there is an absolute gem, known as the Panorama of the City of New York. A scale model of all five boroughs, where 1 inch corresponds to 100 feet, the model has almost a million buildings, almost all of them handcrafted. Robert Moses commissioned the Panorama for that most optimistic of mid-20th century occasions, the 1964 World's Fair. A sinuous walkway meanders around this dizzying display, designed to be a replacement of the original simulated helicopter ride, but still evocative of it. As you gently rise and fall around the Panorama, the nearly 10,000 square feet of shimmering urban tapestry has the most confounding effect.
Once you get past the most natural impulse of immediately finding your apartment building and, if you have a job, your office; once you have located the landmarks such as the Empire State Building, and perhaps audibly gasped to see the Twin Towers still proudly anchoring the southern tip of Manhattan; once you have looked for all the things that are known to you, you can then step back and see exactly how much is unknown to you. For the length of one's tenure in New York is inversely proportional to the willingness one has to explore the city, and every neighborhood that's "worth" revisiting quickly acquires its short list of spots. The rest is the equivalent of "flyover country", if it gets flown over at all.
The Panorama takes this provincialism and merrily dashes it to pieces. After you get over the sheer size of Staten Island, your attention glides over hundreds of blocks of housing and industry. Suddenly you are privy to geographies that wholly escaped your attention. A mysterious canal in the middle of Brooklyn; a smattering of islands off the coast of the Bronx. Wait – the Bronx has a coastline? You scan parts of the Queens that you never thought existed. The model has a quiet optimism, a sense that the whole city somehow functions. It is flat – a level playing field. It is democratic. It is meritocratic. It is inviting – enticing, even. What do all those people down there do? It's all so very interesting. More than that, the city, by way of its proxy the model, extends its invitation to you.
You step back from all of this, and even though you know better, you can't stop yourself from thinking: "Goddammit, this town is huge. There's got to be a place for me here, somewhere. I can still make it in New York."
ISIS and Islam: Beyond the Dream
by Omar Ali
A few days ago, Graeme Wood wrote a piece in the Atlantic that has generated a lot of buzz (and controversy). In this article he noted that:
"The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam"
The article is well worth reading and it certainly does not label all Muslims as closet (or open) ISIS supporters, but it does emphasize that many of the actions of ISIS have support in classical Islamic texts (and not just in fringe Kharijite opinion). This has led to accusations of Islamophobia and critics have been quick to respond. A widely cited response in "Think Progress" quotes Graeme Wood's own primary source (Princeton scholar Bernard Hakykel) as saying:
“I think that ISIS is a product of very contingent, contextual, historical factors. There is nothing predetermined in Islam that would lead to ISIS.”
Indeed. Who could possibly disagree with that? I dont think Graeme Wood disagrees. In fact, he explicitly says he does not. But that statement is a beginning, not a conclusion. What contingent factors and what historical events are important and which ones are a complete distraction from the issue at hand?
Every commentator has his or her (implicit, occasionally explicit) "priors" that determine what gets attention and from what angle; and a lot of confusion clearly comes from a failure to explain (or to grasp) the background assumptions of each analyst. I thought I would put together a post that outlines some of my own background assumptions and arguments in as simple a form as possible and see where it leads. So here, in no particular order, are some random comments about Islam, terrorism and ISIS that I hope will, at a minimum, help me put my own thoughts in order. Without further ado:
1. The early history of Islam is, among other things, the history of a remarkably successful imperium. Like any empire, it was created by conquest. The immediate successors of the prophet launched a war of conquest whose extent and rapidity matched that of the Mongols and the Alexandrian Greeks, and whose successful consolidation, long historical life, and development of an Arabized culture, far outshone the achievements of the Mongols or the Manchus (both of whom adopted the existing deeper rooted religions and cultures of their conquered people rather than impose or develop their own).
2. Islam, the religion we know today (the classical Islam of the four Sunni schools, as well as the various Shia sects) developed in the womb of the Arab empire. It provided a unifying ideology and a theological justification for that empire (and in the case of various Shia sects, varying degrees of resistance or revolt against that empire) but, at the very least, Islam and the nascent Arab empire grew and developed together; one was not the later product of the fully formed other. Being, in it's classical form, the religion of a (very successful and impressive) imperialist project, it is not surprising that its"official" Sunni version has a military and supremacist feel to it. Classical Islam is not intolerant of all other religions (though it is in principle almost completely intolerant of pagans) but the rules and regulations of the four classical schools all agree on the superior status of Muslims and impose certain restrictions, disabilities and taxes on the followers of the "religions of the book" that they do tolerate. By the standards of contemporary European "Christendom", many of these rules appear tolerant and broad-minded; and since Western intellectuals (leftists as much, or even more than rightists) are completely focused on European history and culture (and therefore,on the achievements and deficiencies of that culture), this relative tolerance is frequently remarked upon as a stellar feature of Islamicate civilization. But it should be noted that this degree of tolerance is quite intolerant compared to contemporary Chinese or Indian norms and is horrendously intolerant compared to post-enlightenment ideals and fashions. The imposition of Ottoman rules today would be most unwelcome even to post-Marxist intellectuals if they had to live under those rules. Of course, this does not mean they cannot speak highly of these norms as long as they themselves are a safe distance away from them, but such long-distance approval is of academic interest (literally, academic) and not our concern for the purposes of this post.
3. Modern states and modern politics (not just all the complex debates about how power should be exercised, who exercises it, who decides who exercises it etc., but also the institutions and mechanisms that evolved to manage modern states and modern politics) mostly reached their current form in Europe. They did not arise from nothing. Many ancient strands grew and intersected to create these states and their political institutions. And there are surely things about this evolution that are contingent and would have been different if they had happened elsewhere. But there are also many features of modern life that are based on new and universally applicable discoveries about human psychology, human biology and human sociology. They have made possible new levels of organization and productivity and in a globalized world (and the Eurasian landmass has had some sort of exchange of ideas for millennia, but this process has accelerated now by orders of magnitude) it is impossible for any large population to ignore these advances and suvive unmolested by those willing to take advantage of these advances.
The modern world that has been created is not just one random "civilization" among many. It is the cutting edge of human knowledge and the human ability to apply that knowledge to good and evil ends. Whatever else it may be (and there is no shortage of people who feel it is too oppressive, too unfair, too fast, too anxiety-provoking, too inhuman, etc etc.) it is an extremely powerful and progressive culture. You can reject it, and countless people (including, it seems, many of the most privileged intellectuals of this very civilization) do reject many aspects of it. But it should also be noted that there are degrees of rejection. Most of the critics (but not all of them) are either critics-from-within, who only reject certain aspects of it, or non-serious critics whose wholesale contempt for the project is not matched by any equivalent personal commitment or serious consideration of alternatives. Most of them also seem unable to do without critical aspects of modernity. Aspects you cannot have without having far more of the rest than they seem to care for. To give two random examples, I have never met a multiculturalist liberal or leftist in the West (including those of Desi origin) who is willing to himself or herself live under the restrictive sexual morality and the community-centric balance of community vs individual rights characteristic of "traditional cultures'. And I have NEVER met an Islamist who did not want an air-force (you can work out for yourself all the other innovations and institutional mechanisms that would be needed in order to have a competitive indigenous air-force).
In fact, forget traditional cultures, just look at Maoist China and the Khmer Rouge, both of whom explicitly rejected modern individualism and mere meritocracy and insisted they wanted to be "Red rather than Expert". One ended up honoring the legacy of Liu Bocheng and Deng Xiaoping over Mao, the other ended up on the proverbial "dust heap of history". There is a lesson (or several lessons) in those choices and their spectacular failure.
In short, the only people who can realistically stay outside of "our universal civilization" are either museum communities permitted to survive as quaint exemplars of bygone days (like the Amish) or VERY tiny communities that are so isolated and remote that they have escaped the maw of the Eurasian beast until now. Our universal civilization does not have to be seen as positively as Naipaul famously saw it, but it still has to be seen for what it is, a gigantic human achievement and a work in progress; all criticism and resistance being included within it (dialectics anyone?)
And it is important to note that this universal civilization is no longer exclusively European (and never was exclusively European for that matter). Soon, this universal civilization may be dominated by non-European people, a fact that Eurocentric PostMarxist intellectuals seem to have very great difficulty assimilating into their worldview. The institutions and ideas that developed in Europe (from earlier sources that came from all over Eurasia) in the last 400 years have been adopted and adapted already by several Asian nations (Japan, South Korea, Taiwan), with China not far behind and India set to follow. Muslims are not special enough to escape that fate. The only thing truly remarkable about the Muslim core region is the widespread desire to integrate huge elements of modern civilization while remaining medieval in terms of theology, law and politics. Of course we are not unique in this desire; there are Indians and Chinese and Japanese who "reject modernity" as being too European, and who insist they have an alternative path. Whether they do or do not is to some extent a matter of semantics, but Muslims are not unique in claiming that "we are a fundamentally different civilization". Where we are unique (for now) is only in our inability to generate a genuinely open debate on this topic; the tendency in the Islamicate core is for almost everyone in the public sphere to pay lip-service to delusional or formulaic and practically meaningless Islamist ideals and to avoid direct criticism of medieval laws and theology. This is unlike how it is routine for Indians to criticize Indian "fundamentalists" or Christians to criticize Christian ones. And for that we have to thank the blasphemy and apostasy memes more than any intrinsic unchangeability of Islamicate laws and theology.
4. But while Islamicate empires (the dominant form of political organization in the middle east and South Asia from the advent of Islam to the colonial era) insisted they were "Islamic" and used Islam (especially in the first 500 years) as the central justification for their expansionist ambitions, there was another sense in which these same empires had a near-total separation of mosque and state. All these empires operated as typical Eurasian empires and they were, in most administrative details, a straightforward evolution of previous imperial patterns in that region. Religion was part and parcel of the empires, but religious doctrine provided practically no guidance to the political process. The rulers used religion to justify their rule, but the battle-axe determined who got to rule and how. Some rulers attempted to conduct an inquisition and impose their favorite theology on their subjects, but most were content to get post-facto approval for their rule from the ulama (and the ulama were happy to oblige). Islamic theologians accepted practically ANY ruler as long the ruler said he was Muslim and continued to work for the expansion of the Islamic empire. ALL four schools of classical Sunni Islam insisted that the ruler should be obeyed and rebellion was unislamic. This did not stop people from rebelling, but once a rebellion succeeded, the ulama advised submission to whatever ambitious and capable prince had managed to kill his way to the top. An imaginary idealized Islamic state was discussed at times but had little to no connection with actual power politics.
5. It must also be kept in mind that Empires governed loosely and interfered little with the everyday religious rituals of the ruled, especially outside the urban core. The rulers were interested in collecting taxes and continuing to rule. Most of the ruled gave as little as possible in taxes and had as little as possible to do with their rulers. This is not a specifically Islamic pattern, but it was practically a universal feature of Islamicate empires. Muslim religious literature developed no serious political thought. Power politics was guided more by “Mirrors of princes” type literature and pre-Muslim (or not-specifically Muslim) traditions and not some detailed notion of “Islamic state”. There is really NO detailed "Islamic" blueprint for running a state. The so-called Islamic system of government is a modern myth. Every Islamicate empire down to the late Ottomans ruled in the name of Islam, but they did so using institutions and methods that were typically West-Asian/Central-Asian in origin, or were invented to solve a particular Islamicate problem, but had no direct or necessary connection with fundamental Islamic texts and traditions.
6. After defeat at the hands of more capable imperialists and during the (relatively brief) colonial interlude, some people dug up the old stories of the rightly guided caliphs; It seems to me that early Islamicate fantasists (like Allama Iqbal in India) took it for granted that the everyday institutional reality of any "Islamic" state would, for the foreseeable future, be much closer to England than it was to Medina (witness for example his approval of the Grand Turkish assembly). Most Muslim leaders, like their Chinese or Japanese counterparts, were first and foremost interested in getting out from under the imperialist thumb. If they gave some thought to the form their states would take, their imagination ranged from Marxist Russian models to very poorly imagined Islamist utopias. But over time, stories frequently repeated can take on a life of their own. Islamist parties want to create powerful, modern Islamic states. But the stories they were using were more Islamic than modern. The result is that every Islamist party is forever in danger of being hijacked by those espousing simple-minded and unrealistic notions of Shariah law. It turns out that pretending to have “our own unique genius” is much easier than actually having any genius that can get the job done. Modern ideas (fascism, the grand theatre of modern media manipulation, modern methods of guerilla war) are used to promote legal codes and theology whose relationship with these new institutions has not been worked out yet (and I see no problem with sticking my neck out and saying "will NOT be worked out satisfactorily by ANY contemporary Islamist movement).
7. The MODE of failure may vary, but the failure of the Islamist political project in the next 20 years is inevitable. This is not because there can be no such project in principle, but because the project as it has actually developed in the 20th century is based on the twin illusions of an “ideal Islamic state” and an existing alternative “Islamic political science”…neither of which actually existed in history. AFTER this failure, there can certainly be new ways of creating modern, workable institutions that have enough of an Islamic coloring to deserve the label "Islamist" while incorporating all (or most) of the new discoveries in the hard sciences as well as in economics, human psychology, politics, social organization, administrative institutions, mass communication and so on.
8. I do want to emphasize that I do not believe Islamic theology per se is some sort of insoluble problem. It may be a difficult problem, but both liberals who are trying to discover modern fashions in that theology and "Islamophobes" who insist that the theology is a permanently illiberal fascist program are wrong in their emphasis on the centrality of this theology. As Razib put it in an interesting post on this topic on his blog, "Islam is not a religion of the book". NO religion is a religion of the book. People make religions and people remake them as the times demands. Messily and unpredictably in many cases, but still, there is movement. And in this sense, Islam is no more fixed in stone by what is written or not written in its text (or texts) than any other religion.
Someone commented on Razib's blog (and I urge you to read the post and the comments, and the hyperlinks, they are all relevant and make this post clearer) as follows:
"Well, if you take the Old Testament and Koran at face value, the OT is more violent. The interesting question is then why Islam ends up being more violent than Judaism or Christianity, and for that I agree you have to thank subsequent tradition and reinterpretation of the violence in the text. It appears that for whatever reason Islam has carried out less of this kind of reinterpretation, so what was originally a less violent founding text ends up causing more violence because it is being interpreted much more literally."
I replied that there is an easier explanation: Whether the text canonized as "foundational document" does, or does not, explain the imperialism and supremacism of the various Islamicate empires is a red herring. The Quran is a fairly long book, but to an outsider it should be immediately obvious that you can create many different Islams around that book and if you did it all over again, NONE of them have to look like classical Sunni Islam. The details of Sunni Islam (who gets to rule, what daily life is supposed to look like, how non-Muslims should be treated, etc) are not some sort of direct and unambiguous reading of the Quran. While the schools of classical Sunni Islam claim to be based on the Quran and hadith, the Quran and the hadiths are clearly cherry picked and manipulated (and in the case of the hadiths, frequently just invented) based on the perceived needs of the empire, the ulama, the individual commentators, human nature, economics, whatever (insert your favorite element here).
So in principle, we should be able to make new Islams as needed (and some of us have indeed done so over the centuries, the Ismailis being one extreme example; some Sufis being another) and I am sure others will do just that in the days to come. The Reza Aslan types are right about this much (though i seriously doubt that he can invent anything new or lasting; that does not even seem to be his primary aim). In fact, in terms of practice, millions of Muslims have already "invented new Islams". Just as a random example, most contemporary Muslims do not have sex with multiple concubines that they captured in the most recent Jihad expedition to the Balkans (or bought from African slave-traders for that matter). Not only do they not buy and sell slaves, they find the thought of doing so somewhat shocking. Also see how countless Muslims lived very obediently under British laws in the British empire and in fact provided a good part of the armies of that empire. Or see the countless Muslims who take oaths of loyalty to all sorts of "un-Islamic" states and, for the most part, turn out to be as loyal and law-abiding as any of their Hindu or Sikh or Christian fellow citizens in the various hedonistic modern states. Their "Islam" has already adapted itself to new realities.
What sets Muslms apart is really their inability (until now) to publicly and comfortably articulate a philosophical rejection of medieval (aka no longer fashionable) elements of classical Sunni Islam. And for all practical purposes, this is a serious problem only in Muslim majority countries. In other countries that have a strong sense of their own identity and of the necessity of their own laws, Muslims mostly get on with life while following those laws. In the Muslim majority countires, it is the apostasy and blasphemy laws (and the broader memes that uphold those laws) that play a central role in preventing public rejection of unfashionable or unworkable aspects of classical Islam. A King Hussein or a Benazir Bhutto or even a Rouhani may have private thoughts rejecting X or Y inconvenient parts of medieval Islamicate laws and theology, but to speak up would be to invite accusations of blasphemy and apostasy. So they fudge, they hem and haw, and they do one thing while paying lip service to another. Unfortunately, this means the upholders of classical Islam have the edge in debates in the public sphere. And ISIS and the Wahabis are not far enough from mainstream classical Sunni Islam for us to think they are just some demonic eruption from outer space; for example, classical Islamic theology recommends cutting the hands of thieves, stoning adulterers, going on jihad (not just some inner jihad of the Karen Armstrong type, but the real deal), capturing slaves, buying and selling concubines, killing apostates and so on; ISIS of course goes much further in their willingness to kill other Muslims, to rebel against existing rulers and to bypass common humanity and commonly cited restrictions and regulations about prisoners, hostages, punishments and so on, but when they say classical Islam permits the first set of things noted above, they are not lying, the apologists are lying.
By the way, while this inability to frontally confront aspects of classical Islam that are out of sync with the current age is a serious problem in Muslim communities, it is not insoluble. The internet has made it very hard to keep inconvenient thoughts out of view. So even in Muslim majority countries, there will be much churning and eventually, much change. It's just that some countries will emerge out of it better than others.
ISIS itself will not get anywhere. Of course, in principle, an evolved ISIS living on in the core Sunni region is possible. But we make predictions based on whatever models we have in our head. Like most predictions in social science and history, these will not be mathematical and precise and our confidence in them (or our ability to convince others, even when others accept most of our premises) will not be akin to the predictions of mathematics or physics. But for whatever it's worth, I don't think ISIS will settle into some semi-comfortable equilibrium (irrespective of whether more capable powers like Israel or Turkey or even the CIA are supporting them or not). They will only destroy and create chaos. And eventually they will be destroyed. It is possible that in the process parts of Syria, Iraq and North Africa could become like Somalia; too messy, too violent and too poor to be worth the effort of pacification, even by intact nearby states. But even if a Somalia-like situation continues for years, it will not go on forever. The real estate involved is too valuable, the communities involved were too integrated in the modern world, to be left alone. Eventually someone will bring order to to those parts. Though it is likely that this "someone" will be local and will use more force and cruder methods than liberal modern intellectuals are comfortable with. The first stage of pacification is more likely to be handled by local agents of distant imperialists, not directly by the imperialists themselves. That is just the way it is likely to work best.
Of course, success and failure are always relative to something. If the zeitgeist (whatever that means) is no longer in favor of something then a "successful" policy would be one that achieves a soft landing. Since the zeitgeist is (almost by definition) unknowable in full in real time, even the soft landing is not going to land where the first planners of soft landing imagined it as being headed. Being able to land softly, wherever that may be is the best outcome we can hope for in many cases. With that cheery note, here are some other useful links (many extracted from an extremely learned discussion on smallwarsjournal) that shed light on some aspects of the above, raise opposing ideas, or help to understand where I am coming from.
Our religion problem by Babar Sattar in DAWN Pakistan.
Reforming the blasphemy laws, in many ways, an enlightened "Islam-based" initiative.
Razib Khan on "The Islamic State is right about some things".
From Zenpundit Charles Cameron on Misquoting Mohammed
"Brown is a Muslim, a professor at Georgetown, and author of Hadith: Muhammad’s Legacy in the Medieval and Modern World. His book Misquoting Muhammad — not his choice of title, btw — lays open the varieties of interpretive possibility in dealing with the Qur’an and ahadith with comprehensive scholarship and clarity. In light of the upsurge in interest in Islamic and Islamist religious teachings occasioned by Graeme Wood‘s recentAtlantic article, I asked Prof. Brown’s permission to reproduce here the section of his book dealing with abrogation and the rules of war.
Here then, with his permission, is an extract from Misquoting Muhammad. I hope it will prove of use both here and to others beyond the circle of Zenpundit readers. Spread the word!"
From a conservative Western perspective: The fantasy of an Islamic reformation.
"Q 2:256, “There is no compulsion in religion . . .” (lā ikrāha fī l-dīni) has become the locus classicus for discussions of religious tolerance in Islam. Surprisingly enough, according to the “circumstances of revelation” (asbāb al-nuzūl) literature (see occasions of revelation), it was revealed in connection with the expulsion of the Jewish tribe of Banū l-Nadīr from Medina in 4⁄625 In the earliest works of exegesis (see exegesis of the Quran: classical and medieval), the verse is understood as an injunction (amr) to refrain from the forcible imposition of Islam, though there is no unanimity of opinion regarding the precise group of infidels to which the injunction had initially applied. Commentators who maintain that the verse was originally meant as applicable to all people consider it as abrogated (mansūkh) by q 9:5, q 9:29, or q 9:73 (see abrogation). Viewing it in this way is necessary in order to avoid the glaring contradiction between the idea of tolerance and the policies of early Islam which did not allow the existence of polytheism — or any other religion — in a major part of the Arabian peninsula. Those who think that the verse was intended, from the very beginning, only for the People of the Book, need not consider it as abrogated: though Islam did not allow the existence of any religion other than Islam in most of the peninsula, the purpose of the jihād (q.v.)against the People of the Book, according to q 9:29, is their submission and humiliation rather than their forcible conversion to Islam.[...]"
"Both verses that are said to have abrogated Quran 2:256 speak about jihad. It can be inferred from this that the commentators who consider Quran 2:256 as abrogated perceive jihad as contradicting the idea of religious freedom. While it is true that religious differences are mentioned in both Quran 9:29 and 9:73 as the reason because of which the Muslims were commanded to wage war, none of them envisages the forcible conversion of the vanquished enemy. Quran 9:29 defines the purpose of the war as the imposition of the jizya on the People of the Book and their humiliation, while Quran 9:73 speaks only about the punishment awaiting the infidels and the hypocrites in the hereafter, and leaves the earthly purpose of the war undefined. Jihad and religious freedom are not mutually exclusive by necessity; religious freedom could be granted to the non-Muslims after their defeat, and commentators who maintain that Quran 2:256 was not abrogated freely avail themselves of this exegetical possibility with regard to theJews, the Christians and the Zoroastrians. However, the commentators who belong to the other exegetical trend do not find it advisable to think along these lines, and find it necessary to insist on the abrogation of Quran 2:256 in order to resolve the seeming contradiction between this verse and the numerous verses enjoining jihad. p. 102-3t al-_arab). Despite the apparent meaning of q 2:256, Islamic law allowed coercion of certain groups into Islam. Numerous traditionists and jurisprudents ( fuqahā_) allow coercing female polytheists and Zoroastrians (see magians) who fall into captivity to become Muslims — otherwise sexual relations with them would not be permissible (cf. q 2:221; see sex and sexuality; marriage and divorce). Similarly, forcible conversion of non-Muslim children was also allowed by numerous jurists in certain circumstances, especially if the children were taken captive (see captives) or found without their parents or if one of their parents embraced Islam. It was also the common practice to insist on the conversion of the Manichaeans, who were never awarded the status of ahl al-dhimma. Another group against whom religious coercion may be practiced are apostates from Islam (see apostasy). As a rule, classical Muslim law demands that apostatesbe asked to repent and be put to death if they refuse."
The pact of Umar
"In the name of Allah, the merciful Benefactor! This is the assurance granted to the inhabitants of Aelia by the servant of God, 'Umar, the commander of the Believers. He grants them safety for their persons, their goods, churches, crosses - be they in good or bad condition - and their worship in general. Their churches shall neither be turned over to dwellings nor pulled down; they and their dependents shall not be put to any prejudice and thus shall it fare with their crosses and goods. No constraint shall be imposed upon them in matters of religion and no one among them shall be harmed. No Jew shall be authorised to live in Aelia with them. The inhabitants of Aelia must pay the gizya in the same way as the inhabitants of other towns. It is for them to expel from their cities Roums (Byzantians) and outlaws. Those of the latter who leave shall be granted safe conduct... Those who would stay shall be authorised to, on condition that they pay the same gizya as the inhabitants of Aelia. Those of the inhabitants of Aelia who wish to leave with the Roums, to carry away their goods, abandon their churches and Crosses, shall likewise have their own safe conduct, for themselves and for their Crosses. Rural dwellers (ahl 'I-ard) who were already in the town before the murder of such a one, may stay and pay the gizya by the same title as the people of Aelia, or if they prefer they may leave with the Roums or return to their families. Nothing shall be exacted of them.
Witnesses: Khaledb.A1-Walid, 'Amrb.A1-Alp, 'Abdar-Rahmanb. 'Awf Muawiya b. Abi Sufyan, who wrote these words, here, In the year 15 (33).
Winston King states in the Encyclopaedia of Religion, 2nd Ed., Vol. 11
“Many practical and conceptual difficulties arise when one attempts to apply such a dichotomous pattern [ sacred / profane ] across the board to all cultures. In primitive societies, for instance, what the West calls religious is such an integral part of the total ongoing way of life that it is never experienced or thought of as something separable or narrowly distinguishable from the rest of the pattern. Or if the dichotomy is applied to that multifaceted entity called Hinduism, it seems that almost everything can be and is given a religious significance by some sect. Indeed, in a real sense everything that is is divine; existence per se appears to be sacred. It is only that the ultimately real manifests itself in a multitude of ways—in the set-apart and the ordinary, in god and so-called devil, in saint and sinner. The real is apprehended at many levels in accordance with the individual’s capacity.” p.7692,
Paul Radin, Primitive Religion: Its Nature and Origin in connexion with early societies”Where there is little trace of a centralized authority, there we encounter no true priests, and religious phenomena remain essentially unanalysed and unorganized. Magic and simple coercive rites rule supreme”.p.21
Carl Schmitt in Political Theology,
“All significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularised theological concepts‟ (p. 36)
or again in The Concept of the Political that
“The juridic [sic] formulas of the omnipotence of the state are, in fact, only superficial secularisations of theological formulas of the omnipotence of God‟ (p. 42).
Monday, February 23, 2015
The Love Of Money
by Mandy de Waal
"I never realised that I had a problem until quite recently. Before this I thought it was normal. I thought that everyone thinks (about money) the way I do," says Charles Hugo (not his real name) on the phone from an upmarket seaside resort on South Africa's Cape coast.
"It doesn't matter how much money I earn, I always feel I need more." As Hugo describes his relationship with money, his speech is carefully measured. The forty-something year old former banker-cum-currency trader pauses for a while during our conversation, and then adds: "It was only recently I realised I have a problem."
For as long as Hugo can remember money has featured as a complex protagonist in his life. The dominant force in his decision making, this man measures everything in terms of what it will cost him and if the value he'll be getting from the transaction will be worthwhile. It doesn't matter if the transaction is an emergency trip in an ambulance or going into a restaurant for a sirloin.
"Every time a decision needs to be made, the first thing I think about is the financial impact. It doesn't matter what it is. I will always find a money angle to each and every decision," he says. "If someone has a problem I won't think about the person or the emotion." For Hugo cash is cognitive king.
"I used to think everyone was like this. That money came first in everyone's lives. It's only during the past couple of years that I've realised this is not the case." Today Hugo – who doesn't want his identity to be revealed publicly – is in his early forties. Hugo talks about having a problem and about being obsessed with money. A couple of times the word ‘addiction' enters the conversation. "I have an addiction to money," he says, adding that his ‘obsession' with money causes problems in his interpersonal relationships because he thinks very differently from those he cares about.
MONEY - THE EARLY YEARS
To understand how Hugo's relationship with money evolved, the writer of this article asks him about his early memories – about the events that shaped his formative years. "I didn't ask for things often because I knew the answer would always be about money," says Hugo, who was told by his father that money was something one had to work very hard for. Hugo internalised the idea that extreme effort and difficulty was associated with financial reward.
"When I was about eight years old and in standard one I went through a period at school where I always had a pain in my stomach. The teacher would get sick of me and send me to sick bay, and then my parents would be called and I would be sent home. I didn't realise it then, but thinking about this now I understand why this happened. I guess I thought that if I wasn't at school my dad wouldn't have to pay for me to be there. At that time I had a strong sense of wasting my dad's money and of definite guilt. I didn't fully understand it then, but if I think about this now, those same guilt feelings arise. To be honest, if I spend money on something now, I still feel guilty about it," Hugo says.
As Hugo's school career progressed he found he thought about money often. " It was constant. It was a worry," he says, adding that the thoughts mostly related to how he was going to earn money or get by once he left school. "Whatever I was busy doing at the time… well, I wouldn't think about what I was doing, but rather about money."
When it comes to psychological disorders that are related to money, what's evident is that—gambling aside—there are no easy definitions or neat borders for containment. Money is an indispensable part of our daily lives – as integral as sex and food. Most people wake up in the morning and go to work in order to make money, and this is never thought of as pathological. Far from it – it is an activity that's characterised as very healthy. It is a responsible citizenry that gets up and keeps the cogs of the consumerist machine moving. More so, society lauds those who rise up through the capitalist ranks to become captains of industry or breakout entrepreneurs.
SHUFFLING BIG MONEY
Hugo describes a time in his late twenties, when he shuffled funds around for a financial institution and was earning some R300,000.00 a month. "I was working in a bank and there were retrenchments. I was put into an admin role where I was dealing with money," he says, explaining that the designation he found himself in wasn't supposed to be a money-making position.
"I turned this into a massive money-making division for the business. All I was doing was moving money around. I started this admin function with some R100 million, but when I was done I was dealing with R20 billion," Hugo says, adding: "This put me in my element. It was like a dream come true. Every day I could get up and move money around. I never realised it at the time. I didn't know it was what I could do or how to do it. But I just fitted into this role perfectly. The longer I did this the better I became at doing it. My whole focus was on the money – moving the money around and making more money."
When the bank realised what a boon Hugo was, he was given financial rewards, which only served to intensify his drive to make more money. "The bonuses just spurred me on. At that time I had calculations going in my head non-stop. All I thought about every day was how much I would make and what it would take to make this grow," he says.
A defining moment for Hugo at the time was going on leave, and spending his entire vacation consumed with the thought about how to make more money. Being away from the day-to-day minutiae enabled Hugo to review how he was working for the bank. "I looked at the bigger picture," Hugo says, declaring that in the month after he returned to work he'd made more in that month than he'd made the whole year. "It was non-stop thinking about how to make more and more," he confesses.
THERE'S NO PATHOLOGY
Trying to deconstruct what presents as an obsession with lucre is something of a challenge because an addiction to money is not a pathology that is officially recognised by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Published by the American Psychiatric Association, the DSM codifies mental conditions and is a diagnostic standard used globally by mental health professionals. The only addictive disorders associated with money recognised by the DSM is gambling disorder, which is defined as a process disorder, or an addiction to an activity (like sex, for instance, or internet gaming.)
"We have a situation where the leading diagnostic manual isn't prepared to commit to a behavioural addiction as something that they are willing to codify," a psychiatrist who used to practice in London, and who asks for his name to be withheld, tells me. "If this is not even codified as a disorder, where do we start decreeing that something is beyond norms, or even pathological? Do we make that judgement from our own value-set?" he asks, and then answers his own question: "For many people this behaviour might sit well within their own set of values," the psychiatrist explains.
The psychiatrist continues: "One of the requirements for codifying a disorder as pathological, the criteria is that it must have negative consequences for a person's physical, mental, social or financial well-being. In other words, there must be some form of tangible destruction going on, in one or more of these key areas. In fact most clinicians would be reluctant to commit something as pathological if no damage has been done."
We live in a society where amassing wealth is simultaneously revered and reviled. Greed was classified a vice as far back as the 4th century when Christian monk Evagrius Ponticus penned a list of what he called ‘evil thoughts' in Greek. This list became the ‘seven deadly sins' two centuries later when it was revised as such by Pope Gregory I, based no doubt on Matthew 6:24: "No-one can serve two masters… You cannot serve both God and mammon" (or "God and riches").
THE RELIGION OF GREED
Fast forward to the 21st century and you'll discover a time when greed had all but become a religion. I'm talking about the excessive eighties, that period personified by Gordon Gekko - the protagonist in Oliver Stone's ‘Wall Street'. Gekko sums up the spirit of this capitalist period without a conscience: "Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works." A ruthless corporate raider, Gekko tells a packed annual shareholder's meeting in a seminal scene from the film: "Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures, the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge, has marked the upward surge of mankind."
Gekko epitomises the capitalist ideology of the latter half of the twentieth century, a time when America's economic growth was on the ascendancy and materialism was rampant.
In 1983, sociologist Philip Slater saw what was happening in the States, and called for caution by labelling money "America's most powerful drug." In his book, "Wealth Addiction" he examined consumerist American society. Slater described what he saw like this: "Our economy is based on spending billions to persuade people that happiness is buying things, and then insisting that the only way to have a viable economy is to make things for people to buy so they'll have jobs and get enough money to buy things." Thirty years on, its interesting to see that status is no longer as important as it once was to Americans.
SUCCESS = MONEY?
An Ipsos MORI Global Trends Survey of more than 16,000 people across 20 states showed that people who took this global survey in the US largely no longer measure success by what they own. However attitudes in Hugo's home country are quite different. By way of contrast South Africans are fairly materialistic but are much more likely to feel under pressure to make money or be successful than the global average.
The Ipsos data revealed that 33% of South Africans surveyed say they measure their success by the things they own in contrast to 21% of Americans. This compares with 71% of respondents in China, 58% in India and 16% in Britain. The research also shows that 66% of South Africans feel enormous peer pressure to succeed. For people surveyed in the US this figure was 46%.
In South Africa, Hugo struggles to work with his obsession with money. "I am currently trading on the financial markets in my personal capacity, and it is a huge challenge to get my emotions out of the way when it comes to making a decision about entering and exiting… about taking a trade or not taking a trade. Often my emotions start overtaking the rational reasons why I am doing this," he says.
Hugo describes how he often needs to wrestle with himself internally to ensure that his decision-making isn't hijacked by his emotions. "Managing my emotions so that they don't impinge on what I am doing takes huge effort. This would be an ideal vocation if I could take money out of the equation, but what I do now to make money is directly related to money. But now I try to manage this in a different way," he says.
Hugo isn't going for professional counselling but spends time speaking to people, and works on trying to be mindful and conscious of his thoughts, thought processes, decisions and actions. "Typically I try to take a step back. To do some breathing exercises for three to five minutes. I try to be mindful of the present moment in the hope that I can walk away from the situation at hand with a new light, or a new insight or perspective," he says.
PENNIES AND PRINCIPLES
The moral of this story? Understanding our psychology and the role that money plays in it, requires an appreciation of complexity. On an individual level, what we think of as dysfunction, may not be. On the contrary, what we think of as sick could be the projection of our own value system flexed in judgement of another.
On a macro or systemic level Hugo's advice makes sense. Isn't it time we stepped away from the means we use to measure success in order to re-examine how useful this is to our lives and to society? Don't we need to become more conscious about our relationship with money in order to really understand how our ties to financial transactions hinder, harm or help us?
Loris Gréaud. The Unplayed Notes Museum. 2015
"What exactly will happen during the opening on Saturday? “If I tell you too much,” the artist says, following something like secret-agent protocol, “It will kill the idea.”"
"On the evening of Saturday, January 17, the artist Loris Gréaud opened The Unplayed Notes Museum, his solo exhibition at the Dallas Contemporary, to a private audience—and then immediately destroyed it. A riot, choreographed by Gréaud and carried out by actors, stuntmen, and museum security, broke out that left the show in pieces, patrons in the parking lot, and the museum in complete darkness."
The Return of the Aam Aadmi Party
by Namit Arora
What to make of the verdict in Delhi’s Assembly elections this month? After a dismal show in the national election last year, when many had written it off, the Aam Aadmi (‘common man’) Party achieved a crushing win in Delhi with 67/70 seats. Delhi may be electorally small but being the capital of the nation and of empires past, the headquarters of the national media, and a trendsetter for other regions, its control has great emotional significance—all too evident in AAP’s main rival BJP’s desperate eleventh-hour tactics to win in Delhi.
The verdict has drawn many explanations: AAP’s strategy, grassroots campaign, and populist promises; people’s disaffection with the fueling of communal strife by RSS, VHP, and other BJP-affiliated Hindu right-wingers; the invisibility of BJP’s much-hyped ‘development’; BJP’s arrogance, disorganization in Delhi, and its dirty campaign; AAP’s success in framing this as a two-way contest which enabled anti-BJP votes to consolidate behind AAP; Modi’s $18K splurge on a suit—in retrospect, a major wardrobe malfunction, and so on. Whatever the mix of factors, last year’s ‘Modi wave’ now seems subdued, if not stalled.
Various polls show that AAP won due to greater support from the poor, the rural sections, slum dwellers, lower castes and Dalits, religious minorities, students, and women voters of Delhi—an enviable constituency for social liberal democrats like me. I’m not a member of AAP or any other party but I wanted AAP to win—not only because the alternatives were much worse but also because, despite some lamentable populism, there are many hopeful and progressive things in AAP’s politics and 70-point manifesto. These include two innovations it already practices: transparency in campaign finance and ensuring candidates have no heinous criminal charges. AAP’s win may bolster BJP’s opposition in upcoming state elections. It may even slow the rise of BJP’s communalism and its model of development, akin to neoliberalism, in which corporate sector growth takes precedence over social welfare and primary services—a GDP-growth led model almost always marked by rising disparity, shrinking safety nets, crony capitalism, and faster ecological damage.
I have my own misgivings about AAP but in politics—especially in the rotten landscape of Indian politics—all we’re entitled to is hope for improvement, not perfection. Other progressive parties in Delhi, like the BSP and the Communists, either don’t have their act together or are wedded to ideas that no longer find enough traction. Though its leadership is still largely privileged-class men, AAP has grown a lot since its birth from the IAC movement, which was a big tent that included people of all ideological stripes, united only by their dislike of public corruption. With help from Yogendra Yadav, political scientist and admirer of socialist leader Rammanohar Lohia, AAP developed some ideological ballast, at least going by its formal vision and manifesto. In shaping its core values and politics—and professing a certain pragmatism of means—AAP then parted ways with a host of disagreeable travelers (e.g., Anna Hazare, Baba Ramdev, Kiran Bedi). Such churn is only natural in a new, maturing party.
Whether due to its moralistic rhetoric or due to other motivations, AAP drew intense scrutiny from a corporate media that rarely took the same critical stance towards BJP or Congress, both of which are financed by the same corporations. AAP certainly has many problematic aspects—its overly narrow idea of ‘corruption’, for instance. Some left/liberal intellectuals in India, however, continue to get so caught-up in berating this or that policy or dubious remark or mistake of AAP or Kejriwal that they often fail to notice the opportunity in AAP to make our current politics more progressive, at least along some dimensions (e.g., public spending on social goods, communalism, graft). While criticism and scrutiny are essential—as long as they don’t merely feed an obsessive armchair game of competitive radicalism on social media—we often let the perfect be the enemy of the good and refuse to see obvious distinctions across our options.
On the Future of AAP
I think it can be instructive to see AAP’s potential as Congress 2.0. Consider some commonalities first. Both parties are seen as left-of-center and relatively secular. Congress, too, has long appealed to religious minorities and the poor (recall ‘garibi hatao’). The social composition of AAP’s leadership resembles that of the old Congress: almost all Hindu upper-caste ‘honest’ men, who see nothing wrong with this lack of diversity (Congress of recent decades is somewhat better than AAP). This means an absence of many important social perspectives and even a blindness to certain prejudices in their ranks. Isn’t this too a kind of corruption? No wonder both parties have been laggards in approaching caste-based reservations, settling to barely accept and follow the progressive vision and laws initiated by other parties. Both see themselves as progressive on ‘women’s issues’, yet do little to question patriarchy. Despite the slogans, AAP fielded only 6/70 women (Congress 5/70)—below even the national average of 11 percent women legislators (the global average is 21 percent). It has 0/7 women in its Delhi Cabinet, 1/22 in its National Executive, and 0/9 in its Political Affairs Committee (Congress beats AAP here; BJP actually beats both!).
Both Congress and AAP subscribe to a similar idea of secular nationalism and ‘tolerant Hinduism’ while making little room for religious minorities in their upper ranks and often invoking God in their rhetoric. AAP’s pet slogans—Bhaarat Mata, Inquilab, Vande Matram—evoke an era of agitational Congress nationalism in which, too, many a idealistic ‘common man’ participated to demand freedom from the British; the demand in AAP’s case is to ‘free the nation’ from a venal, indigenous political class and to establish swarajya (‘self-rule’). Both speak of egalitarian and democratic ideals but invoke and adore Gandhi, not Ambedkar. With such a shared weltanschauung, is it any surprise that AAP gained its vote share largely at the expense of Congress? (BJP’s vote share remained practically unchanged.)
But in what ways has AAP exceeded Congress so we might think of it as Congress 2.0? Transparent campaign finance. Firm opposition to public corruption and ‘VIP culture’. Distaste for dynasty. Youthful energy and tech savvy. Above all, AAP has aggressively and firmly staked its future on the promise of improving basic human infrastructure and services (water, electricity, hospitals, education, affordable housing, curbing graft, roads, cleanliness, toilets, waste disposal, physical security, free wifi, etc.). The AAP package is unusual enough, and Delhi—clearly seduced, and in light of its competitors’ track records—has voted to take a chance. Warts and all, AAP may be the best that the human material in Delhi can bubble up at this time; too bad for those waiting for the perfect revolution.
Whether AAP turns out to be a big advance over Congress will depend on its ability to create real governance innovation, deliver solid results, adhere to their core ideals, avoid big fiascos, and alter its own social composition to represent a wider diversity of Indians. Even within a single heart, as in mine, this election’s verdict can provide cause for genuine hope, skepticism, and even despair. If AAP does well in Delhi, it’ll likely secure itself a future in many other states by growing into that part of the political spectrum long occupied by Congress. And if AAP fails, it’ll become yet another churn in the great ocean of Indian democracy.
More writing by Namit Arora?
by Lisa Lieberman
He had told me that he shredded street posters himself to uncover the ones hidden beneath the newer strata. He pulled the strips down layer by layer and photographed them meticulously, stage by stage, down to the last scraps of paper that remained on the billboard or stone wall.
Patrick Modiano, "Afterimage"
I picked up Suspended Sentences after Patrick Modiano won the Nobel Prize for Literature this past fall and was immediately reminded of an Alain Resnais film—not that I'm the first to draw a connection between the two memory-obsessed artists. Modiano himself acknowledged a debt to the late filmmaker when accepting a prize from the Bibliothèque nationale for his body of work in 2011. "During my childhood, I saw Alain Resnais's documentary Toute la mémoire du monde (1956) [All the World's Memories] about the journey of a book arriving at the Bibliothèque nationale," he said, "and the film made me want to write."
Resnais made the All the World's Memories after his documentary about the death camps, Night and Fog (1955). In contrast to the brutal manner in which memory is evoked in this film and the accusatory tone of the narration, All the World's Memories is irreverent and light-hearted. I can easily imagine the ten-year-old Modiano being drawn in by Resnais's gently ironic depiction of the great library as a fortress dedicated to preserving memory at any cost. Words are captured and confined, books imprisoned, never to leave. Issued with an identity card, "the prisoner awaits the day it will be filed," we are told, but lest we worry, Resnais is quick to assure us that this incarceration is entirely beneficial. Books are treated well. Scientific expertise is deployed to stave off the destruction of perishable documents: "An ointment is applied to preserve bindings, the writings of vanished civilizations are restored, books are vaccinated, shrouded, holes made by insects are filled in, loose pages glued back in." Those of us old enough to remember card catalogues will appreciate hearing them described here as "the brain of the Bibliothèque nationale." And if you were fortunate enough to conduct research in the vast reading room under the glass dome, as I was, you'll be charmed by the birds-eye view of the rows of readers seated "like paper-crunching insects" at those long tables, "each in front of his own morsels of universal memory."
You wouldn't know that the director of All the World's Memories was the same person who made Night and Fog, or that he would go on to make Hiroshima mon amour (1959), a fictional story about a short-lived affair between a French woman and a Japanese man, both scarred by their experiences in the Second World War, or the mystifying Last Year at Marienbad (1961). But now I must mention a fascinating series of coincidences. During these very years, while still a student at the prestigious Paris lycée Henri IV, Modiano was the protégé of the avant-garde writer Raymond Queneau, who had just published his famous novel, Zazie dans le métro. Zazie would be made into a film by Louis Malle the following year, and Modiano would write the screenplay for Lacombe, Lucien (1974), Malle's film about a French boy who joins the collaborationist militia during the Occupation. Queneau was a friend of Resnais's. He wrote the text (in rhyming couplets, no less) for Le Chant du styrène (1958), a short documentary celebrating the virtues of plastic, and was one of the founders of OuLiPo (Potential Literature Workshop), an experimental literary collective subsequently joined by Georges Perec. The son of Polish Jews whose mother died in Auschwitz, Perec returned again and again to the ineffable trauma of the Holocaust in his literary works, frequently re-imagining his own past during the era of the German Occupation, as does Modiano in his literary works. Indeed, when Modiano won the Nobel, Perec was inevitably invoked, some critics going so far as to suggest that the prize was actually intended for Perec, a belated tribute to the author who had succumbed to lung cancer in 1982 while only in his forties.
Yes, the world of French arts and letters can feel awfully incestuous, but there's something else at play here. The late 1950s and early 1960s were a formative time for Modiano, but his interests were more esoteric than the average teenager's. In a 2007 interview he gave to the center-left daily, Libération, he identified Léon Bloy as a favorite author—a bizarre choice, as he admitted, for someone of his generation, although the works of the late-nineteenth-century Catholic extremist have been cited by Graham Greene, Flannery O'Connor, and Pope Francis. I get from Bloy a sense of the author's sacred mission, words like gifts offered up from a pure and open heart, and can only assume that the young Modiano was attracted to this romantic view of writing as a quasi-religious vocation. He later discovered, when reading Queneau's journals, that his mentor had been no less obsessed by Bloy in his younger days. Perhaps the message of All the World's Memories continued to inspire Modiano, but when I said earlier that his work reminds me of a Resnais film, I had a different film in mind.
Muriel, or the Time of Return
The Algerian war officially ended with the signing of the Evian Accords between France and the provisional government of Algeria in March 18, 1962. The bloody colonial conflict caused an estimated one million native Algerian deaths and tens of thousands of deaths on the French and European-Algerian (pied-noir) side, but mortality statistics reveal only part of the war's traumatic legacy. French soldiers sent to "maintain order" in the wake of the terrorist campaign initiated by the FLN (National Liberation Front) in Algeria in 1954 brought back stories of atrocities they committed. They took part in sweeping roundups of insurgents in the countryside, conducting raids on Algerian villages to root out guerrillas which entailed hostage-taking and indiscriminate reprisals against civilians. Brutal tactics were employed to make the Algerians talk: beatings, rapes, sexual humiliation, sleep deprivation, waterboarding, and electric shocks administered to the suspect's genitals. As early as 1947, Albert Camus had denounced the "Gestapo methods" routinely employed by the French in their colonies of Madagascar and his native Algeria—torture, collective reprisals, executions. "Three years after having felt the effects of a politics of terror, the French take in the news like people who have seen too much," he charged. "And yet the facts are there, clear and hideous as the truth: we are doing over there the same thing that we reproached the Germans for doing here."
All of this is alluded to in Resnais's unsettling film from 1963, Muriel, ou le temps d'un retour [Muriel, or the Time of Return]. What is returning here are the repressed memories of World War II, an unstable foundation upon which is layered the more recent history of French atrocities in its former colony. The story takes place in the northern port city of Boulogne, which was bombed heavily during the war. It was actually the screenwriter, Jean Cayrol, who chose the setting: "I situated the story in Boulogne, despite Resnais's doubts, because Boulogne is also a town after a drama. There are two towns, the old one spared by the war and the reconstructed town, the topography of which the old inhabitants cannot recognize… As the town plasters over the effects of the war, so do the inhabitants."
The ruins are still visible, as this still from the film makes clear, new structures looking out of place and poorly anchored, threatening to topple at any moment. A character in the film underscores the point in a scene included in the trailer, "The building is ready. They get the windows in. But it slides," he says.
Hélène has invited her old lover Alphonse back for a visit, to settle some unfinished business. He arrives with his young mistress and over a period of days, or perhaps weeks, the two express recriminations that apply as much to the situation of France as to their personal relationship.
Alphonse: Let's not dig up the past.
Hélène: That's why you're here.
Alphonse: I resent you Hélène, for all these memories.
Hélène's stepson Bernard has recently returned from military service in Algeria. He is angry at everyone, including himself, for what he did over there. Muriel is the name that he and his fellow conscripts gave to a girl they suspected of being a terrorist, whom they tortured to death. Bernard speaks of her as if she is still alive, as if she is still in his life, and of course we realize that she is present; the memory of what he did will never leave him. But Resnais could not say this outright in 1963, when de Gaulle's government was actively suppressing the memories of the Algerian war and when the French, like Alphonse, were disinclined to dig up painful memories of the German Occupation, notably their complicity with the occupier. And so the story is revealed only partially, and obliquely, forcing the audience to do the work at peeling away the obfuscations that have been plastered over the war's effects.
The Slow Dissolve
I don't know whether Modiano ever saw Muriel, but his fiction addresses the same gaps in memory, locating these lacunae in a place—the Parisian neighborhoods from which Jews were deported in the war, or vaguely remembered buildings he visited or resided in as a child—in much the same way that Boulogne was employed by Cayrol and Resnais to suggest impermanence. Walking these streets some years later, the narrator of Dora Bruder finds "nothing but a wasteland, itself surrounded by half-demolished walls. On these walls, open to the sky," he continues, "you could still make out the patterned paper of what was once a bedroom . . ." Modiano's lacunae arise from a different source than Resnais's. Too young to remember the Occupation, but aware of the taint it has left on French history and on his family history (Modiano's father dealt in the Black Market and may well have had dealings with the Gestapo), he attempts to fill in the gaps through repeated acts of the imagination. And yet he will not allow these imaginative recreations to endure. Unlike the books in the Bibliothèque nationale, the holes in Modiano's books are not filled in and the missing pages are gone for good.
In my favorite image from Suspended Sentences, the narrator of the last novella, "Flowers of Ruin" attempts to weave a story, gathering together all the threads he has collected, joining seemingly random events and images the way we do in dreamwork, but it always unravels. Tissue-thin, the cloth dissolves like a scrim, lit from behind. In the theater, this device would reveal the characters onstage, who would spring to life. In Modiano's fiction, the characters dissolve as well.
I hadn't moved from the window. Under the pouring rain, he crossed the street and went to lean against the retaining wall of the steps we had walked down shortly before. And he stood there, unmoving, his back against the wall, his head raised toward the building facade. Rainwater poured onto him from the top of the steps, and his jacket was drenched. But he did not move an inch. At that moment a phenomenon occurred for which I'm still trying to find an explanation: had the street lamp at the top of the steps suddenly gone out? Little by little, that man melted into the wall. Or else the rain, from falling on him so heavily, had dissolved him the way water dilutes a fresco that hadn't had time to dry properly. As hard as I pressed my forehead against the glass and peered at the dark gray wall, no trace of him remained. He had vanished in that sudden way that I'd later notice in other people, like my father, which leaves you so puzzled that you have no choice but to look for proofs and clues to convince yourself that these people really had existed.
Patrick Modiano, "Afterimage," Suspended Sentences, trans. Mark Polizzotti (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014), 15.
Albert Camus, "La Contagion," Combat, 10 May 1947.
James Monaco, Alain Resnais (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), 90.
Patrick Modiano, Dora Bruder, trans Joanna Kilmartin (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015), 111.
Patrick Modiano, "Flowers of Ruin," Suspended Sentences, 211.
Who's Building Tomorrow's Monopolies?
This standalone piece is part of a special series on Startup Tunnel, a new incubator based in New Delhi. Links to earlier articles appear at the end of the article.
This past week I led a workshop on building pitchdecks, not only for our own startups but for a wider crew of entrepreneurs. I’d asked the assembled group to help me whiteboard out the essential information they thought should be included in a pitchdeck. One bullet point, nearly overlooked towards the end of the list, said: Competition and Competitive Advantage. At this point I asked the group whether they didn’t also want to talk about creating a new monopoly?
Folks seemed to shift uncomfortably in their seats... apparently not. Why not? I asked. Do you mean like a public sector company, someone said. Ah, ah, ah, no, I said, realizing that the term monopoly wasn’t an abstract concept in the Indian context, but a real and oppressive part of our not-so-distant past. Yes, perhaps I’m being a bit loose with the term monopoly -- I don’t mean state-sanctioned and absolute monopoly -- I mean the kind of market leadership, let’s say more than 50% market-share, that can resemble monopolistic dominance. Don’t you want that? Well, VCs want to know that the space is real, said one founder. We want to work in an area where there is a good chance of success, said another, and that means there will already be competitors.
But isn’t that a problem? I asked. If the area you’re working in can already be defined as a competitive landscape it isn’t really all that new. In which case, how innovative is your startup concept? Think of any major startup that you’re inspired by these days and you’ll see they’re all near monopolies: SpaceX, Tesla, Airbnb, Dropbox, Snapchat. Before they came along, no one was doing what they’re doing. Now that they exist, people will come along and try to emulate them, but they’ve actually created a new market, in which they’ll continue to enjoy dominance. In some sense, that’s the only way these kinds of valuations can even be justified, either economically or socially or even in terms of the public good. These startups have created fundamentally new value and new social-technological possibilities that never existed before.I really want to see a slide that describes how you’re going to aspire to that kind of presence in a fundamentally new market.
Many folks still didn’t agree. Perhaps in some cases they couldn’t agree, because their business proposition wasn’t in fact all that radical as to create a fundamentally new market. Or maybe the term monopoly was just too distracting. At any rate, we broke for lunch with the question still open and animating conversation.
After lunch we were joined by several investors and mentors, and a series of teams were pitching for support as well as feedback. Included in the mix was a startup from our own stable called MeraGarden.Com. The two cofounders, Shubham and Rashmi, began by talking about how busy people’s lives had gotten and how tending plants can be a great stress buster. They talked about Delhi’s polluted air and how indoor plants can serve as a kind of air scrubbing technology. They talked about the high cost of land all around Delhi and how it was increasingly becoming difficult to find nurseries that would sell you the plants you wanted and had the botanical and lifestyle expertise to suggest plants for your home. They wanted to ship plants to you anywhere in India, based out of a network of micro-warehouses. Their website looked slick, and they were enthusiastic and knowledgeable about plants and gardening. They could think of many future areas to extend their business. They’d also looked at things like plant survival, breathable packaging design, soil alternatives, specialized pots and had figured out how to ship plants successfully in any orientation the whole way, even upside down. This was a niche ecommerce play, but it seemed like it could work and these guys seemed like the guys to do it. I was quite proud of their presentation and the way they fielded questions -- they made Startup Tunnel look good.
Someone called out from the back: But will this be a new monopoly? It was Bala from Nasscom10k, the industry group that had helped organize the day’s session. Shubham answered the question in pragmatic terms, saying that there was no one working this space in India, that they had already tested demand, solved for scale and that they were quite confident about establishing a niche position. But Bala pressed the point from our earlier conversation, now redirecting it to me. Earlier in the day I’d asked every startup to present themselves as a new monopoly, he said, but here I was, supporting an ecommerce play that wasn’t really doing anything all that new, and might in fact struggle to defend its market share were it to even taste initial success. I smiled and conceded the point -- perhaps selling plants online wasn’t in fact the creation of something entirely new. Maybe it was just a new niche. But this venture could be successful, operationally and financially, and that’s ultimately why one would back it. Touché, Bala.
After several intervening presentations, we eventually got to a founder I’ll call DroneFarmer, who had no presentation deck, but wanted to talk about agricultural drones. The first thing she said was that what she wanted to do was pretty much illegal right now. She thought she could see a way to fly a series of hobby drones all over agriculturally cropped areas to collect biomass and shade canopy information to create a new dataset that could then be mined to provide agricultural consulting services. She used the example of the coffee plant, which needed very precise conditions to be successful, including a particular kind and character of shade from the canopies of taller trees, information that couldn’t be modeled from satellite imagery. Flying a drone around would allow her to model an entire plantation area and advise on where taller trees, for example, needed to be grown. She’d bought and test-flown drones, hacked complex imaging solutions on to drones, and had consulted with agricultural developmental agencies. It was obvious she knew what she was talking about, in both agricultural and micro-aviation terms.
What DroneFarmer was proposing was also fraught with risk, not only because it represented a new model of creating and monetizing datasets, but also because of the looming presence of the public sector in all matters related both to aviation and to agriculture. That was why the investors in the room had suddenly gone quiet. Bala, from Nasscom10K, cut in again: Aditya, this dataset is going to be unique, the services offered new and unprecedented. This is going to be a brand new monopoly! You gotta get in now! I laughed and squirmed at his ribbing. That’s what it feels like to be confronted with risk and a dare you don’t want to take on.
Just about every element of enterprise she was showing, promising, embodying, was bound to run up against constraining regulations or the prospect of veto by state agencies. It was this other sense of the term monopoly, linked to the state, that so significantly increased the risk-perception around her proposals. It could be epic. It could be a total sink of money and time and legal fees. Maybe there would be a biopic. We’ll talk, I nodded to DroneFarmer, we’ll talk...
The truth is that any investor’s portfolio represents a balance of risk and return, which is conditioned not only by other investors’ views, but also by the larger horizon of the marketplace and it’s regulatory conditions. The more open and adaptive the regulatory horizon, the more risk one can take on in one’s bets for the future. There have to be channels to government and to regulators to help create and define a new and exciting market, as for example in the case of agricultural applications of drones. In the best of worlds we would actually see government agencies offering grants and running challenge competitions to spur these technologies and businesses along.
We can’t offer DroneFarmer funding or incubation at Startup Tunnel just yet, but perhaps we can offer her fellowship, of both a formal and collegial character. As an Entrepreneur-in-Residence she might gain access to an enabling environment and an intellectual milieu wherein she might continue to develop her business proposition, while also lobbying for partnerships with government agencies and scouting other opportunities. Other foundations and networks in India should also be joining hands in finding ways to support people like her, who can envision future monopolies that sound fantastic to most people’s ears. That’s the only way we’re going to see those worldchanging companies coming out of India's startup ecosystem.
This is a dispatch from Startup Tunnel, a new incubator based in New Delhi, simultaneously published by the portal iamwire.com. Some details in the above account have been changed or condensed for narrative flow, rhetorical effect and to respect the privacy of individuals. Read prior dispatches: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.
Monday, February 16, 2015
Leather and beads.
Her Rodney King piece is currently in Philadelphia Museum of Art's show "Represent: 200 years of African American Art", January 10, 2015 - April 5, 2015.
Incubating the Revolution
This is new dispatch from the frontlines of Startup Tunnel, a new incubator based in New Delhi. Links to earlier dispatches appear at the end of this stand-alone piece.
On Saturday we went to see Arvind Kejriwal of the Aam Aadmi Party take his oath of office as Chief Minister of the state of Delhi. We rode the metro out to Ramlila Maidan, Delhi’s traditional center for agitations and large public ceremonies. I was with Namit Arora and Usha Alexander, also sometime correspondents of 3QD, along with another friend of theirs, Pran Kurup, who had had a role in the online campaign. It was a bright winter’s day and a festive scene at the maidan, where volunteers were giving out stickers, banners and those trademark hats which we also put on. Kejriwal spoke about inclusion and participation and about his plans of making Delhi a city free from corruption. If anyone asks you for a bribe, he began smiling at his trademark line, never say no, setting kar dena, put your phone recorder on and record the official demanding a bribe. And then report him to us so we can begin disciplinary action.
The holacratic revolution is taking so many shapes and forms all over the world, whereby new services, new forms of decision making, new kinds of patterns of interaction and financial flow are coming about. This is its first and most memorable articulation in India. No complex audio-visual equipment, no CCTV required, just a record function already included in just about every smart and feature phone on the market and in the pocket of every second citizen of Delhi. The extortionary optic of the state is suddenly subverted, power is distributed everywhere and to everyone with the means to participate in the network. It is a powerful and true instantiation of the change the Aam Aadmi Party wants to bring about, but it is surely only the very first and initial step. And yet, the solution envisioned by Kejriwal to report such incidences of citizen extortion, a hotline number, seems in no way related to the much higher sophistication of a digital recorder situated on mobile OS. Shouldn’t that digital just go into an app somehow, time and location stamped, with some metadata concerning the identity of the officer being reported on? Shouldn’t this be the very first app that this administration puts into production?
These were my preoccupations, at any rate, as I headed back to campus for our Saturday afternoon session with our startup cohort. I’d asked the group needing more time and attention to come in early, while the startups at the head of the pack came in later. After some collective presentations we broke out into three groups huddled together to address their go to market strategies. I asked each of them to think about the feedback they’d received and whether there was someone in the cohort or in the mentor network who might actually possess the resources or skills they were looking for. Subir said he’d like to connect with Raj further, who had skills around data analytics and platform growth. Ishita said she’d like to connect with Anurag who seemed quite on the ball in terms of hiring and managing android developers. I suggested to Dipesh that he might connect with Ishita and Rashmi around customer engagement, outbound marketing and Google Adwords. Our own internal team at Startup Tunnel decided they wanted to speak to both Raj and Ishita on ways of growing audience. It was an interesting moment, for the boundaries between our nine startup teams had temporarily dissolved, and one could see here a significant concentration of complementary talent which could have been reorganized and directed to a great many number of different kinds of challenges, including, for instance, the challenge of using mobile social media to create a better self-organizing city.
The question of how to use innovation and technology to create better citizen experiences has preoccupied me for a while now. Last year, I worked with Namrata Mehta to plan a public convening on this question, for which we’d looked at some innovative ways in which big data was being used to improve civic services. Social Cops, for instance, is an angel-funded startup that first came up with the idea of citizen social reporting of infrastructure or service fails. There are many challenges for them to still overcome, but if they’re successful in using data analytics to partner with different government agencies we might yet see a new threshold of accountability and monitoring in how civic agencies acquit their responsibilities. In a related vein, we documented the social enterprise NextDrop, which has built an innovative kind of service model based on citizens texting back to their servers whenever their locality doesn’t have enough water running through their pipes. The company feeds this information to linesmen directly working for the city’s water supply, who in fact are working the pipes either blind or through a legacy regimen, and they then redirect water through the city in ways that makes the texting stop.
We also discovered that despite relatively low standard of municipal services delivery, India had claimed an astounding tenth place in the global open data index, which now tracks ninety-seven participating nations. This means that there is already a mechanism in place to render government data public and open. We also learned that the officers in charge of data.gov.in were eager and interested to partner with the startup scene, and were actually looking for the right kinds of partners to mediate and host this ecosystem for them. And conversely, there is a new kind of energy in urban India to volunteer time and expertise towards rethinking and rebuilding civic infrastructure, not least through the efforts of the anonymous activist group The Ugly Indian, which hosts flash-mob-style clean up parties in the public spaces of different towns and cities all across the country.
It’s really only from the perspective of actually running an incubator that one can see a way to address these needs in a new way. We’re already able to bring together young and committed talent that has the capability to work together in complementary ways. What’s required is for us also to be able to focus that talent on challenges that will really have impact in this social market. One of the ways one might do that is by running a weekend hackathon, for instance. We tried this last year in partnership with Startup Weekend, a global network with a large chapter in Delhi. We had some seventy wannapreneurs and developers in our space, who reorganized themselves into some seven teams to pitch different product and business ideas related to challenges of governance. More recently, Khosla Labs had hosted a similar hackathon related to the Aadhar number, India’s national identity program, out of which some 36 actionable ideas apparently emerged, some of which are now attracting venture funding. And beyond hosting these kinds of hookup and meetup events, perhaps there’s a role for us in merely publicizing the fact that we would like to work with entrepreneurs who are themselves committed to addressing civic challenges through their business and product ideas. That kind of signaling can have a transformative power on the market dynamic over time, creating a channel or funnel for civic entrepreneurship where none exists today. In the early period of this transformation, moreover, we might need to partner with more patient capital or donor funding to support future civic entrepreneurs through a grant funding model while they develop the understandings and insights required for them to arrive at a growth model that can attract private capital.
Even though the Aam Aadmi Party’s public messaging is still focused on the issue of citizen extortion, the grape vine suggests that they’re now thinking about water, sanitation, power, transportation and a host of other more complex areas of citizen services delivery. Yesterday, Arvind Kejriwal tweeted that he would devote himself to finding systemic governance and technology solutions to Delhi’s problems. Now that smartphones are widely distributed in the urban landscape, we might see citizen reporting of infrastructure failures, for instance, like the lack of running water or flooding in the city, or of domestic violence, or confirmations of new babies born needing vaccination, or perhaps citizen participation in the delivery of those services in the form of flash mobbed volunteer action. An entire new class of mobile apps could emerge -- civicapps, if you will. With this dizzying plethora of possibilities, the challenge is to figure out how we can best enable these changes to come about.
That weird sense of anomie I was feeling at the end of a heady day that began at Ramlila Maidan had to do with the already existing co-presence of all the different kinds of intellectual assets and resources that one might need to bring about tremendous change. At issue was only the prospect of recombining that talent, directing it towards the real challenges of our times and bringing together the right model with the right members of an implementing team. This cannot be done through old forms of agitation, legislation, command or control. It requires a more subtle and recombinant approach to needs identification and solutions development. This is ultimately the work we do at Startup Tunnel. I’m beginning to see that we can and must use the social technology of incubation to address civic and governance challenges, working if we can with this new and hopeful government installed in Delhi.
Monday, February 09, 2015
This Essay Is Not About American Sniper
by Akim Reinhardt
I was gonna write something about the Clint Eastwood film American Sniper. Seems like a topic of the Now. Something the internetting public can really grab onto and scream about.
Clint Eastwood: Sentimental warmonger, or artist of more nuance than leftists and pacifists can discern?
U.S. sniper Chris Kyle: Troubled war veteran of humble origins whose experiences are a sharp prism for viewing America's exploitative class divides and tragic foreign policy, or a remorseless, racist killing machine who's murderous life and violent death reflect much of what's wrong with the nation?
That kinda thing. People love that sort of stuff. Gets ‘em all jacked up, clickety-click. Plus, I just saw the movie and have some ideas of my own. But you know what?
I don't wanna talk about moral ambiguity. I don't wanna dissect global politics. I don't wanna filter through the finer shades of artistic vision, intention, and reception. I don't wanna delve into any of those abstractions. I don't wanna tap society's pulse and jump on the topic du jour. You know why?
Because life is meaningless.
As I sit down in front of this keyboard, I can't bring myself to care about what 3QD readers want or would enjoy reading. I can't be bothered to speculate on what type of essay might once again garner me a citation by Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish or land me back in the Huffington Post.
None of that matters. Because nothing matters. Nothing at all.
Meaning and truth are just illusions that humans chatter about incessantly because they can't stomach the sheer meaninglessness of it all.
The Earth is a snowball of cosmic debris. The possibility of life on it is a longshot accident that came in like a broken down nag in the 10th race at Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens (a real dump if you've never been). To consider the evolution of single cell floaters into multi-cell life forms is a far more boring prospect than even the droning monotone of the dullest high school biology teacher could suggest. Just that jump took over two and half billion years.
The rest of it? Some dinosaurs, some meteorites, some mammals, and us.
Us. You, me, and every other human who's ever lived. Let's start with you.
If you're under the age of 30, the only reason you're here is because two fertile people fucked. If you're younger, test tubes might've been involved, which is like a thin layer of bizarre frosting atop a massive cake of strange.
When your conception took root, that actual-you began forming after winning a 40,000,000:1 lottery ticket. Forty million. That's the number of sperm your father ejaculated, assuming he was producing on the low side. He might have unleashed as many as a billion sperm or more. And one of them bought a subscription to your mother's egg-of-the-month club, thereby making you and only you.
Any other egg/sperm combo would've produced an entirely different omelet altogether. Your parents would have had a different child instead of you, your siblings a different sibling in your place; it would be a real life daughter or son, brother or sister, but it wouldn't be you. And there'd be no you. Your one astronomical chance at creation on this tenuous little rock would have been gone in a grunt and a blink, with no one noticing. Just like it does for the other tens or hundreds of millions of sperm who don't ever come to fruition every single time some dude shoots a load, whether it's into the love of his life or his favorite jerkoff rag. None of those centillions of potential people will ever live. Ever. Done.
But you and me and the rest? Us? Our numbers on the sexual roulette wheel came in and here we are. What of it?
Nothing, I say. Nothing.
From simple cells to photosynthesis to complex cells to multi-cells to early animals to fish to land plants to insects to amphibians to reptiles to mammals to birds to primates to great apes to humanoids to us. It's not a plan. It's not a miracle in either the religious or the secular sense. It's a meandering, shit stained trail of eating, fucking, killing, and dying.
But because you and I are part of the homo sapiens freak show that's capable of complex language like these here words, and sophisticated thoughts like the ones you're likely to find running down 3QD's ongoing log like a massive can of fancy cat food smeared on the side of an abandoned building, we're capable of endlessly deluding ourselves by creating and embracing meaning. Meanings which don't even exist, but which we manufacture for our own enjoyment and peace of mind. Or to torture ourselves and others with. And then we convince ourselves those meanings are real.
But they're not. There is no meaning and nothing matters. Nothing matters because nothing is capable of mattering.
Lots of stuff is matter, but it doesn't matter. The rest of the stuff is energy, and it doesn't matter either.
There's no grand lesson to be drawn from any of this because there are no grand lessons. Or even little ones. We have senses and we can observe. But all ideas are manufactured. They're make believe.
Matter, energy, and ideas. That is all there is. The first two are out there all around us, and they are us. The third is within us, peculiar fantasies that we create and then embrace or reject for a variety of reasons.
We are by far and away the most sophisticated life form we've ever encountered, and probably ever will encounter. We're the only one that can thoroughly manipulate matter and energy. And we're the only one that has any complex ideas whatsoever, so far as we can tell.
Dolphins and elephants and dogs might have good memories, some impressive non-verbal communication talents, and enough sophistication to create and maintain relatively complex social systems. They might even make for better company than human beings. Well, at least the dogs certainly usually do. But no animal besides us debates ethics and morality. They don't argue about the merits of various political and economic systems. They don't daydream about the afterlife they believe awaits them. And they don't have the kind of existential angst or nihilistic miasma that drives an essay such as this one.
We, and only we, have sophisticated ideas. Not because they exist and we have especial powers of perception. But because we are the only beings capable of creating them. And boy, do we love to create and share ideas.
Among all those countless ideas, in the first rank are fantasies of meaning and truth.
Our minds like to discern patterns, even where there is none. Our minds crave meaning, even though there is no meaning. And so we fantasize. We build ideas like large, intricate Rube Goldberg contraptions. We're desperate to know that we caught the mouse because we built a proper trap. We're distraught by the prospect that we are the mice and the mice are us and every living thing dies, whether in a trap or in an open field or in the talons of bird or in the wreckage of a car or in a hospital.
I don't write this because I'm trying to convince anyone. I don't care if you agree with me or not. Whether you do or don't doesn't matter in the least. Nothing matters. Rather, I write these words because the absence of truth is the only truth I know. Because meaninglessness is the only thing I have.
And because today I just can't bring myself to pretend otherwise.
I've pretended a lot in my life. I grew up believing in God It was the Jewish version of God. Not terribly anthropomorphized. Kinda vague. Lots of omnis: omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent. I used to talk to him. I thought he heard me. That was nice.
I used to believe America was a unique land of opportunity and freedom. I used to put my hand on my heart during the national anthem. I used to think the United States was synonymous with justice, and that its greatness was inspiring. That was nice too.
I used to believe it didn't matter how I ate so long as I enjoyed it and I got to keep living. I believed human lives mattered more than the lives of other animals because humans are more important than any other animal. That other animals were inferior. That human lives have purpose where theirs don't. Yummy nice.
I don't believe any of those things anymore. Not because I woke up one day and began a personal revolution. Not because someone told me not to believe those things. Not because I suffered life-wrenching trauma or experienced some great epiphany.
I really wanted to keep believing in God and America and Big Macs and hundreds of other things that gave my life meaning and joy and comfort. But eventually I just couldn't do it anymore, despite my best efforts to hold on. I mourned as God slipped away like water through my cupped fingers. I sighed heavily at the realization that America doesn't equate to Totally Fucking Awesome. I knew I would miss bacon terribly even as I forsook it.
My fantasies melted away, leaking out of my ears and seeping out of my pores, one by one, drop by drop. After the big fantasies evaporated, the smaller, more esoteric ones dissipated in turn. Truth, courage, justice. Good and evil. They're all make believe, convenient abstractions we use to categorize matter and energy and the things they do. Things that we, as matter and energy, do. But that's all they are. Matter and energy.
They have no meaning. Nothing has meaning despite our best effort to impose meaning. Nothing matters.
I realize that many religious people are apt to look at me and say: This is what happens when you don't believe in God.
But I'm apt to look right back at them and say: This is why you do believe in God. I wish I could too. I remember when I did. It was very comforting.
People are lonely. And afraid. They crave connection and meaning. So they believe what I no longer can.
This doesn't make me any better than believers. Maybe just a little sadder. And in a way, a little more dishonest. After all, I still pretend a lot of things day to day. Most of the time even I pretend things matter. Things like my career or the love I feel for my family or the joy I share with friends. Worst of all, my ideas. I pretend that they matter. What I think about history or politics or morality or American Sniper.
I'm not sure why I still pretend so much. Is it because human beings are hard wired to pretend? Is it because I spent so much of my early life pretending that it's now difficult to move on to simple reality? Is it because almost everyone around me is pretending all the time, and humanity's collective, unrelenting influence takes its toll? Some combination of the above? Either way, it usually comes as second nature to me. Very often, I too pretend that things matter.
But not today. Today nothing matters. Today is a moment of clarity. Today I have no lies, no fantasies, no illusions. There's just me and you and these words, and none of it matters.
P.S. No, I'm not depressed.
P.P.S. Yes, next month I'll probably talk about what I pretend matters. Maybe.
Akim Reinhardt normally mentions his website at the end of a 3QD article, but really, there's no point.
Charles Campbell. Declarations Series: Homecoming. 2013.