Monday, May 25, 2015
Christian Faur. Melodie 02, 2011.
Installation, 2000 hand cast encaustic crayons.
On the Sight of Sound
"I can't understand why people are frightened of new ideas.
I'm frightened of the old ones."
~ John Cage
Not long after moving to New York around 2000, I picked up an odd little side gig, as a gallery sitter at a space called Engine 27. Taking its name from the decommissioned TriBeCa firehouse which housed it, Engine 27 wasn't your usual art gallery, but rather one that focused exclusively on sound art. It achieved this by meticulously renovating the ground floor of the firehouse into a nearly perfect acoustic environment. Floors, walls and ceilings were treated with rugs and acoustic paneling. Speakers were strategically situated throughout the roughly 2000 square feet; they could be found lurking in corners, or hanging from the ceiling. If you weren't careful you might stub your toe against a subwoofer squatting on a seemingly random patch of floor. Pretty much anything that wasn't already black was painted so, and the lights were kept low. Feeding all the speakers was a basement full of amplifiers, computers and other hardware. It was, to put it mildly, a sound nerd's paradise.
Engine 27 was the brainchild of Jack Weisberg, a self-taught sound engineer who earned his nut innovating approaches to both arena-scale sound and smaller, more high-brow projects. As an example of the latter, he worked with artist-composer Max Neuhaus on the 1978 MoMA iteration of his "Underground" project, which projected sound into the Sculpture Garden from beneath a ventilation shaft. (Neuhaus' Times Square version, sponsored by the Dia Foundation, ran from 1977 to 1992, then was reincarnated ten years later, but, befitting the fragility of sound, is currently ‘temporarily unavailable due to construction'.) Jack was a curmudgeonly fellow and used to getting things done his way. This is perhaps why Engine 27 became an extraordinary space for practicing what some people call "deep listening", which for me is just a tacit admission that we don't listen very closely to much of anything anymore.
Part of what makes good sound art so fascinating is exactly this prerequisite. Perhaps I am being overly optimistic here, though, since our culture, and especially what we consider to be ‘art', is so biased towards the visual. And for the purposes of the current argument – ie, I am sidestepping the question of what differentiates sound from music – the visual bias provides us with the dispensation of a quick scan. The people who speed-walk their way through an art museum will later on assert how great the museum was. They may even have the selfie to prove it. In some minimal way, they would be correct to say that they saw the art, but this is no different from saying that you "saw the grass" while driving down the freeway at 80mph. In this manner a viewer is entirely justified in dismissing an Ad Reinhardt painting as ‘just black' (although ‘none more black' might be more accurate). What else could he or she do, without spending the time needed to let the painting actually unfold before one's eyes, as was Reinhardt's intention?
Sound art does not really allow for this kind of aesthetic speed-dating. Nor can it rely on the conventions of concert-going, hence one indication as to how ‘sound' differs from ‘music'. A deep and complex installation, like the kind that Engine 27 sought to encourage, requires time and attention. It also requires movement, which is what one would expect when a work is spread over such a large space. One example was "Drift", a 2002 gamelan-inspired piece created by Christopher J. Miller, which explicitly leveraged the potential of Engine 27's 16-channel system. Some listeners would stroll around the space, while others would root themselves to a single spot. As the sampled swirls of Javanese gamelan – timbrally far less metallic and abrasive than the better-known Balinese counterpart – waft across the space, the immersive qualities of the piece began to make themselves felt. But in order for this environment to be successful, a certain modicum of patience is required from the listener, and a willingness to submit to experiences that, unlike the visual, may not have easy verbal, let alone visual, equivalents.
The ephemerality of sound art is also disadvantageous when it collides with the established tropes of the art world. Consider for example the time-honored Art Opening. Let's be honest and admit that no one goes to an opening to see the art. You go for the free booze and the mystery cheese cubes. Maybe you know the artist, or know someone who knows the artist. Of course, one hopes that the artist will be there, along with others – gallerists, collectors – who actually have some skin in the game, but they are generally difficult to recognize without a good deal of insider knowledge. If you do possess that knowledge, chances are that you are the one looking askance at the hoi-polloi rushing the bar.
Nevertheless, it is still possible to see the art at an art opening. It may be noisy, but the act of looking isn't generally impeded (unless the bar stays open too long). Not so for sound art. Without the explicitly visual cues of things-hanging-on-walls, you may not even realize you are at an opening; you may rightly ask yourself, Who are all these strangers having drinks in an overlit space? I had this experience recently when I went to the opening of David Tudor's "Rainforest V". Now, I should note that Tudor, a giant of 20th-century avant-garde performance and composition, passed away in 1996. But "Rainforest" stretches back to a 1968 Merce Cunningham commission; the fifth incarnation of the installation was realized by the collective Composers Inside Electronics.
Rainforest V is a complex installation that, according to one of the collective's members, takes "a simple idea of feedback and modulation that gives rise to monumental structure – the crafting of howls into symphonies. The act of folding input to output gives rise to expansive new worlds." This is obviously a somewhat grand claim, and illustrates the difficulty in translating sound art into description. Would a person reconcile these words with the experience of the installation? In more mundane, physical terms, a bevy of suspended objects are connected to one another and to a central computer that issues acoustic impulses, which are amplified via the resonant properties of those objects by means of attached vibrating units. Furthermore, these objects interact with one another through a deliberately inscrutable set of feedback loops. Despite the fact that the gallery provided us with stethoscopes so that we might engage in some close listening, the noise of the opening crowd rendered the entire installation as more sculptural than anything else.
"Displaying" sound art is problematic even without the crowds. An obvious advantage of visual art is the ability to cram many different pieces into close quarters, whereas the acoustic monopoly created by sound implies, at the very least, an uneasy co-existence of works, and at the very worst, an unmanageable cacophony. Anyone who has been to the end-of-semester show put on by students of New York University's Interactive Telecommunications Program has had this experience. While not strictly sound art, many of the works have audio components, and these works, and the students explaining them, are jammed into a few rooms with little regard for the space that these works require. It's the unholy love-child of a thesis show and a trade fair, and is just as exhausting as it sounds.
The more general concern is how to make sound art a part of the art world mainstream. If sound art is to be regarded as more than just the eccentric step-sister of the visual and plastic arts, certain conditions must be met. In the first place, we need artists! But artists don't just spontaneously generate. It is true that the indefatigable efforts of people like Douglas Repetto have led to the creation of the Sound Arts MFA program at Columbia University, but more is needed. There must be a critical mass of gallerists willing to promote these artists and their works. As David Krasnow wrote about Engine 27 in the Village Voice:
Showcasing electronic and electroacoustic music as the last bastion of experimentalist formalism is some pretty high art, and its timing couldn't be better. Big sellers this year were Caipirinha's Early Modulations and Ellipsis Arts' Ohm, both compilations of electronic-music classics—which means there are electronic-music classics. And classics need institutions. Difficult Music meets scrappy DIY art space: a heartwarming tale of Old Tribeca.
On the other end of the feedback loop, there must be a sense among buyers that these works are in fact collectible, and that it is desirous to do so. I don't really know what this means, since ‘displaying' sound art at home retains the same problematics as doing so in a gallery. Nevertheless, given the ongoing, extraordinary bubble in the art market, there will almost never be a better time to strike. Finally, museums and other institutions need to grant their own imprimatur via well-curated retrospectives and group shows. In 2013, MoMA took a step in this direction, but unfortunately wound up creating a case study in how not to curate sound art, or for that matter, anything else. As a last resort, having a rock-star artist who almost single-handedly establishes the genre's credibility might do the job, but I'm afraid sound art still awaits its Bill Viola.
Setting aside these vexing questions, what would a compelling work of sound art look like today? I had a chance to experience one at the beginning of 2014 when I chanced across an installation entitled "The Sea Is A Big Green Lens". Installed at Studio 10 in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn, brothers Douglas and David Henderson respectively divided the auditory and sculptural labors to create a magnificent environment. Inspired by the Paul Celan poem "Whitesounds", the installation asks what a message in a bottle can convey, if it were told from the point of view of the bottle itself.
The principal physical form of the installation is lenticular, but this shape is actually negative space. These contours are implied by the presence of several dozen ‘stems' of varying length, which look like golf tees that have been connected at the sharp ends. Half are rooted to the floor, while the other half are suspended from the ceiling. To add to the dynamism of the work, the stems are not vertical in relation to the room, but lean in one direction, as if they were being nudged by an ocean current. For its part, the negative lenticular space is also at an angle, further increasing the sense of motion. (Or, if that description didn't make any sense, just watch this video.)
Built into a dozen of these stems are speakers, which project Douglas Henderson's carefully composed soundtrack. Consisting of hundreds of maritime-themed samples that were recorded around the world, the piece ranges from incredibly detailed recordings of water splashing gently at close quarters, to the massively reverberant noises of a car ferry being unloaded after landing on a Greek Island. The recordings are pristine, and reproduced with exceptional clarity. The continuity of the fifteen-minute loop is seamless, and manages to be simultaneously abstract and perfectly logical (you can listen to an excerpt here). But the most compelling aspect of the piece is the deep integration between the physical forms and the sounds. As a listener drifts through the installation, there is the unmistakeable feeling of being drawn into a kelp forest. Time itself seems to slow and the rhythm and flow of the sound infuses itself into that of the physical objects, and vice versa. Despite the fact that the gallery's floor-to-ceiling windows flood the space with natural light, one soon acquires a distinct sense of being elsewhere. It is an achievement of great beauty, executed with craftsmanship, restraint and impeccable instinct.
It is works like "The Sea Is A Big Green Lens" that give me great hope for the future of sound art, simply because it succeeds in not being self-consciously about sound art. There is no hipster irony of obsolete technology that has been smirkingly repurposed. Nor is it tempted into attention-seeking by bludgeoning the listener with the abrasive potential that sound offers. While you can look away from an ugly painting, it's more difficult to look away from an ugly sound; also, the latter is infinitey more irritating. In the Hendersons' work, the medium melts away, privileging the experience itself. Like so much else, sound art will have found its stride when this experience merits placement alongside other mediums, in the same way that visitors to the new Whitney Museum can see painting, sculpture and video all in the same room, and not think anything of it. But there is still a long way to go.
The “Invisible Web” Undermines Health Information Privacy
by Jalees Rehman
"The goal of privacy is not to protect some stable self from erosion but to create boundaries where this self can emerge, mutate, and stabilize. What matters here is the framework— or the procedure— rather than the outcome or the substance. Limits and constraints, in other words, can be productive— even if the entire conceit of "the Internet" suggests otherwise.
Evgeny Morozov in "To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism"
We cherish privacy in health matters because our health has such a profound impact on how we interact with other humans. If you are diagnosed with an illness, it should be your right to decide when and with whom you share this piece of information. Perhaps you want to hold off on telling your loved ones because you are worried about how it might affect them. Maybe you do not want your employer to know about your diagnosis because it could get you fired. And if your bank finds out, they could deny you a mortgage loan. These and many other reasons have resulted in laws and regulations that protect our personal health information. Family members, employers and insurances have no access to your health death unless you specifically authorize it. Even healthcare providers from two different medical institutions cannot share your medical information unless they can document your consent.
The recent study "Privacy Implications of Health Information Seeking on the Web" conducted by Tim Libert at the Annenberg School for Communication (University of Pennsylvania) shows that we have a for more nonchalant attitude regarding health privacy when it comes to personal health information on the internet. Libert analyzed 80,142 health-related webpages that users might come across while performing online searches for common diseases. For example, if a user uses Google to search for information on HIV, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) webpage on HIV/AIDS (http://www.cdc.gov/hiv/) is one of the top hits and users will likely click on it. The information provided by the CDC will likely provide solid advice based on scientific results but Libert was more interested in investigating whether visits to the CDC website were being tracked. He found that by visiting the CDC website, information of the visit is relayed to third-party corporate entities such as Google, Facebook and Twitter. The webpage contains "Share" or "Like" buttons which is why the URL of the visited webpage (which contains the word "HIV") is passed on to them – even if the user does not explicitly click on the buttons.
Libert found that 91% of health-related pages relay the URL to third parties, often unbeknownst to the user, and in 70% of the cases, the URL contains sensitive information such as "HIV" or "cancer" which is sufficient to tip off these third parties that you have been searching for information related to a specific disease. Most users probably do not know that they are being tracked which is why Libert refers to this form of tracking as the "Invisible Web" which can only be unveiled when analyzing the hidden http requests between the servers. Here are some of the most common (invisible) partners which participate in the third-party exchanges:
Entity Percent of health-related pages
What do the third parties do with your data? We do not really know because the laws and regulations are rather fuzzy here. We do know that Google, Facebook and Twitter primarily make money by advertising so they could potentially use your info and customize the ads you see. Just because you visited a page on breast cancer does not mean that the "Invisible Web" knows your name and address but they do know that you have some interest in breast cancer. It would make financial sense to send breast cancer related ads your way: books about breast cancer, new herbal miracle cures for cancer or even ads by pharmaceutical companies. It would be illegal for your physician to pass on your diagnosis or inquiry about breast cancer to an advertiser without your consent but when it comes to the "Invisible Web" there is a continuous chatter going on in the background about your health interests without your knowledge.
Some users won't mind receiving targeted ads. "If I am interested in web pages related to breast cancer, I could benefit from a few book suggestions by Amazon," you might say. But we do not know what else the information is being used for. The appearance of the data broker Experian on the third-party request list should serve as a red flag. Experian's main source of revenue is not advertising but amassing personal data for reports such as credit reports which are then sold to clients. If Experian knows that you are checking out breast cancer pages then you should not be surprised if this information will be stored in some personal data file about you.
How do we contain this sharing of personal health information? One obvious approach is to demand accountability from the third parties regarding the fate of your browsing history. We need laws that regulate how information can be used, whether it can be passed on to advertisers or data brokers and how long the information is stored.
We may use information we collect about you to:
· Administer your account;
· Provide you with access to particular tools and services;
· Respond to your inquiries and send you administrative communications;
· Obtain your feedback on our sites and our offerings;
· Statistically analyze user behavior and activity;
· Provide you and people with similar demographic characteristics and interests with more relevant content and advertisements;
· Conduct research and measurement activities;
· Send you personalized emails or secure electronic messages pertaining to your health interests, including news, announcements, reminders and opportunities from WebMD; or
· Send you relevant offers and informational materials on behalf of our sponsors pertaining to your health interests.
Perhaps one of the most effective solutions would be to make the "Invisible Web" more visible. If health-related pages were mandated to disclose all third-party requests in real-time such as pop-ups ("Information about your visit to this page is now being sent to Amazon") and ask for consent in each case, users would be far more aware of the threat to personal privacy posed by health-related pages. Such awareness of health privacy and potential threats to privacy are routinely addressed in the real world and there is no reason why this awareness should not be extended to online information.
Libert, Tim. "Privacy implications of health information seeking on the Web" Communications of the ACM, Vol. 58 No. 3, Pages 68-77, March 2015, doi: 10.1145/2658983 (PDF)
Monday, May 18, 2015
Bad Women (A Retro View)
by Lisa Lieberman
Frigid women. Manipulative wives. Bad mothers. Dumb blondes. Alcoholism. Failing marriages. Furtive sex. Before Mad Men revived these retro conventions and somehow made them hip, they were just tawdry. The poster for BUtterfield 8 (1960) shows Liz Taylor in a slip, highball in one hand, a mink coat hanging off her shoulder. "The most desirable woman in town and the easiest to find. Just call BUtterfield 8." (In the more risqué version, she's standing by a pink telephone wearing nothing but a sheet).
In real life, Liz had just wrecked Eddie Fisher's marriage. He plays her friend Steve in this picture, long-suffering an older-brotherly way, a real prince. He left Debbie Reynolds for Liz, but she's the one doing penance here. Liz's character, Gloria, is angry, manipulative, and a nymphomaniac: the dark side of 1950s womanhood, as perceived by 1950s men. Nobody would ever mistake her for a nice girl.
The married guy she's cheating with, Liggett, is married to a nice girl, Emily. She's long-suffering too. She knows her husband is lying to her, he drinks too much and beats her around, but she blames herself for tempting him with a job in Daddy's company when she should have let him stand on his own two feet. Actually, it's not all Emily's fault. Emily's mother played a part in emasculating Liggett. They blamed mothers for everything in the 1950s and, let me tell you, Gloria's mother's got a lot to answer for too.
Poor Gloria. Behind her back, the men who buy her drinks and expensive trinkets (less crass than paying money for her "services") make jokes about how they ought to rent out Yankee Stadium, the only place big enough to hold all her ex-conquests. Poor Liz. She may have won the Oscar for her role, but it wasn't worth the humiliation.
It wasn't only Liz, though. "Prepare to be shocked," promised the trailer to A Summer Place, "because this bold, outspoken drama is the kind of motion picture excitement demanded by audiences today." Really? I can't imagine what audiences in 1959 found shocking about this picture. As an exposé of sexual hypocrisy, it's pretty tame. Yes, there's an extramarital affair, but the betrayed spouses are so unsympathetic you're cheering the adulterous couple on. There's a pair of teenaged lovers having sex too, but Molly (Sandra Dee) and Johnny (Troy Donahue) are driven into one another's arms by the screwed-up adults in their lives. Knowing the mess that both Dee and Donahue made of their own lives, it's tempting to read more into this picture. When Johnny's alcoholic father calls Molly "a succulent little wench," we're obviously meant to feel, with Johnny, that this accusation is unjust, but he only disputes the "wench" part. Dee is indeed succulent, her surface innocence barely concealing her sexual readiness. Toward the end of her life, the actress revealed that she had been raped repeatedly by her step-father as a child. The way she was presented in A Summer Place, it's all there. Poor Sandra.
Forget the squadron of pointy-breasted blonde bimbos in Goldfinger (1964). Sean Connery was having too much fun playing 007 for me to object to such an over-the-top satire. I have no problem with Marilyn Monroe either in Some Like it Hot (1959). No, it's the smutty stuff that bothers me: Anne Bancroft, all of thirty-five when she made The Graduate (1967), a beautiful woman playing a washed-up housewife. She's got no life, admits she's an alcoholic, is messing up her daughter while having meaningless sex with a boy barely out of his teens and busy manipulating every male within arm's reach. Take away the jaunty Simon and Garfunkel soundtrack and Mrs. Robinson is just sad.
Makes me long for witty Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday (1940) or Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve (1941). Or one of those really bad B movie heroines, the type who takes a good man down with her without so much as a twinge of remorse. The character Jean Simmons plays in Angel Face (1952) "traps a man into marriage . . . and murder," as the trailer puts it. You don't feel sorry for her, you feel sorry for Robert Mitchum, the chump she plays. The guy was out of his depth.
But that's the point of misogyny, in the movies and in the world at large. Sandra Dee was succulent, but not particularly smart. She didn't have to die at the end of A Summer Place. Liz, on the other hand, and Jean Simmons's character in Angel Face: all I can say is, enjoy your power while you can, ladies, for the end is nigh.
Lisa Lieberman's historical noir, All The Wrong Places, was published in March by Five Star, a part of Cengage Learning.
"(Bee-eaters) forage over grasslands and Acacia savanna, and are well known for the ingenious use of ‘beaters’ to chase up grasshoppers, dragonflies and other prey species. These beaters usually take the form of grazing herds of game and domestic animals, and large flocks of carmine bee-eaters may gather overhead. They also use various creatures as convenient mobile perches from which to swoop off, snatching insects flushed by their ride.
Northern Carmine Bee-eaters in particular are masters of this trait, and rides range from elephants, donkeys and goats to Kori and Arabian Bustards, Abyssinian Ground Hornbills ..."
Monday, May 11, 2015
Eric Sealine. Breathing Room, 2012.
Forced perspective construction of wood, Lexan, paint.
At the end of Manhattan, across the Atlantic breakwaters, or at the beginning, swim fish from Lake Tanganyika and Lake Malawi. Those bodies which, appeared, of water, almost touched each other, on account of Plates moving, shifting, rocking; Rift Valley you know. But there they are, these fish, here. Go figure. To and fro, to and fro—Wearing expressions of ‘Who cares bro' or of worry, the more you stare, some anxious. Some not so much. Like it's hard to find your feet here. You know? Some look like they're happy. Yes. Like fish in water. Like this is exactly where they want to be. Others, eh it's not a bad place to end up, as places go. Some not so much…Blue with bulging foreheads. Yellow too. Colors for which I don't know names yet. Even. Wide eyed, aware, not a muscle twitching—just the fins or are they wings—swishing, wishing, shimmering. It's easy to see how fish out of water, might be us. Me. In a glass aquarium in the Staten Island Ferry Terminal. Now as I wrap my arm around the pole on a swaying speeding 2 train wondering if I should switch to the R or stay on this one—or maybe take the Shuttle to the 6 or move to the M and the E train. I'm on my way to City Hall, Not used to going to work here, To talk to folks, about how they care for those who haven't been born yet, For those on their way to growing up. For those done growing, for those in between all this, the work and the emotions, the business of living. In between good and bad days and limbs. In need of a helping hand, a fair shake, I'm on my way to exchange with the good folks there, cross pollinate. We are birds of a feather, same kettle of fish, they'll tell me and I'll tell them what in the World we are up to elsewhere. In this city they spend 9.7 billion—that's dollars, on such care. On 3 million—good people here. Elsewhere, whole countries, on billions not so much is spent….I wonder how the Cichlids got here. Fully formed and born already? Brought across the salty oceans in jars sloshing fresh water or what? Or, did they arrive as eggs here? I look around me at the morning commuters. This car is quiet, heads mostly down, dangling ear plugs, some sleeping, some reading novels or stare at IPhones. I glance at possible subjects; that face there, should be painted with gold leaf or silver. Suddenly a man, beyond my vision on the other side of this thicket of passengers screams out ‘Aargh, Death squad, Stop!'---Some bite; glance over--- No one flinches, Some shrug. I nonplussed, smile and exchange glances with a fellow straphanger--a strapper I guess--who says reassuringly, unimpressed—‘He's just trying to get attention. That's all'. In silence the car hurtles on. Three stops later, with each periodic outburst, the car load leans towards the scream, glances become compassionate. The load here on this car understands. All these faces, from other places, on their way to fixing life, understand. Hurtling through the city, this life blood of the city in this vein—the artery---flowing, flying, moving fast from one end to the other, now leaning, now bumping, now brushing, jostling, jolting--- now rocking against each other. Towards, a better life. This car load, understands. Train stops, doors open, a fresh pack loads on. And I resolve to return to the Ferry Terminal, take a photograph—wondering, still, about those colors, what shape they arrived in here, hatched or waiting to be. To spend their life—to live it watching commuters go by.
Painting by: Esma Djutovic
Monday, May 04, 2015
A Love Letter from Baltimore
by Akim Reinhardt
Last Wednesday, over at my website, I published an essay on the riot that took place in Baltimore, a city where I've lived since 2001. Sincere thanks to 3QD for re-posting it here.
That essay primarily focused on the riot itself, not the protests that followed or the de facto police state Baltimore has become since then. I considered the conditions in Baltimore that led to the riot and and examined rioting as a form of social violence.
In this essay, however, I would like to offer a more personalized reaction to the events of the past two weeks: fragments of thought and experience amid the choppers circling overhead, parks filled with protestors, and streets lined with soldiers.
Unleashing a Beast?: The Legitimizing of Governor Larry Hogan.
The night of the riot, a dear friend and fellow historian called me up and said: "This legitimizes Hogan."
That's a very prescient insight.
When 9-11 happened, Bush the Younger was woefully unqualified to handle the situation. In the end, he seriously botched it in numerous ways. But it didn't matter. He was the man in charge. People turned to him, and he played it macho, maintaining his image enough to reap the political benefits. He was instantly legitimized, and despite all of his bungling over the next three years, was able to win re-election in 2004.
Eight months ago, Larry Hogan was kind of a nobody. Until 2003, he was just a businessman working in commercial real estate. Then, when Bob Erlich became the first Republican governor of Maryland since Spiro Agnew (yes, former disgraced Richard Nixon VP Spiro Agnew), Hogan finagled a spot as Secretary of Appointments. In other words, he was responsible for patronage appointments in the Erlich administration.
After Erlich was one-and-done, going down to former Baltimore mayor Martin O'Malley, Hogan remained a political operative; he founded and ran his own anti-tax organization.
Look, Hogan didn't come out of nowhere. His dad was a congressman, and he himself has been active in politics since the 1970s. His first stint as a delegate to the GOP national convention was 1976, and he first ran for office (and lost) in 1981.
But when Larry Hogan announced his candidacy for governor last year, most Marylanders responded: "Who?" And nationally, he was a complete and utter Nobody.
But Martin O'Malley's handpicked successor ran a disastrous campaign, and Hogan managed to become the second Republican governor of Maryland since Sprio Agnew.
The chances of Hogan being a one-and-done novelty like Erlich just got a helluva a lot slimmer. Shit, he's even got some real national name recognition now. That's what happens when you're the guy in a suit who sends in the troops.
It's too early in Hogan's term for me to make any pronouncements about him. I was not impressed with his first national press conference, when he threw Baltimore mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake under the bus for supposedly waiting too long to call him to do his macho man routine. It was amateur hour bullshit, the kind of thing you might expect from an incompetent corporate middle manager, not a state governor.
But because of these riots, he may be here to stay. Time to take note.
I realize that there are myriad important differences between wars and riots. However, after writing my essay and contemplating the commonalities between the two, with both being forms of social violence, I increasingly became sickened by the Left's celebration of the riot.
It became ever clearer to me that fairly mindless leftist support for social violence in the form of urban riots is not entirely different from fairly mindless right wingers' support of social violence in the form of warfare by the state.
No wonder neither ideology speaks to me. Both are so steeped in rationalized violence as to sicken me.
That being said, there's a world of a difference between an outside ideologue and a local person who's in the mix.
Which is why I have a tremendous amount of sympathy for local protestors who are damn proud of the high schoolers who ran amok at Mondawmin Mall on Monday afternoon (which was the initial phase of the riot), even if I personally am not.
It's very difficult for many outsiders to understand how parents and grandparents could be proud of teenagers for starting a riot. But several factors go into it.
One was the way many black Baltimoreans rallied in opposition to the notion that their children were "thugs." Numerous politicians, including the governor and mayor, and many in the press used that word. And there was a local backlash.
These are their children, both metaphorically and literally, and how dare you, who do not know them and only ever look down on them, call them "thugs." That was a very strong sentiment.
And while the rest of the nation is enamored with the woman who beat her teenage son to get him away from the riot, many of the people here in Baltimore think the teens who rioted at Mondawmin Mall actually did something positive and important.
Which brings us to the next factor. There is a widespread sense among Batlimoreans that the indictments, which D.A. Marilyn Mosby handed down on Friday against the six police officers responsible for Freddie Gray's death, would not have come to pass without the riot.
It's hard to describe what those indictments meant to many folks in this town. People cried. They cheered. I saw it, I heard it. The indictments, in the minds of many, are an unquestioned victory for justice.
And while many people are very grateful to Mosby, who was just nationally legitimized in much the same way Hogan was, these folks also have a strong sense of agency. Many people here earnestly believe that the officers would not have been indicted without the riot.
And it's their kids who started it. So when you call them "thugs," you're not just insulting their children, you're also denying the good that supposedly came from their actions.
Finally, there's the need to be heard. In America, poor people are usually invisible to the middle and upper classes. They might pop up in the occasional and uncomfortable interaction. A panhandler asks you for money. A homeless person is sleeping on a public bench. You took a wrong turn and passed through a neighborhood.
But the middle and upper classes almost never actually hear from poor people. The poor have almost zero access to mass media. They host no shows, run no commercials, and only get interviewed for a few seconds if the local evening news is covering a nearby shooting or fire.
You never hear from the poor, and they know that. Because, oh boy, they're always hearing from you. From the bureaucrats involved in their lives, to the pretty faces on TV, to yup, you guessed it, the police who roam their neighborhoods: the poor are always hearing from the middle and upper classes. And those better-to-do folks tell them what they think, tell them how to act and think and feel, tell them what's wrong with them, and tell them how to fix it.
Christ, David Brooks' recent article was little more than a litany of insults aimed at America's poor. Like every well meaning person of means, he thinks he's doing them a favor by filling some version of the Savior or Prophet roles. But it's really just another example of shitting on the poor while they can't respond, because they don't get to write columns for the New York Times.
All this adds up to poor people wanting to be heard. Needing to be heard. That was a major theme at various protests.
And one of the things the riot did was to make middle class and wealthy Americans listen to poor black people in Baltimore.
Their words got filtered through crap like CNN, which led them to chant things like "Fuck CNN!" But despite that, poor people got heard far more than they normally do, which is never.
Thus, many of them look at those kids who started the riot, and they have a sense of gratitude and pride for helping them get heard.
So how come I'm repulsed by outside observers who celebrate the riots, yet sympathetic to local people who do so for some (but not all of) the same reasons?
Because fuck you, asshole. People got hurt. Businesses were destroyed. And I don't mean just that infamous CVS. I mean dozens of mom and pop shops. People struggling to make a living and a little dream for themselves watched it go up in smoke.
You wanna celebrate that? Just some unfortunate collateral damage on the road to revolution? Go fuck yourself, you piece of shit.
But a local person living in this maelstrom with their ass on the line? Yeah, they can be proud. They earned it. You didn't. Now fuck off.
That's how I feel. I'm not saying it's right, but it's how I feel, and I'm not apologizing for it.
Despite the sincere sympathies I just proclaimed, I'm not happy about the riot.
I think Mosby would have indicted the officers regardless. If you believe that, and I do, then you look around and see short term damage from the riot that is probably about to be compounded by it's long term aftershocks.
In other words, this is gonna fuck shit up for a while.
To clarify, I'm not talking about the protests. Those I support very much. But the riot itself was, I think, unnecessary for our much needed social progress, and may prove difficult for this city to overcome right away.
This isn't some gaudy, overpriced hot spot trading on its erstwhile street cred like Boston, Manhattan, or, increasingly, Washington, D.C. This is Baltimore, that singularly broken miracle of geography: the red headed stepchild of the Northeast corridor, the faded rose of the South, and the eastern most fringe of the Midwestern rust belt.
Man, if that weren't so long, it might be a good license plate slogan.
The long term damage may be wide ranging, beginning with the tourist economy. Other than the drug trade, I find the tourist economy to be the least endearing part of the Baltimore economy. Tourism is only fun if you're a tourist, and even that's pretty dubious. Of course it's profitable for many businesses, but too many of those businesses are national and international corporations siphoning money off to their shareholders, instead of small businesses keeping it local.
On the labor side, it's a pretty mixed bag. Some people certainly do well with it, and kudos to them. But too much of the tourism sector's job creation adds up to crappy service jobs. You know, like go wash dishes at the P.F. Chang near the Inner Harbor. I'm not being the least bit sarcastic when I say you can find dignity in work like that, but you sure as shit can't find much money.
For many locals unattached to the tourism industry, the Inner Harbor is mostly something to ignore, or something to point unwanted guests towards. Or maybe that's just the attitude of me and my jaundiced friends.
But putting my own cynicism aside, tourism is indeed an important part of the economy, and this here city needs as much economic activity as it can get.
The problem of course is that nothing scares faster than a white suburbanite. So that tourist economy is probably gonna be fucked for a year or two.
The local housing market might take a hit as well. Prices had generally been going up over the last few years, but one wonders how this will affect things. Undoubtedly, some people will now refuse to move here under any circumstances. I mean, those generally aren't the people you want anyway, better off without ‘em, I say. But just like the economic activity from tourism, we need as much tax base as we can get.
But that downturn will probably play out very locally and unevenly. Some neighborhoods might tank, others might level off, while those areas the middle class deems to be "safe" may actually see housing prices go up as supply and demand dance their heartless dance.
The riot and military occupation will probably also hurt outside investment. How many businesses that might have considered moving here will now nix that idea? It's impossible to say. Only time will tell, but I can't imagine this won't have any negative consequences. My totally unscientific, horse race handicapper's estimate was that each night of rioting would fuck the local economy for a year. Fortunately, the riot was just one night. We'll see.
Overall, I suspect the revival of Baltimore's economy will continue, but the lines of disparity may worsen. That revival, as in many post-industrial American cities, is based in large part on an urban playground model in which young professionals move into hip neighborhoods, then move out to the suburbs when they have kids, but continue visiting for more mature forms of entertainment.
In other words, a less successful version of the shit shows up in Boston, Manhattan, and D.C.
So hip neighborhoods will probably remain hip. Placid, middle class neighborhoods are probably likewise unaffected. But I worry that poor neighborhoods will just get poorer.
The best media coverage by far, and I mean by light years, was local. In particular, alternative weekly newspaper Baltimore City Paper and local daily newspaper The Baltimore Sun (which recently bought City Paper), just churned it out. Top notch stuff.
Obviously, like anyone living here, I have insights and opinions. But if I didn't, and I had to rely only on crap like cable news . . . pretty fuckin' stark.
Here's a recent upload from City Paper. They ignored the "media corral," that spot where well behaved media were supposed to herd together under police orders. Instead, they went out into the streets and shot important pictures: curfew arrests of protestors, street medics, and observers from the National Lawyer's Guild.
The highest bail any of the six indicted BPD cops got was $350,000. Meanwhile, a sixteen year old kid who bashed a police car, then turned himself in, got a $500,000 bail. That shit does not go unnoticed.
I suppose the judge imagined he was sending a message about how rioting won't be tolerated. Instead the message received was: a car is worth about twice as much as Freddy Gray's life.
Walking home last night before curfew, I came across a scene not usually seen in my neighborhood, or in this city generally for the most part: A young, dirty, white couple with bad dread locks, sitting in the doorway of a closed store on a busy street, him strumming a guitar and singing, her humming and bobbing her head, both of them hoping you'd stick some money in their hat.
They also had the requisite dog.
We've got plenty of homeless whites in Baltimore, some mentally ill, mostly drug addicts out hustling for the next score. But this particular brand, a callow bastardization of the hippie movement that seems permanently attached to leftist protests and rallies (I don't imagine they show up at Tea Party rallies, if that's even still a thing), can't help but bring out my inner Archie Bunker.
Go do something productive! Or not. But if you wanna skate through life, stop begging. We all know you're not actually poor. Self-indulgent brats.
Mostly, I just feel bad for the dog.
After I posted my essay about the riot last week, fielded some initial responses, made some final copyedits, and pushed back in my chair, I felt emotionally exhausted. I teared up a little bit. I guess I do love this fucked up little city that has been my home these last fourteen years. And I really hope it gets better. Or at least doesn’t get any worse.
Finally, I’m blaming God. Usually when something bad happens, there are all sorts of people who are quick to say "It's all part of God's plan." Yet, I just haven't heard anyone blaming the Baltimore riot and subsequent military occupation on God. Those people seem to have gone AWOL. So let me pick up the slack for them.
This is all God's fault.
Akim Reinhardt's website is ThePublicProfessor.com
Utopia, Frame By Frame
"A map of the world that does not include Utopia
is not worth even glancing at."
I've recently become obsessed with a TV show, which is rather unusual for me. I like to tell people that, after HBO wrapped The Wire, I went ahead and sold my TV. Perhaps more melodramatic than true, but this is nevertheless close enough for essayistic purposes. The present show, however, could not be more different than the gritty realism of David Simon's character-driven creation. Created by Dennis Kelly and broadcast by Channel 4, the UK's fourth public service broadcaster, Utopia had a short run – only two seasons of six episodes each. Late in 2014, it was decisively announced that the series would not be renewed for a third season, but I think this was for the best. My grandfather once related an old Arab proverb to me: "One should always stop eating when it tastes the sweetest". I don't know if this is really an old Arab proverb, but there are certain things one just isn't inclined to Google.
At any rate, one thing that is certainly true for Utopia and shows like it: if you thrive on massively complex, increasingly far-fetched scenarios, the longer you go on, the more likely you are to trip over your own plotlines, and all hopes for a tightly orchestrated dramatic tension eventually evaporate. The most instructive recent example, which still rankles with fans, is how Lost wrecked itself on reefs of its own devising, despite the impressive hermeneutical gymnastics deployed by some in its defense. I would imagine that few producers and executives enjoy contemplating a similar fate for their own endeavors.
The hazard for Utopia's genre – the paranoid thriller – is especially acute. And settling on the proverbial ‘shadowy international conspiracy' as the principal plot mechanism only doubles down on the risk, since it is tempting to mop up any inconveniences using said conspiracy. Nevertheless, I have always had great faith in the British when it comes to the respect required to make conspiracies, erm, plausible. That's right – a conspiracy needs to be treated respectfully if it is to have any currency.
Obviously, we must at this juncture invoke the masters of the genre, such as Albert Hitchcock and John le Carré. More recently, Chris Mullin's novel A Very British Coup comes to mind, not only for the fact that it was also adapted into a serial by Channel 4 in 1988, but also because the premise – the consolidation of Margaret Thatcher's grip on power in 1979-1980 with the help of MI5 – forms one of many casual subplots thrown off by Utopia. If you always suspected that Labour got shivved in that election, this is the show for you.
The British are also decidedly superior at conveying paranoia, at least in the English-speaking world (although the Russians may have a cultural advantage here). By my reckoning, Duncan Jones' Moon is one of the masterpieces of paranoid sci-fi filmmaking of the last 25 years, and essentially relies only on the talents of Sam Rockwell's acting and Kevin Spacey's voice. The loneliness of Rockwell's character – the sole human resident of a lunar base, locked in to a three-year contract – is a different kind of loneliness than that of Dave Bowman, Kubrick's astronaut in 2001: A Space Odyssey. In Bowman's case, he is coddled by an alien intelligence whose intentions may be unknown, but never come off as sinister. Weirdly, there is a kind of comfort in the cosmically inscrutable nature of his fate, which is one of instrumentality. Rockwell's character, by contrast, struggles to understand the purposes for which he has been deployed to the lunar base, in this case by his corporate sponsors. It is therefore appropriate that those purposes are decidedly practical and driven by economics, to the exclusion of any moral considerations. In order for the paranoid genre to reach its fullest expression, it seems best to have only a few people around, and for the ultimate author of one's fate to be present and known, if only just out of reach – something that Kafka understood most intimately. In an ideal world, paranoia and claustrophobia are generative of one another.
Kubrick also occupies an interesting reference point when considering the visual appeal of Utopia. Almost every scene is shot from a one-point perspective, which was favored by Kubrick (and, truth be told, Wes Anderson). The psychological effect of centering the camera angle with its subject matter generally forces attention and creates drama and suspense – think of the hotel hallways in The Shining. Now you see the twins, now you don't. For his part, Anderson subverts the dramatic in favor of the ironic (you can view supercuts of the two directors' use of one-point perspective here and here, respectively). But in both cases the result is one of visual depth. Those hallways go on for a long time, perhaps forever.
For its part, Utopia drives the one-point perspective to new levels of zealotry. Remarkably, however, the end result is that depth is entirely sucked out of the frame. A crucial reason for this flatness is the equally fanatical use of color. Before you begin finding your way around the characters and plot, the first thing that hits you is the extraordinarily acidic nature of the palette. Blues are not warm but cyan and teal, and there are exquisite purples and pinks. The greens take on a lurid quality, and the yellows and oranges are nothing short of radioactive. Just as the one-point perspective is ever-present, for the length of the series there is no respite in the assault of color. Somewhat remarkably, this is not exhausting to the eye. The relentlessness consolidates itself into a sort of queasy consistency. Taken together, the resulting flatness forces a paradox onto the viewer: a kind of hyperreality mashed right up into an utter disregard for reality. What are we really seeing here?
Too often we mistake – or perhaps more accurately, accept – striking visual effects as a semi-autonomous phenomenon, existing within a film but not necessarily fully integrated into it, either. This blunting of our critical faculties may be the most pernicious legacy of CGI in cinema today. The fact that "The movie was crap, but the effects were really great" is considered an acceptable thing to say about a film at all (if not an actual endorsement!) illustrates just how far we have fallen. But the use of color and perspective in Utopia is so extreme that it clearly warrants further consideration.
The event that sets the Utopia universe in motion is the discovery of a manuscript, thought to be a sequel to a graphic novel, The Utopia Experiments, that was originally published in the late 1980s. The original novel is less a coherent narrative, and more of a cryptic set of drawings that imply the tale of a brilliant geneticist who has made a deal with the devil. All that is known of the author is that he was a paranoid schizophrenic who created the drawings as part of his art therapy while institutionalized. Soon after, the author/patient died in the same institution. Twenty-odd years later, a marginal yet robust community of enthusiasts continue to discuss and parse the novel and its possible meanings via an online discussion forum. Through chance timing, four of these participants are called together by a fifth, who claims he has just acquired the sequel manuscript. This motley mixture of the curious, bored, afflicted and conspiratorially minded constitutes the core protagonists of the series.
However, the first people we meet are the nemeses of this group, the representatives of the aforementioned ‘shadowy conspiracy'. Arby and Lee are cryptic, implacable killers who come to a comics shop, attempting to track down the manuscript ‘sequel'. The importance of the manuscript, or rather what it may hide, is demonstrated by the fact that, in the opening four minutes, about as many people get offed.
Needless to say, Arby and Lee don't recover the manuscript, but procure a lead that sets them on a collision course with the first group. But more importantly, what is established, in a sort of strange loop fashion, is the key to both the substance and the presentation of Utopia: the graphic novel is both the object of desire, and the lens through which that world is seen. For to watch Utopia is, literally, to watch a graphic novel unfold on the screen, panel by panel. This has been attempted previously, the prime example being the 2009 film adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons's Watchmen, but Utopia has no precedent source material, so it is free to invent itself from whole cloth. Hence the very deliberate use of color and one-point perspective I discuss above – the resulting flatness makes each scene easily imagined as a frame in a graphic novel that is itself entirely imaginary.
As visually rewarding and intellectually stimulating as it is, do not think that Utopia shirks violence. In keeping with the aesthetic of a paranoid conspiracy theory graphic novel, plenty of people meet untimely ends. Pretty much everyone seems to be a good shot; when they aim for the head, they tend not to miss, and they rarely aim for any other part of the body. Children are not only murdered in cold blood, but become murderers themselves. There is a stark unsentimentality, and not a small dose of psychopathy, that befits a narrative that ultimately concerns itself with the end of the human race, or rather its possible salvation.
But this also introduces a further interesting consequence of the integration of substance and presentation: as the stakes rise implacably higher and the characters find themselves in more absurdly improbable and dangerous circumstances, the ‘graphic-novelization' of the visual style acts as a vaccine against our disbelief. Once jarring, the cinematography offers us license to accept what is happening. I think that if the series had been filmed in a more conventional, that is to say, realistic way, losing the audience would have been far likelier, regardless of how tightly scripted both seasons have been.
To say more about Utopia risks running into spoiler territory. In fact, there are quite a few timely issues that are either alluded to, or form core parts of the narrative. Some historical events that were appropriated by the show's writers even riled up the public, although I doubt that this contributed to the show's cancellation. Suffice to say that, except for some shoddy microbiology, I didn't really find myself rolling my eyes at each next big reveal, mostly thanks to the series' clever construction.
That said, throughout Utopia, there are plenty of Easter eggs for sci-fi enthusiasts: Bejan's fall off the terrace of his London high-rise is a reference to The Comedian's similar demise in the opening of Watchmen; a common spoon becomes an object of meditation for Wilson Wilson, but for entirely different reasons than it did for Neo in The Matrix. Utopia also has a close kinship with Black Mirror, about which I have written previously, but whereas Black Mirror is concerned with excavating the intended and unintended consequences of the relationship between society and technology, Utopia does not indulge in the dark satire that is Charlie Brooker's stock in trade. It is more otherwordly than didactic, and yet does not lack its own moments of leavening humor, which are expertly sprinkled. Nevertheless, both shows truck with the idea that we, either as individuals or as a society, are not nearly in control of our destinies as we might like to believe. Decisions have alrady been made, ostensibly in our collective best interest, whether we like it or not; such is the nature of Utopia.
Sughra Raza. Untitled. Botswana, March 2015.
The Looty-Wallahs (Who Owns Antiquities?)
by Leanne Ogasawara
He was one of the most famous art connoisseurs in Chinese history. And he was also known for walking the streets of Hangzhou dressed in the fashions of 500 years earlier. When asked why he did it, he replied, “Because I like the styles from back then.” But, in fact, everyone knew there was more to it than that. Madman Mi, as Mi Fu was also lovingly known to people of his time, served for a brief time at the court of Emperor Huizong, just prior to the fall of the Empire. Believed to be of Sogdian blood, it was through his mother’s connections at Court as a Lady-in-Waiting and Consort of Emperor Shenzong that he was able to enter the official bureaucracy without ever having had to take any of the official examinations.
But --alas-- despite his excellent connections, Mi Fu was never particularly "career-oriented" --as he remained till the very end devoted to the creation, study and collection of art. His passion started while he was still quite young, and he has described in his writings how his mother more than once sold her ornamental hair combs in order to fund his collecting while he was still only a child.
To call him an eccentric would only be an understatement.
For not only did he walk the streets dressed in clothes from the Tang dynasty, but he was also known for introducing himself and bowing to especially fine specimens of garden rocks, which were of the type he collected; often addressing them politely as “elder brother.” Greatly admired by Emperor Huizong for his knowledge and style, he was appointed Director of the Calligraphy and Painting Institute at Court, where the Prime Minister was said to have observed, “Mi Fu is the kind of person we must have one of, but cannot afford to have two of!” Even though his knowledge was formidable, his personality was such that he didn’t last long at Court.
Spending his later years roaming the waterways of the country on his houseboat, named, “The Mi Family Calligraphy and Painting Barge,” he managed to acquire an immense collection of important works of calligraphy, painting, ancient bronzes, and other antiquities. His acquisitions were sometimes of a dubious method as he was known to have replaced some originals of borrowed works with replicas, and on more than one occasion threatened suicide to friends who wouldn't agree to sell their masterpieces to him. He was also reported to have stolen the plaques from temple gates because they provided fine samples of a particular style of calligraphy. His foibles were usually forgiven, though, because of course he was considered a genius. All in the line of duty? What Mi Fu was unable to acquire, he managed to at least find the opportunity to view, and therefore his knowledge of Chinese art was encyclopedic.
Chinese art history is full of charismatic and playful collectors, like Mi Fu (most of whom not only had encyclopedic knowledge of art history but were established artists in their own right). See, for example, Michel Beurdeley's delightful book on Chinese art collectors through the centuries...I have been fascinated with art collecting practices for years now and love to read books about quirky collectors--definitely some of my favorite collectors of history have come from China!
Right now, however, I am reading a book about American collectors, called The China Collectors. Specifically about American collectors of Chinese art, it tells the tale of some of the greatest collectors from this country, like infamous silk-roader Langdon Warner (the model for Indiana Jones) and George Kates (of the Years that were Fat); as well as big money names such as Charles Lang Freer, two generations of Rockefellers and Arthur Sackler, "the Grand Acquisitor." Many were Harvard men and few come off looking very good.
I just kept thinking, "there are no Mi Fus in this book, that's for sure."
Setting the tone for the entire book, it opens with a graphic description of the looting of the Old Summer Palace in Beijing (1860). The looting occurred at a time when foreign Western powers (especially the British and the French) were circling around China like vultures. Declining the British demand to meet face-to-face in Beijing, the Chinese emperor then up and left the capital all together. Offended, the "allied" British and French forces decided to "teach him a lesson," which resulted in the looting and burning of the Summer Palace in a manner that is difficult to understand.
The loot included tremendous amounts of treasure (in particular huge pearls and other jewels) as well as porcelains and silks and fabulous glass and ivory objects. I have a book, originally published in Italy, with an engraving of the chaos that took place just before the order was given to burn the Palace to the ground. You can see the Western-style Palace to the East (designed by none other than Giuseppe Castiglione) and many Chinese temples and gardens unfolding toward the West. In the center of the engraving are the allied French-British soldiers who are dancing all dressed up in concubines' silks, loaded down with their looted jewels, prancing on the lawn under parasols and fans.
In 1861, Victor Hugo wrote a passionate letter, which has become rather famous, where he described the looting as, "'Two Robbers' broke into this museum, devastating, looting and burning, and left laughing and hand in hand with their bags full of treasures; one of the robbers is called France and the other Britain." When news reached the Emperor, he was astounded by the barbarity of the barbarians and caved to their demands: Tianjin would be opened to the foreigners and foreign missionaries would be allowed to preach and build churches in the interior of the country.
The China Collectors mentions this interesting story that took place amidst the sacking of the Summer Palace, when British Captain Hart Dune found a pack of small dogs with a "grotesque oriental appearance." Grabbing them up in the melee, the dog-loving officer requested and was given permission to present one of the "Pekinese" to Queen Victoria. Guess what the queen named the dog? Yep, Lootie. And little lootie yapped in the royal apartments until 1872.
You just can't make this stuff up.
If the title of the book didn't tell you all you need to know then this scene would, I suspect. This was, after all, a time when just a handful of countries controlled most of the rest of the world. Art collecting in the West (especially since the time of Napoleon) is characterized by a kind of appropriation that would be hard to find anywhere else--past or present. Westerners are not the first people to appreciate and collect foreign art, but I cannot think of any case where it went hand-in-hand with cultural appropriation in quite the same way. Japanese collections do, of course, contain foreign treasures but I feel hard-pressed to come up with looting of the kind we see in the West. From Napoleon, to Hitler to the silk roaders, they were not collecting art as much as they seemed to be collecting cultures. Not to mention ancient Roman and Venetian collectors of antiquities from Greece and Byzantium.
One of the great defenders (not surprisingly) of encyclopedic museums, Philippe de Montebello, seeking to underplay the connection these museums have with looted artifacts, suggests that the first encylopedic museums didn't even exist in European capitals at all. However, I am not convinced the Topkapi and Hermitage museums are comparable on this count. I could be wrong, but I don't believe either collection came about as a by-product of an imperialistic enterprise. The Topkapi is well known for its Ming porcelain--but I was always under the impression that these items were purchased fair and square.
The essay by Philippe de Montebello appears in James Cuno's book the debate over antiquities, called Whose Culture. It is a fabulous book. Perhaps my favorite essay was by Kwame Anthony Appiah. I am a huge fan of his work, and I do find his arguments on the need for encyclopedic museums to stand as places of cosmopolitanism. It is world-enhancing and eye opening to experience art from other cultures. So, museums like the Met are meeting places that serve to resist provincialism, he argues. Appiah is also compelling in connecting the debate to ideas of nationalism by asking,
What does it mean, exactly’, he writes, ‘for something to belong to a people? Most of Nigeria’s cultural patrimony was produced before the modern Nigerian state existed. We don’t know whether the terra-cotta Nok sculptures, made sometime between 800 BC and AD 200, were commissioned by kings of commoners; we don’t know whether the people who made them and the people who paid for them thought of them as belonging to the kingdom, to a man, to a lineage, or to the gods. One thing we know for sure, however, is they didn’t make them for Nigeria.
That said, still, with some notable exceptions (like Sherman Lee of Cleveland Museum fame, for example), the men in China Collectors just don't end up looking very good. They appear greedy and predatory to say the least, too often swooping in like vultures when countries are in chaos... These are guys we find literally peeling off wall paintings from the caves in Dunhuang. Thinking of the silk-roaders, for example, they knew the chaos of the country would allow for massive bargains and carted great treasures out for a song--some even went as far as to excuse what they are doing, declaring that the art would not survive the chaos or upheavals that the countries were experiencing. But,in fact, more was lost than saved (for example, some of the finest frescos that were peeled off walls and put "safely in museums of Dresden, were utterly lost during wartime bombing. This is just one example).
A glance at Hobson-Jobson will tell you that the word loot comes into English from Hindi-ultimately deriving from Sanskrit. It entered the English language between the Opium Wars and the Crimean War and means It means plunder and pillage. In 1858, the younger Lord Elgin--who interestingly the grandson of the Lord Elgin of Elgin Marbles fame was a main player in the sacking of the summer palace in China-- had this to say about loot:
There is a word called loot, which gives unfortunately a venial character to what would in common English be styled robbery.
Loot or robbery, can you come up with this kind of massive transfer of art capital in a foreign museum today that was not a byproduct of European and American colonialism? The Harvard men in the China Collectors also loved the culture of China. That is clear--and yet in the book they come across as grand appropriators more than anything else.... On amazon, one reviewer suggested that this book is a great companion to Hopkirk's Foreign Devils on the Silk Road. I agree! And just like in that book, as you marvel at how outrageous these men were, it's hard not to be impressed by their pure gall!
As children of the Enlightenment, public museums embody not just some of the best of Enlightenment philosophy but some of the worst as well (with ideas concerning custodianship serving as harbingers for later concepts of social Darwinism, for example). In the end, I have never really been a huge fan of encyclopedic museums--especially, I dislike seeing what are national treasures removed from their countries of origin. Whether its Winged Victory in the Louvre or Elgin Marbles can anyone really not say these things are ill-gotten gains and really belong in their countries of origin? It's not that I am saying that no art should leave it's country of origin. I am only talking about 1) the greatest treasures--something that people can more or less agree on that are crucially significant to a particular culture--somehow representing cultural patrimony of the place...like the Elgin marbles or certain Chinese imperial treasures that were taking during looting; those items that are not only deeply significant to a given country (I say this acknowledging that the artists themselves in all probability did not intend their art to be forever linked with a specific culture or location). And 2) items that were also taken in a manner not on the up-and-up. And even then, I think repatriation should come with a demonstrated ability for the country to preserve the art work--for humanity's sake.
While the spirit behind the great museums is enlightened, filing its rooms with beautiful but stolen treasures is not. While each case is unique, isn't it time for our temples of our highest ideals to do the enlightened thing? The Chinese, as described in the last chapter of China Collectors, are taking matters into their own hands, however. Buying Chinese art voraciously to bring it home, they are also trying to buy the contents of the Chinese collection (and other art works) from the Detroit Institute of Art.
How the mighty have fallen...?
Great review of Whose Culture
Painting at top: Empress Dowager Cixi portrait painted by Katharine Augusta Carl (1865–1938)
Painting in center: Sultan Mehmet II by Bellini
Digital Reconstruction of Bezeklik by Ryokoku (Japanese researchers)--if you can find a copy see my Digital Bezeklik in Kyoto Journal's Silk Road Special Issue!
OK to Destroy: Jersey City’s Graffiti Jam of April 2015
by Bill Benzon
On Saturday April 25, 2015, some 20-30 graffiti writers and street artists converged on the now empty Newport Pep Boys store in Jersey City, New Jersey. What were they there for? To “get up” as the lingo has it. To spray paint on walls.
That activity is vandalism in Jersey City, as in most other cities America (though, like a number of cities, Jersey City also has a public mural program). And a number of these artists have police records for committing such vandalism. For that matter, I once got a summons for “aggravated trespassing” for taking photographs of graffiti on posted land belong to CSX, the large railroad conglomerate.
But it’s not vandalism if you have permission. And these writers had permission. The permission was arranged by Greg Edgell, proprietor of Green Villain, “a small group of social entrepreneurs and creatives that in the past few years have developed a diverse portfolio of projects and partnerships.” Those projects include a number of mural projects in Jersey City, where Edgell lives, and across the Hudson River in New York City.
Disclosure: I’ve known Edgell for several years and collaborate with him on projects.
In the Fall of 2014 Edgell had contacted the owner of Pep Boys about putting art on the rear wall. Why? Because it is very visible, facing the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail where it is seen by thousands of commuters everyday. He got permission and by the end of November the wall had been covered.
Winter rolled on through, gave way to Spring, and Edgell learned that that Pep Boys building was going to be torn down to make way for new construction. This wasn’t a big surprise, as he already knew the building would be coming down. But not so soon.
All that art, gone!
What to do?
That’s obvious, no?
Cover the whole building before it comes down.
So Edgell got permission from the owner and put out the call. The artists who came, came knowing their art was slated for destruction. But then that’s how it is in the graffiti world. You pretty much assume you’re art won’t last. If it isn’t buffed (that is, painted over) by the authorities, other artists will go over it sooner or latter. Failing that, the weather will erode the paint.
But then, nothing’s permanent. Nothing. Hence as the sticker says
* * * * *
Here you see the roll doors of the Pep Boys service bays, each allocated to a different artist. The second one in was given to Chopla. Here’s the top segment of that door:
We’ve got some little squiggly designs: some that look like snowflakes, some spirals, what have you. In the middle, though, we have a decapitated figure of some sort holding a aerosol can in its right hand, with its head rolling on the ground. I suppose it means something, but that’s not why I’m pointing it out.
It’s the aerosol can. In a graffiti project of this scope it’s almost guaranteed that someone is going to paint an aerosol can. While graffiti doesn’t wallow in self-consciousness, that self-consciousness is there, and has been there from the beginning in the early 1970s.
Chopla has filled the lower part of the panel with a skeleton, one of several he contributed to the Pep Boys project. It’s clearly visible behind some onlookers and the scaffold Choppla’s standing on:
Notice the date, 2015, at the lower right. That is, of course, common. You date your art. And Chopla’s something of a signature at the middle to the left of center here:
Those are the glass front doors of the building. Chopla’s put his name there in block letters. Other artists have used bubble letters. These are known as throwies or throw-ups. Why? Because it’s easy to throw them up on a wall in five minutes or so. Up at the top we see the single line names known as tags or handstyles. They’re even quicker.
That’s where graffiti started in the late 1960s and early 1970s, with quick tags. If you’re committing an act of vandalism you better do it quickly. Tags and throwies are ideal. Tags and throwies are based on names, not legal birth-certificate names, but a name you take as a graffiti writer.
This too is a name:
It says Themo, though you’ll have to do a bit of analysis to resolve those forms into the name. This kind of work, known as a piece (from masterpiece) obviously takes longer to do than a tag or a throwie. This is not something you’re going to do in broad daylight in a visible and highly trafficked area. Unless, of course, you’ve got permission.
In the past couple of years Themo has taken to splattering paint on the surface he’s painting, which is clearly visible in this close-up:
He belongs to the PFC crew – a crew is an informal group of writers who often paint together. Themo often paints with Era, as he did on this occasion. Era’s piece is next to his:
Notice that the two pieces interlock smoothly on along their common border:
When a group of writers works together on a wall, the result is called a production. This next flick shows part of a very large production the AIDS (And It Don’t Stop) crew put on the rear, track-facing, wall of the building:
The large yellow mass is some kind of animal creature. The eye and nose are obvious at the right, as is the creature’s mouth. Given that, it’s easy to spot the legs and between the legs, riding the creature, is a small blue humanoid. The name of the artist, Loser, rides the creature’s neck.
At the left, along the top half, we see a piece by Distort. The “O” has been rendered as the barrel and cylinder of a pistol. The imagery of graffiti tends toward the strange, macabre, and weird.
This is from the other end of the production:
The name at the lower right is Yoder and the name at the upper left is Elude. That’s Dutch at the upper right and miscellaneous bits and pieces at the lower left.
If we go around that corner (the northeast corner) we find this soup of letters and creatures (known as characters):
That’s, in effect, a roll call of the AIDS crew. Here’s sticker the one of the crew slapped on a pipe at the site:
The AIDS sticker is on the pipe at the right, near the top:
Obviously, a good many of the artists who contributed to the building slapped a sticker on one of those pipes, or tagged one of them. But some of those stickers belong to artists and others who just happened by. This sticker belongs to Plasma Slugs:
He’s from Brooklyn and, rather than writing his name, he uses that slug-looking creature as his mark. If you look around Jersey City, New York City, and elsewhere (such as Amsterdam) you’ll find variations of that slug.
The point of stickers is obvious. It’s quick and easy to slap one up somewhere. Where there’s one sticker, others are likely to follow. It’s a way of getting your name out there.
And that was the point of graffiti back in the day: fame. You remember that TV comedy, Cheers, about the bar where “everybody knows your name”? Well graffiti is about turning the world into a place where everybody knows your name. It’s a way of making your mark in the world, of proclaiming “I am.”
The people who started graffiti were mostly poor and mostly forgotten. And so they proclaimed their existence on the cars of the New York City subway system and fought a battle with the authorities for two decades before more or less giving up on the subways. By that time, however, graffiti had been adopted by hip-hop and extreme sports and had made its way around the world.
And now, for the first time in its history, Jersey City has had an open graffiti jam in broad daylight in a very visible space. It’s certainly not the first time a group of writers have gotten together and painted, but those other times and places where out of public view. This is different. Just what will come of this difference, that’s not at all obvious.
You couldn’t have seen this five or ten years ago:
You couldn’t even have seen it a year ago. What will have changed when the child’s old enough to hold a can and wield it with style and grace? That won’t be too long from now, but we’re living in strange times. Will another hurricane have blown through and flooded Jersey City likes Sandy did in 2012? Will a woman have been elected President of the United States? Will this graffiti jam have become an annual event in Jersey City?
* * * * *
I’ve written two other posts about graffiti for 3 Quarks Daily:
- June 2, 2014: Graffiti and the Spirit of the Place
Monday, April 27, 2015
Murder Your Darling Hypotheses But Do Not Bury Them
by Jalees Rehman
"Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings."
Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (1863–1944). On the Art of Writing. 1916
Murder your darlings. The British writer Sir Arthur Quiller Crouch shared this piece of writerly wisdom when he gave his inaugural lecture series at Cambridge, asking writers to consider deleting words, phrases or even paragraphs that are especially dear to them. The minute writers fall in love with what they write, they are bound to lose their objectivity and may not be able to judge how their choice of words will be perceived by the reader. But writers aren't the only ones who can fall prey to the Pygmalion syndrome. Scientists often find themselves in a similar situation when they develop "pet" or "darling" hypotheses.
How do scientists decide when it is time to murder their darling hypotheses? The simple answer is that scientists ought to give up scientific hypotheses once the experimental data is unable to support them, no matter how "darling" they are. However, the problem with scientific hypotheses is that they aren't just generated based on subjective whims. A scientific hypothesis is usually put forward after analyzing substantial amounts of experimental data. The better a hypothesis is at explaining the existing data, the more "darling" it becomes. Therefore, scientists are reluctant to discard a hypothesis because of just one piece of experimental data that contradicts it.
In addition to experimental data, a number of additional factors can also play a major role in determining whether scientists will either discard or uphold their darling scientific hypotheses. Some scientific careers are built on specific scientific hypotheses which set apart certain scientists from competing rival groups. Research grants, which are essential to the survival of a scientific laboratory by providing salary funds for the senior researchers as well as the junior trainees and research staff, are written in a hypothesis-focused manner, outlining experiments that will lead to the acceptance or rejection of selected scientific hypotheses. Well written research grants always consider the possibility that the core hypothesis may be rejected based on the future experimental data. But if the hypothesis has to be rejected then the scientist has to explain the discrepancies between the preferred hypothesis that is now falling in disrepute and all the preliminary data that had led her to formulate the initial hypothesis. Such discrepancies could endanger the renewal of the grant funding and the future of the laboratory. Last but not least, it is very difficult to publish a scholarly paper describing a rejected scientific hypothesis without providing an in-depth mechanistic explanation for why the hypothesis was wrong and proposing alternate hypotheses.
For example, it is quite reasonable for a cell biologist to formulate the hypothesis that protein A improves the survival of neurons by activating pathway X based on prior scientific studies which have shown that protein A is an activator of pathway X in neurons and other studies which prove that pathway X improves cell survival in skin cells. If the data supports the hypothesis, publishing this result is fairly straightforward because it conforms to the general expectations. However, if the data does not support this hypothesis then the scientist has to explain why. Is it because protein A did not activate pathway X in her experiments? Is it because in pathway X functions differently in neurons than in skin cells? Is it because neurons and skin cells have a different threshold for survival? Experimental results that do not conform to the predictions have the potential to uncover exciting new scientific mechanisms but chasing down these alternate explanations requires a lot of time and resources which are becoming increasingly scarce. Therefore, it shouldn't come as a surprise that some scientists may consciously or subconsciously ignore selected pieces of experimental data which contradict their darling hypotheses.
Let us move from these hypothetical situations to the real world of laboratories. There is surprisingly little data on how and when scientists reject hypotheses, but John Fugelsang and Kevin Dunbar at Dartmouth conducted a rather unique study "Theory and data interactions of the scientific mind: Evidence from the molecular and the cognitive laboratory" in 2004 in which they researched researchers. They sat in at scientific laboratory meetings of three renowned molecular biology laboratories at carefully recorded how scientists presented their laboratory data and how they would handle results which contradicted their predictions based on their hypotheses and models.
In their final analysis, Fugelsang and Dunbar included 417 scientific results that were presented at the meetings of which roughly half (223 out of 417) were not consistent with the predictions. Only 12% of these inconsistencies lead to change of the scientific model (and thus a revision of hypotheses). In the vast majority of the cases, the laboratories decided to follow up the studies by repeating and modifying the experimental protocols, thinking that the fault did not lie with the hypotheses but instead with the manner how the experiment was conducted. In the follow up experiments, 84 of the inconsistent findings could be replicated and this in turn resulted in a gradual modification of the underlying models and hypotheses in the majority of the cases. However, even when the inconsistent results were replicated, only 61% of the models were revised which means that 39% of the cases did not lead to any significant changes.
The study did not provide much information on the long-term fate of the hypotheses and models and we obviously cannot generalize the results of three molecular biology laboratory meetings at one university to the whole scientific enterprise. Also, Fugelsang and Dunbar's study did not have a large enough sample size to clearly identify the reasons why some scientists were willing to revise their models and others weren't. Was it because of varying complexity of experiments and models? Was it because of the approach of the individuals who conducted the experiments or the laboratory heads? I wish there were more studies like this because it would help us understand the scientific process better and maybe improve the quality of scientific research if we learned how different scientists handle inconsistent results.
In my own experience, I have also struggled with results which defied my scientific hypotheses. In 2002, we found that stem cells in human fat tissue could help grow new blood vessels. Yes, you could obtain fat from a liposuction performed by a plastic surgeon and inject these fat-derived stem cells into animal models of low blood flow in the legs. Within a week or two, the injected cells helped restore the blood flow to near normal levels! The simplest hypothesis was that the stem cells converted into endothelial cells, the cell type which forms the lining of blood vessels. However, after several months of experiments, I found no consistent evidence of fat-derived stem cells transforming into endothelial cells. We ended up publishing a paper which proposed an alternative explanation that the stem cells were releasing growth factors that helped grow blood vessels. But this explanation was not as satisfying as I had hoped. It did not account for the fact that the stem cells had aligned themselves alongside blood vessel structures and behaved like blood vessel cells.
Even though I "murdered" my darling hypothesis of fat –derived stem cells converting into blood vessel endothelial cells at the time, I did not "bury" the hypothesis. It kept ruminating in the back of my mind until roughly one decade later when we were again studying how stem cells were improving blood vessel growth. The difference was that this time, I had access to a live-imaging confocal laser microscope which allowed us to take images of cells labeled with red and green fluorescent dyes over long periods of time. Below, you can see a video of human bone marrow mesenchymal stem cells (labeled green) and human endothelial cells (labeled red) observed with the microscope overnight. The short movie compresses images obtained throughout the night and shows that the stem cells indeed do not convert into endothelial cells. Instead, they form a scaffold and guide the endothelial cells (red) by allowing them to move alongside the green scaffold and thus construct their network. This work was published in 2013 in the Journal of Molecular and Cellular Cardiology, roughly a decade after I had been forced to give up on the initial hypothesis. Back in 2002, I had assumed that the stem cells were turning into blood vessel endothelial cells because they aligned themselves in blood vessel like structures. I had never considered the possibility that they were scaffold for the endothelial cells.
This and other similar experiences have lead me to reformulate the "murder your darlings" commandment to "murder your darling hypotheses but do not bury them". Instead of repeatedly trying to defend scientific hypotheses that cannot be supported by emerging experimental data, it is better to give up on them. But this does not mean that we should forget and bury those initial hypotheses. With newer technologies, resources or collaborations, we may find ways to explain inconsistent results years later that were not previously available to us. This is why I regularly peruse my cemetery of dead hypotheses on my hard drive to see if there are ways of perhaps resurrecting them, not in their original form but in a modification that I am now able to test.
Fugelsang, Jonathan A.; Stein, Courtney B.; Green, Adam E.; Dunbar, Kevin N. (2004) "Theory and data interactions of the scientific mind: Evidence from the molecular and the cognitive laboratory" Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology Vol 58(2) 86-95.http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/h0085799
Perceptions: In Mourning for ...
Sabeen Mahmud. Artist, activist, intellectual; a woman with a true heart. A hero for many.
Murdered in Karachi on Friday, April 24, leaving an immense void.
On the frontlines of humanity with Tim Hetherington
by Edward Rackley
The occasion to commemorate Tim Hetherington's life and work is now upon us; let it not pass in silence. He died on April 20, 2011 from a Libyan mortar on the streets of Misrata. I didn't know him personally, as did many friends and colleagues, but followed his work from the early 2000s in Liberia through the Oscar-nominated Restrepo in 2010. Even in his earliest published work, a new creative force was clearly behind the lens.
An uncanny talent for capturing the grace of strangers amidst the peril of explosive circumstances, he framed them not as cannon fodder or cardboard victims but as dignified members of a forlorn species. "Often we see scenes of disaster and forget that the people imaged are individuals with individual stories and lives," Tim explained in this clip on his working process. The moral complexity of his subjects matched my own experiences in crumbling dictatorships and nations rent asunder by grievance and the promises of insurrection. From Liberia to Darfur and Afghanistan, Hetherington's different media projects untapped their own turgid fount of memories sweet and sour.
His early Liberia photos were memorable for their fleeting dignity and searing panic of private moments in battle, serendipitous snaps of civilians and combatants with poignant acumen. Others miraculously wove the social, political and economic threads of a conflict into a single image--a West African Breughel sans folly or satire. Child soldiers lording over diamond diggers sprawled in open mud flats, sifting for riverbed gems to fund campaigns of mass amputation, beheading and rape. Portraits of human industry absent any social or political aim beyond self-serving blood and lucre.
This was early Hetherington: still mystified by the paroxysms of humanity in the throes of war. Not a bad start, but embedding in warzones is not hard to do, after all. Anyone can become cannon fodder, and journalists have been accessing armies and frontlines for over a century.
Tim registered Liberia's victors and vanquished with an immediacy matched only by Chris Hondros, the Newsweek photojournalist who died with him in Misrata. Both worked to electrify Robert Bresson's humble counsel: "Make visible what, without you, might perhaps never have been seen." Yet a growing sense of constraint with still photography chafed at him. Doubts about its ability to articulate war's most elusive trait, its humanity, grew. The world wants its news in clearly-marked packages of savages and innocents, and editors know what sells.
Classic Hondros image — loyalist fighter, Monrovia, 2003
Beyond the tokens and testimony from backwater battlegrounds — cargo cults and sundry warlords, split-second emotions and solemn devastation — Hetherington saw he needed to upset the traditional interface of journalist and protagonist if he wanted to explode such simple dichotomies. Liberia's civil war offered clues: its cruel, bombastic pageantry revealed that "young men play a role when they fight; they don't just fight."
Even in remote inland forests, the dress and behavior of young fighters clearly referenced local shamans and Hollywood action figures, a cultural mash-up resulting in the outrageous dress and practices for which Liberian fighters became famous. With the shock of a new visual language, this savagery was paraded, photographed and analyzed in detail . Here the anarchic histrionics were instead an explicit rewriting of social hierarchies, a decree of new powers now held by the aggrieved. "If it looks like anarchy," a noted analyst of the day told me, "you don't understand what you're seeing."
But mask or no mask, to the casual observer conflict imagery from Liberia proved little had changed since Conrad's 'heart of darkness'. Tim saw the perverse effects of the 'new savagery': visually exciting but reinforcing our dismissive misanthropy all the same.
Following a series of acclaimed portraits of civilian victims in Liberia—innovations on images common to any disaster tourist, aid worker or rights advocate — his eye turned to young combatants as they sought validation in the pervasive warlord culture. In this 2009 collage of dialog and still footage, we watch the effervescence of youth crumble under the lethal regard of militarized masculinity, a mental colonization of sorts documented in graffiti left on abandoned shelters.
War footage will always seek the visceral and concussive, framed such that viewers feel a superior remove from the horrific, like spectators around a boxing ring. The stage is set for voyeuristic ‘war porn', numb to the nuance of human experience in wartime yet highly effective at feeding our dismissal of ‘failed states' and the ‘failed people who live there'. When so naive to its naked gaze, Sontag argues in On Photography, war imagery can freeze, distance and ultimately alienate the misery of strangers even as it bears witness to atrocity. Hetherington's emerging talent lay in exposing the subtleties of remote contexts to confront viewers with their ingrained assumptions.
LURD fighter—Bomi county, Liberia, 2003
In a world of Flickr and Instagram, he explained in 2010, exceptional single images become pervasive, even iconic, while shorn of their narrative and context. Digitized and replicated like Warhol's Brillo boxes they depreciate into the purely aesthetic, sensationalist or gleefully banal. Che Guevara's face on a t-shirt: what greater insult to minority political struggle can there be? Tim began to envision character-based, documentary style projects that would resist our eroding attention spans by exploring subjects' capacity for connection and empathy over time in combat. Shadowing combatants and civilians as they navigated the duality of hunter and prey could better track this vitality amid the pressure and release of realtime conflict.
Entering the Empty Quarter of the Arabian peninsula in the early 1940s, colonial explorer Wilfred Thesiger was an arrogant interloper, an object of ridicule and mistrust. To survive the desert and map its unknown reaches he needed local Bedouin warriors, who would not be coerced or bought. Early in his acclamation he stumbled on the insight that solidarity could be built "by helping them kill things." Hetherington understood the implicit latitude of this truism, and applied it toward new thematic horizons where unlike Liberia his white skin and pedigree could not protect him. Afghanistan would be his next stop, for the making of Restrepo, an unprecedented journalistic experiment.
Arabian Sands, 1959
With the award-winning Restrepo, Hetherington's lens came full circle. Too well known to recount here, the film unpacks the mystery of why young men are drawn to the combat experience. It's an attraction shared in degrees by aid workers and war journalists. War is the only opportunity we have in society to love each other unconditionally, to die for each other.
In the vice grip of total exposure and the drive to survive, wartime sees ersatz families incubate and thrive among soldiers who are complete strangers. Combatant battalions satisfy the social and physiological need for acceptance that war cannot erase. New peer groups and hierarchies are tried and tested, lifelong debts incurred, just as long-standing, pre-war alliances erupt in blood.
This psychic architecture holds for other vocations operating in conflict, particularly photojournalists and aid workers. Sebastian Junger digs into these questions in the HBO memorial biopic of Hetherington's life, Which Way is the Frontline from Here? A core reality of war is not, as our gut tells us, that you could very well die. It's that "you're certain to lose your brothers," Junger announces in a Which Way voice over. The deeper trauma comes not from my physical wounds but from the pain of downed comrades, colleagues, even bystanders. In the end, "the hard part is not going to war, but coming back home." Many things are lost in war, including our reasons for being there, yet we stay all the same.
Films like Restrepo can hit a nerve so deep that our own experiences of war begin replaying in our mind as the projection moves across the screen. Watching this US platoon survive the Korengal Valley, I found myself comparing, contrasting, reevaluating and processing my reactions to similar threats, day in day out, over months.
A long-erased memory resurfaced: my first encounter with a Marine in southern Somalia during ‘Operation Restore Hope' in 1992. As an aid worker, I instinctively doubted the American invasion. Security had deteriorated horribly since the US deployment; they had disbanded our 100-strong force of well-armed bodyguards, Somalis who had saved my life many times. A dear Irish colleague had just been murdered in daylight days before. I was now a target; all my team were targets. It was obvious US forces weren't up to the task.
Noticing my US passport at a roadblock, a Marine pulled me aside. His casual air betrayed a faintly pleading tone. "Hey man," he looked me in the eye, "who're the good guys and who're the bad guys?" In that moment, I did not judge. This too was the humanity of war.
World Press Photo award, 2007
We cannot know what artistic direction Tim Hetherington would have taken, although doubtless he'd be pursuing ISIS in Syria and the Houthis in Yemen. Portraits of the new caliphate and its humanity, which must exist in some form besides the beheadings we see, remain invisible to us. For those of us who continue to work at the frontlines, Hetherington's humanist challenge to traditional war portrayal, particularly his subtle critique of our mind-closing voyeurism, must not be forgotten.
Monday, April 20, 2015
Akram Dost Baloch. Code # 14355.
Mixed media on canvas board.
The Perils of Majoritarianism
By Namit Arora
(On the ethnic history and politics of Sri Lanka and a review of Samanth Subramanian’s This Divided Island: Stories from the Sri Lankan War. A shorter version appeared in the Times Literary Supplement earlier this month. Below is the original long version—the director’s cut.)
Few regions in the world, of similar size, offer a more bracing human spectacle than the beautiful island of Sri Lanka. It abounds in deep history and cultural diversity, ancient cities and sublime art, ingenuity and human folly, wars and lately, even genocide. It has produced a medley of identities based on language (Sinhala, Tamil, English, many creoles), religion (Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, animism), and geographic origin (Indian, Malaysian, European, Arab, indigenous), alongside divisions of caste and class. Rare for a country its size are the many divergent accounts of itself, fused at the hip with the politics of ethnic identities—a taste of which I got during my month-long travel on the island in early 2014.
The Sri Lankan experience has been more traumatic lately, owing to its 26-year civil war that ended with genocide in 2009. The country’s three main ethnic groups—Sinhalese (75 percent), Tamil (18 percent), and Muslim (7 percent)—now live with deep distrust of each other. One way to understand Sri Lankan society and its colossal tragedy is to study the causes and events that led to the civil war. What historical currents preceded it? Did they perhaps make the war inevitable? What was at stake for those who waged it? What has been its human toll and impact on civic life? In his brave and insightful work of journalism, This Divided Island: Stories from the Sri Lankan War, Samanth Subramanian attempts to answer such questions while bearing witness to many of its tragedies.
A Brief Social History of Sri Lanka
Around two-and-a-half millennia ago, waves of migrants from the Indian subcontinent overwhelmed the island’s indigenous hunter-gatherers, the Veddah (a few descendants still survive). Migrants arriving from modern day Bengal, speakers of Prakrit—an Indo-European language that evolved into Sinhala—intermixed with indigenous islanders to later become the Sinhalese. Other migrants from southern India, speakers of Tamil and other Dravidian languages and belonging mostly to the Saivite sect, also intermixed with the islanders to later become the Tamils of Sri Lanka. Which group of migrants arrived first, a question hotly pursued by the nationalists, lacks scholarly resolution. Both groups established themselves in different parts of the island: the Sinhalese in the center, south, and west, the Tamils in the north and east.
From the 3rd century BCE, Anuradhapura was the Sinhalese capital city for 1,300 years, notable for its water management, palaces, dagobas, temples, and monasteries patronized by kings. According to the Mahavamsa, the ‘Great Chronicle’ of Sri Lankan Buddhism written in this city in the 6th century CE, the Sinhalese are a special race descended from a lion and a princess. Ignoring the chronology of Buddhism’s arrival via emperor Ashoka’s emissaries, the Mahavamsa claims that the Buddha himself flew thrice from India to the island, deemed the Sinhalese his ‘chosen people’ and Sri Lanka the final ‘refuge of his faith’, and commanded his followers to defend the faith at all costs, with militant violence if necessary. One of the epic’s main heroes, king Dutugemunu, grows up hating Tamils and massacres many in a great battle (the epic, written soon after a battle between Sinhalese and Tamil royals, reflects a briefly heightened antipathy). Like Ashoka, he is overcome by remorse, but unlike Ashoka who renounced violence, Dutugemunu happily ‘casts away his mental confusion’ when the city’s Buddhist clergy tells him that he has committed no sin because the non-Buddhist Tamils he killed were ‘heretical and evil and like animals’ and he in fact made ‘the Buddha’s faith shine’. This precedent-setting justification of violence in the defense of faith would echo down the ages—for instance, after winning the civil war, President Rajapaksa was eulogized by his fans as the modern-day Dutugemunu. It’d also become an oft-cited instance of Sri Lankan Buddhism’s departure from the Buddha’s message, as it is more widely understood.
Sri Lanka’s early and medieval history includes wars and other conflicts between the Tamils and the Sinhalese but also long stretches of peaceful coexistence, intermarriage, and cross-fertilization of ideas. Lured by its proximity, Tamil kings from south India sometimes invaded and ruled the island, including its Sinhalese domains. But proximity also enabled peacetime trade and cultural exchange, including the migration of sculptors and architects. The island’s rival identities coalesced quite early around language, not religion—back then, Buddhism also flourished in south India and many Sri Lankan Tamils were Buddhists too. Indeed, across the Palk Strait the two Buddhist traditions enriched each other for centuries. Among other syncretism, Hindu gods—such as Kataragama (aka Murugan, son of Shiva and Parvati), Vishnu, and Ganesh—also became part of the Sinhalese Buddhist pantheon. Passing through a forest near Sigiriya last year, my tuk-tuk driver, a Sinhalese Buddhist, stopped to pray at a roadside shrine to Ganesh. He requested safe passage and protection from wild elephant attacks—the sort of mundane matters Hindu gods attended to, in contrast to the relatively aloof Buddha.
More recent migrations brought Arab Muslim traders, Christian colonials from Portugal, Holland, and Britain, and Malay Muslim soldiers from the Dutch- and British-ruled Malay Peninsula. Identities multiplied. While language remained the primary ethnic marker for both the Tamils (Hindu, Christian) and the Sinhalese (Buddhist, Christian), religion trumped language for the Muslims, most of whom now claim Tamil as their mother tongue. Another ethnic subdivision arose among Tamil speakers with the arrival of ‘Plantation Tamils’, laborers brought from India by the British to work on coffee, tea, and rubber plantations in the central highlands. The older communities of Sri Lankan Tamils (aka ‘Jaffna Tamils’) looked down on these rustic ‘Plantation Tamils’. Nor did the many Christian denominations have equal social standing. Further subdivisions of caste existed in most groups, especially among the Tamils, and would later play a part in their experience of the war.
The Rise of Sinhalese Nationalism
Given Sri Lanka's recent travails, it’s hard to believe that in the early 1950s, a Singaporean delegation had visited Sri Lanka—then seen as a prosperous and peaceful multi-ethnic state with high literacy and an inclusive public life—to learn how it managed ethic diversity so well. Some might question this image and cite the many communal conflicts and wars in Sri Lanka’s past, but that would be a mistake. The default condition of the past was peaceful coexistence and syncretism, not discord. Even in times of discord, Sinhalese and Tamil identities had never been as exclusive or feverishly ideological or religiously polarized as they became after the rise of ethnic nationalisms in the late colonial and post-colonial era. For instance, the last four rulers of the Sinhala kingdom in Kandy until 1815—as John Clifford Holt, editor of The Sri Lanka Reader points out—had been ‘ethnic Tamils who ruled over a predominantly Sinhala but ethnically variegated population.’
Sri Lanka’s encounter with Portuguese and Dutch colonialism—in whose wake came proselytizing Christians, and conversion to Christianity became mandatory for public employment—soon generated a Buddhist reaction and revival. It was led by Henry Steel Olcott, an American Buddhist, and Anagarika Dharmapala (1864–1933). Dharmapala, perhaps the foremost Sri Lankan nationalist, began creating a ‘Buddhist modernism’ and what some have called ‘Protestant Buddhism’. Stung by the supremacist attitudes of the colonizers, he made up a glorious Sinhalese past that, he alleged, had been blemished by the last four Tamil Kings of Kandy, and was presently being infected by degenerate European faiths. He eulogized the ‘Aryan Sinhala race’, the Buddha’s ‘virile, vigorous manly ethics’, and called Jesus ‘an absolute failure’, ‘a victim of megalomania [and] paranoia’, whose ‘congregation was the riff-raff of Galilee.’ He promoted the ludicrous idea that the Sinhalese were racially distinct from ‘the filthy Tamils’, denigrated the Muslims of Sri Lanka as ‘an alien people’ who had used ‘Shylockian methods’ to become prosperous like the Jews, and advised Sinhalese women to preserve their ‘Aryan blood’ by not breeding with the minorities. It’s easy to dismiss Dharmapala as a man of his times but the Sinhalese political and religious elites still revere him as a great nationalist, patriot, hero, saint, and savior of Buddhism; they even celebrated 2014-15 as Dharmapala Year.
The Buddhism promoted by Dharmapala and his followers was exclusive, aggressive, and nationalistic. It equated an arid notion of the Sinhalese ethnic identity with the national identity (the religious revival and nationalism that Dharmapala injected into Sinhalese Buddhism had its counterpart in Indian Hinduism through Vivekananda, Saraswati, Tilak, Savarkar, and others). As in all nationalisms, control over the writing of history became pivotal. Citing the Subcontinent’s historical rejection of their ‘noble Aryan Dharma’, these new Buddhists built up a sense of fear that Buddhism in Sri Lanka was besieged. They fueled resentment against Sri Lankan Tamils, portraying them as foreigners and representatives of a Hindu civilization hostile to Buddhism. It didn’t help that the island’s Tamils evinced a strong sense of pride in their own language and religion, that now practically none of them were Buddhists, and that they had done well under the British, holding disproportionately many professional and civil service jobs by the mid-20th century. As Subramanian explains,
‘Through a quirk of colonial character, the British had set up few schools in the country’s south, compelling Sinhalese children to earn their education in the local language; in the north, though, generations of Tamil students attended schools established by American missionaries, growing fluent in English, the language of pedagogy and administration. Through no doing of their own, the Tamils found themselves unfairly advantaged.’
Fueled by cultural insecurities, victimhood narratives, and jaundiced readings of religious texts like the Mahavamsa, Buddhist monks from multiple monastic orders began spewing prejudice and intolerance against ethnic minorities. They wanted Sri Lanka to be an indivisible Sinhalese state, with Buddhism as its state religion and Sinhala its sole official language. Leading Buddhists and intellectuals, such as Walpola Rahula, rejected the idea of Sri Lanka as ‘a multi-national and multi-religious state’, drowning out the saner voices on the perils of majoritarianism—i.e., a form of majority rule in which a majority group acts to privilege itself at the expense of others. To attain their sectarian aims, even monks later used democratic mobilization and ran for office. Little did the Singaporeans know—when they came to learn from this former ‘model colony’ and newly independent republic—that its bleak strand of Sinhalese nationalism, to be met by a reactive Tamil nationalism, was just starting to poison social life and set the stage for the civil war.
The Outbreak of War
Subramanian, a Tamil from India, grew up in Madras, Tamil Nadu. Sri Lanka’s proximity but also its ‘ties of politics and language’, he writes, bound it to Tamil Nadu ‘like a tugboat to an ocean liner.’ Sri Lankan news ‘made bigger headlines than news from distant New Delhi’ and its relentless war became ‘a constant acquaintance’. He recalls the commotion on his train to Madras when news came that a suicide bomber, ‘a toothy, bespectacled woman with flowers in her hair’, had assassinated Rajiv Gandhi. Subramanian wondered about her, why she had joined the Tamil Tigers, and ‘the stories of other people—the displaced, the bereaved, the chauvinist, the young—that were being drowned out by din of the fighting.’ From 2004, he began making short trips to the island. In 2011, two years after the war’s end, he moved to an apartment in Colombo for ten months, arriving ‘in the spirit of a forensics gumshoe visiting an arson site, to examine the ashes and guess at how the fire caught and spread so cataclysmically, but also to see if any embers remained to ignite the blaze all over again.’
Subramanian is an astute observer, with a sharp eye for the hypocritical and the comic in human affairs. His writing is lucid, vivid, and often memorable (he describes a person’s face as ‘always utterly unflappable; even a smile, I came to feel, would be too severe a storm upon that placid sea’). He judiciously considers the agencies and events that widened the schisms between the ethnic communities and led to the war: the British emphasized differences and communal identities as part of their divide-and-rule policy; the Sinhalese nationalists voted to make Sinhala the sole official language in 1956, effectively shutting out Tamils from government jobs and requiring even loan applications to be filled out in Sinhala; affirmative action policies in jobs and university admissions favored the Sinhalese and were seen as discriminatory by the Tamils; the new constitution of 1972 gave Buddhism ‘the foremost place’ among Sri Lanka’s religions, formally ending the separation between religion and the state. Though the linguistic and affirmative action policies were later toned down, differences continued to intensify and discrimination grew against the Tamils, who felt like second-class citizens in their own country. They demanded regional autonomy under a federal state, but this was anathema to the Sinhalese nationalists. With ‘democratic methods of the Tamil parties floundering’, Subramanian writes, the Sinhalese ended up creating a space for the militants.
‘Over and over, through the 1970s, Sri Lanka found ways to tell its Tamils that their status in their country was subject to change. It was during this period that Tamil political parties decided to press for full sovereignty rather than regional autonomy. During this period also, new militant groups in Jaffna, like the Tigers, decided that a sovereign Tamil state—an Eelam—could never be wheedled out by political procedure and that it was far better demanded from behind the comforting stock of a gun.’
It didn’t help that the Sri Lankan economy suffered during the 1970s, creating a large pool of unemployed young men. Riots followed the 1977 elections in which the Tamils voted for a separate state, their grievances outlined in the Vaddukoddai Resolution. In 1978, the government passed the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act, ‘granting lavish freedom to security forces to arrest, seize, interrogate and detain people as they liked.’ In 1982, for refusing to pledge allegiance to the state, the main Tamil political party, TULF, was expelled from the parliament. Decades of state-sponsored ‘land colonization’, whereby tens of thousands of landless Sinhalese peasants were given land in areas that Tamils traditionally saw as their own, had continued to fuel ethnic tensions.
Subramanian describes the Black July riots of 1983, the official start of the civil war ‘when the [Tamil] Tigers killed 13 soldiers in an army patrol in Jaffna.’ In a week-long pogrom reminiscent of Kristallnacht, ‘Sinhalese mobs visited retribution upon Tamils across the south of the country, killing more than three thousand men, women and children, unhindered—and sometimes even abetted—by the police.’ According to the BBC, ‘People were burned alive in their cars, stripped naked. Women were raped ... soldiers stood by and even supplied petrol.’ Thousands of Tamil homes and shops were looted and destroyed, tens of thousands fled for safety to the north. President Jayewardene appeared on TV to calm the nerves of the Sinhalese but uttered not a word of regret or sympathy for the Tamils. All this further marginalized the moderate Tamil politicians, radicalized the youth, and paved the way for the militant struggle for the independent state of Tamil Eelam.
Wanting to understand more fully the roots of this conflict, Subramanian revisits the island’s ancient history and notes how it has been twisted and politicized. He describes how he read the Mahavamsa in a state of delirium when suffering from a fever. Considering the rise of Sinhalese nationalism in colonial times and characters like Dharmapala, he finds Sri Lankan Buddhism to be ‘just as fluid as any other faith, just as easily poured into new and unexpected moulds.’ Even monks felt no compulsion to refrain from ‘worldly pursuits and temporal authority’. He cites many politicians, radical monks, and hotheaded militants to provide a compelling portrait of how the ethnic strife grew and spiraled out of control.
The Discreet Charm of the Tigers
Subramanian has an impressive knack for finding the right people and extracting from them some amazing stories. He probes with care and sensitivity, mindful of the risks they are taking in talking to him. There is a description of a Tamil politician who was critical of the Tigers and survived eleven assassination attempts, including one befitting a Tamil gangster film in which he lost his sarong during an escape and ran down a Colombo street in his underwear, ‘firing his gun back over his shoulders, trying to pick off the guys who are chasing him.’ Subramanian meets some of the earliest accomplices of young Velupillai Prabhakaran, the ruthless chief of the Tigers, aka the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). They reflect on his charisma, his persuasive powers, his paranoia, and the quirky minutiae of their messy upstart guerilla operations. They share spellbinding stories of their hidings, jailbreaks, assassinations, romances, and betrayals. He even flies to Canada to meet a Tamil man, an ex-major in the Sri Lankan army in the 1970-80s. This man describes the army culture that he once loved, before his painful disenchantment with the army’s rising suspicion of his loyalties, its enveloping racism, and its casual brutality towards Tamil civilians.
On the Jaffna Peninsula, Subramanian finds an oppressive army presence and checkpoints manned by Sinhalese men who speak no Tamil. He finds many abandoned houses, ‘some of them so consummately wrecked that they looked like strange outgrowths of stone rather than disintegrated structures.’ During the Tigers’ control of the north before 1995, these parts were heavily bombed. When the first low-flying aircraft came, people came out to gawk in wonder, until the planes started dropping bombs. ‘To hide from the shelling, people dug bunkers in the ground, covered over by tarpaulins’ and fortified by ‘improvised sandbags—packs of loose earth sewn into the saris of women.’ During this time, writes Tamil historian A. Jeyaratnam Wilson, Sinhalese soldiers committed ‘atrocities like gang rapes and wholesale plunder … and bombed churches, temples, hospitals, and innocent civilians’. In those days in Jaffna, a taxi driver tells Subramanian, ‘I was driving my car more as a hearse than as a taxi.’ The multiyear blockade of Jaffna caused massive shortages and unemployment, leading many to drift ‘inevitably, into the Tigers, enlisting to fight or to work in some of the Tigers’ own factories, which manufactured weapons and boats’. Another painful Jaffna episode Subramanian relates quite well is the ethnic cleansing of 1990. The Tigers, having grown suspicious of the loyalties of Muslims—who’d lived as peaceful neighbors, schoolmates, and colleagues for centuries—rounded up all 75,000–80,000 of them, looted their belongings, and forcibly expelled them from the peninsula.
Subramanian describes how the Tigers came to love violence and even turned on their own: via extortion, forced recruitments—including of children as young as 13—and the killing of dissenters. He despises their ‘genius for brutality’ and their indiscriminate violence, such as installing landmines (the Sri Lankan army did that too), blowing up buses, and killing monks, pilgrims, women, and children. He carefully separates ‘the Tigers from the grievances of the Tamils,’ and he sympathizes with the latter. Supported by interviews with ex-Tigers, their spouses and other civilians, his portrait of the pathological culture of the LTTE, along with its transformation over the years down to its bitter end, is a fine achievement.
Subramanian is especially curious about how ordinary Tamils related to the Tigers’ violence. He finds a continuum, from those who actively supported them to others who abhorred their ways. At least one member from each family had to join the Tigers. There was also peer pressure, continuous indoctrination, and, for some, even ‘a scruffy romance to the life of a guerrilla’. The Tigers, Prabhakaran emphasized, were part of a national liberation movement as ‘freedom fighters, not terrorists’. Many Tamils believed the Tigers’ claims of acting for their greater good, which, the Tigers said, required some excesses and personal sacrifices in their march towards the Promised Land of Eelam. Besides, who else was fighting for their grievances? With all the bad blood between the two ethnic groups, no compromise seemed possible. Given the unrelenting hostility of the Sinhalese army—no Tamils were left in the Sri Lankan army—many saw no alternative but to support the Tigers. Or rather, as the Tigers persuaded them, their only alternative ‘was life under the heel of a Sinhalese-dominated Sri Lanka.’
Many didn’t seem to have agonized much about joining the Tigers. ‘The moral decision that transfixed me so much’, writes Subramanian, ‘had been made without any fuss—as a matter of course, even—by tens of thousands of people’. He wonders if he had ‘been too spoiled by peace to understand when it became necessary to fight.’ He keeps probing and finds a complex moral landscape full of ambiguity, with ‘as many answers as there are people’. He meets a family in which the Tigers had recruited a person, killed another out of sheer pique, earned the hatred of a third, and snared a fourth by marriage. ‘The web of these relationships,’ he writes, their ‘loyalties and loathings, was [so] densely knotted [that] they were impossible to unravel and understand.’
Oddly, Subramanian doesn’t investigate the Indian government’s role in, as he says, ‘covertly training and arming the Tigers in the 1980s’—a role similar to that of the U.S. State Department and Pakistan’s ISI in the training and arming of the Mujahideen in the 1980s. Nor does he discuss the grave misadventure of the Indian peacekeeping forces that led to Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, or the choppy relationship between India and Sri Lanka over this conflict. Another omission is an exploration of caste in shaping Tamil nationalism and the civilians’ experience of war. One of his interviewees notes ‘how riven with divisions of caste and class the country’s Tamils were’ but Subramanian doesn’t pursue this further. Prabhakaran came from a low caste fishing community and despised caste discrimination in Tamil society. He claimed ideological allegiance to secular socialism and promised ‘total eradication of the caste system’ in LTTE pamphlets. His two main rival militant groups in the 1980s—PLOTE and TELO—brutally eliminated by the LTTE, were both peopled by dominant caste Vellalar Tamils. Did the LTTE downplay caste later to expand its support base and attract more funds from the Tamil diaspora for the ‘greater’ cause of Tamil nationalism? Which castes predominated among its middle and upper ranks as well as its ‘cannon fodder’? The Dutch scholar Joke Schrijvers reported from an earlier phase of the war that a disproportionate number of internal Tamil refugees in camps had lower-caste backgrounds.
Endgame and Aftermath
Subramanian visits the Vanni region to learn about the last days of the war and genocide. He talks to many survivors. From Dec 2008, one man says, ‘the fighting felt more urgent, more frenzied, more one-sided, more final.’ An estimated 5,000–11,000 Tigers were pitted against 200,000 soldiers in the Sri Lankan army. Within months, hundreds of thousands of civilians had fled from the advancing army into a small coastal area, ‘carrying whatever they could on their heads or on bicycles’. The army surrounded them, blocked entry for food, medicine, journalists, and the Red Cross, and began ‘shelling indiscriminately or specifically targeting civilians. A no-fire zone would be declared, and once people hurried eagerly into its borders, they would be promptly shelled.’ Makeshift hospitals and a UN compound, a refuge for civilians, were intentionally bombed. Prabhakaran and his loyal bodyguards died fighting. The war of three decades ended in May 2009 with vast numbers of the ‘limbless and the dying … strewn about the stretch of coast.’
According to the UN, 40,000 civilians were killed in the final weeks. Many who surrendered were taken away and machine-gunned. Countless were herded into internment camps lined with barbed-wire fencing, where ‘food, water and sanitation were in sorely short supply.’ Many died or were killed inside; others reported widespread torture and sexual abuse by soldiers; thousands are still ‘missing’. The government’s Orwellian description of this last phase of war was ‘humanitarian operations’.
The civil war is over, but will the Tamils easily forget or forgive the atrocities against them? There is no major reconciliation effort in sight, tens of thousands have been forced off their lands, and there are still 100,000 refugees in India, afraid to return. Tamil areas remain under an oppressive army presence. While many aspects of life are returning to normal, resentments still simmer beneath the surface. Sinhalese pride and triumphalism have meanwhile resurged, with the same sort of chauvinism and hubris that begat the conflict forty years ago. As the Rajapaksa family mafia took control of all major organs of government, economic growth and tourism picked up and the Chinese began investing in the country. But this corrupt and authoritarian regime rebuffed calls to investigate war crimes, brooked no criticism, and sharply curtailed freedom of the press. Disappearances became common. Journalists critical of the regime were harassed, beaten and even killed; many fled the country. Subramanian, himself a journalist, covers their stories with extra attention. Hardline monks, like schoolyard bullies who know that the headteacher won’t punish them, turned to persecuting Muslims and Christians. Many Muslim and Hindu religious buildings were torn down and Buddhist ones built in their place, largely to serve as ‘a taunt, a stamp of Buddhist domination, a permanent reminder of the order of things in Sri Lanka’. The new president Maithripala Sirisena, a former political ally of Rajapaksa, leads a coalition of political parties and ran on a platform of anti-corruption and anti-nepotism. Tamil and Muslim voters supported him largely because they consider him less awful than Rajapaksa—Sirisena largely shares his predecessor’s stance on Sinhalese nationalism, the army’s presence in Tamil areas, and political concessions to the Tamils.
Subramanian doesn’t say whether the embers still remain ‘to ignite the blaze all over again’ but he ends with a note of lament. ‘Gradually, in my head,’ he writes, ‘the boundaries between these slices of time—between wartime and post-war Sri Lanka—melted away. The phrase “post-war” lost its meaning … an unbroken arc of violence stretched from the war right into our midst … Having acquired the temperament of a country at war, Sri Lanka had forgotten any other way to live.’ The powerful human stories in This Divided Island—told lucidly and vividly—show what Sri Lankans have won and lost, a prerequisite to any attempt to forge a more inclusive polity for future generations.
Monday, April 13, 2015
Xoo-ang Choi. The Wing, 2008.
Oil on resin.
by Mathangi Krishnamurthy
Anthropologists are supposed to be masters of the art of the rooting and uprooting. I learned very early on in my graduate school career the art of attaching, but never too much. Never owning a place, always on the move, and becoming excellent at thrift store shopping for furniture were some of the skills I carried with me into adulthood. These things I only realized recently when I experienced intense panic as I stood in my adult living room looking around at all the "good" furniture I owned, things that were too solid to find takers on Craigslist.
Nevertheless, some of my most striking memories of "im"permanence are of the housed I inhabited, especially during the time I conducted fieldwork in the city of Pune. Over the course of a year and a half, I moved three times across four houses. For the first three months, I was a paying guest at the house of a friend. She had a beautiful home on the outskirts of the city. While the location was hardly convenient, the pleasure of her company and the promise of good food kept me rooted to the place. I had a lovely first floor room with its own bathroom, a bed, and a carved wooden desk. Her two dogs were an added joy. She had glass baubles in the windows, classical music wafting out of her room in the mornings, and a kitchen stuffed with interesting chutneys and condiments. Eclectic crystal and glassware dotted the cupboard in her dining room, and we spent many evenings conjuring cocktails and sipping wine.
The house was my respite from the frustrations of fieldwork, and its objects were sources of contemplation when the city offered none. Even the light filtering through its corner windows seemed imbued with its own enchantments and possibilities. It smelled of a delightful comfort.
It was, of course, too good to last.
After three months, I commenced nighttime work at a place far away from her home and it was time for me to find a new place. She came to my rescue however, and suggested that I meet her sister who lived in another part of the city and had a studio apartment to rent. The catch was that I would have to fend for myself for two months before the current tenants were ready to leave.
The two houses I inhabited for the two months that I was ungrounded were remarkable in the ways that they evoked emotions that can only be said to be in opposite quadrants of the affective pantheon.
The first was cold, white, bare, and clean but untended. It was a single room with a bathroom, the outhouse of another friend's parents' house. It seemed to reflect in some ways their personalities. His father was a nice man, albeit clinical and often, distant. Like many of the men of an older generation in my family, the only forms of conversation he was comfortable with were politics, technology and philosophy. His mother, on the contrary was chatty, lonely and often, wily. She wanted me to set up her son, who had been single for a while (or so she thought) and shared everything she could about her own youth and life. The room I inhabited was in many ways an epitome of the relationships in the house; guarded, cold, insufficient and unhappy. I slept very little and dreamed of ghosts. Waking up to bare walls was a nightmare in itself. The bathroom had brightly colored blue and yellow tiles though. Perhaps, if I had tarried longer, I could have filled it up with color, objects and people. But I was not allowed to have people over and the family hesitated at the strange hours I might have to keep if I were to begin working at the call center. So I left and took nothing with me. Perhaps just a bad memory of the room.
In despair and depression, I reached out to another friend who lived in the heart of the city and asked if she would let me live with her for a month before I moved to my studio. In warmth and friendship, she opened her house to me, and I found for another month a place to live in and a space to inhabit. Her late husband's paintings hung on the living room walls and her dining room table was always well stocked with fruit. Each morning, I helped her pick out saris to wear to work. We would chat late into the night and drive downtown to buy music. Her daybed always bore bright colored block-printed covers and I shared her hand lotions. She introduced me to a cereal called Weetabix and made sure there was always chocolate in the refrigerator. I bought fresh vegetables many nights from her favorite vendor down the street and together we discussed the colors that she might paint on her walls.
When I left, she gave me three things; a necklace, a pasta plate for my morning cereal, and notes on a well-stocked refrigerator. The necklace was beaded with large ceramic painted globes made in Jaipur. I wore it once kitted out as Calypso to a costume party . The plate had delicate ferns painted on its edges.
My new studio apartment was all of 400 square feet. My landlords were easygoing and seemed to genuinely treat me like an adult. The space was like a canvas for me to fill. The apartment was on the first floor; the French windows opened out onto a large balcony, which overlooked the street. It had a daybed to double up as a couch and a sideboard that could serve as my bookshelf. A frugal wooden table divided the kitchen area from the living room and in-built shelves lined one side of the kitchen counter. A small refrigerator stood guard on the other end and the tiny bathroom was tucked away to one edge behind the sideboard.
On the first day, I took a dear friend's advice and stocked my refrigerator. The cheeky salesman at the corner store, a young boy, bantered and flirted as he offered to deliver my large order to the apartment. In relief and gratitude, I dropped off my list and he came by later in the day with milk, eggs, butter, bread, rice, lentils, spices (coriander, cumin, chilli powder, anise, fennel, mustard, turmeric, cloves, cinnamon, bay leaves) and Nutella. Later in the day, he brought soap, shampoo, cleaning liquids and washing powder; Lux and Sunsilk and Vim and Surf. He gazed amused at my apartment and its messiness. As I set things down, I caught a whiff of my mother's kitchen. This kind of "turning into our parents" I could deal with, I thought.
The next day I traipsed off to Tulsi Baug, Pune's own cornucopia of all things householderly. Directing the autorickshaw driver to a store unsurprisingly named Tulsi, I entered, brave of heart and firm of resolve, all of which melted the moment I espied the goods on display.
(Perhaps, a note to readers might be required here. Pune is a curious city, bearing in equal measure, mom and pop stores, artisanal offerings and large departmental behemoths. To know Pune is to know it in all its scales.)
Tulsi is tucked away in the middle of a busy road lined end-to-end with hole-in-the-wall stores selling a wide variety of goods including silver, toys, household linen, water bottles, lunch boxes, "fancy" bags, cotton "nighties" and "maxis", refrigerator pouches, pantry containers, handkerchiefs and slips. Tulsi had all of the above, and then some. Dodging reckless scooters and motorbikes, I walked across the road and entered what thankfully, even in my adult view, was magical. Like a magpie, I began to peck. Soon I was trudging back and forth from various counters to the cashier's desk to line up my wares. In my head, I began allocating space to each of my finds. The three large containers on the top shelf, the wire baskets to be nailed to the walls in the bathroom, the cane baskets could hold lotion and lipsticks and sit on the sideboard, plates on the third shelf, glasses on the third too and knives and cutlery on the kitchen counter. Three vases for various corners, extension cords for lamps I intended to buy and two coffee mugs for wherever I worked (one for me, one in the hope of company). Weighed down by three large bags, I headed back, excited and exhausted.
Now my house had food, silverware, plates, cutlery and storage containers.
The next item required some serious thought. In the alcove between my refrigerator and the bathroom was enough space for a tiny cupboard; the kind one might read about in children's books where everything is neatly ordered, small people sized and beautiful. While I enjoy walk-in closets as much as the next consumptive person, there is something so much more interesting about a cupboard. Its musty insides seem to speak of long-forgotten clothes hidden away only to come out in surprising moments of boring lives. One of my favorite activities as a child was to open my parents' cupboard, to sift through photographs and enchantingly obtuse paperwork (bills, identity cards, old letters where my grandfather writes in equally obtuse longhand to my parents). Opening the locker required special permission and supervision. So once a week I would sit under the watchful eyes of a parent and work my way through jewelry, gold and silver, tiny and large, ornate and ugly.
So I wanted myself a cupboard too. For this errand, my scooter would suffice. Riding onto the busy street, avoiding faster motorbikes and looming smoking trucks, I made my way to a cane store in the middle of the city. I had passed this store many times on my rides through town and always wondered at the variety of furniture it stocked. Sofas, lamps, bookshelves, coffee tables, chairs, tables, beds, all woven exquisitely from cane and rattan. Cane furniture, I've been told, is difficult to clean. Dust settles in the gaps between the strands and makes a home. But cane makes me think of colonial bungalows and gracious hosts and sunlit patios. So I walked in and spoke to the proprietor, a middle-aged man with a lovely moustache. Together, we designed an alcove-sized cupboard and a high-backed chair. He even offered to make a cup-holder for the chair. The furniture would be delivered within two weeks, he assured me. I took with me an exquisite oval lampshade to hang from the ceiling.
My last task for the week involved linens and curtains. Across the street where I lived was a store that carried cotton rugs, curtains, and floor cushions. I had always lamented the lack of bright, cotton linen in the US. Here I bought a tan rug with ochre, yellow and purple diamond patterns and two bright orange floor cushions. My scooter was also made to carry two sets of curtains in sage green and transparent pewter and three bedcovers in bright turquoise, purple, yellow and green. The latter I found at an "exhibition" or traveling fair, where wares from various Indian states were sold. Here, I also bought two paper lamps and an ashtray in delicate papier-mâché.
Some things came with me from my parents' place. An old National Panasonic that my parents had bought the year I was born took pride of place on a rickety cane chair by the door. It played Radio Mirchi, the city's single FM channel all day long. To this day, I know the lyrics of all the Bollywood film songs released in 2007. I also brought with me books, comics, and cassettes. My comics had been bound meticulously by my father years ago and had been lying in the attic for too long. For a year, they came back to a bookshelf.
The week ended with various plumbers, carpenters and Internet service agents traipsing through the apartment to string lamps, fix cabinets, repair modems, check the water heater, and construct bulletin boards. Over the year, they would begin to recognize my apartment and be back many more times.
Over the year, besides the itinerants, two others would become permanent members of my home, Kantha and her son. Kantha was a middle-aged woman of great cheer who tended to many houses in the apartment complex. Kantha knocked on my door the day I moved on and offered to help with cleaning and cooking. I was more than happy to agree. Over the many months since that day, she would come by once to make me chapattis(which I cannot for the life of me figure out how to make to this day), and stave away dust and degeneration. Together we would brew tea; she would wrinkle her nose at my preferred Darjeeling without milk and make us strong, milky, black tea instead. Many a day after my night shift, I would return home in the morning and collapse on the bed. Kantha would let herself in, wake me up and bring with her the day and often, fresh greens. As she cooked, her son would come by and together we would work through his English textbook. She would keep a watchful eye on him before leaving to her other households. Some days we would gossip about her mortal enemy, the woman who helped at my landlord's and who, according to Kanta often came by to look through my various lotions and herbal facemasks. Once she suggested that I buy the apartment.
In this apartment, I hosted dinners, threw parties, shared drunken secrets, and interviewed respondents. Here, I cooked, talked, gossiped, sang, danced, and stumbled. In this tiny studio of four hundred square feet, people tended to stay. I was never short of company or music.
I had to dismantle everything when I left.
Monday, April 06, 2015
An Atheist Considers God's Plan
by Akim Reinhardt
"It's all part of God's plan."
That's bad enough. But I go a little nuts whenever someone says: "Everything happens for a reason."
After all, if you actually believe that we're all just mortal puppets dancing on a divine string, then there's really no point in us having an adult conversation about cause and effect.
But unlike God's plan, "Everything happens for a reason" does not suggest a deep detachment from reality, which is precisely what makes it far more exasperating than assertions of, say, childhood leukemia being an important cog in God's grand machinations.
Rather than embracing wild delusion or concocting a fantastic blend of paternal benevolence and cruelty, "everything happens for a reason" suggests a far murkier and depressing version of surrendering reality. Like the "God's plan" adage, it indicates the speaker just can't live up to the horrors of life, and is wont to soothe oneself with the balm of inevitability. But it also leads me to suspect that while the speaker is sane enough to dismiss sadistically intricate divine plans, s/he has been reduced to hiding behind the gauze of unstated and unknowable "reasons."
Everything happens for a reason.
In other words, even the worst of it can be justified, even if we don't know how.
To say childhood leukemia is part of God's plan is to give that reason a name. Specifically, God's plan is how one justifies the horror. That's pretty awful.
But to say childhood leukemia happens for a vague, unnamed reason is to accept that it's justified in some way, but to not know what the justification is. That seems even worse.
Both proverbs, to my mind, are patently dishonest sentiments. But while I can easily dismiss the former as delusion in the face of pain, the latter reveals just enough self-awareness to anger me.
God's plan is the refuge of those who, unable to face up to harsh realities, opt for fantasy. But to recognize that childhood-leukemia-as-God's-plan is a form of lunacy, yet hide your own weak-kneed desperation behind claims of "reason," is really insulting. It's one thing to dismiss rational thought altogether when attempting to face life's horrors. It's quite another to bastardize and mangle rational thought to create a shield against life's horrors.
Or so it seemed to me when I first considered these aphorisms.
But such a critique, while containing some important truths, is also very problematic.
One problem, of course, is that it's a bit cruel. After all, life can be a real motherfucker. It's wholly understandable that people would struggle to cope with the existence of something like childhood leukemia, especially when it afflicts and claims a loved one.
Whether seeking shelter from the storm of pain and misery in supernatural mumbo jumbo or ill-defined inevitability, that pain and misery is nevertheless very real. If someone hides behind one of these veils to help them make it through, so be it. It might be nonsense, but that's absolutely no reason to belittle or insult someone wrestling with deep anguish, or to feel personally betrayed by their approach.
The other problem with the above critique, however, is that it completely misses a fundamental truism about the saying "Everything happens for a reason."
That maxim isn't just a middle-of-the-road crutch for dealing with emotional and psychological torment. It also reflects a much broader human inclination.
To say everything happens for a reason is to voice support for the system. It is an expression of conformity. It's a refusal to fight for fundamental change.
To understand this one axiom, perhaps it is best to call upon another: Better the devil you know.
Generally speaking, most people do not want to experience profound change. Even when things are bad, people typically don't want something radically different; they want a better version of what they already have.
As someone who thinks radical change is usually not given due consideration, I struggle to understand why people prefer the devil they know. Why so many people, no matter how bad it gets, do not take more risks.
I suspect there are probably evolutionary and neurological factors at play, but those are bit beyond my scope. There are also probably cultural and social factors at work, and I might explore those in the future. But for now, I would like to focus on more an explanation that considers individuals: the possibility that most people fear the unknown and/or lack imagination.
I do realize that that sounds incredibly patronizing. But I don't mean it as such, and I do think it's fair, because it's not just about people's shortcomings. It's not just about what they run from and fail to do, but what they are drawn to and the faith they have.
Familiarity, they say, breeds contempt. But it is also provides a sense of security. Like Linus clutching his blue blanket, people fear loss, even of that which can be readily improved upon. They cannot imagine what comes next, so they cling to the threadbare and make the most of it. They will defend what disappoints them, arguing for its lesser merits and hoping for its marginal improvement.
In one way or another they say: this thing, this not very good thing, this unreliable thing, this unsteady thing, this broken thing, this thing of betrayal, it is my thing. It is our thing. It is what we have. So please, do not make me dispense with it. Do not pull it from my grasp. Do not make us break it. It may be bad, but you are wrong. It is all we have, all we know, so let us put faith in its restoration instead of in the unknown future.
That attitude often causes me no small degree of consternation. And the frequency of my dismay only reinforces how widespread such recalcitrance really is.
When faced with circumstances ranging from the unpleasant to the dire, many if not most people will corral their sadness and anger, and steer it into calls for improving what's wrong instead of demanding that the offender be dismissed and replaced with something else altogether.
It's why they choose the Democrats over the Republicans or vice versa, instead of looking to a third party, or supporting measures to make additional political parties more viable, or advocating other more substantive changes to the political system, despite their near perpetual disappointment in the major party they do support, even when it wins. Especially when it wins.
It's how the American Revolution in some ways wasn't very revolutionary at all, but was rather a movement by colonial elites to modify the old British monarchal system by, among other things, replacing the hereditary monarch with a nominally elected president, and replacing the hereditary House of Lords with Senators selected by regional elites.
It's acquiescence. It's complacency.
It's sending your child to college when he or she would do better to wait a few years.
It's staying in that shitty apartment, shitty job, shitty marriage.
It's why people crave ideology and rules.
It's why people choose Pepsi over Coke. Or Chipotle over Taco Bell. And insist they've made a choice.
Burmese political activist Aun San Su Kyi's famous critique of colonialism and totalitarianism is entitled Freedom From Fear. The truth, however, is that many people fear freedom.
When the possibilities are limitless, many people freeze. But when options are limited, people often have an easier time making decisions. "Do this or that" focuses people in a way that "Do whatever you want" does not. And so "Do whatever you want" becomes something to avoid, something to be feared and despised.
As recently retired NFL football player Nick Hardwick put it:
In theory, freedom sounds great. We all want more freedom. But when I retired and I had all the freedom in the world, the only thing I craved was that structure.
The expressly divine: It's all part of God's plan.
The vaguely secular: Everything happens for a reason.
At first glance, sentiments such as these are not just coping mechanisms for those dealing with real anguish. They also seem to be expressions of timidity and impotence.
Don't question it. Don't try to imagine a radically different alternative. It's already bad enough as it is, so don't risk making it worse by introducing unknown variables. Just accept it.
But such sentiments are so widespread as to make one wonder what's normal or right. When so many people eschew freedom, is it fair to label them as unimaginative cowards? Is it actually unreasonable for people to err on the side of caution?
Am I the unimaginative coward for not understanding better those who see God's plan or put faith in the haze of unknowable reasons?
Michaël Borremans . Vertebra, 2004.
Oil on canvas.
Ishiguro's The Buried Giant and The Ethics of Memory
by Leanne Ogasawara
An elderly couple embark on a quest. Wandering the countryside in which a mysterious mist has robbed everyone of their memories, the two are unable to recall exactly what they are doing at any given moment. This makes for a challenge since they know they are on a quest-- but it is never completely clear where they are going and what exactly happened in the first place.
And what is made even worse than being on a quest where you can't keep the facts straight is that each wonders whether their loss of memory will not mark the end of their marriage--for without shared memories, what will be left to bind them together? The elderly wife wonders. But at the same time, she also cannot help but worry whether in reality they are not better off not remembering?
In the early pages of Ishiguro's The Buried Giant, I assumed it would be a very different story. Like this reviewer here, at first I was sure the book would be about the sadness of a life ending in memory loss; about dementia in the elderly and love falling apart. But then (also just like the reviewer) I wondered if the novel wasn't actually some kind of exploration about the myth-making we do collectively --for indeed, it is not just the elderly couple but all the characters in the book who are suffering from memory loss as they struggle to recall what it means, for example, to be a Christian Briton or pagan Saxon, in the wake of the Roman withdrawal.
Is it glorious King Arthur or Arthur the mass murderer?
It all depends on how you remember things, right?
A coincidence (or maybe he is reading the same book) but a friend on Facebook (deliciously literary Mikhail Iossel) today wrote this:
We all know, or at least suspect, that many of the memories dearest to our hearts have never happened. To a considerable degree, our lives are the products of our own imagination -- for that's what memory is, by and large: an introspective, inward-bound imagination.
It's true, but then what to do in the face of trauma? Ishiguro in several interviews wrote of wanting to write about Rwanda or Yugoslavia. He wondered how it was possible that groups of people, who up till then had been living in relative harmony, turn so savagely upon each other? What kinds of repressed hatred had to be cultivated over the years (or generations) within them, he asks. And likewise, what of our personal traumas?
My astronomer says that someday they will perfect a pill to let you forget specific groups of memories. (Sometimes it feels like Americans think there should be a pill to solve everything).
But memory is not contained just within one person's mind, is it? And indeed more and more it seems people are becoming cut off from the collective traditions that allowed them to seek shared meaning (and forgiveness) in terms of the past. It is indeed a slippery slope --since in the process of personal meaning-making, one can get stuck in just the kinds of memory loops that the drone operators describe... or worse, in a complete burying one's head in the sand about things. For as Ishiguro says in this interview:
It might seem the best thing to just bury them. With something like a marriage you have to ask, if you just deny that something’s happened, and you literally forget it, what does that do to the love? Is it somehow inauthentic? Is it “real” love still? On the other hand, if you do actually go back and look at it squarely, would that destroy the love as well?
The more I read his novel the more questions arose. And without any real answers I started to realize just how crucial the questions themselves are.
What is the cost of remembering; what is the cost of forgetting? Asks Ishiguro. But maybe a better question is to ask: What is the obligation to remember?
I really like Avishai Margalit's book, The Ethics of Memory. I wonder if anyone else out there read it?
Without so much as a word about Palestinian memories of humiliation (!), Margalit uses the lens of the holocaust to explore questions regarding the obligations to remember.
The book has an absolutely haunting beginning in which Margalit recalls a conversation that took place between his mother and his father when he was an adolescent. In the face of what amounted to the obliteration of both their extended families during the holocaust, his mother suggests that all that is left to them as the survivors is to become vessels of memories, like candles for the dead, she says. It is a beautiful image that struck me very much. His father, however, not surprisingly recoils at the suggestion saying--we are not candles! "We must turn our eyes to the future and become strong," he insists.
In The Buried Giant, uncovering the truth could lead to what is not just the collapse of what appears to be a very beautiful marriage but it could also lead to the resumption (resurrection) of war, thereby causing death and destruction to come to the land again. With this in mind, the author wonders whether it is, therefore, not more moral (and ethical) to repress and leave the giant buried?
Margalit, being a philosopher, is tentative when it comes to drawing conclusions on this same topic--though reading the book, one feels he must believe (like Thoreau) that human beings crave truth above everything, so that a future not consciously informed by the past will lead to a repetition of past wrongs. A future based on a lie will also be inauthentic, like being hooked up to a happiness machine (for isn't that what the happy elderly couple is doing--standing in for "ignorance is bliss"?) That is to say, when it comes down to it, most people would not choose a happy marriage if it is based on a lie? Or a peace based on a lie if that peace can turn to savage butchery in what seems like the blink of an eye.
Sins of the father.
Margalit's Ethics of Memory is continental style philosophy, and is written in the classical form of a meditation. Philosopher Galen Strawson picked out his three central premises to the book as follows: 1) it is care, or caring, that lies at the core of thick (or particular) relations; 2) memory is the cement that holds thick relations together; and 3) "we dread the idea of dying without leaving a trace." (David Mitchell's project as well).
Strawson's rebuttal to Magalit's points is great. Obviously as Strawson insists, not everyone will agree that care is based on shared memories or requires any remembering after death. And some will even dismiss the so-called horror of dying without leaving a trace. Personally, while I myself readily accept all three of Margalit's points, I can at least imagine there are people who don't feel dread at the idea of not leaving a trace. Not to mention those enlightened beings who are truly capable of living in the present tense without anxiety toward the future or angst concerning the past, as Strawson suggests. David Mitchell is very interesting here, I think, in the way he portrays the way our past (each and every action) reverberates into our present thereby becoming our future. Every action is like a ripple across time. So, even if one forgets, it doesn't change the facts.
Whatever one might think about memory informing human care and the traces of time (humans as "bone clocks"), Margalit makes one move at the end of his book that is very interesting. Like Ian Buruma's classic book Wages of Guilt, which compares the reaction of the Germans versus that of the Japanese to wartime guilt, Margalit also examines both of these cases to illuminate the different approaches countries can take in examining past transgressions.
He uses the analogy of gift giving to make his point. He begins by explaining that some academics have looked at the gift-giving practices of some cultures as being transactional (give and take). But this simply is not accurate, Margalit says. Gift-giving is an almost ritualized practice for re-enforcing relationships, he insists. I think this is true.
In the Japanese countryside, it seemed like an endless cycle. Where I lived, such exchanges with neighbors and family were constant and never-ending. For me, there was stress in living up to my side because I am not that organized and get overwhelmed by finer details but after two decades I came to see it as like a cement to bond people to one another--the constant exchanges were simply small shows of care and over time it turned into something reassuring (in the US, I dearly miss those small signs of care that kept me feeling busy when I lived in Japan, because it kept me from feeling lonely).
Margalit uses this as an analogy of how one should look at memory and forgiveness. To keep the giant buried (by hiding things under the rug), one is not processing things. This we all can probably agree to. But instead of focusing on the perpetrator or the victim, perhaps we should concentrate on the relationship between the two agents. In this way, for example, if one side of the relationship is angry (Korea or Japan), it is neither here nor there to say "we dealt with this already" or worse to brush it under the rug. What is needed is another session of remembering since remembering is a form of mercy and grace, says Margalit. This occurs first and that is the obligation of the side who wronged. The other side then has a choice to overcome their resentment and anger or to push for more discussion on the remembering.
Whether forgiveness happens or not is not up to us, the obligation is only to address issues, rather than brushing things under the rug. That is, not to ignore the pain of the other side and to step up in recalling things and making honest reparations as a commitment to real peace until peace is achieved. Dialogue as a commitment to the relationship and to truth is what matters. For as David Mitchell says in Bone Clocks:
Nothing lasts and yet nothing passes either, and nothing passes just because nothing lasts.
In this way, Ishiguro's novel ends the only way it could.
The Magic of the Bell and a Glimpse of Spirits
by Bill Benzon
Call it “animism” if you wish, but it will no longer be enough to brand it with the mark of infamy. This is indeed why we feel so close to the sixteenth century, as if we were back before the “epistemological break,” before the odd invention of matter.
—Bruno Latour, An Attempt at a “Compositionist Manifesto”
This essay starts with an experience I had some years ago in a basement in Troy, New York, while rehearsing with three colleagues: Ade (who had toured with Gil Scott-Heron in his youth), Druis, and Fonda. We were each of us playing bells when at some point we heard high-pitched twittering sounds that none of us were playing. Where did they come from? What were they?
I can easily imagine how someone might think they were hearing a spirit or spirits. The Western scientific impulse is quite different. We know that spirits do not exist and therefore there must be some other, some physically plausible, account of those twittering sounds. My purpose here is not to reject the physical account. On the contrary, I believe it to be foundational. But I also believe that, carefully considered, it points to a way of making sense of the idea of spirit.
Instrument and Player
It is well known that B.B. King’s guitar is named Lucille. Why is it named at all? Perhaps it’s a gesture of affection. The guitar, after all, is very close to him. It is one of his voices; it is, in some sense, part of him.
It may be more than that. The name may well reflect the subtle intricacy of King’s relationship to his guitar, his instrument. To play an instrument well, one must learn to yield to its physicality, to blend with it. You cannot dominate it. Well, you can try, and you CAN succeed. But you pay a cost. Your musicianship suffers.
As I’m not a guitar player, however, I can’t tell you what it means to yield to a guitar. I suppose I could talk about the trumpet—I’ve been playing one for half a century—but that’s just a little complex. And my point really isn’t about complexity. It’s about subtlety.
Let us begin by talking about playing a very simple instrument, the claves.
The claves are a pair of short sticks that tend to be roughly eight inches long and an inch in diameter. They’re used in many genres of Latin music to produce a sharp penetrating percussive sound. They’re usually made of hard dense wood. Mine are made of fiberglass (see below). You hold one clave in your left hand and then strike it with the other one, held in your right hand (if you’re right handed).
It’s more like you cradle one clave (it doesn’t matter which one) in your left hand. You hold your hand palm-up, lay the clave across it, and grip it only so much as needed to keep it in place. You do not need to grip it tightly, nor do you even WANT to grip it tightly. If you do that, then your hand will dampen the vibrations and dull the sound. The ‘crack!’ will no longer be sharp and crisp.
You must of course grip the other clave to keep it from falling to the ground. But, and here is the subtlety, you do WANT it to fall, which is its natural behavior under gravity. It should fall toward the stationary clave and rebound from it. The quicker the two sticks separate after impact, the sharper and louder the sound. There’s nothing you can do with your will and muscle that is more effective than simply getting out of the way. Let natural elasticity do its work.
Use your right hand to regulate how the clave falls. In effect, you’re dropping the clave and using your right hand to follow the fall. For a soft sound, start the fall close to the target clave. If you start the fall further away, you’ll get a louder sound. For a still louder sound, you can impart energy to the clave with your hand. Now you ARE gripping it and dominating it, but just a bit.
Played in this way it is easy to get a loud satisfying crack from the claves with little effort, an important consideration if you’re playing a four or five hour gig. But, if you don’t know this, if you have never been shown or never figured it out, you can exert considerably more effort playing the claves, and get much less sound from that effort.
I witnessed that several years ago when I was working with a street band in New York City. I played trumpet most of the time, but had some bells and the claves for people to pick up and join the band. One young man who said he was a drummer wanted to play the claves. I gave them to him and away he went.
He gripped each clave hammer-style, and then banged the free ends together with fairly considerable force. He hit them so hard that he managed to knock small chips out of them. These claves were made of fiberglass specifically so they could withstand hard use; that’s why I bought them. And yet the man managed to knock chips out of them while not getting much sound out of them at all. As I recall, he noticed that himself and was frustrated, but the situation wasn’t one where I could stop what I was doing and give him a clave lesson in mid-performance. Nor was it obvious to me that he would have gotten the lesson quickly. He seemed determined to demonstrate his will and enthusiasm by expending maximum effort.
The point, then, is that technique matters, and that just what and how it matters is not immediately obvious. The musician must assimilate the instrument to their body schema and play it as though it were their own body. Just what that entails will vary from one instrument to another. For example, the physical aspects of playing the trumpet (my main instrument) are quite different from playing the claves; they are more difficult to conceptualize as they involve the mouth (lips, teeth and tongue); the arms, hands, and fingers; and the trunk and breathing apparatus. But we don’t need to deal with all that, as my primary example is very much like the claves.
The Magic of the Bell
It involves playing bells, such as those following this paragraph. You hold the bell or bells in one hand and a beater, often an ordinary drum stick, in the other. But the bells give you more options than the clave; they have more affordances, to use a term from the ecological psychology of J. J. Gibson. Exactly where and how hard you hit matters, as does just how you grip the bell. You can also damp the sound with your fingers or by lowering the bell to your thigh (when playing while seated).
The bells really get interesting when played in a group, for now you have multiple bell sounds interacting with one another. I’ve described how this works in Beethoven’s Anvil (pp. 23-24). This paragraph describes the basic phenomenon:
This is a story about me and three other musicians. Led by Ade Knowles, we were rehearsing a piece based on Ghanaian musical principles. Each of us had a bell with two or three heads on it—the bells were of Ghanaian manufacture. Ade assigned three of us simple interlocking rhythms to play and then improvised over the interlocking parts. Once the music got going, melodies would emerge which no one was playing. The successive tones one heard as a melody came first from one bell then another and another. No person was playing that melody; it arose from cohesions in the shifting pattern of tones played by the ensemble. Depending on the patterns he played, Ade could direct the tonal stream perceived as the melody, but the tones he played weren't necessarily the melody tones. Rather, they served to direct the melodic cohesions from place to place.
Those emergent melodies are important. They were and are clear and obvious, a single discrete stream of tones where the individual tones were played by different individuals rather than all of them being played by a single individual. Because no one person was playing every note in these emergent melody lines, we can take these lines as a phenomenon and expression of group unity. In fact, those interlocking and emergent lines in African bell choirs and drum choirs have posed considerable problems for ethnomusicologists. It is all but impossible to figure out what the individual lines are simply by listening to the whole. At the same time, it is difficult for individual musicians to play a single line without the support of the whole group.
Think about those two related phenomena for a moment. The auditory array has a segmentation that is natural to the human ear, but that segmentation doesn’t divide the array into streams each of which is executed by a single individual. At the same time individuals cannot properly execute his or her own component without hearing the others with which it is interlinked. It is not merely that the sonic array is being created by a group, but that the group seems to have entered the mind of each individual so that individual actions require group support and the “virtual” actors one hears, the auditory streams, are each of them products of group action.
Let’s get back to those bells. Now the event gets even more subtle and interesting (Beethoven's Anvil, p. 24):
Occasionally, something quite remarkable would happen. When we were really locked together in animated playing we could hear relatively high-pitched tones that no one was playing. That is, while each bell had a pitch tendency (these bells were not precisely tuned), these particular high tones did not match the pitch tendency of any bell. The tones were distinct, but not ones that any of us appeared to be playing.
These tones only appeared when we were in the state of relaxation conducive to intense playing, a groove, if you will—a groove I could certainly feel as a “buzz” in my body. Without the relaxation, no emergent tones and melodies. According to Ade, that's how it always is. The “magic” of the bell happens only when the musicians are in a groove. My friend Jon Barlow tells me that a similar phenomenon is familiar to people who gather together and chant long tones in unison. When the chanting is going well, and only then, the chanters hear distinct and relatively high-pitched tones that seem to be located near the room’s ceiling. It is those magic tones (for what it is worth, about 2000 Herz and above), tones played by no one at all, but emerging through the group to form their own auditory stream, that is what I want you to think about—I certainly did, for years, and I am still thinking about them. If I hadn’t ‘known better’ I would have said, straight up, that they were spirit voices, or some such thing. But I believed then, and now, that such spirits do not and cannot exist.
If I couldn’t call them spirit voices then what could I call them?
I searched for written accounts of the phenomenon, but could find none, though I found accounts of similar phenomenon. I made inquiries of other musicians, ethnomusicologists, and experts in psychoacoustics. No one was familiar with the phenomenon; though some offered an opinion that the sounds may well have been real sounds that one could pick up with microphones and record on tape. That’s what I think, too. But none of us really knows.
The phenomenon remains something a puzzle.
Spirits, Why Not?
Why not think of this twittering bell tones as manifestation of spirits? But not spirits conceived as incorporeal sprites littering hither and yon in the material universe in mysterious ways. Rather, they are concrete and indivisible manifestations of group activities. They express and are deeply grounded in collectivity.
To that end I insist on treating the sounds and their performance context as a single unified entity. Without that context, which of course includes the performers, then, yes, those sounds are just sounds. If we had recorded that rehearsal, only the sounds would be in the recording, but not the spirits of which they are manifestations. For those things I am calling spirits are intermingled with the performers and are not physically separable from them.
It is important to emphasize that those sounds happened only when we were in a focused state of mind. The sounds existed only through our collective interaction. It is that collectivity as it “attaches” itself to the sounds that I am calling a spirit. The sounds are an audible manifestation of a special and temporary relationship among the four of us. To say that those twitterings are spirits, or voices of spirits, is to speak figuratively, where the figure is synecdoche, using the part (the twitter sounds) to stand for the whole (group locked in very intense musical activity).
Now, let us increase the conceptual ante. There are musically driven ceremonies all over the world in which people are said to become possessed by spirits. Such ceremonies have been observed and documented in photographs, sound recordings, film and video. The details of these ceremonies differ from place to place, but the central phenomenon is the same: some person or persons become possessed by some other being.
These other beings are generally well known to the community. They have been entering people for generations. Often many such beings will be known in a community with different people being devotees of different spirits. Let us turn to Gilbert Rouget’s classic Music and Trance (1985 p. 325). There are many rituals where the principal celebrants are said to become possessed by a spirit. These celebrants are not themselves making music. They are dancing to music made by others:
The trance itself, in other words the period during which the subject settles himself, so to say, into his other persona and totally coincides with it, has, on the contrary, quite a stable relation to music...Here the function of the music is obvious. It is due to the music, and because he is supported by the music, that the possessed person publicly lives out, by means of dance, his identification with the divinity he embodies. The music ... is essentially identificatory. By playing his “motto” [a rhythm characteristic of a particular divinity], the musicians notify this identity to the entranced dancer, those around him, the priests, and the spectators....Music thus appears as the principal means of socializing trance.
Rouget was thinking about social function, not neural foundations. The celebrant identifies with the divinity, and that divinity is signaled by characteristics of the music that are specific to the divinity. The music functions as a vehicle for a collective intentionality, one that slips beneath the barriers of individuality and the imperatives of autonomous selves. In music thus shared, my rhythms and your rhythms are the same. And thus we are the one in spirit if not in body.
Spirit possession is thus quite different from the bell spirits I have been talking about. For one thing, in the particular case of bell spirits, none of the four musicians were raised and socialized in a bell-playing culture. Hence, perhaps, the adventitious nature of the phenomenon. It was a one-time occurrence because none of us was raised in a culture where such experiences are available almost at will.
For another, there was no possession. We all retained our individuated identities. No one disappeared into a spirit identity.
Now invert that: Think of the spirit identity as something ready and waiting, like a coat hanging on a rack. You get together with your friends, play the right music, dance the right steps and Shazaam! you ‘disappear’ into that identity, you don the coat and, for the nonce, become the spirit.
Think of the brain – your brain, my brain, everyone’s brain – as a 100 billion tiny oscillators. When we make music and dance the music entrains our oscillators – yours, my, everyone’s – to one another in one large and tightly coupled pool. What’s a spirit? It’s an intricate pattern of action rippling through the coupled pool of oscillators, no more.
* * * * *
Bill Benzon blogs at New Savanna, is on Facebook, and posts his academic work to Academia.edu. This essay is revised and adapted from the first third or so of a working paper, The Magic of the Bell: How Networks of Social Actors Create Cultural Beings. I’ve collected by 3QD posts from 2014 into a single document, 42 Quarks: Getting from here to there.
Monday, March 30, 2015
STEM Education Promotes Critical Thinking and Creativity: A Response to Fareed Zakaria
by Jalees Rehman
All obsessions can be dangerous. When I read the title "Why America's obsession with STEM education is dangerous" of Fareed Zakaria's article in the Washington Post, I assumed that he would call for more balance in education. An exclusive focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) is unhealthy because students miss out on the valuable knowledge that the arts and humanities teach us. I would wholeheartedly agree with such a call for balance because I believe that a comprehensive education makes us better human beings. This is the reason why I encourage discussions about literature and philosophy in my scientific laboratory. To my surprise and dismay, Zakaria did not analyze the respective strengths of liberal arts education and STEM education. Instead, his article is laced with odd clichés and misrepresentations of STEM.
Misrepresentation #1: STEM teaches technical skills instead of critical thinking and creativity
If Americans are united in any conviction these days, it is that we urgently need to shift the country's education toward the teaching of specific, technical skills. Every month, it seems, we hear about our children's bad test scores in math and science — and about new initiatives from companies, universities or foundations to expand STEM courses (science, technology, engineering and math) and deemphasize the humanities.
"The United States has led the world in economic dynamism, innovation and entrepreneurship thanks to exactly the kind of teaching we are now told to defenestrate. A broad general education helps foster critical thinking and creativity."
Zakaria is correct when he states that a broad education fosters creativity and critical thinking but his article portrays STEM as being primarily focused on technical skills whereas liberal education focuses on critical thinking and creativity. Zakaria's view is at odds with the goals of STEM education. As a scientist who mentors Ph.D students in the life sciences and in engineering, my goal is to help our students become critical and creative thinkers.
Students learn technical skills such as how to culture cells in a dish, insert DNA into cells, use microscopes or quantify protein levels but these technical skills are not the focus of the educational program. Learning a few technical skills is easy but the real goal is for students to learn how to develop innovative scientific hypotheses, be creative in terms of designing experiments that test those hypotheses, learn how to be critical of their own results and use logic to analyze their experiments.
My own teaching and mentoring experience focuses on STEM graduate students but the STEM programs that I have attended at elementary and middle schools also emphasize teaching basic concepts and critical thinking instead of "technical skills". The United States needs to promote STEM education because of the prevailing science illiteracy in the country and not because it needs to train technically skilled worker bees. Here are some examples of science illiteracy in the US: Fort-two percent of Americans are creationists who believe that God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years or so. Fifty-two percent of Americans are unsure whether there is a link between vaccines and autism and six percent are convinced that vaccines can cause autism even though there is broad consensus among scientists from all over the world that vaccines do NOT cause autism. And only sixty-one percent are convinced that there is solid evidence for global warming.
A solid STEM education helps citizens apply critical thinking to distinguish quackery from true science, benefiting their own well-being as well as society.
Zakaria's criticism of obsessing about test scores is spot on. The subservience to test scores undermines the educational system because some teachers and school administrators may focus on teaching test-taking instead of critical thinking and creativity. But this applies to the arts and humanities as well as the STEM fields because language skills are also assessed by standardized tests. Just like the STEM fields, the arts and humanities have to find a balance between teaching required technical skills (i.e. grammar, punctuation, test-taking strategies, technical ability to play an instrument) and the more challenging tasks of teaching students how to be critical and creative.
Misrepresentation #2: Japanese aren't creative
Zakaria's views on Japan are laced with racist clichés:
"Asian countries like Japan and South Korea have benefitted enormously from having skilled workforces. But technical chops are just one ingredient needed for innovation and economic success. America overcomes its disadvantage — a less-technically-trained workforce — with other advantages such as creativity, critical thinking and an optimistic outlook. A country like Japan, by contrast, can't do as much with its well-trained workers because it lacks many of the factors that produce continuous innovation."
Some of the most innovative scientific work in my own field of scientific research – stem cell biology – is carried out in Japan. Referring to Japanese as "well-trained workers" does not do justice to the innovation and creativity in the STEM fields and it also conveniently ignores Japanese contributions to the arts and humanities. I doubt that the US movie directors who have re-made Kurosawa movies or the literary critics who each year expect that Haruki Murakami will receive the Nobel Prize in Literature would agree with Zakaria.
Misrepresentation #3: STEM does not value good writing
Writing well, good study habits and clear thinking are important. But Zakaria seems to suggest that these are not necessarily part of a good math and science education:
"No matter how strong your math and science skills are, you still need to know how to learn, think and even write. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon (and the owner of this newspaper), insists that his senior executives write memos, often as long as six printed pages, and begins senior-management meetings with a period of quiet time, sometimes as long as 30 minutes, while everyone reads the "narratives" to themselves and makes notes on them. In an interview with Fortune's Adam Lashinsky, Bezos said: "Full sentences are harder to write. They have verbs. The paragraphs have topic sentences. There is no way to write a six-page, narratively structured memo and not have clear thinking."
Communicating science is an essential part of science. Until scientific work is reviewed by other scientists and published as a paper it is not considered complete. There is a substantial amount of variability in the quality of writing among scientists. Some scientists are great at logically structuring their papers and conveying the core ideas whereas other scientific papers leave the reader in a state of utter confusion. What Jeff Bezos proposes for his employees is already common practice in the STEM world. In preparation for scientific meetings and discussions, scientists structure their ideas into outlines for manuscripts or grant proposals using proper paragraphs and sentences. Well-written scientific manuscripts are highly valued but the overall quality of writing in the STEM fields could be greatly improved. However, the same probably also holds true for people with a liberal arts education. Not every philosopher is a great writer. Decoding the human genome is a breeze when compared to decoding certain postmodern philosophical texts.
Misrepresentation #4: We should study the humanities and arts because Silicon Valley wants us to.
In support of his arguments for a stronger liberal arts education, Zakaria primarily quotes Silicon Valley celebrities such as Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos. The article suggests that a liberal arts education will increase entrepreneurship and protect American jobs. Are these the main reasons for why we need to reinvigorate liberal arts education? The importance of a general, balanced education makes a lot of sense to me but is increased job security a convincing argument for pursuing a liberal arts degree? Instead of a handful of anecdotal comments by Silicon Valley prophets, I would prefer to see some actual data that supports Zakaria's assertion. But perhaps I am being too STEMy.
There is a lot of room to improve STEM education. We have to make sure that we strive to focus on the essence of STEM which is critical thinking and creativity. We should also make a stronger effort to integrate arts and humanities into STEM education. In the same vein, it would be good to incorporate more STEM education into liberal arts education in order to combat scientific illiteracy. Instead of invoking "Two Cultures" scenarios and creating straw man arguments, educators of all fields need to collaborate in order to improve the overall quality of education.
Gregory Holm, Matthew Radune. Ice House, Detroit. 2010.