Monday, May 23, 2016
Kind Of Like A Metaphor
"I got my own pure little bangtail mind and
the confines of its binding please me yet."
~ Neal Cassady, letter to Jack Kerouac
One of the curious phenomena that computing in general, and artificial intelligence in particular, has emphasized is our inevitable commitment to metaphor as a way of understanding the world. Actually, it is even more ingrained than that: one could argue that metaphor, quite literally, is our way of being in the world. A mountain may or may not be a mountain before we name it - it may not even be a mountain until we name it (for example, at what point, either temporally or spatially, does it become, or cease to be, a mountain?). But it will inhabit its ‘mountain-ness' whether or not we choose to name it as such. The same goes for microbes, or the mating dance of a bird of paradise. In this sense, the material world existed, in some way or other, prior to our linguistic entrance, and these same things will continue to exist following our exit.
But what of the things that we make? Wouldn't these things somehow be more amenable to a more purely literal description? After all, we made them, so we should be able to say exactly what these things are or do, without having to resort to some external referents. Except we can't. And even more troubling (perhaps) is the fact that the more complex and representative these systems become, the more irrevocably entangled in metaphor do we find ourselves.
In a recent Aeon essay, Robert Epstein briefly guides us through a history of metaphors for how our brains allegedly work. The various models are rather diverse, ranging from hydraulics to mechanics to electricity to "information processing", whatever that is. However, there is a common theme, which I'll state with nearly the force and certainty of a theorem: the brain is really complicated, so take the most complicated thing that we can imagine, whether it is a product of our own ingenuity or not, and make that the model by which we explain the brain. For Epstein - and he is merely recording a fact here - this is why we have been laboring under the metaphor of brain-as-a-computer for the past half-century.
But there is a difference between using a metaphor as a shorthand description, and its broader, more pervasive use as a guide for understanding and action. In a 2013 talk, Hamid Ekbia of Indiana University gives the example of the term ‘fatigue' used in relation to materials. Strictly speaking, ‘fatigue' is "the weakening of a material caused by repeatedly applied loads. It is the progressive and localised structural damage that occurs when a material is subjected to cyclic loading." (I generally don't like linking to Wikipedia but in this instance the banality of the choice serves to underline the point). Now, for materials scientists and structural engineers, the term is an explicit, well-bounded shorthand. One doesn't have pity for the material in question; perhaps a poet would describe an old bridge's girders as ‘weary' but to an engineer those girders are either fatigued, or they are not. Once they are fatigued, no amount of beauty rest will assist them in recuperating their former, sturdy (let alone ‘well-rested' or ‘healthy') state.
The term ‘fatigue' is furtherly instructive because it illustrates the process by which metaphor spills out into the world. If a group of engineers are having a discussion around an instance of ‘fatigue' their use of the term in conversation is precise and understood. This is a consequence of the consistency of their training just as much as it's relevance to the physical phenomenon. After all, it's easier to say "the material is fatigued" than "the material has been weakened by the repeated application of loads, etc." But the integrity of a one-to-one relationship between a word and its explanation comes under pressure (so to speak) when this same group of experts presents its findings to a group of non-experts, such as politicians or citizens. Of course, taken by itself, the transition of a phrase such as ‘fatigue' does not have overly dramatic implications. What it does do, however, is invite the dissemination of other, adjacent metaphors into the conversation. Soon enough ‘fatigue', however rigorously defined, accumulates into declarations of the ‘exhausted' state of our nation's ‘ailing' infrastructure. There are no technical equivalents to these terms, which call us to action by insinuating that objects like roads and tunnels may be feeling pain, whereas at best we are the recipients of said suffering.
Intriguingly, the complexity of this semiotic opportunism ramps up quickly and considerably. Roads and bridges may be things that we have built, but they still exist in the world, and will continue to exist whether we fix them or not. They may remind us of our success or inadequacy, but their intended purpose is almost never unclear. On the other hand, there are other things that we have built, things that exist in a much more precarious sense - it may even be a stretch to call them objects - and whose success qua objects is also much more variable. This is where we find computation, software and artificial intelligence.
The purpose of computation, broadly speaking, is to perform an action - some kind of service, or analysis, that may or may not be regular (in the sense that it can be anticipated) and is rarely, if ever, regulated. In the world of infrastructure, you either make it across the bridge or you don't, and there are regulations meant to ensure a positive outcome. As Yoda advises, "Do or do not. There is no try." But computation is different. I am not talking about something linear, like programming a computer to add two numbers. With a search engine, for example, you may find the information or not; or what you find may be good enough, or you may think it's good enough but it's really not, and you'll never know. The service, or rather the experience of the service, becomes the object; the code, which is perhaps the true object, is obscured from your view. And we tend to be poor at processing this kind of ambiguity, and when faced with ambiguity we reach for metaphor as a sense-making bulwark against the messiness of the unknown.
As we expect more of our computing technologies, the ensuing purposes also shift temporally. Our software models the world around us, and the way in which we inhabit the world. As such, its utility is displaced into the future: we value it for its predictive nature. We want it to anticipate not simply what we need right now (let alone what we needed yesterday) but what we might want tomorrow, or six months from now. At this point we find ourselves squarely in a place of mind. That is, we expect our inventions to become extensions of ourselves, because we cannot seem to make the leap that something non-human can have any chance of assisting us at being better humans. Software (and specifically AI) is singularly pure in this regard, although traces already exist in previous technologies. So while we don't worry about making our bridges anything more than functional and, somewhat secondarily, aesthetically pleasing, we tend to additionally attribute human-like traits to ships, perhaps because we perceive our lives as much more committed to the latter's successful functioning. But while we may ascribe personality to ships, we go a step further and come to expect intelligence of the software that we make: witness the proliferation of chatbots and personal assistants, to the point that we can now consult articles about why chatbot etiquette may be important.
In the meantime, these technologies themselves are being generated via metaphor. After all, these are exceedingly complex pieces of software, designed, implemented and refined by hundreds of software engineers and other staff. It is inevitable that there should be philosophies that guide these efforts. According to Ekbia, every one of the ‘approaches' is fundamentally metaphorical in nature. That is, if you decide you're going to write software that will appear intelligent to its users, you have to put a stake in the ground as to what intelligence is, or at least how it is come by. And since we haven't really figured out how intelligence arises within ourselves to begin with, we wind up with a series of investments in a mutually exclusive array of metaphors.
Is intelligence symbolic, and therefore symbolically computable? People like Stephen Wolfram would say yes. Or perhaps intelligence arises if you have enough facts and ways to relate those facts; in which case Cyc and other expert systems are your ticket. Another approach to modeling intelligence has been getting the most press lately: the idea of reinforcement learning of neural networks. (Of course, this last one models how neurons work together within our own brains, so it is a double metaphor.)
The point is that all of these ‘approaches' are metaphorical in substance. We still have not been able to resolve the mind-body problem, or how consciousness somehow arises from the mass of neurons that are discrete, physical entities beholden to well-documented laws of nature. And even though lots of theories of mind have been disproven, the fact that we cannot agree on the nature of intelligence for ourselves implies that any idea of what a constructed intelligence may be is, by definition, a metaphor for something else. Science can avail itself of the luxury of not-knowing, of being able to say, "We are fairly certain that we know this much but no more, and these theories may or may not help us to push farther, but they also may fall apart and we'll have to start over". Technology, on the other hand, must deliver a solution - something that works from end to end. In the case of AI, where models must be robust, predictive and productive, the designers of a constructed intelligence cannot say, "Well, we know this much and the rest happens without us understanding it." Your respect for the truth results in no product, and a lot of angry investors. So metaphor in this sense is not a philosophical luxury, it's how you're able to ship any code at all.
Where things get really interesting in this kind of a world is when the metaphors start getting good at producing results. So now we find ourselves in a very weird situation. There are competing metaphors out there in the computational wild: symbolic, expert, neural network systems, as well as others. Increasingly, hybrid systems are also appearing. What if some or even all of these approaches succeed in functioning 'intelligently'? I have to put the word in quotes here, because it's pretty clear that, without a mutually agreed-upon anchoring definition, we have ventured into some very murky waters. These waters are made all the more turbulent because technology's need to solve problems for us (or perhaps to also create them) will continue to push what we consider as viably or usefully 'intelligent'.
The fact is that no AI outfit or its investors will sit around waiting for the scientific community to settle on a model for cognition and then proceed to build products consistent with that model. The truth is nice, but there are (market) demands that need to be met now. If science can supply industry with signposts on how to build better technology, great. At the same time, if the product solves the clients' or users' problems then who cares if it's really intelligent or not? Recall the old adage: Nothing succeeds like success. The tricky bit is that, with enough such success, our very definition of what is intelligent may be on the verge of shifting. Next month I'll look at the implications of living in a world awash in these kinds of feedback loops.
S. Abbas Raza. Untitled, 2016.
ZOONOTIC TALES: LIVING WITH ROACHES
by Genese Sodikoff
There is the nightmare of fecundity and the nightmare of the multitude. There is the nightmare of uncontrolled bodies and the nightmare of inside our bodies and all over our bodies. There is the nightmare of unguarded orifices and the nightmare of vulnerable places. There is the nightmare of foreign bodies in our bloodstream and the nightmare of foreign bodies in our ears and our eyes and under the surface of our skin.
—Hugh Raffles, Insectopedia
I am writing anthropological stories of zoonosis, disease that spills over from animals to humans and then potentially spreads person-to-person. A zoonosis may erupt into an alarming epidemic (Ebola, HIV/AIDS), or may idle in a reservoir host as an ever-present threat (rabies, Lyme disease, hantavirus). Insects often vector these diseases by sucking up the tainted blood of an animal and injecting it into human skin. Zoonosis can encompass parasitic infections too, such as when larvae afloat in the drinking water or nestled in the litter box penetrate our bodies and mature into worms that make us sick. By some definitions, zoonosis and vector-borne diseases are distinct categories, even though viruses and bacteria introduced by insects into human populations may have originally been lifted from an animal.
Beyond the role of vector, there's another kind of insect that acts more as a disease server. It wears pathogens like foundation, coated with bacteria, viruses, fungi, and larval cysts, as it goes about its business. Chief among these is the cockroach, whose glossy cuticle teams with unwholesome microbes. Since the cockroach does not convey pathogens from vertebrate animals to humans, it does not transmit zoonotic disease, properly understood. Instead it traffics pathogens that are just out there, free floating in the dwellings and detritus of humanity, and deposits them on our food and our wounds. Cockroaches are responsible for introducing Staphylococcus into hospitals and spreading antibiotic resistance bacteria. They sprinkle kitchen counters and cabinets with Salmonella, Shigella, and E. coli. They truck Hepatitis A from sewers into homes. If that isn't enough, their odiferous droppings and sloughed-off skins trigger asthma attacks. The list goes on.
Several centuries ago, the ancient insect order, Blattodea, embedded itself in our history as we began voyaging overseas. Periplaneta ("around the planet") is the genus to which several pest species belong. Drawn to our dwellings and slop, cockroaches became our shadow society: well fed, enamored of our stuff, and habituated to the dark, moist spaces we create. We, in turn, have adapted to urban life with cockroaches in various ways, none of them evolutionarily positive other than being self-defensive. By laying sticky traps and poison pellets and carrying out insecticidal spray regimes, we keep roaches at bay. Mostly we have learned to push them into the dark crevices of our consciousness as much as possible because they are legion, and they are disgusting.
Yet also fascinating, as I have been learning from my colleague and friend Jessica Ware, evolutionary entomologist at Rutgers University, Newark, who was part of the team that recently identified a new invasive species, the Japanese cockroach (Periplaneta japonica), in Manhattan. Certain roaches, says Dr. Ware, have developed cunning responses to getting stomped on. Cockroaches carry their eggs in an ootheca, a kind of "suitcase with a hinge," which some females can release from their bodies upon being smushed, leaving hundreds of larval progeny to mature on their own. When ready to hatch, the baby roaches heave a collective breath, pop open the hinge, and stream out.
Although we equate them with filth and disease, says Rutgers University-Newark doctoral student Xueyang ("Sean") Fan, cockroaches are themselves fastidious creatures, obsessively grooming their antennae—their sensory organs—by swiping them through their mouths. Another fact: if a cockroach loses its head, it can live for about a month breathing through spiracles on its body segments, finally dying from hunger and thirst.
Cockroaches (from the Spanish, cucaracha, "crazy bug") probably arrived in the Americas on slave ships, Dr. Ware tells me. The theory is that the American cockroach (Periplaneta americana) sailed the triangular trade route of slavery, embarking on ships in West Africa, and settling in the Americas and Europe by around 1625.
I have seen the old drawings of slave ships that crossed the Atlantic, of tortured African bodies crammed horizontally onto lower decks like sardines, or else sitting upright and wedged between each other's legs. These were the packing strategies slavers used to hedge their bets on how much human chattel would survive the Middle Passage. Millions died. Imagine now, in more specific detail, the captives lying there, starving, for weeks at sea on fouled floorboards shared with swarms of cockroaches that sipped any moisture from their parched mouths, nibbled their toenails as they slept, and ferried bacteria from body to body, ensuring an endless cycle of gastroenteritis ("the flux") amongst them.
Waves of immigrant cockroaches arrived in the Americas and scattered into gradually emerging cityscapes. Through time, they have established genetically distinct enclaves in buildings that are nested within ethnically subdivided cities. All these formations are constantly in flux as bodies migrate. Roaches colonize new territory whenever they crawl into a handbag or get packed up in boxes with our possessions.
Cockroaches in hospitals pose a serious problem. They circulate pathogens around stitched-up cuts and open wounds, wreaking havoc on the healing process. The pathogen load of German cockroaches extracted from US hospitals was found to carry bacteria types that cause wound infections, diarrhea, food poisoning, conjunctivitis, gas gangrene, leprosy, sepsis, typhoid, skin and organ infections, and pneumonia. The problem has worsened with the rise of antibiotic resistant bacteria, like MRSA, which do not harm cockroaches in the least but kill approximately 50,000 people per year in the US.
Urban roaches have the upper hand in our skewed symbiotic relationship. But out in the wild, cockroaches are very different creatures. Entomologists at Rutgers University, New Brunswick keep bins of cockroaches in darkened rooms of the Department's basement. Wlodek Lapkiewicz has an assortment of exotic roaches from other continents. Unlike the domestic varieties, the exotic cockroaches carry no pathogen load, living as they do in unsettled spaces: the Australian outback, South American caves, and tropical rain forests. They are "clean." Some are kept as household pets, and others make good food for other pets. A few species, like the giant burrowing cockroach of Australia, take several years to mature and reproduce (unlike the more fecund distant cousins). These can fetch prices of $100 or more per insect.
The exotics vary widely in appearance. The slight banana roach is grasshopper green. The tan "peppered roach" has speckles of dark brown. The brown Dubia roaches, popular feeders for reptiles, "don't stink," Wlodek says appreciatively. (Cockroach colonies otherwise give off a musky, fungal smell, the telltale clue that your place is infested.) The Giant cockroach, Blaberus giganteus, native to Central and South America, has a wingspan of up to 6 inches across. The black "Question Mark" roach sports gold punctuation marks on its back. The "Domino" roach's name speaks for itself. An evil jack-o-lantern grins on thorax of the "Death Head" roach. The "Halloween" roach resembles a broach, banded in gold, orange, and black. TheLucihormetica luckae glows in the dark if it eats the bioluminescent flor de coco mushroom of Brazil, making it look to predators like a toxic click beetle and to humans like a tiny, gleaming-eyed alien.
There is nothing remotely beautiful about the common American, German, and brown-banded cockroaches. Even though most of us can't identify the subspecies, we know a roach when we see it. The entomologists at Rutgers are working diligently to control urban roach populations. Chen Zha, a doctoral student working under Dr. Changlu Wang, traps live roaches in apartment units and nursing homes (restaurant owners do not, as a rule, choose to participate in these studies) and brings the live specimens back to the lab, where they are placed in bins and fed peanut butter and jelly. "They eat better than I do!" said one masked grad student as he rearranged the bin habitat with a pair of tweezers. The masks protect the scientists from inhaling an excessive amount of roach allergens. Chen traces how many roach generations it takes for insecticide-resistance to evolve and concocts the most effective chemical brews to keep them in check.
Meanwhile, on the Rutgers-Newark campus, Sean Fan, who works under Dr. Ware, sets sticky traps for his research on cockroach genetics. Sticky traps kill the roaches, but Sean only needs their DNA. The genes reveal the effects of a group's habitat, be it the lunchroom of a university office or a nearby store, as well as the degree of inbreeding going on. The quality of the roach's diet and the level of insecticide soaked up by the living space are reflected in the genes, as is the pathogen load the insect carries. Sean sorts roach genes from bacteria after pulling off the roach's leg and submerging in a solution that makes the cells explode. "The DNA flows of the open end of the leg (which used to be attached to the body) and into the solution," Dr. Ware explains. Good pathogens can also be had on the roaches' wing surfaces and in their guts.
Although cockroaches are immune to the bacteria that sicken humans, they do suffer from other ailments, such as fungus and mites. Certain bacteria have co-evolved with roaches as "endosymbionts," living inside their body fat and colorless bloodstream and enabling roaches to sequester and store nitrogen, which they need for growth, from even the scrappiest of diets (roaches can survive on meals of feces and Styrofoam).
If urban roaches have any redemptive value for us, it lies in their resistance to superbugs. The rise in multidrug-resistant bacterial strains challenges scientists to ferret out new sources of antibiotics in nature, which, unlike synthetic drugs, have nuanced properties that make them more effective. Where better to look than at insects crawling around the pathogenic stew of hospital surfaces? A few years ago, scientists discovered antimicrobial activity in cockroach brain tissue, which explains their resilience to unsavory environments. The cockroach brain contains a rich vein of antibiotics. We just need to figure out how to mine it.
This is life in the late Anthropocene, the age of human dominance on the planet, an age of blighted landscapes, warming temperatures, mass extinction, overcrowded cities, zoonotic pandemics, superbugs, nuclear fallout, and mind-boggling advances in biotechnology. The irony, that a creature that flourishes in our waste and toxic residues, one that has come to symbolize life in a post-apocalyptic, peopleless landscape—the Cockroach, the Survivor—may well prolong our lives a while longer.
Johnny B.A.N.G. Reilly, Being Free
by Olivia Zhu
When I first get to meet Johnny B.A.N.G. Reilly, he looks tired. Really tired, leaning back away from his computer screen with most of his head cocooned tight in a sweatshirt hood. The light is wan, his hood is grey, and his famous voice is at first raspy and subdued. As quiet as he is, though, Reilly speaks in punctuated, verse-like phrases. His responses to my questions seem to arrive as fully formed from his head as do the spoken word, “visual” poems he has become known for.
Chief among these is “Dear Brother,” a spec ad for Johnnie Walker created by two students, Daniel Titz and Dorian Lebherz. Since the video was uploaded half a year ago, it has amassed over four million views and plenty of praise—including some for the haunting poem and voiceover by Reilly.
“Dear Brother” was, in fact, how I learned about Reilly in the first place. He somehow has the ability to sound joyous and heartbroken in the same breath, with words timed so they roll out perfectly at the last possible second to still sound melodic. That perfect rhythm might be attributed to his time as a street dancer, or as a mixed martial artist. Yet “my rhythm comes from what’s actually beating in my chest,” says Reilly. After suffering a heart attack due to a former drug habit, he experienced irregular heartbeats that sped up and slowed down, informing the cadence of his poems. He rushes and pauses and sometimes drops single syllables, leaving them to float amidst longer phrases.
The timing, the gravel-in-the-sun voice—they make Reilly’s work distinct. However, the YouTube video makes it clear the filmmakers who created “Dear Brother” credit themselves, along with Reilly, for the creation of the poem. In the comments, they note that “It was written by voice actor John “Bang” Reilly in collaboration with us.” Reilly disagrees.
He says that the attention he’s received from “Dear Brother” is entirely due to another work he created almost a year before called “Nostalgia,” in collaboration with filmmaker Judith Veenendaal. On her Vimeo page, she calls it a “visual poem,” perhaps because of how she had mapped images to the meaning and pattern of Reilly’s words. According to Reilly, Titz and Lebherz “ripped it [“Nostalgia”] off completely. The music is the same. They used me. And at the end of it, they used the word ‘free.’” He seems more frustrated over the fact Veenendaal had not received any sort of credit for her work than Titz and Lebherz’s assertion that they helped in the writing of the poem. Reilly says to write it, he had to imagine carrying his own brother’s ashes—making the claim on his work all the more hurtful.
When comparing “Nostalgia” and “Dear Brother,” it seems clear that the former inspired the latter. “Nostalgia” opens with a set of lines read calmly, though they are replete with remembered pain (note that all the following emphasis mine):
“I have vivid memories from my youth
Horrible beatings for my truth
Hurts me and molds me
No one holds me my soul screams free. Free.”
In what seems like a clear parallel, “Dear Brother” begins as follows:
“Walking the roads of our youth
through the land of our childhood, our home and our truth
Be near me, guide me
always stay beside me so I can be free, free.”
I’ve just bolded the repeated words, but take note, too, of the similar structure. Reilly is a frequent internal rhymer, a nod to his long-time experience with rap and street dance, and the reading of his lines alternate fast and slow. Moreover, the repetition of “free” in both pieces here is broken by a caesura, the long pause somehow conveying the poet’s questioning of what it might mean to be free.
Another point of similarity between the pieces has to do with the presence of two personas in each. In “Nostalgia,” there is an old poet and a young, childish poet, who tells his older self “I empty me to light you” and later, “I run away to run to me.” To Reilly, his younger self was preoccupied with seeming violent and becoming physically stronger. Now, he’s “concentrating on the other parts,” focusing on better expressing his soul, emptying his violent past to run toward his poetic work.
In “Dear Brother,” the personas are more obvious—perhaps due to the constraint of the film’s plot. The first half is spoken by the brother still alive, asking his sibling to stay near him and reminiscing on their adventures. In the latter half of the poem, though, the view shifts. Now the speaking brother comforts the other, saying
“if your heart’s full of sorrow, keep walking, don’t rest
and promise me from heart to chest
to never let your memories die, never.
I will always be alive and by your side
in your mind.”
All of this together would seem to indicate that, yes, Titz and Lebherz were heavily inspired by “Nostalgia”—possibly so much so they directed Reilly to repeat the motifs and structures of his previous work. Does that mean they collaborated with Reilly on the poem itself? Perhaps, depending on your definition of collaboration. Does it mean they wrote the poem? An affirmative answer there seems somewhat less likely. (Titz and Lebherz did not respond to a request for an interview).
Again, both poems end with the phrase “I’m free.” To Reilly, that means being “free from one-dimensional expression. I want to be three-dimensional, all aspects.” He means it in the sense that—as a former homeless man, ex-addict, and current heavily tattooed fighter—he looks “brutal,” but wants to move past that image, expressing “love and gentle emotions.” His collaborator over the past few years, Benjamin Hounam agrees: “now his whole thing is love, that’s what he’s on. He’s kind of evolved.”
Part of that evolution involves expressing in words what others cannot. Reilly seems to want to be a kind of medicine man, offering poems and voice recordings of them to people trying to make peace with their loved ones. He says his “ultimate dream” is to do voiceovers for other people, not just large corporations, especially since he feels he has always been able to write love, in any circumstance. Says Reilly, “No matter what situation I was in—whether I was homeless, whether I was addicted—when I was addicted to drugs, I still wrote love songs.”
Maybe that is why his partnership with Hounam has been so fruitful. Hounam, who has about half of Reilly’s 52 years, told me “words have never really been my thing.” Filmmaking, however, is. His collaboration with Reilly seems to have made them both prolific and—more than that—extremely proficient at the kind of “visual poems” that have made Reilly popular. In them, the poet fights. He dances. He stares, and he raps. And most of all, he recites. His process is a bit of an odd one: “I write a poem about a particular subject, and I may make a piece of film to that subject, but I never put that poem to that film. I just use it as a template. And then, in a month, I find another poem and put it on that film, and it just seems to work, like the subliminal is working with the unconscious.” However the works are made, they seem to achieve what Hounam says is their aim “to make everyday life epic.”
When critic Dana Gioia asked if poetry could matter, he wondered why poetry mixed so infrequently with other art forms. In fact, he implied that poetry’s “diminished stature” might be in part due to its self-isolation from other mediums. Reilly and Hounam could be reversing that trend. Reilly talks about other artists with enthusiasm, marveling at b-boys, fast rappers, inventive beat creators. He riffs on their work and seems hungry for new challenges, a philosophy taken from his time in the ring. When fighters are to be taught something new, Reilly says “your response is osu, ‘I’m going to do it.’ You dive in, and I love that. I think the way I’ve been living all my life is like osu.” That eagerness bears out in his collaboration with Hounam, also labeled OSU, which runs the gamut of moods and types of content.
The pairing of poetry and film might be what helps re-awaken popular interest in poetry. After all, Hounam found Reilly on the Internet, too, after following “random bits of poetry, or him fighting” posted online. After that, the younger man reached out, feeling compelled to partner with the poet. I think Reilly inspires that desire to connect in a lot more people, too. The success of “Dear Brother” seems a testament to his ability to reach others—and Reilly has already harnessed technology and his poetry to start talking about the topics he cares about: socioeconomic injustice, racism and prejudice, healthy living, and—above all—love.
By the end of our conversation, I realize he seems calm, not tired. Sometimes he’ll turn his head to talk to his daughter, showing off his facial tattoos—the ones that he says make him look more of a brute—in profile. When he smiles at his child, though, the curved tattoos seem to smile too. Reilly says that “now osu means to do something that I don’t do too often, which is to only express love.” From what I can tell, he’s doing it already.
Should Biologists be Guided by Beauty
by Jalees Rehman
Lingulodinium polyedrum is a unicellular marine organism which belongs to the dinoflagellate group of algae. Its genome is among the largest found in any species on this planet, estimated to contain around 165 billion DNA base pairs – roughly fifty times larger than the size of the human genome. Encased in magnificent polyhedral shells, these bioluminescent algae became important organisms to study biological rhythms. Each Lingulodinium polyedrum cell contains not one but at least two internal clocks which keep track of time by oscillating at a frequency of approximately 24 hours. Algae maintained in continuous light for weeks continue to emit a bluish-green glow at what they perceive as night-time and swim up to the water surface during day-time hours – despite the absence of any external time cues. When I began studying how nutrients affect the circadian rhythms of these algae as a student at the University of Munich, I marveled at the intricacy and beauty of these complex time-keeping mechanisms that had evolved over hundreds of millions of years.
Over the course of a quarter of a century, I have worked in a variety of biological fields, from these initial experiments in marine algae to how stem cells help build human blood vessels and how mitochondria in a cell fragment and reconnect as cells divide. Each project required its own set of research methods and techniques, each project came with its own failures and successes. But with each project, my sense of awe for the beauty of nature has grown. Evolution has bestowed this planet with such an amazing diversity of life-forms and biological mechanisms, allowing organisms to cope with the unique challenges that they face in their respective habitats. But it is only recently that I have become aware of the fact that my sense of biological beauty was a post hoc phenomenon: Beauty was what I perceived after reviewing the experimental findings; I was not guided by a quest for beauty while designing experiments. In fact, I would have been worried that such an approach might bias the design and interpretation of experiments. Might a desire for seeing Beauty in cell biology lead one to consciously or subconsciously discard results that might seem too messy?
I was prompted to revisit the role of Beauty in biology while reading a masterpiece of scientific writing, "Dreams of a Final Theory" by the Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg in which he describes how the search for Beauty has guided him and many fellow theoretical physicists to search for an ultimate theory of the fundamental forces of nature. Weinberg explains that it is quite difficult to precisely define what constitutes Beauty in physics but a physicist would nevertheless recognize it when she sees it.
One such key characteristic of a beautiful scientific theory is the simplicity of the underlying concepts. According to Weinberg, Einstein's theory of gravitation is described in fourteen equations whereas Newton's theory can be expressed in three. Despite the appearance of greater complexity in Einstein's theory, Weinberg finds it more beautiful than Newton's theory because the Einsteinian approach rests on one elegant central principle – the equivalence of gravitation and inertia. Weinberg's second characteristic for beautiful scientific theories is their inevitability. Every major aspect of the theory seems so perfect that it cannot be tweaked or improved on. Any attempt to significantly modify Einstein's theory of general relativity would lead to undermining its fundamental concepts, just like any attempts to move around parts of Raphael's Holy Family would weaken the whole painting.
Can similar principles be applied to biology? I realized that when I give examples of beauty in biology, I focus on the complexity and diversity of life, not its simplicity or inevitability. Perhaps this is due to the fact that Weinberg was describing the search of fundamental laws of physics, laws which would explain the basis of all matter and energy – our universe. As cell biologists, we work several orders of magnitude removed from these fundamental laws. Our building blocks are organic molecules such as proteins and sugars. We find little evidence of inevitability in the molecular pathways we study – cells have an extraordinary ability to adapt. Mutations in genes or derangement in molecular signaling can often be compensated by alternate cellular pathways.
This also points to a fundamental difference in our approaches to the world. Physicists searching for the fundamental laws of nature balance the development of fundamental theories whereas biology in its current form has primarily become an experimental discipline. The latest technological developments in DNA and RNA sequencing, genome editing, optogenetics and high resolution imaging are allowing us to amass unimaginable quantities of experimental data. In fact, the development of technologies often drives the design of experiments. The availability of a genetically engineered mouse model that allows us to track the fate of individual cells that express fluorescent proteins, for example, will give rise to numerous experiments to study cell fate in various disease models and organs. Much of the current biomedical research funding focuses on studying organisms that provide technical convenience such as genetically engineered mice or fulfill a societal goal such as curing human disease.
Uncovering fundamental concepts in biology requires comparative studies across biology and substantial investments in research involving a plethora of other species. In 1990, the National Institutes of Health (NIH – the primary government funding source for biomedical research in the United States) designated a handful of species as model organisms to study human disease, including mice, rats, zebrafish and fruit flies. A recent analysis of the species studied in scientific publications showed that in 1960, roughly half the papers studied what would subsequently be classified as model organisms whereas the other half of papers studied additional species. By 2010, over 80% of the scientific papers were now being published on model organisms and only 20% were devoted to other species, thus marking a significant dwindling of broader research goals in biology. More importantly, even among the model organisms, there has been a clear culling of research priorities with a disproportionately large growth in funding and publications for studies using mice. Thousands of scientific papers are published every month on the cell signaling pathways and molecular biology in mouse and human cells whereas only a minuscule fraction of research resources are devoted to studying signaling pathways in algae.
The question of whether or not biologists should be guided by conceptual Beauty leads us to the even more pressing question of whether we need to broaden biological research. If we want to mirror the dizzying success of fundamental physics during the past century and similarly advance fundamental biology, then we need substantially step-up investments in fundamental biological research that is not constrained by medical goals.
Dietrich, M. R., Ankeny, R. A., & Chen, P. M. (2014). Publication trends in model organism research. Genetics, 198(3), 787-794.
Weinberg, S. (1992). Dreams of a final theory. Vintage. (2014).
The Past of Islamic Civilization
by Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad
“Those who control the present, control the past and those who control the past control the future.”
― George Orwell, 1984
These days every other person seems to be concerned about the future of Islamic Civilization. From the Islamists, the traditionalists, the Liberals, the Conservatives etc. almost everyone seems to have a stake in the future of Islam. While these different groups may have different vision of the future they do have one thing in common – they almost always define the future in terms of the past: From the Salafis harkening back to a supposed era of purity, to the academics yearning for the Golden Age of Islam and to the more recent Ottoman nostalgia in Turkey and the wider Middle East. The study of history becomes paramount in such an encounter since a distorted view of the past can become a potentially unrealizable view of the future.
As any historian will tell us each group reads history in terms of its own aspirations and agenda. For the Muslims world in general the nostalgia for the past usually seems to be heavy on reviving the glories of the past. The danger here being that one may start living in a non-existent romanticized past and be condemned to repeat the mistakes of the past. In the West every other political pundit seems to be calling for an Islamic Reformation even though parallel religious structures do not exist in Islam. What do these visions of the future-past look like and what can be learned from these?
For the majority of Muslims, it is the time of the Prophet that represents an idealized society. However many of them implicitly also realize that by its own constitution that era cannot be replicated precisely because of the Muslim belief that the Prophet cannot come back and there will not be another prophet – a perfect society needs a perfect man. The era after that which is most revered by (Sunni) Muslims is the era of the Righteously Guided Caliphs. What most folks fail to realize that that era was revered in classical Islam not because of it was a time of peace and prosperity but because of its proximity to the time of the Prophet. On one hand it was a time of great expansion where the foundations of Islamic governance were also laid down. On the other hand it was also a time of civil wars when there was a great deal of intra-Muslim bloodshed. To anyone who wants to revive that era, one must caution that it is also the time when the Khawarij, the intellectual ancestors of groups like ISIS first arose. One must be careful in what one wishes for.
Then there is the Golden age of Islamic civilization centered on Baghdad, Cordoba and Samarkand. While the Islamists tout the greatness of this era what gets shoved under the rugs is that many of the rulers of this era were less than exemplary when it comes to their orthodoxy. Another fact that many people fail to recognize is that even during the Golden Age the majority of the subjects of the Islamic empire were non-Muslims including an appreciable percentage of scientists and philosophers who were instrumental for the rise of Islamic civilization. Science and technology back then as it is now is an international collaboratory enterprise. The last point is especially relevant to our day and age since the exclusion of non-Muslims in the national narratives in the Muslim world has unfortunately become the norm. Outside of small academic circles most people, Muslims or non-Muslims, are unaware of the fact that what came to be identified with the Islamic systems of governance was heavily borrowed from the Sassanids. The millet system of the Ottomans was inspired by a similar system that the Rightly Guided Caliphs has enacted which in turn was invented by the Sassanids. When the rulers of Vijaynagar in South India were copying the style of Muslim palaces they were actually copying the plans that Muslims had acquired from Sassanids. The greatest irony here being that while some modern day non-Muslim Iranians blame Muslims for destroying their culture, it was actually the Islamic culture that led to the widespread dissemination of the Iranian culture but under the Islamic garb.
The lesson being that he early Muslims had to deal with many practical considerations of ruling a multi-ethnic multi-religious Empire and inspiration had to be taken from anywhere and everywhere. Even the aesthetics that came to be identified as quintessentially Islamic had roots in earlier civilizations. The archetypical image of how a mosque should look like is heavily borrowed from Eastern Orthodox Churches that the Muslims first encountered in their conquests of Syria and the Levant. These observations do not make these developments less Islamic but rather it shows the openness of the Islamic culture of a bygone era. The translation of Greeks works did not start in the time of Abbasids as in the popular imagination but rather it had already started in the second generation from the time of the Prophet. Khalid bin Yazid, an ummawid prince and a scientist himself was instrumental in sponsoring the translation project in Alexandria less than 50 years after the time of the Prophet.
Then there is Al-Andalus or Muslim Spain has been romanticized by people as diverse as Tariq Ali, Osama bin Laden, head of States etc. It is supposed to represent a time when Jews, Muslims and Christians lived side by side in an era of supposed harmony. While one may disagree with the details of convicencia how it came to an end is where a great deal of disconnect lies in the minds of the Muslim masses. It was not just the advancing armies of Aragon and Castilia that doomed the culture of tolerance but the Almohad were equally intolerant towards the culture of coexistence. It is easier to kill a culture if it already has a self-inflicted wound. The last great flowering of the Islamic civilization was of course the Ottoman Empire. It is also arguably the most successful Muslim empire in history. The empire that now stands as the emblem of the Caliphate only took up that mantle in its declining years. The Ottoman conquest of Constantinople was followed by more than a century of Romanphilia. In fact Mehmet the Conqueror wanted to conquer Rome itself to “reunify” the Roman Empire. The Ottoman Sultans styled themselves as the Emperors of the Romans till the very end of the empire. People in the Balkans focus on the ethnic conflict in the dying days of the empire but fail to mention the 5 centuries of coexistence prior to that. Thus the question of brining back the Ottomans is more appropriately phrased as which incarnation of the Ottoman Empire as it greatly changed over the course of seven centuries. The dichotomies of Christian vs. Muslim disappear even more when one realizes that the majority of the Ottoman army at the siege of Vienna in 1683 may actually have been made up of Christians. Can we really imagine such a scenario three hundred years after the fact?
If the Abbasids represented the Golden Age of Islam then perhaps the rise of Ottomans, Mughals, Safavids, the Mali Empire, the Indian Ocean trade networks and the spread of Islam in South East Asia should be termed as the Silver Age of Islam. There may be many more things that we can learn from the less glamorous and the seemingly peripheral parts of Islamic history: The question of Islamic law and how Muslims should live as minorities in a non-Muslim state has come to the fore in the West recently. Even some of the learned ulemas act as if this is an unprecedented situation and as if this has not happened before. Islam has been in China for longer than most Muslim majority places in the world. Chinese Muslims have a long history of integrating with and long conversing with a foreign civilization. Chinese Muslims arts, culture, language and even philosophy has much to teach the rest of the Muslim world if only they are willing to listen. Al-Andalus was not the only region of Europe that was occupied by Arabs and Berbers and brought advanced civilization there. Sicily was the Andalus that disappeared early on. What is however missing from discussions of Sicily is that Muslims did continue to flourish in Sicily for 150 years even after the fall of Islamic rule there mainly because of the somewhat enlightened rule of the Normans in Sicily. The most well known of these Christian rules was Roger II, after whom the most famous book of Islamic geography is named Kitab ul Rigel (The Book of Roger), by the celebrated geographer Muhammad Al-Idrisi. Even after the persecutions started it was not until 1336 that the last group on Muslims in Italy were forced to convert.
My point here is not to argue that one must not look at the past for inspiration but as with most things in life the good comes with bad. It could be that none of the examples that I have outlined previously are that relevant to the present predicament of the Muslim world. Pick up almost any history text on Islamic history especially in Arabic, Persian or Urdu it reads more like a series of events than a meaningful analysis of history. Thus missing from the narrative of the Islamic world is the impact of the Black Plague in the historical imagination of the Muslim world even though which is equally devastating in the Middle East as it was in Europe or how the disruption of the Indian Ocean trade network by the Portuguese was instrumental in the long term economic decline of the Muslim world.
Perhaps the answer may lie in something else entirely – alternate history. By forcing Muslims to think about what could have been they may also start thinking about what could be in a more nuanced manner. There will of course be people who might object and say that why dwell in the past in any form whether positive or negative. It is however impossible to escape history, the kind of people that we want to become is usually a function of how we imagine how we got to be what we are. Historians may argue that all national, ethnic and even religious histories have an element of useful fiction and objectivity is relative at best. Even if we take this view we still have to answer the question, what kind of fiction do we choose for ourselves. We are who we are by the virtue of stories that we tell about ourselves. Make sense of history thus becomes paramount in moments of civilizational crisis. This is of course not to discount that there are indeed more urgent problems in the world like the Syrian Refugee crisis or the Climate Change but with a group of people that constitute around a forth of humanity there are enough people to have interesting and valuable thoughts to any subject under the Sun and perhaps even beyond.
Monday, May 16, 2016
Perceptions: Art in Nature
"Acorn woodpeckers drill into trees not in order to find acorns, but in order to make holes in which they can store acorns for later use, especially during the winter.
As the acorn dries out, it decreases in size, and the woodpecker moves it to a smaller hole. The birds spend an awful lot of time tending to their granaries in this way, transferring acorns from hole to hole as if engaged in some complicated game of solitaire.
Multiple acorn woodpeckers work together to maintain a single granary, which may be located in a man-made structure – a fence or a wooden building – as well as in a tree trunk. And whereas most woodpecker species are monogamous, acorn woodpeckers take a communal approach to family life. In the bird world, this is called cooperative breeding. Acorn woodpeckers live in groups of up to seven breeding males and three breeding females, plus as many as ten non-breeding helpers. Helpers are young birds who stick around to help their parents raise future broods; only about five per cent of bird species operate in this way."
Narrative History or Non-Fiction Historical Novel?
by Aasem Bakhshi
Why does an apple fall when it is ripe? Is it brought down by the force of gravity? Is it because its stalk withers? Because it is dried by the sun, because it grows too heavy, or the wind shakes it, or because the boy standing under the tree wants to eat it? ‘None of these is the cause. They only make up the combination of conditions under which every living process of organic nature fulfills itself. In the same way the historian who declares that Napoleon went to Moscow because he wanted to, and perished because Alexander desired his destruction, will be just as right and wrong as the man who says that a mass weighing thousands of tons, tottering and undetermined, fell in consequence of the last blow of the pickaxe wielded by the last navy. In historical events great men - so-called - are but labels serving to give a name to the event, and like labels they have the least possible connection with the event itself. Every action of theirs, that seems to them an act of their own free-will, is in the historical sense not free at all but is bound up with the whole course of history and preordained from all eternity.
―Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace
Wouldn't you visualize Livia Drusila ― the wife of Roman emperor Augustus ― as a cunning and venomous political mastermind if your sole introduction to ancient Roman history is Robert Graves' engrossing autobiographical tale of emperor Claudius? Haven't you always visualized the last Roman emperor of Julio-Claudian dynasty, the infamous Nero, playing fiddle while Rome was burning in 64 AD? Can anyone have a more predominant image of Abu Sufyan's wife Hind Bint Utbah than the one represented by Irene Papas through her revengeful eyes and blood-dripping lips in the film The Message (1976) when she was shown chewing the liver of Prophet Muhammad's uncle Hamza after the Battle of Uhud?
These are all overpowering images, sustained over time, and hard to erase from the slate of our memories. It doesn't matter much if we argue, for instance, that it was not Hind but the black slave Wahshi who actually gouged out Hamza's liver according to a traditional Muslim historian Ibn Kathir's narrative or else that the earliest recording of the incident by the historian Ibn Ishaq is a dubious attribution because of broken chains of narration. Similarly, does it matter that fiddles were non-existent in first-century Rome and it is probably an anciently preserved metaphor, as Nero was famous for his love of extraordinary indulgence in music and play? It would not transform these images the least if we juxtapose the contradicting accounts of Suetonius, Cassius and Tacitus and present evidence that Nero even returned immediately from Antium and organized a great relief effort from his own funds, even opening his palaces for the survivors. And it is pretty much futile to argue ― after BBC popularized Graves' autobiographical account of Claudius by adapting it into a TV series ― that Livia might not be a such a thorough Machiavellian character, and in fact it was not her favorite pastime to scheme political upheavals and poison every other claimant to Roman throne.
Thus after centuries of dust settling over innumerable layers of narratives, the quest for historical certainty, for that which actually happened, is overpowered by popular images that refuse to erase themselves from collective memory.
And this, of course, is also the single most important contribution of British-American psychologist Lesley Hazleton's narrative history of Shia-Sunni split: refreshing and reinforcing some already held soppy images.
But this is not about reviewing Hazleton's reading of the perennial sectarian split at the heart of Islam per se; rather, using her as a
template to locate the increasingly blurred lines between narrative history and historical fiction. In the wake of this relatively new genre taking a sharp modern turn, where must a reader not well-rooted within the whole literary tradition of the respective historical current place his sensibility regarding authenticity of the historical truth?
That Hazleton is more interested in psychological characterization and building a juicy and well-coherent narrative, rather than objective historical analysis and criticism, is easily evident even from a cursory look through the text. Even though, the characterization and speculative psychological insights are evenly distributed all over the text, Hazleton surely has her pivotal choice of heroes and villains to build a gripping narrative. Well-meaning heroes, who are eventually destined to be gypped, and pernicious villains, who are designed to exploit. As Hazleton's publishers must have carefully put it in the title, it has to be marketed for the reader as an 'Epic Story', an epic Game of Thrones adventure intricately built around the desire for power.
Therefore, right from the beginning, the narrative essentially revolves around the struggle for accession to this proverbial throne. The opening part supplies images in which Prophet Muhammad, who according to the author, was perhaps leading a life of celibacy after the death of his most beloved wife Khadija is dying and the community is not yet ready to grapple with his evident death. In an authorial figment of imagination, all of his wives surely did try to get pregnant by him in order to bear a son and it was Ayesha who was specially haunted by her childlessness. Understandably so, as her readers naturally having modern sensibilities and this being a medieval monarchical structure, Hazleton must logically supply reader with an image where the community is fragile enough to disintegrate in the absence of an immediate political center. Hence, as they say, the stage is set in the opening part for the power play amidst usual chaos depicted in a medieval folklore,
What did he intend to happen after his death? This is the question that will haunt the whole tragic story of the Sunni-Shia split, though by its nature, it is unanswerable. In everything that was to follow, everyone claimed to have insight into what the Prophet thought and what he wanted. Yet in the lack of a clear and unequivocal designation of his successor, nobody could prove it beyond any shadow of doubt. However convinced they may have been that they were right, there were always those who would maintain otherwise. Certainty was a matter of faith rather than fact.
Subsequently, in this cheesy narrative pivoted around power struggle, Ayesha is depicted as a charming and impudent young brat who, as she gets older, essentially acquires a Livian element with a soft Machiavellian composition, which Hazleton carefully imparts as if there is enough historical truth to substantiate her psychological make-up beyond reasonable doubt.
How could a teenage girl possibly compete against the hallowed memory of a dead woman? But then who but a teenage girl would even dream of trying? Charming she must have been, and sassy she definitely was. Sometimes, though, the charm wears thin, at least to the modern ear. The stories Ayesha later told of her marriage were intended to show her influence and spiritedness, but there is often a definite edge to them, a sense of a young woman not to be crossed or denied, of someone who could all too easily switch from spirited to mean-spirited.
Throughout her narrative, this Machiavellian composition of Ayesha is carefully pitted against composed and well-balanced demeanour of Muhammad's cousin Ali, whom Hazleton portrays something closer to an Arthurian legend with Excalibur (book has a reference to Excalibur too comparing it with Ali's famous sword Al-Zulfiqar). And because it is naturally a demand of a stronger narrative, Hazleton never fails to speculate even when there is little room to supply a tinge of any imagined political conflict between Ali and other challengers of succession to Prophet Muhammad, namely Abu Bakr and Omar
The meaning was clear: in a society where to give was more honorable than to receive, the man who gave his daughter’s hand bestowed the higher honor. While Abu Bakr and Omar honored Muhammad by marrying their daughters to him, he did not return the honor but chose Ali instead.
But if there is a true Livian character in this tale, it is Muawiyah, the powerful governor of Syria whose promised reinforcements didn't arrive to avert the assassination of third caliph Othman, according to some of Hazleton's sources.
Certainly he was no one-dimensional villain, though it is true he looked the part. He had a protruding stomach, bulging eyes, and feet swollen by gout, but as though in compensation for his physical shortcomings, he was possessed of an extraordinary subtlety of mind [...] Eight centuries before Niccolò Machiavelli wrote The Prince, Muawiya was the supreme expert in the attainment and maintenance of power, a clear-eyed pragmatist who delighted in the art and science of manipulation, whether by bribery, flattery, intelligence, or exquisitely calculated deception [...] The famed image of Hind cramming Hamza’s liver into her mouth worked to his advantage. Any son of such a mother could inspire not just fear but respect, and Muawiya commanded both. Except from Ali [...] Poison has none of the heroics of battle. It works quietly and selectively, one might almost say discreetly. For Muawiya, it was the perfect weapon.
For an informed reader, therefore, authorial intention easily protrudes from the text, rather it is the subtext itself which lays bare the intent to give a chilling speculative quality to the whole story as it is told. Hence, it is usually through the subtext that we see Muawiyah and his associates, among them Amr Bin Al Aas, poisoning, deceiving and when it is necessary, battling their way to the throne. From the point of view of an impartial author who doesn't have a possible conflict of interest, Hazleton carefully chooses her sources ― her chief source being the Annals of Tabari ― and claims not to prefer less authentic ones over the stronger. However, using her authorial right to choose among various versions of the same incident, she intelligently prefers the most chilling and controversial version over the casual and discreet ones. This is the primary reason why the readers who are generally unacquainted with classical Muslim sources such as those of Tabari, Ibn Saad, Ibn Athir and Masudi etc would find Hazleton's accounts of Battles of Siffin, Jam'l and subsequent events of Karbala in Yazid's reign simply unputdownable. However, such readers must understand that the chief success of Hazleton's work lies in its ability to create an extremely readable and gripping narrative with psychological insights of a bystander looking piercingly into her historical subjects.
Moreover, if the text is read carefully, she is able to present a decent popular point of view, drawing from both sides of history as well heresiography. What she fails to make emphatically clear is that historical certainty and objectivity must not be compromised for the flair of narrative. From a sheer academic point of view, the text is absolutely unworthy of attention primarily because it doesn't live up to its promise of linking the present Shia-Sunni conflicts in contemporary Syria and Iraq to its alleged historical roots. There is a lot more to the Shia-Sunni conflict then a supposed Game of Thrones and it certainly has as much to do with the global politics during post-formative periods of Islam, not to mention another more interesting conflict between two different theological meta-narratives.
Hazleton neither has the historical insight of William Dalrymple, nor has she the profundity of Orlando Figes to produce a useful narrative-history for widely informed audience. In the absence of footnotes and textual references, it is extremely hard to trace her contentions and speculations to original sources. Furthermore, the distraught and superficially agitated nature of the narrative is generally distasteful to a serious reader, who might not be interested in an over-dramatized good vs evil story. At the most, Hazleton's account must be read as a riveting historical novel adapting real characters and actual events. Unfortunately for a serious student of history, it has nothing much to chew.
Therefore, as a reader who is certainly not a history buff but have at least this much interest to have an occasional monthly drift towards the genre, this leaves me baffled about the whole genre, and I am compelled to raise a question about the balance between imagining a narrative or creating one from the sources. Of course, latter has its downside as well since there has to be a certain degree of selective bias in choosing the particular sources to support the preconceived line of enquiry; however, a committed reader can always point that out after a little hard-work.
From a Christian point of view, a somewhat similar case in point is Reza Aslan's reconstruction of life and times of Jesus of Nazareth. One can argue that from a particular kind of revisionist Christian setting Aslan does a decent act of balancing the historical Jesus, that is of Nazareth, with the theological one that is Christ and Savior. However, from the standpoint of all the hype that it created due to generally misplaced Islamophobic critiques and the authorial defenses centered on a presumably academic unbiased historical work, shouldn't it be considered a mediocre work when placed into narrative history genre?
Let us see how. Aslan's basic idea: disentangle historical Jesus from the theological one by contending that the former was a radicalized anti-Roman zealous Jew. The claim is not alarmingly novel, at least from a Muslim standpoint, however, Aslan's work merely moves on the fringes of the arguments. In my humble opinion, its neither a rebuttal of classical orthodox Christian position and nor a critical challenge to it. To achieve any of that Aslan had to delve deep into the theology and scriptural interpretation of last 20 centuries, from which he deliberately distanced himself by calling his work a 'historical study'. However, on the chronological scale that he is working, its nearly impossible to disentangle history from theology and the work obviously suffers not recognizing that. Even a Muslim reader would struggle to grapple with Aslan's portrait of Jesus and in the end it would only prove to be a gripping read for his non-religious audience.
In a nutshell, Aslan claims to engage himself in the domain of critical history (drawing from a rich archive of secondary revisionist sources) rather than literary analysis but the grandiose claims that he makes belong as much to the latter. I do not even have an amateur reading in Biblical studies but my reader's hunch says that a Biblical scholar would accuse him of cherry-picking from selective ancient sources, such as Josephus. As far as his flat reconstructions of Jewish resistance into a formal zealotry is concerned, well, one can only leave it to a more informed reader; a more or less equally informed reader, as I am in the case of Hazleton.
Coming back to my original motivation of producing this seemingly agitated tirade against writers whom I otherwise adore, where should one position himself as a reader while accessing narrative history? More specifically, where is the exact boundary between the idealized narrative history and the nonfiction historical novel? Historians know best, but from a reader's point of view, it is probably not so much an art of failure to separate the tendency, rather impulsive proclivity, to sensationalize the reader from the will to inform him about history. Since more and more lay-historians are embracing the sensationally imaginative version of narrative form, it is perhaps time to call it a nonfiction historical story rather than proper narrative history.
Monday, May 09, 2016
The First Garden Party of the Year
by Holly A. Case
It was the first garden party of the year. In attendance were a couple dozen writers and would-be writers, a pastor, and myself. I knew no one except the host and a couple of other people, who were all knotted around each other engaged in writerly shoptalk, so I made friends with the buffet. A potato salad presented itself to my acquaintance. We got on well, but there was no place to sit. A white-haired lady was perched on the side of a chaise out on the patio, not quite taking up the whole length of it, so I asked if I might occupy the end. She nodded her approval and looked at my plate. “How’s the potato salad?” I said I thought it was fine, but would benefit from some pickles. She claimed it as her own contribution to the buffet and quickly changed the subject.
“This party could have happened forty years ago,” she began, with the authority of an eyewitness. She pointed out the clothes people were wearing, their quiet and respectful social configurations and controlled outbursts of laughter. Her finger rose to single out a girl in shorts as the sole anachronism. Whether by force of empirical evidence or persuasion, I could see she was right.
But she did not linger long on the lawns of past parties. Turning to me she asked what I did, and soon we were talking about languages. Though she reads French, she confessed to not really believing in other languages; a chat is qualitatively not a cat. Then she stretched out her foot, “This is not a pied”; the streets of Paris may perfectly well be full of chiens, but they are not full of dogs. French words were like signifiers; they stood in for meaning like a paper cut-out stands in for the real chat. A man came by at that point whom she introduced as mon mari. Seeing my expression, she was quick to reassure me that he was not a signifier, but the real thing.
He moved on. We talked about W. H. Auden and how his poems start close up, and then pull back to a great distance. “It’s funny we’re talking about this,” she said, “because I’ve been thinking all this time that the branch of that tree looks like a horned owl from here.” I looked up and saw the branch; through a squint, the blurred outlines of an owl began to emerge. “Horned you say?” I asked. “Yes, definitely a horned owl. But if you could see it up close it would be impossible to see in it anything but a branch.” Indeed.
We talked about time travel, how utterly strange it is that Ebenezer Scrooge is watching himself up close in the present in A Christmas Carol, what it means when we say “If you could just hear yourself talk!”; how, in order to be moral, you have to be estranged from yourself, but not from a great distance. She told me about her passion for Edith Nesbit, who wrote about five children going around in time. “Nesbit was a Fabian.” Then she outed herself as the child of socialists who had called her parents by their first names. They had bought a book called The Gifted Child, which she promptly found on the shelf and read. In one passage the author explained how gifted children ask questions like, “Where does the wind come from?” As she walked to the mailbox with her father one day, she asked, “Harry, where does the wind come from?” “You read that in the book, didn’t you.”
She told me about going to Radcliffe and about the room full of typists at Oxford University Press where she typed correspondence after college; about having three babies and following her late first husband to four colleges. It began to grow dark. We moved from the chaise into the house and I lost track of her in the churn of other guests. Not knowing quite what to do, I remembered the potato salad and fell back to the buffet.
A few minutes later she made a surprising dash in my direction. “Come and see this!” she said, and led me by the sleeve to the washroom. “Look,” she pointed through the open door. “There’s another door!” On the adjacent wall there was indeed a door very like the one we were peering through. “I mistook this door for that one and opened it. Go in and see for yourself.” I went in, tried to disorient myself as one often does in another person’s house, and dutifully chose the wrong door. It opened onto a darkened room packed with shelves, a washer and dryer, stacks of toys and other exiles, faintly outlined by the dusk falling outside. The room was large, but felt tight and pushy with the crowd of half-visible objects, a sharp contrast to the eclectic warmth of rest of the house.
“Isn’t it incredible?” she greeted me as I came out through the “right” door. “Imagine going into there from here, expecting this, and coming out into that!” I couldn’t tell if she was thrilled or terrified. I mentioned the washer and dryer. She hadn’t noticed them. “But look!” she pointed at a stitched cushion on a chair against the wall—an owl. Not a horned one, but an owl nonetheless. “A horned owl!” Later I tried to work out how it was this woman could turn English into a foreign language, how her way of not seeing worked a kind of magic, turning dogs into chiens and quite ordinary owls into horned ones.
She asked what I thought the future held in store. I said the abolition of death. The party crowd was noticeably thinning and we relocated to a couch in the living room. No one else was there. “Most conversation bounces along on high,” she said with an emphatic accompanying gesture. I told her that was a benign metaphor; I would have chosen a nastier one. “I used to be meaner myself,” she nodded wistfully. Her mother would scold her for favoring the intelligent over the good. She said she was coming around to her mother’s way of thinking.
We were the last guests to leave. The host was good-natured about it. A friend of his, somewhat tipsy, on his way out said how adorable we were, the white-haired woman and I, the way we talked so intensively the whole evening. We both straightened up and traded off protesting that there was nothing whatever unusual about it. She wrote her name and mailing address on a piece of paper before we parted ways.
The next day I sat down to write an actual letter. “Dear Alison Lurie,” it began, and picked up the conversation where we had left off. “On the subject of the horned owl and the mysterious room,” the letter concluded after several paragraphs, “when I give it a third thought, it’s absolutely identical to the boar's skull over which Mrs. Ramsay (in To the Lighthouse) drapes her shawl so a child won’t be frightened by it at night, and where the shawl stays after Mrs. Ramsay is dead and the child has grown up. The boar's head is not in itself a horned owl, but with a shawl it approximates an owl much more readily, and when found in a mysterious room, adding to that an edge of fear and a sense that something at once trivial and immensely important has taken place, the identity is complete. All of this is to say that there are forces of cosmic disturbance in the world (viz. Mrs. Ramsay) around which (or whom) whole worlds move; invisibly, but sure enough. Insofar as you have magical sight of the sort that fails to see a washer and dryer, you must be such a person.”
[Dedicated to my own Mum.]
Seon Ghi Bahk. Existence, 2001.
"Bahk strings together delicate chunks of charcoal using nylon thread, arranging the intricate configurations into various abstract and figurative shapes. The monochromatic sculptures take the forms of everything from decomposing architectural columns to ethereal floating orbs. Tough yet ephemeral, the charcoal is reminiscent of birds in flight or an architectural explosion occurring in slow motion.
The shattered columns dwell in the space between the organic and the manmade, their imposing stature already fading into oblivion. The works embody the transience of human culture, implying that even the most ancient facets of human civilization are, in the grand scheme of nature, destined to disappear. Furthermore the charcoal that comprises the columns, made from a purely geological process, represents our eternal dependence on nature’s processes."
Monday, May 02, 2016
On Our Critical Categories: Pretentiousness
by Ryan Ruby
"Ordinary men commonly condemn what is beyond them." —François de La Rochefoucauld, Maxims
For the American reader Dan Fox is an ideal guide to the murky space where class overlaps with taste. His position in the art world—he is a co-editor of the renowned contemporary art magazine frieze—has furnished him with ringside seats to some of the "nastiest brawls over pretentiousness." Moreover, he is British. The class education the English receive as a matter of their cultural heritage enables them to view the matter more clearly than their American counterparts, whose understanding of class has been systematically retarded by taboo, ideology, and denialism, resulting in a deeply classed society that has no idea how to talk about this aspect of itself.
Class is not "just a question of money and how you spend it," Fox helpfully reminds us in his book-length essay Pretentiousness: Why It Matters (Coffee House Press, 2016). It's also "about how your identity is constructed in relationship to the world around you." When we divide classes solely on the basis of wealth—into upper, middle, and lower—as we tend to do in America, it becomes easy to forget that the division is not only arbitrary, but also a gross simplification. In fact, the more generally we talk about class, the easier we fall into confusion. The so-called upper, middle, and lower classes are by no means unified groups, whose members view themselves as bound by the same interests. Every member of the "upper class," for example, may be considered an elite, but this elite group is comprised of a number of class segments, whose members may in turn be ranked on the basis of their access to various kinds of capital (financial, educational, social, cultural, geographical, symbolic, etc.) whose relative importance is in a permanent state of flux.
Take the field of business, whose elites are distinguished by their wealth. It is firmly within the logic of the American class system to say that an Arkansas-born, high-school educated founder of a multinational retail company whose net worth is $25 billion and is an influential donor to national political campaigns is less elite than the Chicago-born CEO with an MBA from Wharton whose net worth is only $1 billion and has no personal political influence (who would in turn be considered less elite than the Exeter- and Oxford-educated amateur art collector whose net worth is only $100 million but whose last name is Rockefeller). Beyond a certain threshold of wealth necessary for membership, other factors like cultural training, proximity to metropolitan centers, and the exclusivity of one's social network become the means of sorting economic elites into an internal hierarchy. A member's ever-changing position within the hierarchy of his own class segment will influence his relations to members of the other segments of the "upper class" as well as to the class system as a whole.
Membership in the cultural field is no less complicated. Within it, we can distinguish several separate, but interlocking "worlds"—the art world, the news media, new media, the academy, publishing, the motion picture industry, the music industry, etc.—each of which is a made up of producers, consumers and the astonishing number of world-specific professional and semi-professional mediators who connect them. As with the field of business, entry into any of these worlds generally requires a minimum level of start-up capital. And while success as a producer in the cultural field can translate into membership in the more powerful business elite, this is rare, and discussions of class and culture are often marred by the intentional or unintentional conflation of cultural capital with economic capital.
If "artists themselves are hard to place socially," as Fox writes, it's because they exist at the extreme ends of what seem to be two contradictory poles of capital distribution. On the one hand, their cultural and social capital would seem to place them at the highest end of the class spectrum, higher even than the young investment banker or law clerk, with whom they often share similar levels of educational capital. On the other hand, because the labor of early- and even mid-career cultural producers is typically poorly remunerated—payment comes, if at all, in immaterial "investments" like prestige and notoriety—their economic circumstances are more similar to the urban underclass among whom they tend to live. They are regarded as privileged (in terms of cultural and social capital) by those with whom they share an economic background; but because they engage in rarefied, socially nonproductive labor, their poverty, though entirely real, is considered voluntary by those whose do not possess any forms of capital. Caught between feelings of resentment for their more affluent peers and guilt for their own forms of privilege, artists have resorted to two legitimating myths. The first is aristocratic—the lone genius indifferent to and independent from the economy. The second is proletarian—the artist whose labor serves to hasten the abolition of economic privilege itself.
Despite such romantic narratives, no art can be entirely divorced from the patronage system that supports its production. Unlike other art forms, like contemporary literature (which has a mixed patronage system that includes the market, the state, the academy, and private charitable organizations) and pop music (which operates almost entirely in the market), visual arts patronage retains the general contours that have sustained it since the18th Century, a combination of state funding and a restricted market composed of corporations and wealthy private collectors.
The public does not collect visual art in the way they make libraries of songs and books. It consumes contemporary art, if all, the way it used to watch movies: by buying tickets to a museum. The prices for individual pieces are too high for most people to participate in the art market as owners, and anyway, much of contemporary art (land art, performance art, light art, installations, large-scale sculptures) is designed to be unownable. The only visual art one will see in a middle-class home are reproductions of classic paintings (in poster form or on coffee cups and t-shirts), privately made art (family photographs, amateur paintings), or the artwork that is actually intended for mass consumption, of which the paintings of Thomas Kinkade are the best known example.
A book, album, or film may be re-produced indefinitely many times with no effect on the selling price of the next copy. Visual art by contrast derives its value from an inbuilt scarcity. A price level is determined, in the first instance, by assuming that each work of art is a singularity and an original. The economic imperative of quantitative originality (there can only be one "of" it) has also lead to a demand for qualitative originality (there can only be one "like" it). As a result, the visual arts exhibit a greater degree of differentiation between works than in any other medium. Ultimately distinctions between artistic styles give way to distinctions between individual artists, of which there can only ever be just one.
From the perspective of the audience, this proliferation of styles means a greater body of knowledge is required to understand contemporary visual arts trends the way artists themselves understand it, to such an extent that even high profile art collectors make purchases with the help of professional consultants. Matters are rarely improved by the artist statements that accompany exhibits, which are less often used to clarify the artist's intentions than to deploy a highly developed professional jargon to further differentiate the artist's work from others on the market. This gives interested members of the general public a not entirely unfounded suspicion that contemporary art "requires a specialist education in order to be understood, that it demands time for study that only the privileged can afford to spend." This combined with perceptions of a market that is directly accessible to only the wealthy leads the public to believe that art is "made for cliques, not crowds." Consequently, "accusations of elitism circle above the art world in a perpetual holding pattern" and artists are vulnerable to the alliance between segments of the so-called upper and lower classes known as populism.
It is against this background that charges of "pretentiousness" must be understood. Populism, it should never be forgotten, is fundamentally an intra-elite phenomenon. It is a strategy used by a particular segment of the elite in its struggle for position within that elite against a rival segment of that elite. In democratic societies, where majorities legitimate, populism is a way of manufacturing and mobilizing the opinions of a large, vaguely defined part of the population. Whether or not the manufactured "majority" is in fact more than half of a population, it is necessarily "silent." Not because, as is commonly thought, capital-poor majorities lack access to the means of self-representation, but because a "populace" does not, strictly speaking, exist. If someone "must" speak on its behalf, it is because the speaker—whether he is a professional critic or a political demagogue—retroactively constitutes the "populace" as a group that would not in fact cohere without him and his "speech." Populism and paternalism seem opposed, but are really two sides of the same coin. In the context of the cultural field, they represent the deployment of a specious majoritarianism against persons, products, and ideas whose value is not staked on any reference to numerical appeal.
Anti-pretension is an "informal tool of class surveillance," Fox writes. Used as an insult, "pretentiousness" is a "stick" that helps populism police the borders of a rigid, hierarchical system of identities. Those who wield the stick get to shore up their position as possessors of the dominant form of capital, against those who would deny its primacy or the legitimacy of its distribution. In exchange the "populace" in whose name the stick is wielded is empowered to constitute their particular identity as the symbolic norm.
In America, the name for this symbolic norm is "middle class." The perpetual confusions about who and what this term picks out (how is it that Americans in the top percentile and the bottom quintile of income earners both claim this designation?) results from the fact that the American middle class isn't an economic class at all. Rather it's a populace in which a great deal of symbolic capital has been invested and whose "ordinariness" is constructed according to a series of educational, professional, regional, religious, racial, and—especially—sexual exclusions.
One of the most astute observations in Fox's book is that anti-pretension expresses not only an "almost tribal" horror of "class migration" but also a parallel disgust with violations of "authentic" gender norms, as if putting on airs were a form of drag (and vice versa). "Pretentiousness shares with sophistication a lingering sense of ‘unnaturalness'; something faked, pretending, tampered with…Pretension implies affectation. People are not acting themselves; rather, their lying urbanity is trampling all over your plain-speaking—and presumably heterosexual—truth." Persons are called pretentious when they privilege intellectual over manual labor, symbolic over material wealth, the superfluous over the necessary, artifice over naturalness, the amateur over the professional, style over substance, irony over sincerity, the foreign over the native, and non-reproductive over reproductive sex. It should therefore come as no surprise that a brief list of the artists and artifacts that appear in Fox's book as signifiers of pretentiousness—Oscar Wilde, Virginia Woolf's Orlando, Susan Sontag's "Notes on ‘Camp'," Andy Warhol, Tyler Rowland's Artist's Uniform #1, the drag balls of Paris is Burning, David Bowie, The Pet Shop Boys, Grace Jones, Stephen Fry, opera, haute couture—is also a list of some of the greatest hits of queer culture.
Fox's mission in Pretentiousness is to reclaim the term from its critics and, in so doing, neutralize the stick of populism. His first move is to reframe populist anti-pretension as a kind of snobbery. Although pretentiousness and snobbery are commonly linked in the popular imagination, what distinguishes them, Fox argues, is intent. Pretentious people and artists are generally innocents pursuing a private vision of themselves and the world, genuinely oblivious to the way they and their work appear to other people. Whereas snobs are deeply "invested in the opinions of others" and think "they are better than those beneath them." This does not mean, however, that one's snobbishness is directly correlated with the amount of capital one possesses. There are also "prolier-than-thou" snobs who are "anxious not to be marked as a part of the educated elite" and whose claims to "ordinariness makes them more virtuous than those with a higher social status."
Populist anti-pretension is precisely this type of snobbery. Lacking curiosity and intolerant of difference, populists affect to be belittled by what they do not understand. They look down on the people whom they suspect are looking down on them. "Cutting someone down for pretension reveals, ironically, embarrassed arrogance rather than humility," Fox rightly notes. Pretentiousness is rarely ever harmful, but anti-pretension always is. Demanding that people remain authentic to the circumstances of their birth is tantamount to maintaining a rigid hierarchy of identities that denies individuals the ability to be authentic to the way they see themselves.
His next move is to identify pretentiousness with creativity itself by tracing the word's etymological origins to the games of pretend played by children and actors. "To understand the artistic process is to accept that pretentiousness is part of the creative condition, not an affliction," he writes. To be an artist is first of all to pretend to have a status one isn't yet entitled to: in order to make art you have to consider yourself an artist even though only the making of the art will earn you this designation. And if certain works of art appear pretentious it is not because they are attempting to pull the wool over the eyes of their audience, because of a disjunction between the artist's ambitions and his abilities. "Pretension is about overreaching what you're capable of, taking the risk that you might fall flat on your face." On this definition, pretentious artworks may be failures, but they are noble failures, the result of the curiosity and bravery of those who operate outside the symbolic norms of ordinariness. "A rich culture"—one that takes the risk of experimenting creatively—"is a pretentious one."
The art world is where Fox may have begun his investigation into pretentiousness, but the phenomenon of anti-pretension he identifies is by no means confined to it. While we may grant him that the art world is where "the nastiest brawls over pretentiousness are fought," brawling, here, is only a figure of speech. Anti-pretension has slipped the relatively rarified precincts of the cultural field and has invaded almost every sphere of American life, including the political field, where the brawling has become literal. Looking up from the pages of Fox's essay to the news on the television screen, the American reader will have to concede that it has entirely earned its thoroughly unpretentious subtitle.
Sughra Raza. Black Ducks, Winter 2016.
Prince, Bowie, and Glenn Frey: 21st Century Public Mourning as a Rejection of Cold War Culture, or, Why Nobody Really Gives a Shit About that Guy from the Eagles
by Akim Reinhardt
David Bowie was a white Englishman. Prince was a black American. Bowie was deeply rooted in the riffs, major/minor chords, and melody of rock-n-roll. Prince was grounded in the syncopated rhythms and arrangements of funk and R&B.
Prince's and Bowie's careers did overlap to a degree. Their biggest selling albums, Bowie's Let's Dance and Prince's Purple Rain, were released within a year of each other. But of course Let's Dance was Bowie's capstone in many ways, his big pop breakthrough after nearly 15 years of churning out music, whereas Purple Rain came fairly early in Prince's career, establishing him as an international pop icon for decades to come. So despite the kissin' cousin chronology of their biggest albums, the respective heydays of David Bowie and Prince were, in many ways, separated by about a decade. That makes sense since Prince was ten years younger than Bowie.
Despite all these differences, however, their deaths, coming three months apart from each other, produced similar strains of public mourning. In particular, many people confessed how one or the other artist had profoundly affected them during their formative years. And this heartfelt influence, many said, came not just from Bowie's and Prince's music, but especially from their artistic personae.
In between Bowie's and Prince's passing came the death of Glenn Frey, one of the two lead singer/songwriters of the Eagles, one of the most successful bands in the history of recorded music.
I have yet to see anyone write an essay, post a facebook comment, tweet, or make any other public expression of their deep gratitude for the vital role Glenn Frey played in helping them cope during their formative years.
Why? I suspect the answer is the Cold War.
It was not an easy time to be an LGBT person. Or a leftist. Or a nerd or a geek. Or not from here. Or anyone who did not easily mesh with the clearly established dominant social and cultural norms. It was an era when being different often meant being ostracized and isolated.
Ever since the emergence of modernity, adolescents have often struggled to "find themselves" and fit in as their bodies awkwardly sputter through puberty's changes and their insular social groups and pop culture fetishes morph at a dizzying pace. However, those mundane travails were compounded for many people during the Cold War as the cruelties and group think typical of teenage sub-cultures were exacerbated by a larger American culture that acutely marginalized and ridiculed "others."
But David Bowie and Prince, each in their own way, made a public spectacle of celebrating the Other. Far beyond their music, which actually often conformed to popular motifs, both men openly indulged in public performances of the Self that wantonly challenged the dominant culture's staid social categories.
With an art school background and a flair for the theatrical, Bowie spent years bouncing from character to character. Space traveler Ziggy Starust, lightening bolt clad Aladdin Sane, the Thin White Duke, The Man Who Fell to Earth, and the quixotic Pierrot were among the many characters he trotted out on album covers, on stage, and later in videos. Many of them featured elaborate makeup, and gender-bending was a consistent theme.
Prince also bent the gender spectrum with his more modest but still obvious makeup, his penchant for high heels, and his coquettish sexuality. Unlike Bowie, he also directly challenged American racial norms.
Bowie might at any moment have been from another planet, but he was always white, and so were the vast majority of his fans. And Bowie's rock n roll was very typical of the black-influenced music that white people played in the 1970s. By the 1980s, his music became less grounded in rock and more overtly white eclectic.
However, as a light skinned African American hailing from the decidedly not-very-black state of Minnesota, Prince had the capacity to, and often did, glide back and forth between what American culture dictated as "white" and "black" cultural expressions.
Prince mostly offered up dance music with strong elements of funk and R&B, all of which Americans understand as black. However, the multi-instrumentalist defied racialized music types by primarily wielding an electric guitar, an instrument which at the time was largely seen as the crotch surrogate of white, male rockers.
And so Prince was in a position to consciously challenge the white/black dynamic by offering up a bouncy R&B/dance/pop tune like "Let's Go Crazy" and then finish it off with the kind of wicked, standalone, cock strut guitar solo that even the dumbest, whitest, chest-thumping metal head high schooler had to acknowledge as seriously rockin'.
David Bowie was a chameleon, a shape shifter moving from one odd, marginal persona to another. Prince was a garish, swirling vessel, a purple pixie through which every conceivable gender and racial element seamlessly and confidently flowed.
And for those people during America's Cold War culture of the 1970s and 80s who struggled to fit in and faced showers of criticism and mockery, or who dreaded fitting in and were isolated because of it, Prince and David Bowie offered models not of the rebel who raged against the mainstream, nor of the misfit grateful for a cozy niche, but of the free spirit who happily moved beyond expectations, carelessly leaving them behind.
That is why, I believe, the public mourning of David Bowie and Prince, two very different artists, has been so similar in certain ways. It is common gratitude for artistic courage during an era when different was bad.
And then there's The Eagles.
When the Eagles' Glen Frey died a few days after David Bowie, no one really gave a shit. I mean, of course fans publicly mourned the loss of a musical icon. But they didn't seem to owe Frey a debt of personal gratitude the way the fans of Bowie and Prince did, confessing especial connections to gutsy artists who spoke to them when it really mattered.
This observation is not a commentary on the Eagles' music. Indeed, their relative success is almost identical: Prince, David Bowie, and The Eagles all sold somewhere in the vicinity of 150 million albums during their careers.
But the Eagles did not go against the grain in any way. The rode the grain. They were exactly who they were supposed to be: white guys in denim. Shit, they called themselves The Eagles for chrissake.
You never knew what interesting person David Bowie and Prince might be having sex with. The Eagles fucked groupies.
Of course it's not just that the Eagles were a bunch of white guys. After all, Bowie was a white. And it's not that they were straight so much as dumbly macho. It's that the Eagles, at any given moment during their career, represented what you were "supposed" to be.
When the Eagles broke big in the 1970s, emerging out of southern California's soft rock, singer/songwriter scene, they were southern California soft rock, singer song writers (think "Tequilla Sunrise" and "Witchy Woman."). In the mid-70s, when country rock with vague echoes of Southern rock was big, they did that (think "Desperado" and "Already Gone."). And in the late 1970s, when stadium rock was the thing, they kicked out their folk/country guitarist, brought in certified rocker Joe Walsh, and rocked stadiums (think "Hotel California" and "Life in the Fast Lane").
After the band broke up in 1980, Glenn Frey and fellow Eagles leader Don Henley went their separate ways, as each of them churned out shitty snyth pop singles emblematic of that era. Frey in particular was entrenched in the specific pop culture moment, writing crap in the vain of Miami Vice ("Smuggler's Blues") and misusing alto saxophones ("The Heat Is On").
When Frey and Henley patched up their differences and reunited the Eagles in 1994, they exemplified the new trend of bands from the 1970s getting back together and soaking their Baby Boomer fans with outrageous ticket prices.
In other words Glenn Frey and the Eagles wrote some damned good music and were at least as popular as David Bowie and Prince, if not more so, but they were always exactly what they were supposed to be. They didn't help people on the fringes get through the tough times of adolescence. They helped people get drunk, snort coke, have sex, wear blue jeans, and rock on. Which is arguably admirable in some way. But it just doesn't make a damned bit of difference.
The Eagles mattered because they made music. David Bowie and Prince mattered not only because they made music, because in an era when it was very, very difficult to be "uncool," they showed young people that it was not only okay to be different, but it could be interesting, a sign of personal and artistic integrity, and even a lot of fun. That you weren't a loser because you didn't like the Eagles or wear the standard issue fashion or talk or look or feel like you were supposed to. That even if you were different, you still mattered.
And that's why they mattered.
Akim Reinhardt's website is ThePublicProfessor.com
Dreaming of the Madonna
by Leanne Ogasawara
Last summer, marooned with a large group of astronomers in a remote 11th century abbey in the Tuscan countryside, I found myself growing increasingly antsy. Hatching a plan to break out, I dragged my astronomer off on what should have been one of the great pilgrimages of our lifetime--for as luck would have it, just down the road lay what Aldous Huxley considered to be the greatest picture in the world.
I am referring to one of the paintings on the famous Piero della Francesca trail. To see those masterpieces in situ is astonishing, and I consider the Piero Pilgrimage to be one of the great art historical experiences in the world.
Like all pilgrimages, however, this one was not without its mishaps.... Flushing my phone accidentally down the toilet after seeing the astonishingly beautiful and transportive fresco cycles in Arezzo was bad enough; but then to finally arrive at the climax of the pilgrimage where Aldous' "best picture on earth" stood, only to find it unavailable for viewing (and not just that but veiled in such a way as to tantalize us about what glorious beauty we were missing)-- was close to unbearable.
Our biggest blunder, however, came when we willfully decided to skip driving an extra half hour to go see the Madonna del Parto. Yes, I want to kick myself! Located in Monterchi, the Madonna del Parto is an extremely rare (perhaps the only?) treatment in Christian art of the Virgin pregnant. "Del Parto" can mean labor or childbirth--and in the picture, Piero depicts a very pregnant Mary.
Slightly underwhelmed by the Bodhisattva-esque Modonna della Misericordia in San Sepulchro, we decided to skip altogether the other Madonna del parto in Monterchi. It was a huge mistake-- and I didn't quite realize how bad until I read Hubert Damisch's charming and super quirky book, A Childhood Memory by Piero Della Francesca.
I wonder who else has read this one?
Poking fun at Freud's famous book on Leonardo, where he tries to connect Leonardo's love of pink tights to his penchant for giving up on things, Damisch dives into Piero's childhood (of which almost nothing is known!) It is truly a wonderful book and reading it, I thought, what kind of picture could elicit this much imaginative and playful investigation?
How stupid we were to drive right past it!
Jorie Graham has a rather famous poem on the painting as well, called San Sepolchro. The poet "places" the Madonna in San Sepolchro; despire the fact that it is really located down the road in Monterchi (not far from the painter's birth city of San Sepolchro). Graham must have been unable to resist the image of San Sepolchro--being named after the Holy Sepulcher....
This is the birth of God after all.
And the poet beckons you in.....
"Come in, I will take you to see God being born..." Here is the poem:
In this blue light
I can take you there,
snow having made me
a world of bone
seen through to. This
is my house,
my section of Etruscan
wall, my neighbor’s
lemontrees, and, just below
the lower church,
the airplane factory.
crows all day from mist
outside the walls.
There’s milk on the air,
ice on the oily
lemonskins. How clean
the mind is,
holy grave. It is this girl
della Francesca, unbuttoning
her blue dress,
her mantle of weather,
to go into
labor. Come, we can go in.
It is before
the birth of god. No one
has risen yet
to the museums, to the assembly
and wings—to the open air
market. This is
what the living do: go in.
It’s a long way.
And the dress keeps opening
to privacy, quickening.
Inside, at the heart,
is tragedy, the present moment
but going in, each breath
is a button
coming undone, something terribly
finding all of the stops.
Moving first past the identical angels holding open the curtains (these are mirror images of each other), one cannot help but wonder: Is this Madonna the Ark of the Covenant? Is she the Tabernacle that came before Jerusalem? But Damisch is a French psychoanalyst so he doesn't dwell on this question and turns quickly to Freud's great childhood question of where babies come from...
... But if you don't mind, leave my mother out of all this...
Says Samuel Beckett.
Is the Madonna a phallic symbol--oh but no, look at the opening of her dress. Like the poet, everything ends in those buttons.
but going in, each breath/ is a button
Her hands--that gesture-- are unprecedented in Christian art history; says Damisch several times in the book.
But wait, this all gets better (for everyone else who didn't miss out on seeing this picture!); for Herbert Damisch and Jorie Graham are not the only ones who dream of this Madonna. It was the great Soviet film maker Andrei Tarkovsky who perhaps made her most famous of all. Having traveled hundreds of miles across Italy to see this particular work of art, the Madonna del Parto appears prominently in his masterpiece, Nostalghia.
In this fascinating article about Tarkovsky's use of the Madonna in his film, the author James Macgillivray, begins by describing the history of the fresco-- from its removal from the 13th century Romanesque church, where it was originally installed around 1460, to being left as part of the remaining chapel when the majority of the nave was destroyed to create a cemetery in the late 18th century.
Macgillivray is painstaking in explaining the way the painting was utterly removed from its context as part of a church, with much of the original architectural frame being lost along the way. It's quite an interesting story --albeit one that has occurred over and over. Apparently, when Tarkovsky first saw the Madonna in 1979, the picture was being prepared for its eventual removal to a museum--to be cut off forever from its religious and ritualistic context. The Madonna had a long history of veneration by women in the village who were trying to conceive babies. Maybe, suggests Macgillivray, this is why the filmmaker decided to use a very different location some 80 miles away for his 1982 film. It was a better site to replicate the original setting for the Madonna, says Macgillevray. That is, Tarkovsky wanted to put the picture back in what he imagined was its original context.
Macgillivray quotes Vida T. Johnson and Graham Petrie's description of the opening scene in the film:
Eugenia is seen in the pillared and candlelit interior of a church with women in black dresses kneeling in prayer in the background... In a conversation with the elderly sacristan she is politely reproached for lacking faith and is told that a woman is meant to have and raise children, in a spirit of patience and sacrifice.
Meanwhile the women have carried a life-size statue of the Virgin through the church and are praying before it; Piero della Francesca's Madonna of Childbirth is visible on the wall behind them. As a woman opens the statue's robes, a flock of small birds streams out. A series of virtual match-cuts takes us from a close-up of Eugenia's face to a slow track in to Piero's Madonna and then, in black and white, to Andrei....
Isn't that wonderful? How the scene (video embedded below) replicates the miraculous unbuttoning of the dress by the Virgin in Piero's painting? Except in Tarkovsky's films, birds fly out.
I think it is --if this is even possible--more gorgeous than the painting itself.
Tarkovsky, in his portrayal of the fresco restores it to what must be something of its original mystery and embedded nature within the community-- and those birds flying out of the unbuttoned dress of the statue are perfection!.
We learn not surprisingly, the women of the village of Monterchi were deeply upset with the authorities' plans to remove the masterpiece and put it within a museum. They protested and Tarkovsky himself was angered by their plans.
Art can have such tremendous power over our imaginations, when it's allowed to exist in its original context. Think of an heirloom tea bowl used as part of the Japanese tea ceremony or some of the pusaka treasure of Malaysia and Indonesia. The moment a kris sword or a gamelan bell—or heaven forbid! a dragon jar from Borneo-- is put behind glass, its power is neutralized. Why? Well, in the same way when you remove a King’s crown from the King’s head, it loses its magic power as regalia. Context is meaning. Kant has done much damage to our understanding of art's original power over us.
I love museums as much as the next person, but there is something truly unforgettable about seeing art in its original context. It is not just wonderful either but one can almost feel the power the work of art once excerted over people. A few months ago, I wrote in these pages about James Elkin's book on Pictures and Tears. The book is highly recommended and I agree with Elkins that indeed in a kind of dry spell when it comes to feeling moved by art. Being removed from its context and sometimes turned into a commodity of experience of amusement, visual art (unlike live music) has in some significant ways lost its hold over our imagination. This is something wonderfully evoked by the sense of great yearning for mystery in Tarkovsky's film. I hope to finish my Piero Pilgrimage someday and see the Madonna that I continue to dream about.
There are other great art pilgrimages as well, I'm sure...
Ecstasy at Baltimore’s Left Bank Jazz Society
Duke Ellington was one of the great composers and bandleaders of the last century, and his band was one of the great bands. Touring, however, is unforgiving. Long hours sitting in a bus, meals if and when you can grab them, and gigs every night. And when you’ve played the same tunes with the same cats for decades, well, it can be rough to get up for a gig. Fact is there were times when Ellington’s musicians looked like they were asleep on the stage.
That’s how they appeared the one time I saw Ellington live. It was at one of those sessions held by the Left Bank Jazz Society in Baltimore’s Famous Ballroom on Sunday afternoons. This was probably in 1970, 71, or 72, long after Ellington’s prime years in the second quarter of the century. The Famous Ballroom was on North Charles Street, not too far from the train station, and up three flights of fairly wide stairs. It too was past its prime years, but the patrons of the Left Bank, they were always primed for good music. Some were dressed to the nines in their church Sunday best, the men in sharp suits, the women in elaborate hats; and some were dressed casually in jeans and sneakers.
That’s generally how it was, but I only specifically remember three things from that concert. Ellington dressed well and had a line of patter smooth as silk and brittle as glass. He’d been doing this a long time. That’s one. The guys slumped in their chairs like they’d just gotten off an all-night flight from Timbuktu. Perhaps they had. That’s two.
And three: Paul Gonsalves burned the place down with his tenor sax. I forget what the number was. All I remember is that Gonsalves strode out on stage to play a solo, but he didn’t position himself in front of the microphone. He stood to one side. A helpful member of the audience moved the mike directly in front of him as he started to blow. He stopped playing for a second, grabbed the mike angrily and shoved it aside. Not for him the brittle reverberations of amplified sound. Then he started blowing again. The pure juice of the natural human essence flowed from his sax to embrace us in its majesty and urgency.
He filled the ballroom with sound. The whole ballroom, you know, the kind with the mirror ball in the ceiling – and electric blue paint on the walls. There would have been plenty of room for people to dance but for the fact that this was a concert. The dance floor was filled with tables and chairs and men, women, and children. A photographer went from table to table snapping photos, like in a nightclub, but this was Sunday afternoon. The whole band played behind Gonsalves like they WERE playing for dancers – they, were, after all, a dance band. Physically, we were in Baltimore, Maryland, in the early 1970s. Metaphysically, we were in Harlem, USA, the Earth, in the 1930s.
THAT’s what it was like at the Famous Ballroom back in the day. Best jazz venue I’ve ever been in. Of course I’ve got my quirks. I’m not a night person, so I don’t go to jazz clubs that often. By the time the music starts cookin’ at a regular club I’m ready for bed. But those sets at the Famous started at 5 PM on Sunday afternoon. Well, they were scheduled for 5 which, allowing for local quirks and prerogatives, generally translated into 5:30 PM or thereabouts.
And that was fine. Gave us time to chat, check out the used records for sale, maybe go to the Kentucky Fried Chicken around the corner and get a bucket of the Colonel’s Original. You could order something from the kitchen on the days it was open – fried chicken, collard greens, sweet potato, biscuits and gravy, grits, aka soul food. Or maybe get some set-ups, bring out your own liquor, and get loosened up. By the time the music started up we were mellowed out and ready to luxuriate in delicious sounds.
I heard a lot of great music in those days, but I don’t remember most of it. When the music goes through you, that’s it. It’s gone. Nothing to remember, though the aura lingers and one aura blends with another until all that’s left is a numinous presence in your mind: the Famous!
Saw Mingus. Like Ellington’s men, he seemed to have booked a seat on the Sleepy Time Express. But his tenor man, George Adams, blew fire; then held the sax above his head and spun around helicopter style. Don’t know what that was about, but it was fun to see. In a different gig Jimmy Heath quoted Lee Morgan quoting Ziggy Elman’s fralich riffs from “And the Angels Sing” – my grandfather, who otherwise disliked jazz, loved Al Hirt’s version of this tune; Al kept the fralich riffs too. They’re from way back and across the Atlantic in the old country – the shtetls of Eastern Europe. Saw Olu Dara when he was only 18. He’s Nas’s daddy. Nas, the rapper, you know? Donald Byrd came in from D.C. with the Black Byrds. And Hank Levy brought his big band down from Towson State. Played fine music, even if some of it was in 5/4 time or 7/8; almost forgot they were a bunch of college kids.
And then there was Maynard Ferguson, highest of the trumpet gods – and he had hung out with Timothy Leary at one time. One of my first musical loves. The man could blow the horn! To the moon, then threading his way through the asteroids, putting a crisp and crackle on those green Martians, then out beyond Jupiter, rounding Saturn and then an astonishing cut-through to Venus. Don’t know how he did it. He was a crowd pleaser. Perhaps not the deepest music, nor the subtlest, but thrills and chills.
He had a big band with him, not the full band like he had back in the Birdland days of the 50s and 60s, but 12 or 13 guys: four rhythm, three saxes, two bones, three trumpets, and himself. They played the Beatles’ “Hey Jude” to close the show. By the time the band had gotten to the end of the main tune and slipped into the repeated tag, Maynard and the other trumpeters had dispersed to the four corners of the room. They started playing, back and forth, dueling and supporting, and walking through the crowd to converge on the stage as they played.
Bright moments! Bright moments!
Bright moments is like eat'n your last pork chop in London England, because you ain't gonna git no mo ... cooked from home.
Bright moments is like bein' with your favorite love'n you all share'n' the same ice cream dish. And you git mad when she gets the last drop. And you have to take her in your arms and git it the other way.
So sayeth Rahssan.
Rahsaan Roland Kirk, multi-instrumentalist extraordinaire – tenor sax, manzello, stritch, flute, nose flute, slide whistle, gong, and a half dozen others depending on the occasion. I’d been introduced to his music by Larry Marshall Sams back in 1966. He tipped me to Rahsaan’s Rip, Rig, and Panic. A couple of years later I saw Rahsaan at an outdoor festival at Morgan State. He electrified the crowd, brought us to our feet with his first number: “Volunteered Slavery” – You can keep the music offa’ the radio, but you can’t keep it outa’ the air! he intoned.
His gig at the Famous was a bit different. It had rained earlier that day, but the sky had brightened up a bit by the time people began gathering at the Famous. Five-thirty rolled around and no musicians had taken the stage. OK, so they’re a bit late. But the Famous had always been flexible about start times. Five-forty-five, no musicians. That’s stretching it a bit. Six o’clock, the rhythm section takes the stage and starts playing. That’s more like it. Rahsaan’ll be out once they get it moving. But no, six-thirty, no Rahsaan. Six-forty-five. Still no Rahsaan. Seven o’clock. By now the mood is moving into the lower reaches of ugly, just tickling it a bit.
There’s a commotion at the back of the hall. Rahsaan walks in, instrument cases in both hands and hanging from his neck. He was led by Joe Texidor – Rahsaan’s blind. Ten minutes later Rahsaan walks out on stage. “I hear you all are pissed at me for being late. Think about me. I got up this morning, got in the car, raring to play. The rain had flooded out the expressway. There we were stuck, I wanted to play. Instead I had to wait for the water to go away. You think you’re angry! I’m angry too!”
With that he put is sax to his mouth and, you guessed it, blew the roof off – the insurance policy at the Famous must have cost a pretty penny, what with having to replace all those scorched ceilings and toasted walls! The ugly in the room was gone. Poof! No more. Just pure joy. Rahsaan had us and took us for a joy ride.
But, all things considered, Dizzy Gillespie’s set moved the most. I play trumpet, Diz plays trumpet, though he takes playing to a rather grand metaphysical level. He was one of my heroes. I had a bunch of his records, and a book of transcribed solos I practiced from. For years. I don’t know whether this was the first or second time I saw him live, but probably the first. The second time was also in Baltimore, but outdoors, in a park, with ten thousand people of the sepia persuasion (that’s Old School verbal stylin’) hanging on his every note.
William P. Gottlieb, Library of Congress, c. May 1947.
But this was indoors, the Famous yes indeed it was! Ballroom. Families were there. Dad all duded up, crisp white shirt, sharp tie, cuff links. Mom in a nice dress, one with a bit more flash than appropriate for church. And the kids, all of them well turned out. This was, after all, the Left Bank Jazz Society, with the great John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie performing.
I don’t remember who was in the group. Probably Mike Longo on piano, and I think James Moody was on sax and flute. The rhythm section? I haven’t a clue – shame on me! I’m sure they played some of Diz’s old stuff, “Manteca”, “A Night in Tunisia”, “Con Alma”, and likely some of the newer stuff, “Portrait of Jenny” and “Olinga”. At one point Diz strapped a conga to his waist and walked out into the audience playing it.
I’d never seen that before, nor even read about Diz doing it. I knew he was something of a cut-up – how do you think he got the moniker “Dizzy”? I’d read a lot about him, but not this. So I was a bit surprised. Desi “Babalu” Arnez did this, but I didn’t realize this bit of shtick was in Diz’s repertoire too.
I was enormously pleased, as was everyone. What fun.
And it got even better. When Dizzy made his way back to the stage he brought half a dozen kids with him, boys in white shirts and ties and girls in pastel crinoline. Or maybe he saw some kids dancing in the aisle. I don’t remember. But there they were up on the stage, dancing. They were a bit hesitant at first – the situation was not, after all, defined as a dancing situation – but then they got into it. How could they not? The best musicians in the world were playing for and with them.
So the children danced Dizzy, he smiled and played his trumpet, peace love and soul filled the hall, God was in heaven and joy rained down on earth.
The Famous was once again a Ballroom.
Monday, April 25, 2016
A Puzzle about Metaphilosophy
by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse
Enduring movements in the history of philosophy often owe their influence not to their core doctrines, but rather to the distinctive vision of philosophy they embody. Indeed, one might say of such movements – think of the traditions associated with the Stoics, Descartes, Hegel, the existentialists, and beyond – that they are primarily conceptions of what philosophy is. A conception of what philosophy is – a metaphilosophy – coordinates ideas about philosophical method, the nature of philosophical problems, and the limits of philosophy. In other words, a metaphilosophy tells us not only how to do philosophy, but also what philosophy can do, what we can expect from philosophy. A metaphilosophy hence often distinguishes genuine philosophical problems from pseudo-problems and nonsense; it also typically demarcates genuine philosophical problems from those genuine problems that reside within the purview of some other kind of inquiry, such a natural science, psychology, and history. It is tempting to conclude that although we tend to think of the history of philosophy as a series of debates concerning truth, goodness, knowledge, being, meaning, and beauty, it is actually an ongoing clash among metaphilosophies.
Though tempting, this conclusion should be resisted. This is because it is as yet unclear how metaphilosophical clashes are to be resolved, or even addressed. Which area of inquiry is suited to adjudicate conflicts over what philosophy is? Must there be a meta-metaphilosophy? But then wouldn't we also require a fourth tier to address conflicts at the meta-meta level? Then a fifth, sixth, and seventh? This proliferation of "meta" discourses about philosophy looks well worth avoiding. A further cause for resistance lies in the fact that the very idea of a clash among metaphilosophies is opaque. Why regard, say, the phenomenologist and the ordinary language philosopher as embroiled in a metaphilosophical clash at all? Why not say instead that they are engaged in entirely different enterprises and be done with it? Why posit something over which (philosophy and its proper methods) they are in dispute? The fact that it is not clear how there could be an adjudication of metaphilosophical clashes may be marshalled as a consideration in favor of the idea that opposing schools normally identified as philosophical do not promote different conceptions of philosophy, but instead embrace distinctive concepts that each calls "philosophy," and so ultimately do not even clash at all, but only speak past each other. It certainly seems to capture what it is like to witness such clashes.
To be sure, that is a dispiriting result. This is because it seems we should preserve the idea that proponents of different philosophical schools may nonetheless disagree about first-order philosophical issues. For example, there are wide, conflicting varieties of answers to the questions: Is there free will? What is the nature of Justice? Is knowledge consistent with luck? Can judgments of taste be wrong? Any PHIL 100 course will have the debates about these questions animating it, and any advanced class will be a focused investigation of particular disagreements, and every dissertation and professional article has a number of target opponents on the issue. (And notice, further, that rejecting the view that there are philosophical disagreements is a counterexample to itself.)
The trouble is that if we accept the idea that first-order disputes are merely proxies for metaphilosophical clashes, then the ground upon which even first-order disagreement could proceed begins to dissolve. Indeed, if the metaphilosophy-first view is right, the variety of answers to these questions are not even different answers to the same questions. From the metaphilosophical level, even the questions are different. If this result seems absurd, then at the very least, the conclusion that all philosophical disputes ultimately bottom-out in metaphilosophical difference looks premature. Many would go further to say that it should be repelled to the last.
This brisk sketch is meant only to highlight a general puzzle about metaphilosophy. It seems undeniable that different philosophical traditions embrace their own distinctive metaphilosophies, and that these metaphilosophical commitments often drive their first-order philosophical views. Consequently, one familiar way of diagnosing first-order philosophical disputes is to ascend to the metaphilosophical plane, where the disputants' different methodological commitments can be laid bare and examined. But once this point is acknowledged, it is difficult to sustain another seemingly undeniable thought, namely, that different philosophical schools genuinely disagree about first-order philosophical matters. Put otherwise, metaphilosophical ascent seeks to dissolve first-order philosophical disagreements by relocating them to the metaphilosophical level. However, there is no progress in this maneuver, as it is hard to make sense of the very idea of a metaphilosophical disagreement. In particular, this is because it is not clear what exactly such purported disagreements are about, and thus it is difficult to see how they could be resolved. Again, metaphilosophical disputes look like paradigmatic pseudo-disputes, cases where the disputants use the same words only to talk past each other.
Our puzzle, then, can be posed as a metaphilosophical antinomy. On the one hand, we seek to accommodate the thought that first-order philosophical programs are manifestations of metaphilosophical stances; on the other, we want to preserve the thought that genuine philosophical disagreement is possible. One obvious and promising response to the antinomy is to deny that the tie between metaphilosophical and first-order commitments are as tight as has been supposed thus far. One must, that is, constrain the role that metaphilosophy plays in explaining first-order philosophical commitments. This is achieved by leaving open the conceptual space for first-order philosophical views that are not the product of, or fully explicable by, a background metaphilosophy. This, in turn, would countenance the possibility of first-order philosophical disputes that are not resolvable by means of metaphilosophical ascent. If this tempering of metaphilosophy is unachievable – if first-order philosophical disputes simply are clashes among divergent metaphilosophies – then there's an obvious sense in which the enterprise of philosophy is imperiled.
On Muslims, Terrorism, and Bigotry
by Ahmed Humayun
Terrorist attacks of the sort we have seen in Lahore, Brussels, Ankara, Paris, and in so many other cities around the world, are serious atrocities against innocents. These attacks are also a cunning attempt by strange cult-like groups to provoke large scale conflict - between Muslims and Westerners, and between different types of Muslims. These groups are utterly opposed to those of us who hold multiple identities at the intersection of different cultures, and do so comfortably or even proudly.
People become members of terrorist organizations for different reasons. Some are fanatics and true believers; some are looking for adventure; some are commonplace thugs and criminals; some are sadists; some are deceived and some know exactly what they are doing. Whatever the case may be, the leadership of these groups is investing an enormous amount of time and energy in finding young Muslims who have real or imagined grievances, and channeling this sentiment into a destructive path. A vast infrastructure of extremism and propaganda is designed to incite and recruit people to the ranks of these groups.
It's true that terrorist recruitment mostly fails: the number of terrorists are a tiny portion of the global Muslim community. Yes, that matters. Most people are not attracted to spectacular terror as a way of life.
But this is small comfort. Terrorist groups may comprise a tiny minority of Muslims but they have an outsized impact - on the politics of Muslim majority societies, and on the state of Muslim communities in the West.
Consider what has happened to the Muslim world so far. There are now tens of thousands of members of these types of militias, maybe more, depending on how you count. Many of these people are from the middle class - people who have lots of options in life. Thousands have migrated from Western societies to join the wars in places like Syria and Iraq. (Though, we are overly naïve when we ask, how do people with choices fall for this murderous nonsense? The people with choices - the rich Bin Laden's, the middle class Zawahiri's - are at the vanguard of these types of groups. The use of terror to advance utopian ideas has deep precedent in modern history).
Tally the lives lost and maimed, the treasure expended to confront these groups. And when you factor in the devastation of Islam's intellectual and cultural heritage, the serious setbacks to democratization, scientific progress, and moral advancement, the costs start becoming incalculable.
It is true that terrorism is far from the only challenge faced by Muslim countries. We know about the long, sordid history of shoddy and brutal government that predates terrorism. We know that even without terrorism, in many countries illiberal elements are influential, that there are serious social deficits in areas like women's rights, or the situation of minorities, or in the overall progressiveness of legal systems. We know about the challenges of economic underdevelopment and the lack of education. Helping these societies move forward will require action on many fronts.
(At the same time, let's not forget that the story of Muslims in our world at large is not merely the story of terrorism or illiberalism. It feels trite to say, but I think it has to be said that Muslims are making positive contributions to their communities and their nations everywhere. They are launching startups, running charities, doing stand up comedy, writing novels, making music, and so on. Reducing the Muslim experience to the squalidness of terrorism does not reflect the world as it is).
Yet if the state of affairs in the Muslim world is complex, one thing is clear: there is a large and growing cluster of extremist groups that aim to impose their harsh vision through indiscriminate violence. And these groups are not going anywhere. They see tremendous opportunities for growth in our fractured world. There is every reason to believe that atrocities will continue to happen, and that the ranks of these groups will grow, unless they are countered.
Next, look at the West. It is true that relative to many other threats, terrorism kills much less people - by orders of magnitude. Nevertheless, terrorists have had an extraordinary impact on Western countries. They have been highly successful in disrupting the politics of advanced democracies and empowering many of the worst elements within them. The sad fact is that terror works. No Hollywood screenwriter could have dreamed up the inventive barbarism of these groups, carefully designed to polarize and provoke overreaction.
Fear has been an enormous boon for organized anti-Muslim networks. These groups are actively trying to whip up fear of all Muslims - not just terrorists, of whom we all need to be wary. Anti-Muslim bigotry is real. It would be wrong if it was just a spontaneous grassroots reaction to terrorist attacks, but it is worse than that. Anti-Muslim bigotry is being systematically stoked by formerly fringe entities that have now gone mainstream.
Anti-Muslim bigotry manifests itself in different ways in different countries, depending on unique histories and political cultures. In the American context some advocate taking discriminatory measures against all Muslims due to the actions of terrorists. This sort of anti-Muslim sentiment is inconsistent with the principles and laws of the nation, which has historically tried to transcend this sort of rank tribalism, whether it is based on religion or ethnicity or country of origin and so on. Collective guilt or responsibility is the inverse of the American spirit properly understood.
While we should call out anti-Muslim bigotry, we should also realize that it does not ‘represent' America. The rejoinder to anti-Muslim stereotypes should not be anti-American stereotypes (or vice versa). This is what terrorists want, and one way to counter them is to not to play into their hands. Just because people claim to speak in the name of America does not mean they speak for all Americans. And just because people claim to speak in the name of Islam does not mean they speak for all Muslims. Both ‘America' and ‘Islam' contain multitudes; neither are the sole property of the loudest voices that prattle on in their name.
We owe it to each other - and to the values we claim to hold - to do better.
Ahmed Humayun is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's South Asia Center, and an expert at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, both in Washington, D.C. These views are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of either institution.
Idil Ilkin. Melody. 2010.
Inkjet print on fine art paper.
Old King in the New World: Restraint and Art in 'Madame X'
by Olivia Zhu
The pale neck of John Singer Sargent’s most notorious portrait subject graces the cover of William Logan’s latest book, a collection of poetry that pays homage to the artist in its themes and style. Madame X, named after the painting, opens with two epigraphs that establish the themes of the work: the first explicitly links Herman Melville’s Ahab to “that wild Logan of the woods,” in reference to a Native American chief who literary historian Jonathan Elmer calls “a melancholic relic,” of the same lonesome breed as both captain and poet (119). The last of his kind, fanatically in search of a poetic white whale: this is how Logan announces himself.1 The second epigraph, a quote from Roman Holiday, reveals the object of his pursuit. Gregory Peck’s expat character, attempting to resist an undressing, Shelley-reciting Audrey Hepburn, advises her to “Keep [her] mind off the poetry and on the pajamas and everything will be all right.” Taken together, the two inscriptions position the poet as an old king, yearning for the classicality of the Old World, its elegant poetry, and its restrained sexuality. Madame X, with all its recurring images of ancient soldiers and overexposed young women, is a testament to Logan’s self-assigned role as a guardian of taste and timelessness.
Like Logan, Sargent might have also been called an “old king.” Toward the end of his career, Sargent’s devotion to his brand of “realism was viewed increasingly as anachronistic and facile,” paralleling Logan’s fidelity to “a certain sense of tradition that was antipathetic to the traditions that most of the poets [his] age were following” (Churchwell; qtd. in Jalon, 16). Nevertheless, the artist and poet soldiered on. Both have defended their relatively traditionalist work, and the very first poem of Madame X hints at the poet’s artistic loneliness in doing so. “The Hedgehog in His Element” indicates that Logan, oft-maligned for his “miserable” and “bullying” criticism, is the titular creature, very much at home in his attitude and medium (1). During a phone interview, Logan admitted he “was attracted to the sense of a hedgehog as a masochistic figure—it looked as if he had been shot full of arrows.” Is Logan’s tenth work a vindication of how he has suffered for his formal style? Its introductory poem suggests so, for “like a Sherman tank forced out of the brush,” the poet is made to emerge and set up a defense in whatever prickly way he might choose (“Hedgehog” 2). The image of a self-sacrificing soldier is driven home by the poem’s concluding image of “St. Sebastian bristling with arrows,” with the patron saint of warriors—and a martyr twice over—shown as angry and defiant even when wounded (“Hedgehog” 3).
As Logan has aged, the burdens of kingship might weigh more heavily. He notes “one of the themes imposed on me by age, is age. Since I’m now in my sixties, I’m sometimes attracted to this image of death being not so distant.” The impending threat of death might explain the admiration of the aging Captain Ahab, as well as the fact that Madame X begins with poems of spring and youth but ends with poems of winter and age. Memories, regrets, and old girlfriends populate the last section of the book, and Logan closes out his work with “A Death at Badenweiler.” In this poem, the speaker witnesses the ignominious death of his brother, Herr C.: “Everyone knew his plays, of course, the stories, / though I myself have never troubled to read them” (89-90). Everyone might be aware of his work—the “of course” seems like a hasty qualifier—yet if even Herr C.’s brother has neglected to read his sibling’s plays, perhaps the writer has not left the legacy he intended. On his deathbed, the elderly man is “hoarse as the newly damned” and “all breath had vanished from the room” (“Death” 57, 60). For any creator, the denial of words and vocabulary would be a most damning punishment, indeed. Moreover, Herr C.’s sickness mutes not only the writer, but also everyone around him—there is no kind of art for anyone left. This final poem is a relatively long one for Madame X. At triple the average length of most of the other works, it seems like a final breath—Logan’s push to say everything left to say before ending.
To Logan, then, there is only a limited time to make the kind of art that he prefers, with words wrapped in a tight cage of constraint. His poem “In the Confining Hour,” is bound not only by couplets and rhyme, but also by rigorous anaphora present in each line of the work. Drumlike, he declares that “In the confining hour, in the revealing place, / comes the heart’s glottal stop, comes the lie’s restless face” (1-2). His heart might only speak the truth, however choked or reluctant it may be, when encased in structure. Like ribs, the symmetric lines wrap around Logan’s main point: this tight poetic form is emotionally revealing despite its structure, “For the confirming rod, for the concealing dress, / bring on the shadow’s bloom, bring the false caress” (“Confining” 9-10). The rigor of confinement reveals the nuances of the onset of night—it blooms, rather than simply occurs—and the nuances of a touch, for the poet detects it is naught but a “false caress.” Logan is able to detect lies, the antithesis of what he says is “good poetry, [which] is always raw in a certain fashion.”
Coupled with the need to be honest are images of women, in concealing dress or otherwise. Logan, riffing on Ezra Pound, once opined that “Poetry is the nude that stays nude” in a set of maxims on the practice of writing. He clarified his statement in his interview, explaining that good poetry “doesn’t get covered up by time,” a fair explanation for why he might prefer a more classical form—a more timeless style. Much of Madame X, too, is concerned with the art of the past, with Sargent’s work nestled among that of Doré, Manet, Praxiteles, and other luminaries admired by Logan, a self-described “denizen of art galleries.” Describing Sargent’s painting of a beautiful socialite, the namesake of the book and the poem, Logan keeps to formal rhymed couplets, perhaps in deference to the aesthetic formality he prefers. The poem’s object, though, has “a professional beauty, / which implies a certain impersonal duty / to a beauty evanescent as morning vapor” (“Madame X” 15-17). Is the portrait timeless? That her beauty disappears with a noontime sun would suggest not, although the speaker briefly attempts to compare her pale skin to a modern reference point: clam chowder. Madame X does not “stay nude.” As Logan points out, “originally the right strap had slipped off her shoulder,” an artistic detail later revised by Sargent to accommodate social mores (28).
Faddism and trends are another concern of Logan’s. While Madame X was once considered risqué, the painting is conservative by modern terms. Compared to Logan’s undergraduate students, whose “low-cut jeans” display their stomachs “like a cold slice of mutton,” Madame X is demure in comparison, a sign of how tastes have changed (21, 23). While Logan expressed an aversion to seeming “geezerish” in describing youth fashion, it would have been difficult for him to write such a poem without the benefit of witnessing other decades’ trends, be they long hair, bralessness, or baggy pants. His wisdom, then, is employed to warn his students away from trends, as reflected in his preference for “teaching tools” and “craft,” allowing a budding poet to fall back on well-structured forms if ever their “habits can’t deal with a subject” (Logan). He urges them to learn the classics, in case a poetic version of “low-cut jeans” ever goes out of style.
Implicit in “Madame X” is one more of Logan’s lessons for poetry—one regarding restraint. Parenthetically, he asks, “Is nothing more sexual than a taste for suggestion?” (26). Does restraint—in poetry, in sexuality—improve the art or experience? Thinking back on the second epigraph, in which Gregory Peck’s character urges the Princess Ann to put on pajamas, it briefly seems as if poetry and sexuality are interlinked. He must shut her up and cover her up, for propriety’s sake. Yet Logan’s poems do not appear to express quite the same linkage, for every interaction with the book’s many female figures tends to end in disappointment. In “And Now for Something Completely Different,” his speaker focuses on poetry, as well as the pajamas; he “wanted to be Achilles,” choosing to be a legendary warrior (12). To do so, he sacrifices the chance to be with “a girl in a yellow dress,” who he sees but once in his youth, and all the associated comforts of hearth and home (7). In brusque tercets and short sentences, Logan can only “peer into” a home, “as a god would,” for his Achilles is neither welcome in nor invulnerable to a room in which “the television blazes / as a fire used to” (“And Now” 1-2). Each stanza is walled off from the others by the conclusiveness of periods, just as the speaker is kept separate from domestic comfort and companionship.
Keeping away from temptation and exercising restraint: that is what leads to great art, suggests Logan. In the same kind of couplet style exhibited in “Madame X,” the poet discusses being inspired by a lissome American tourist, admiring her but not approaching. “The Back of a Girl in Florence” is striking, as classically beautiful as if it had been “chiseled by Praxiteles” (22). Despite her allure, Logan stays the course, as he “kept silent rather than take the risk” (29). He keeps to roughly the same meter and pacing, and his couplets are always complete. In doing so, he can idealize the girl, ignoring that her “loveliness would soon decay” to immortalize her in art as his “walking odalisque” (“Back” 28, 30). Timelessness matters more than indulgence, he concludes. Like the beauties “Venus de Milo, Nike of Samothrace,” perhaps Logan’s girl in Florence can become a classic, too—but only if he renders her from afar (7).
William Logan’s old king is a self-sacrificing one: he has risked barbs from other critics and poets to protect his craft, and he has given up personal comfort to practice his art. Madame X provides a consistent theory of why that might be so. Though Logan noted that there was no grand plan for the motifs that occur throughout his work, he noted that a “poet is generally looking for things that provoke him in some way, and if there is some continuity in the images, it is probably due to [his] background.” If so, it seems that the poet is provoked by the subjects of aging soldiers, martyrs, muses, and especially art. It is no coincidence that his book is a series of ekphrastic exercises, describing a vast array of paintings, statues, letters, and classical poems. In confronting and interacting with a pantheon of work that has provoked him, Logan seeks to vindicate his own.
1 The choice of passage is no accident either. The poet has already described Moby-Dick as the “Great American Novel [that] has already been written,” referring to it frequently in his poetry and criticism. Moreover, Logan-the-poet views Logan-the-chief as the arbiter of an inevitable justice. In an interview, he revealed one of his favorite anecdotes, wherein the chief learned he had been tricked by a man, and subsequently hunted him down and killed him, paralleling his admission in other articles that he has “a ‘prosecutorial temperament’ himself” (Jalon, 17).
Churchwell, Sarah. "How John Singer Sargent Made a Scene." Guardian [London] 30 Jan. 2015: n. pag. Guardian. Web. 30 Mar. 2015. <http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/jan/30/ how-john-singer-sargent-made-a-scene>.
Elmer, Jonathan. On Lingering and Being Last: Race and Sovereignty in the New World. N.p.: Fordham UP, 2008. Google Books. Web. <https://books.google.com/books?id=4OT3u4fDAtcC&source=gbs_navlinks_s>
Jalon, Allan M. "The Most Hated Man in American Poetry." Poets and Writers Magazine 1 Nov. 2000: 14-18. ProQuest. Web. 30 Mar. 2015. <http://search.proquest.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/docview/1311714956/fulltext/1?accountid=11311>.
Logan, William. Madame X. New York: Penguin, 2012. Print.
Logan, William. Personal interview. 1 April 2015.
Logan, William. "The Nude that Stays Nude." Poetry Foundation. N.p., 1 Apr. 2013. Web. <http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/article/245644>
Here is Waldo: Anonymity in the Age of Big Data
by Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad
The television series Person of Interest posits the existence of a machine that can monitor every person’s daily activities and can then use this information to predict crimes before they happen. While such a system may be way off in the future, a system that can at least identify the identity of any person may not be that far off. Annonymity used to be private affair, if one wished to remain anonymous then all that one had to do was to lay low and limit one’s interactions with outsiders. It was easier to adopt pseudo-identities, the nature of the internet even facilitated this to a greater extent. I should know this because I have been blogging as a Chinese Muslim for almost 10 years now. New waves of technologies aided by Big Data however are changing nature of anonymity with evermore levels of sophistication needed to be truly anonymous.
Even in the ideal case where John Doe disengages from the digital world i.e., does not own a smart phone, only carries cash, does not use any online service etc, others can still leak information about John e.g., pictures that his friends might put up on social media platforms, post something on Facebook, geo-tag one another etc. Locating a person, determining their likes or dislikes would really depend upon how much information their family and friends are leaking about them. In short you are only as anonymous as your most chatty friend.
In cases where we think that we are not giving away any explicit information about ourselves, much can be inferred from the digital traces that we leave. The manner in which we shop online, respond to messages, play video games etc can reveal a lot about ourselves even when we do not want to reveal anything. In our previous work we have observed that it is possible to predict a person’s gender, age, personality, marital status and even political affiliation by just studying at how they play video games. This is just the top of the iceberg; a case in point is the case where Target’s data analytics were able to infer that a girl is pregnant even though she was able to hide this from her parents.
The main takeaway is that we always reveal something about ourselves even though we may think that we are role playing. In our current (unpublished) work we have even observed that it is possible to predict family relationships (parent, sibling, spouse, offspring etc) with a high degree of accuracy by just studying texting patterns with no access to the content of text message.
Alternatively let us consider the massive amounts of data that large corporations and major retailers like Walmart, Target etc are collecting about their customers. It is now quite easy to cheaply buy data about people from third party sources so that not only does one know what items a person is buying but also where they live, their age, gender and household structure. While some organizations have policies in place that restrict them from collecting and using certain types of data without our consent, this self-imposed restriction is not true for every organization. It is also true that most people do not have time to read through 100 pages of EULA. Combine this with algorithms that can predict missing information about a person and one has a recipe for a system that can figure out what you are going to do next (with in a particular domain) with a high level of accuracy.
But what does this mean for us as individuals and for the society as a whole? It will become increasingly easier to answer the question - Where is Waldo? Not only that but one could even tell you here is Waldo and the list of places that he has been in the last 3 years, his eating habits and his likely future purchases. Before we start chanting alarmist slogans about a dystopian post-privacy era we should also look at the centrifugal forces in the privacy debates. Large corporations also have incentives to not violate their customer’s privacy in order to have a certain level of trust with their customers. Apple’s stance of non-corporation with the government on issues related to customer privacy is a case in point.
While one should be vigilant one should not be alarmist, there was an uproar many years ago when Google announced that they would be adding a search feature to Gmail. It turned out that all the privacy doomsday predictions were unfounded. Some amount of data collection is necessary to offer services like recommendation whether it is in music, movies, food etc. Algorithms can only be as good as the data that is fed to them. Thus, one should not rush to the conclusion that anonymity is over.
The flipside of patterns extracted from Big Data is that these patterns also give one a readymade recipe for behaving in a certain way and remain anonymous. Big Data also makes it easier to fake certain personality traits. Even with very crude profile stuffing Ashley Madison was able to lure thousands of men to buy their membership. This leads us to consider under type of risk to anonymity – data breaches. As the fallout from the Ashley Madison leak suggests one’s indiscretions on the Internet have a way to follow on the offline world with a single torrent dump. More recently, a service has emerged which uses Tinder’s API to notify its paid customers if their partner is cheating on them. These cases should not be shocking or surprising – after all information in the wild can rarely be tamed.
If today’s de-annonymization algorithms look impressive then the future is even more fascinating. Google’s deep learning system can already identify the location of almost any picture with very high level of accuracy, Facebook’s facial recognition system can already beat humans, gait identification algorithms can identify any person by the way that one walks, recovering what was typed by the sound of typing is already an old technology and the list goes on. Each of these technologies is impressive in its own regard but taken together one has the hallmark of a system that can deanonymize almost any person on the planet. If we think that it bad enough that governments and large corporations have access to these type of technologies wait till such systems become open source and become accessible at the palm of your hand. It is certainly not the stuff of Singularity Sky but it does open up vistas for a brave new world for which most of us may not have the time to be ready.
Welcome To Alphaville
"The secret of my influence has always been
that it remained secret."
~ Salvador Dalí
Last month I looked at the short and ignominious career of @TayandYou, Microsoft's attempt to introduce an artificial intelligence agent to the spider's parlor otherwise known as Twitter. Hovering over this event is the larger question of how best to think about human-computer interaction. Drawing on the suggestion of computer scientist and entrepreneur Stephen Wolfram, I put forward the concept of 'purpose' as such a framework. So what was Tay's purpose? Ostensibly, it was to 'learn from humans'. But releasing an AI into the wild leads to unexpected consequences. In Tay's case, interacting with humans was so debilitating that not only could it not achieve its stated purpose, but neither could it achieve its real, unstated goal, which was to create a massive database of marketing preferences of the 18-24 demographic. (As a brief update, Microsoft relaunched Tay and it promptly went into a tailspin of spamming everyone, replying to itself, and other spasmodic behaviors more appropriate to a less-interesting version of Max Headroom).
People have been releasing programs into the digital wild for decades now. The most famous example of the earlier, pre-World Wide Web internet was the so-called Morris worm. In 1988, Robert Tappan Morris, then a graduate student at Cornell University, was trying to estimate the size of the Internet (it's more likely that he was bored). Morris's program would write itself into the operating system of a target computer using known vulnerabilities. It didn't do anything malicious but it did take up valuable memory and processing power. Morris's code also included instructions for replication: specifically, every seventh copy of the worm would instantiate a new copy. More importantly, there was no command-and-control system in place. Once launched, the worm was completely autonomous, with no way to change its behavior. Within hours, the fledgling network of about 100,000 machines had nearly crashed, and it took several days of work for the affected institutions – mostly universities and research institutes – to figure out how to expunge the worm and undo the damage.
This is a good example of how the frictionless nature of information technology serves to amplify both purpose and consequence. And the consequences of Morris's worm went far beyond slowing down the Internet for a few days. As Timothy Lee noted in the Washington Post on the occasion of the worm's 25th anniversary:
Before Morris unleashed his worm, the Internet was like a small town where people thought little of leaving their doors unlocked. Internet security was seen as a mostly theoretical problem, and software vendors treated security flaws as a low priority. The Morris worm destroyed that complacency.
This narrative of innocence lost has remained relevant to our experience with technology. Granted, the Internet was small and chummy back in 1988 – after all, the invention of the web browser was still about five years away – but the fact that 99 lines of code could launch an entire industry is worth contemplating. That is, until you realize that if it hadn't been Morris's 99 lines, it would have been someone else's. Now the internet is many orders of magnitude larger and more essential to our society, but I contend that the same dynamic of purpose and consequence remains at work. There is a clear lineage that can be drawn from Morris to Microsoft's Tay. We think we expect one thing to happen, and while that thing may indeed come to pass, a whole lot of other things also come into play.
This brings me to another recent development in AI that's somewhat more serious than Tay, namely the emergence of AlphaGo, an artificial intelligence schooled in the ancient Chinese strategy game Go. As has been widely reported, AlphaGo beat the world #1, Lee Se-dol, by a decisive margin of four games to one in South Korea. AlphaGo accomplished this through an extensive training regimen that included playing another version of itself several million times (The Verge extensively covered the series here).
In the case of AlphaGo, the purpose seems to be clear. Win at Go – which it did, and handily. But we don't get the deeper context, or, in the parlance of clickbait titles, the "You won't believe what happens next". This is partly the fault of the way the mainstream media constructs its reporting today. Another opportunity to crow about how machines will soon overtake us, and then on to the next shiny object that commands the news cycle's attention. In fact, AlphaGo is but a step in a long, iterative process begun decades ago by DeepMind's founder and CEO, Demis Hassabis. In fact, he lays it all out quite clearly in this lecture at the British Museum.
The larger purpose of this process, of which AlphaGo is merely a symptom, is, in Hassabis's own words, "to solve intelligence, and then use that to solve everything else". Obviously we could spend quite a bit of time unpacking what he means by any of the key terms in that mission statement: What is intelligence? How do you know when you've solved it? What is everything else, and who gets to decide that? Seen within this larger context, the idea of an AI winning at Go goes from one of the holy grails to a digital cairn, marking an event on the way to something much greater, and more ambiguous.
As an example consider Watson, IBM's Jeopardy-winning juggernaut. Perhaps because Jeopardy is a game that seems intrinsically more human, the impact on our popular consciousness was more substantial than AlphaGo's feat. But what is Watson doing today? Is it, to borrow a classic dig, "currently residing in the ‘where are they now' file"? Not at all. Watson is an active revenue stream for IBM, although exactly how much is unknown, since the actual numbers are, for the time being, rolled up into the company's larger Cognitive Solutions division. Watson's involvement is remarkably eclectic, including "helping doctors improve cancer treatment at Memorial Sloan Kettering and employers analyze workplace injury reports." Also, Watson is looking forward to providing insight into case law. And this is all in addition to applying its talents to the kitchen.
What else is Watson up to? Going back to Stephen Wolfram's discussion of AI that I referenced last month, I was struck by his vague disinterest in certain applications. For example, he says
I was thinking the number one application was going to be customer service. While that's a great application, in terms of my favorite way to spend my life, that isn't particularly high up on the list. Customer service is precisely one of these places where you're trying to interface, to have a conversational thing happen. What has been difficult for me to understand is when you achieve a Turing test AI-type thing, there isn't the right motivation. As a toy, one could make a little chat bot that people could chat with.
This is, in fact, exactly one of the businesses that Watson is in. Any sufficiently open-minded entrepreneur could rattle off a dozen opportunities where he or she could really use a conversant machine intelligence. And the larger the scale, the greater the opportunity. Just as Tay could talk to millions of millennials, Watson can talk to millions of customers. Meet IBM Watson Engagement Advisor, which is replacing entire call centers as we speak.
Moreover, Watson is not just a disembodied voice on the other end of a phone line. One of the great lines of technological convergence we have already begun to witness is the unification of AI with robotics. And this crosses AI over into embodiment, which is another ball game entirely. Witness this exchange between a Pepper robot, plugged into Watson and a bank customer. (Obviously, this is a promotional video, but I am slightly disoriented by the fact that IBM is hip enough to be using using words like ‘bummer' when describing the risks of an adjustable-rate mortgage.) It is not difficult to imagine thousands of these robots, with their aww-shucks attitude, all connected to a central AI that is constantly learning and refining itself based on inputs provided by humans. In fact, this not some Alpha-60-style speculation; this is already happening.
These examples illustrate the big takeaway concerning how Watson is being deployed. Watson is no sacred cow. IBM views it as a utility that other aspects of its business can and should leverage, hence the fact that Watson is being used not only in its Cognitive Solutions division, but also in the much larger Global Business Solutions division. The general application of AI is exactly that: general, and the more general the better. IBM's managers and executives would much rather have a tool, or suite of tools, that they can apply promiscuously to any market opportunity that presents itself.
There is no reason as to why AlphaGo, which is owned by Google, will approach its further development any differently. This is especially true if we are to take CEO Demis Hassabis's words seriously: "to solve intelligence, and then use that to solve everything else". But as the ongoing integration of Watson into a business context shows us, ‘everything else' is really a proxy phrase for ‘everything where the money is'. I'll hasten to add that there is nothing inherently objectionable about this, but the fact is that there is no guaranteed nobility in the future of these technologies, either. They will be used to chase profits wherever they may be found. This is the dilution, the ambiguation of purpose. In a very definite sense, we approach what Foucault was trying to teach us about power: its diffuse nature, its functioning at a remove.
Finally, an argument has been made in some quarters that all this AI stuff is really going to be fine, since what we are really after is not artificial intelligence per se, but augmented intelligence. On the surface, the difference is promising, since it perpetuates the idea that machines will continue to be our servants, helping us see the world in new and different ways, enriching our experience of the things that motivate us in the first place. But the question that I have for these optimists is simple: Who gets to be that person?
For example, Garry Kasparov, the chess champion whose 1997 defeat at the hands of IBM's Deep Blue heralded the beginning of the current era of man versus machine, proceeded to incorporate play against Deep Blue as an essential part of his training regimen. In fact, it was this additional training that was a factor in his ability to maintain a monopoly on the chess world for many years.
Likewise, Fan Hui, the European Go champion who was defeated by AlphaGo in the run-up to the matches against Lee Se-dol, joined the AlphaGo team as an advisor, once again lending resonance to the old saw "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em". As a recent Wired article noted:
As he played match after match with AlphaGo over the past five months, he watched the machine improve. But he also watched himself improve. The experience has, quite literally, changed the way he views the game. When he first played the Google machine, he was ranked 633rd in the world. Now, he is up into the 300s. In the months since October, AlphaGo has taught him, a human, to be a better player. He sees things he didn't see before. And that makes him happy. "So beautiful," he says. "So beautiful."
Kasparov and Fan are rare birds, however, with the expertise and fame that provided them with the opportunity to attach themselves, lamprey-like, to the fast-swimming phenomenon that machine intelligence is becoming. But what about ordinary people – perhaps someone who recently lost their job to automation instigated by the same AI? Will they really have the opportunity to engage it in a didactic or even pleasurable capacity? Or will they be too busy job hunting to care? To quote Godard's all-powerful computer in 'Alphaville', "All is linked, all is consequence".
Monday, April 18, 2016
Beyond Man and Woman: The Life of a Hijra
By Namit Arora
On being transgender in India and glimpses from The Truth About Me, a powerful memoir by A. Revathi. It aims to introduce readers ‘to the lives of hijras, their distinct culture, and their dreams and desires.’
Most Indians encounter hijras at some point in their lives. Hijras are the most visible subset of transgender people in South Asia, usually biological men who identify more closely as being female or feminine. They often appear in groups, and most Indians associate them with singing and dancing, flashy women’s attire and makeup, aggressive begging styles, acts and manners that are like burlesques of femininity, a distinctive hand-clap, and the blessing of newlyweds and newborn males in exchange for gifts.
Most modern societies embrace a binary idea of gender. To the biologically salient binary division of humans into male/female, they attach binary social-behavioral norms. They presume two discrete ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ identities to which all biological males and females are expected to conform. These two gender identities are imbued with ideal, essential, and distinct social roles and traits. In other words, the binary schema assumes a default alignment between sex, gender, and sexuality. In reality, however, gender identities and sexual orientations are not binary and exist on a spectrum, including for people who identify as transgender—an umbrella term for those whose inner sense of their gender conflicts with the presumed norms for their assigned sex (unlike for cisgender people). Transgender people often feel they’re neither ‘men’ nor ‘women’.
According to biologist Robert Sapolsky, ‘Gender in humans is on a continuum, coming in scads of variants, where genes, organs, hormones, external appearance, and psychosexual identification can vary independently, and where many people have categories of gender identification going on in their heads (and brains) that bear no resemblance to yours’. Many cultures have granted a distinct identity to various types of transgender people, including South Asian, Native American, Polynesian, and Omanese cultures. A landmark Supreme Court ruling in 2014 legalized a third gender in India, including hijras and other transgender people.
Hijras in popular culture date back to ancient times. The fact that procreation underpins the social and familial order in all societies may partly explain why in some societies transgender (and homosexual) people have been seen as useless, perhaps even a threat. What likely helped the hijras survive is that since ancient times, they have been endowed with certain spiritual powers, including to confer blessings and curses, as with ascetics. Perhaps it also helped that even Gods and heroes manifest transgender traits in Hindu mythology: Shiva has an androgynous form, half male, half female; Arjuna disguised himself as a eunuch during the Pandava exile; the goddess Yellamma has the power to change one’s sex; Krishna turned into a woman, Mohini, to marry and spend the last night with the warrior Aravan before his final battle; and so on. The hijras even have a patron goddess, Bahuchara Mata, whose temple in Gujarat is a pilgrimage site for both hijras and others.
In short, while Hindu mythology and scriptures see human equality as unnatural—and uphold a caste hierarchy—they largely accept transgenderism (and homosexuality) as natural, if not socially desirable. And while the Mughals held the status quo and even patronized the hijras—especially a minority among them, the eunuchs, as harem keepers—the British were utterly scandalized by the hijras. They saw in the hijras ‘a breach of public decency’, ‘the vilest and most polluted beings’, and sought to curtail ‘the abominable practices of the wretches.’ They outlawed the hijra practice of castration, took away their legal right to collect alms from peasant households that had been granted to them by many Indian states, and classified them as a ‘criminal tribe’. This led to a long, multi-generational decline for the hijra community.
For the first time ever, the census in 2011 counted transgenders using an ‘other’ gender category. But due to the social stigma and shame attached to being trans, they’re likely quite underreported, and overrepresented by trans men, the most public group among trans people. Estimates vary from half-a-million transgenders reported by the census to over six million for just the ones who identify as trans men, a subset of transgenders. Whatever their social status in earlier eras—including acceptance and even respect of sorts—hijras today are shrouded in an aura of fear, secrecy, rumor, prejudice, and ‘magical powers’. They mostly slink in the shadows, in the margins of social life where discrimination and abuse rule the day. What are their lives like? What are their common struggles? What social structures and customs mark their communities?
A few ethnographies on hijras exist—the most significant being Serena Nanda’s Neither Man nor Woman—but even fewer unmediated testimonies have come from the hijras themselves. One extraordinary example is The Truth About Me: A Hijra Life Story by A. Revathi (2010). Translated from Tamil by V. Geetha, a writer, social historian, and activist, this is apparently the first hijra autobiography to appear in English. (Translators remain unsung heroes even as they play a pivotal role in bridging cultural divides and raising mutual understanding.) In Revathi’s own words, her memoir aims ‘to introduce to the readers the lives of hijras, their distinct culture, and their dreams and desires.’ What follows are a few glimpses from her life and of others in the hijra community.
From Doraisamy to Revathi
Revathi was born a boy, Doraisamy, the youngest of four brothers and a sister, in a working class family of Gounders, an intermediate caste, in a small village in Tamil Nadu. His father was a lorry driver who ran a milk delivery business. His mother worked in their fields and tended to their goats and cows. By the age of ten, Doraisamy ‘would go to the village school along with the girls from the neighbourhood and return with them.’ At school he played with the girls and ‘longed to be like them’. Returning from school, he’d wear his sister’s long skirt and blouse, a cloth braid, and walk like ‘a shy bride, eyes to the ground’. His family would laugh, thinking he’d outgrow this silliness in due course.
At school Doraisamy was bullied and punished for behaving like a girl, for speaking and holding his ‘body coyly like one’. He was caned for ‘not being brave like a boy’. For not playing boy’s games, the PT instructor would box his ears and yell, ‘Are you a girl or what? Pull your trousers down, let me check.’ This made him cry. She knew she behaved like a girl, writes Revathi, ‘It felt natural for me to do so. I did not know how to be like a boy.’ Doraisamy’s confusion grew further: ‘I felt drawn to the boys who did not tease me, and I imagined I was in love with them … Was this right or wrong?’ The harassment grew so much that Doraisamy often skipped school (he’d eventually drop out in high school).
During a village festival, when other boys in the neighborhood dressed like bears, tigers, policemen, and gods, Doraisamy disguised himself as a female gypsy. But he was afraid of being discovered by his brothers, who had started beating him for his behavior, which they felt was shaming their family. He was thrilled when others complimented him for looking like a real woman. ‘To the world, it appeared that I was dressing up and playing a woman, but inside, I felt I was a woman,’ writes Revathi. ‘As I re-emerged in my man’s garb, I felt that I was in disguise, and that I had left my real self behind.’ In the mid-eighties, around the time Doraisamy reached class 10, Revathi writes,
‘I experienced a growing sense of irrepressible femaleness, which haunted me, day in and day out. A woman trapped in a man’s body was how I thought of myself. But how could that be? Would the world accept me thus? I longed to be known as a woman and felt pain at being considered a man. I longed to be with men, but felt shamed by this feeling. I wondered why God had chosen to inflict this peculiar torture on me, and why He could not have created me wholly male or wholly female. Why am I a flawed being, I wondered often. I might as well die, I thought. I could not study, yet pretended to, and all the time I was obsessed, confused and anxious.’
Still in high school, Doraisamy discovered a few young men who assembled every evening on a hill by the village. They addressed each other as women and sang and danced. From them he learned of ‘people like us—who wore saris and had had an ‘operation’’. A famous ‘amma’ in a nearby town had had this ‘operation’. One day he and his friends snuck away to meet amma, who received them warmly. They changed into saris, put on wigs and jewelry, and learned the social customs of amma’s hijra community. Doraisamy was 14 or 15, tall and slim, with no facial hair. Someone complimented him that he looked like the movie actress Revathi. The name stuck and Doraisamy henceforth became Revathi, a hijra. ‘I looked at myself in the mirror and felt a glow of pride. I did look like a woman. It was at that moment that I was convinced I was indeed one.’
A New Family and Escape to Delhi
But to become a ‘real woman’, Revathi learned at amma’s, she needed an operation called nirvaanam, or castration, where her penis, scrotum, and testicles would be removed (only a minority of hijras undergo this operation). That was usually arranged by a guru. Hijras, she learned, almost always lived in a household resembling a commune, comprising chelas (disciples) and a guru. A guru was like a mother to ‘daughters’ like Revathi, and ceremonially adopted her chelas, provided shelter, clothing, food, security, and arranged their nirvaanam. The chelas too had obligations, of working and giving all or part of their earnings to the guru, respecting her wishes and of other elders in her family, and caring for their guru in old age. It was like joining a family whose members were all trans women, who, unlike their own biological families, supported each other through thick and thin. In the face of their greater adversities, caste and religious distinctions tend to collapse in hijra communities.
At amma’s place, Revathi found a guru she liked and ceremonially became her chela. Unfortunately, her guru had to go to Delhi for six months. In just a day, Revathi had become deeply attached to her affectionate guru and pleaded to be taken along but the guru advised her to go home until the guru could return from Delhi. Revathi spent a month with her guru’s hijra family in a nearby town—dressing and living like a woman—before returning home.
Revathi’s biological family was not amused by her disappearance. Her elder brother beat her mercilessly with a cricket bat, declared her unfit for school, and put her to work on the family business, cleaning lorries. She had to wear a lungi again and live like a man. ‘I doubt if words quite capture the anguish I experienced at having to be a man,’ she writes. ‘I was like a worm, out in the sun, squirming and ready to die. I wanted to run away, but feared that if my brothers caught me, they would surely kill me.’ With the help of a friend, she mustered enough courage to catch a train to Delhi to find her guru—she hadn’t even seen a train until then—with a mere 80 rupees in her pocket. She was not yet 16. (Running away from insensitive, shame-ridden families is a remarkably common story among hijras.)
With some luck, she found her guru in Delhi and joined her community, starting at the bottom of the hierarchy, doing chores like washing clothes and cleaning spittoons. She learned the social customs of her new community and even some Hindi. She pierced her ears and nose and was soon inducted into begging—about the only livelihood open to hijras besides prostitution and dancing at ceremonies. Many shopkeepers considered an early morning visit by a hijra auspicious and gave them alms. Revathi’s guru told her to not flirt with men and risk losing their goodwill. Using a friend’s address, Revathi wrote a letter home saying she was safe. One day she ran into a lorry driver from her village, who likely went back and told her family about her ways. Some days later a telegram arrived: her mother was seriously ill. Revathi decided to rush home, this time dressed in a sari and traveling in the ladies’ coach, though she changed into a man’s dress before going home.
The telegram was a trap. The moment she got home, her middle brother attacked her with a cricket bat. ‘Let’s see you wear a sari again, or dance, you mother-fucking pottai [hijra]!’ Revathi recalls, ‘He beat me hard mindlessly, yelling that he wanted to kill me … I felt my hands swell. I was beaten on my legs, on my back, and finally my brother brought the bat down heavily on my head … there was blood all over, flowing, warm.’ She even heard her mother say, ‘That’s right. Beat him and break his bones. Only then will he stay at home and not run away.’ Her brother stopped only ‘when he was tired and his arms ached’. She had greatly shamed her family. ‘How can someone from a good family do that?’ her mother asked. ‘Do you know who we are and what caste we belong to?’
The next day they took her to a temple to shave off her long hair and implore the goddess to banish ‘that seducing female demon who even now has a hold on him.’ Her hair, which hijras are obliged to grow long, was now so central to her identity that its shaving caused her more emotional pain than her brother’s beating (in rare cases, if a hijra severely flouts the rules of her commune, her guru may order her hair cut to publicly shame her). In ensuing days, nosey neighbors would stop by and offer free advice: why not rub holy ash over her body to ‘cure her’? Soon she was forced to wear a man’s dress and work again, ‘loading and unloading milk cans as before’. Some workers at the cooperative would tease and pinch her chest and caress her bum. Everyday was an ordeal. She wanted her hair to grow before returning to Delhi, ‘for one with a shaven head has no standing amongst [hijras].’ Three months later she escaped to Delhi again. For her safety, her guru decided to send her to Mumbai, to join another house of hijras.
The Mumbai Blues
Mumbai was a whole new world of discovery, joy, and suffering for Revathi. Hijras in Mumbai, too, lived in ghettos and were organized in seven clans, or houses, each with a naik at the helm. Every guru-chela relationship had to be approved by a jamaat, or council, comprising the naiks of all seven houses. Gurus in each house had exclusive rights to work in certain territories—whether begging, prostitution, or ceremonial dancing—and didn’t take kindly to trespassing from members of other houses, or by independent hijras. Revathi chose a new guru and was consecrated. Six months later, her guru arranged for her nirvaanam. Rather than the painful and illegal traditional method—which apparently raises a hijra’s esteem in her community—it was to be done under anesthesia by a medical doctor. Revathi was overjoyed and set off for a small town hospital in Tamil Nadu that performed this operation. Her surgery was successful but her aftercare was poor, causing her great physical suffering that lasted many weeks.
Forty days later, her house hosted a big ceremony for her—a rite of passage similar to certain puberty rites done for girls after their first menses—with all the trappings of puja, incense, flowers, gifts, chanting before the goddess, haldi-mehndi rituals, feet-touching of elders, sermons, and more. In her own eyes, Revathi had now ‘truly become’ a woman. (Not all hijras consider castration as central to their gender identity as does Revathi. Other hijras, such as rights activist Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, hold contrary views, that what makes one a hijra is only the soul—inner feelings—not surgical or hormonal alterations.)
Revathi continued to earn her living by begging in the market. But she was 20 and troubled by sexual desire. ‘It seemed as natural as hunger, this hankering of the flesh.’ She felt drawn to some of the men she met. ‘Till I had my nirvaanam,’ she writes, ‘I had not acknowledged my sexual feelings … I had learnt to suppress desire and had told myself that it was important for me to become a woman first.’ As is common among hijras, Revathi even longed to ‘marry and settle down’ with a husband—like the presumed trajectory of all good Indian women—but she wondered ‘who would want to marry a hijra?’ The few such marriages she knew of had mostly ended badly, with much physical and mental abuse for the hijras. It struck her then that perhaps she could fulfill her sexual urges if she joined ‘a house for sex work.’ One day she walked out of her guru’s house and found a guru in another house whose chelas did sex work. ‘I became a chela to my new guru because of my desire for sexual happiness, in order to fulfill my sexual longings.’
Her heart sank when she discovered that she’d have to live in, and do sex work from, a couple of decrepit shanties by a railway track, which rattled whenever a train passed. Her customers turned out to be ‘mostly drunks and men who could not afford to spend more than fifty rupees.’ She didn’t like most of them but couldn’t turn anyone away. Her guru sat outside, collected the money, and tried to shield her from the rougher sorts as best as she could. Rather than finding sexual happiness, Revathi found herself ‘having to treat sexual experiences as work’. But in other ways, she felt freer and more valued by her new family. ‘Though we lived poorly and in a hut, I was indulged by all, and was the darling of the household, chiefly because I was fair and pretty and spoke nicely.’ It helped that she also fetched the highest price among the lot.
But some rowdies often came to terrorize and steal money from them. One night, a large rowdy chased away her guru, pulled out a knife, and raped Revathi. She’d never had anal sex before. ‘He spat abuse at me and forced me into the act … I was hurting all over, and yet had to give in and do as he told me. The skin down there felt abraded and I was bleeding.’ He stole her purse too. It had been only two months since she started sex work. ‘I was beginning to discover the horror and violence of this choice. I cried and confessed that I wanted to go home to my parents, that I would fall at their feet and beg to be taken back.’ Within a few days, she was on a train to see her parents.
For the first time, Revathi entered her home in a sari. Her mother began wailing and her brother flared up again. This time Revathi was more assertive, ‘Look! I’ve had an operation and I’m a woman now. From now on, I’ll live as I wish…. If you dare hit me, I’ll go to the police.’ She lifted her sari and showed them. This only raised her mother’s sense of family shame, and she promptly fainted. When the brother insisted that she change into a man’s clothes, Revathi refused firmly. Before the matter escalated into violence, her father came home. He seemed calmer and invoked fate. ‘It seems this is his destiny. Who can change what has been ordained? ... Let him be and eat of our food.’ Tempers cooled. She was told to not roam around the village or attend public events. She thought it ‘remarkable that they had accepted me wearing a sari and being a woman.’
People in the village were curious about her and stared at her. Some women were even eager to talk to her and wondered if she had real breasts (she had started taking hormones). ‘For such people, I was a thing to be looked and laughed at, an oddity, a comic figure.’ Her family began to accept her for who she had become but her mother worried incessantly about her future. Revathi visited the local Mariamman temple and thanked the goddess for helping her realize her wish, and for uniting her with her family. Three months later, she was back in Mumbai.
Once again, to earn a living she began sex work but in a different house on a busy street known for its prostitutes, both hijras and women. Revathi had to solicit customers on the street. She vividly describes a Hobbesian world unlike any she’d seen before, where hijras fought over clients and were cheated by their mistress, where many hijras had contracted STD and even died, where clients often ‘paid them a mere fifteen or fifty rupees’ and ‘used them as they wished, brutally, and left them with bite marks on their bodies, as if they had been bitten and abandoned by mad dogs’. She describes some hijras who were ‘carried away by the police for no fault of their own, who were beaten with whips and lathis and stamped upon by police boots, had electric current run through their bodies, who could only leave after paying the police a hefty bribe.’ She got introduced to alcohol and soon began drinking every day. Her pleasant memories from this phase of life in the early 1990s are few, and include memories of rain, watching Tamil films, and visits to her two ‘favourite shrines every week—to the Haji Ali dargah on Thursdays and the Mahalakshmi temple on Fridays.’ She eventually fought with the mistress of the house and quit.
She went back to her parents and spent the next year with them. The villagers and the family began accepting her more, and she felt grateful for it. After more horrid family drama, she even got a share of the property her parents had sold, and so now had about one lakh rupees. She bought a scooter and rented a home to live by herself in the village. Briefly, she even had a half-fling with a man, which severely tested her family’s tolerance and provoked the wrath of her brothers. She lamented, ‘If society scorns us, then we turn to our families … But if family scorns us, who do we turn to? Is this why people like me do not stay in touch with their families?’ She had heard of a hamam, or bath house run by hijras in Bangalore, and she decided to pack her bags and go there.
Moving to Bangalore
She was warmly received in Bangalore. Some hijras worked in the hamam for low wages, others, as usual, begged or did sex work. Here too, life was harsh. People frequently threw stones at their door at night. ‘When I went to buy groceries and vegetables in the vegetable market, people sometimes threw rotten tomatoes at me.’ She became a chela to a new guru. She had seen that ‘In this world, it is enough that one has money. Respect and regard follow.’ To get money, she decided to take up sex work again, soliciting customers on the street. This came with the usual troubles: rude and violent clients, harassment by rowdies, police beatings, bribes. One time a policeman locked her up in a cell, forced her to strip, and stuck a lathi into her anus. ‘Sometimes, I wondered if I should continue to do sex work at all. But what else was I to do? I had no choice but to suffer it.’ She even sent money home to help her father rebuild their house. Respite from sex work came whenever she got hired to dance at weddings and temple festivals. She went home often, but her family’s shame and people’s reactions to her meant that she couldn’t bear to stay for long. ‘I think this is why God makes sure that people like me seek out others of my own kind.’
One day she was approached by three young city-bred, college educated hijras, who didn’t live in traditional hijra communities, and even had their nirvaanam done on their own. They pleaded with her to become their guru. Revathi agreed, and decided to forge a more open and nurturing guru-chela relationship than what she came to see as the norm: overly hierarchical and often economically exploitative, a world full of ‘rules and tenets’ with ‘all its particular sorrows and joys.’ They introduced her to Sangama, an organization that fought for the rights of sexual minorities. Sangama was looking to hire a transgender person, and Revathi made a bid for it. She joined Sangama as an office assistant for a meagre salary, quit sex work, and moved into her own place—rented to her on the condition that no hijra would visit her. At least, she writes, her landlord thought of her as a woman and didn’t discriminate against her. The year was 1999.
She soon became involved with activism and social work at Sangama, participating in events ‘about hijra culture, hijra ways of living, and the violence and discrimination that we faced…. As a spokesperson for hijra rights, I also gave interviews to newspapers and spoke at public meetings.’ At first she didn’t talk about her sex work out of fear and shame. But this changed as she realized that the fault lay not with her but with ‘the way the world perceived me and refused to accept me, the manner in which it snatched away my rights and made it difficult for me to earn a living except through begging and sex work’. She spoke in colleges on sexual identity and even approached her own community to educate them about their rights. But, she adds, ‘fear and suspicion lurked large among hijras. It was only when they faced violence because they were hijras and Sangama helped them get out of the false cases foisted on them, that they began to come to us.’ She writes:
‘Just as how dalits have come to oppose the violence inflicted on them, why cannot we hijras get together and fight for our rights? Do we not have the right to change our sex? Aren’t we human too, born of mothers, as others are? We have not descended from the sky, have we? We have rights, just like the others. We are citizens of this nation. Don’t we want all those rights that are granted to other citizens: the right to have a ration card, to hold property, to have a passport, the right to work, to marry, adopt or raise a child?’
In the course of her work and travels at Sangama, Revathi and a senior colleague, a bisexual man, grew close and she started falling in love with him. He reciprocated too, and they soon began living together in an apartment, sharing their household expenses. Revathi did all the house work, laundry, and cooking. She felt happy, for she was ‘leading a normal family life, much like other women’ (curiously, as seems common with other trans women, her idea of being ‘womanly’ harks back to a ‘traditional’ ideal that many modern cisgender women in urban India may find regressive). She was thrilled when the man proposed to her. Since he didn’t believe in priests, circling the fire, or the thali, the marriage was simple: an exchange of garlands at a temple next to the hamam, with her hijra family and four of his friends. Marital life began well but soon cracks developed. He didn’t tell his parents about their marriage, even when they visited. He grew less romantic, more aloof, and immersed himself into work. He rebuffed her overtures of love. ‘Living by his whims and desires, I felt my own retreat till there was nothing left,’ she wrote. Perhaps class divides between them played a role too. Their marriage ended a year later, leaving her utterly heartbroken.
‘But my work turned out to be the healing balm that I needed,’ she writes. She began collecting testimonies from other hijras to write her first book, Unarvum Uruvamum. Many of them ‘sobbed and screamed when they recounted stories of their mothers, lovers, husbands … My difficulties were nothing compared to some of the things I heard.’ Then came two shocks in quick succession: one of her chelas committed suicide, and some rowdies stabbed and killed Revathi’s guru at the hamam. This unsettled her greatly. After the mourning period, she left her activist work, went home, and stayed for many months to care for her ailing mother. She looked for a job at home but no one would hire a hijra. Back in Bangalore and finding herself pushed back into poverty, she briefly turned to sex work again (social activism, she writes, didn’t pay enough), which hurt her a lot. Now in her mid-30s, clients called her ‘aunty’ and chose younger hijras. ‘Unable to make a living, I wondered if I should end my life,’ she writes. Her activism had changed her too much and she could no longer flourish in the hijra community. At the end of this memoir, we find Revathi returning to work at Sangama again.
Revathi’s story is almost too painful to read. It portrays, vividly and honestly, the vulnerability of a young person struggling to reconcile the gap between her inner sense of gender and society’s presumed norms for her. She faces hurdles and indignities at every step. What she confronts may be worse than most social oppressions because even her own family turns hostile against her, which must count among the most intimate of traumas and betrayals. Her testimony, highly representative of the hijra experience, holds a mirror to our social world, which dehumanizes and is frequently violent towards those who do not fit the mold. It also exposes some more limits of the ‘famed Indian tolerance’.
The Indian Supreme Court ruled in 2014 that ‘it is the right of every human being to choose their gender’ and legalized a third gender, granting hijras and other transgender people the same legal rights as others. Application forms for many government IDs, such as the passport, voter identity card, and Aadhar card, no longer force them to choose ‘male’ or ‘female’ and include a ‘transgender’ option. The court’s ruling also paved the way, via the Rights of Transgender Persons Bill of 2015, for their inclusion under Other Backward Classes (unless they’re SC/ST), reservations in public sector jobs and college admissions, and tougher prosecution of certain crimes against them. For transgender rights activists in India, this was the culmination of a long struggle.
But while changing the laws and providing reservations are obvious first steps, changing minds is the ultimate and harder endgame. Revathi’s memoir reveals the distance yet to be traveled on that front. Not many want to provide employment, housing, education, or healthcare to the hijras. Sexual prurience and degrading myths surround them, for instance, that they abduct and forcibly castrate children, that they have bizarre nighttime funeral rites, etc. Even their sporadic public displays, or threats thereof, of their (post-nirvaanam) sexual anatomy are survival tactics—meant to extract money from a discriminatory society by pushing its norms of sexual decency. The reality is that the hijras have one of the worst socioeconomic indicators across all social groups. The majority are illiterate (they drop out of school or don’t attend due to harassment and shame) and aren’t even aware of their rights. That said, a handful of hijras of the new generation are breaking barriers and gaining social mobility through education and activism.
But Revathi represents only one kind of transgenders in India: trans women. A lot more stories of hijras and of other transgender people—of those who are born female but identify as male (trans men), who consider themselves agender, who variously identify with both genders, and who inhabit yet other permutations of gender identity—are yet to be written. What will keep emerging from such testimonies is that the ‘sickness’ or ‘defect’ is not in their authors, but in those who continue to deny them an equal humanity.
 In her ethnographic study on hijras, Neither Man nor Woman, Serena Nanda describes nirvaanam as “a rite of passage, moving the ‘nirvan’ (the one who is operated on) from the status of an ordinary, impotent male to that of a hijra. Through the operation, the former, impotent male person dies, and a new person, endowed with sacred power (shakti), is reborn”, one, ironically, with the power to bless infertile women.
 Read the perspective of another hijra and rights activist, Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, interviewed by Shanoor Seervai, India’s Third Gender, Guernica, March 16, 2015.
All photographs were taken by the author at the Koovagam Transgender Festival 2016, which happens in the tiny village of Koovagam, Tamil Nadu, about 70 km inland from Pondicherry. It’s centered around a temple dedicated to the warrior-hero Aravan, who is also a patron god of the hijra community (trans women) in India. Aravan is Arjuna’s son and a minor character in the Mahabharata. In a Tamil version of this epic, the need arises for a warrior to sacrifice himself for Team Pandava, and Aravan rises to the occasion. He would go down fighting the next day but today he has a last wish. The bachelor hero wants to marry a woman and spend his last night with her. But no woman would come forward, for who would want imminent widowhood thrust upon her? It is then that Lord Krishna transforms himself into the enchantress Mohini and marries Aravan. The next day Aravan dies and Mohini mourns as a widow.
Over 5,000 hijras from all over India descend on Koovagam to participate in this multi-day festival. On its second-last day, each of them symbolically marries Aravan in the temple (they play the part of Krishna who had transformed himself into a female), for which they wear their best saris and put on mangal sutras/thalis (a necklace that married women traditionally wear). They hang out with old friends and sing and dance all evening. On the morning of the last day, a statue of Aravan is taken around the village on a multi-level, hand-drawn ratha (“chariot”), and he is symbolically sacrificed. All of the hijras (aka Aravanis) become widows, break their thalis, change into white saris, and ritually mourn their husband’s death. For more pictures, visit shunya.net.
More writing by Namit Arora?
Meena Kadri. Airing Laundry in Ahmedabad - India's Old City.
Thanks to Rumana Husain for finding this photograph reminiscent of Mughal miniatures, and researching the artist for me!
Open Your Mouth, Stick Out Your Tongue, and Say "Five"
by Carol A. Westbrook
In case you have never seen one, a Press Ganey survey is a multi-page questionnaire in which you asked to rate your experiences during a hospital or outpatient clinic visit, from 0 (bad) to 5 (best). The completed questionnaire is mailed to Press Ganey, which compiles and analyzes the data, and reports the results to the hospital or health care system that ordered the survey.
The survey asks questions like, "Did you have to wait long to see your doctor? Was the staff pleasant? Was the waiting room clean? Did your doctor take enough time to explain things to you? Did your doctor smile and shake your hand? Did the valet parker return your car promptly?" It also does not ask questions that the health care organization does not want to hear, for example, "Was your doctor given enough time with you? Did you actually get to see the doctor instead of the nurse practitioner? "Press Ganey has been called an Angels' List for clinics and hospitals.
That is why administrators love Press Ganey surveys--because they know that good scores will bring in more business. They also have the side benefit of providing an outlet for unsatisfied or angry patients who otherwise would be pounding on their door. Giving a doctor a "0" makes a disgruntled customer feel that he is addressing a problem, without the manager ever having to do anything about it!
Most importantly, though, patient satisfaction scores provide "objective" data that can be used to manipulate physicians by lowering their salaries or even firing them if they do not maintain a high score.
Patients are frequently surprised to learn that the salaries of their doctors are tied to their survey scores, yet this is the reality for almost two-thirds of physicians employed by health care groups. For some doctors, 10% to 20% or more of their salary is at risk. Fortunately for me, when I was an employed physician it was only about 1%.
Why do administrators push physicians to drive up their patient satisfaction scores? For two simple reasons: higher scores bring in more business, but will also result in higher payments for their business, due to the "Pay for Performance" mandate.
To understand the "Pay for Performance" mandate, it helps to look at the history of the Press Ganey organization. The survey was created in 1985 when an anthropologist and a sociologist were asked to provide a tool for hospitals to determine if patients were satisfied with the care that they received. The business expanded rapidly after 2002, when CMS, the Federal agency that administers Medicare, announced a program to survey patients and require public reporting of the results. This was the result of a Federal a mandate to empower patients to make more informed decisions about health care by improving accountability and public disclosure. In 2003 Press Ganey went private for $100 million and was sold four years later for $673 million. Today, it typically reports over $200 million in yearly sales.
Press Ganey's business got another boost recently with the ObamaCare "Pay for Performance" initiative. Hospitals that perform poorly on quality measures forfeit 1% of their Medicare payments, a number that will double in 2017, putting some $2 billion at risk. Thirty percent of that determination will be based on hospital rankings from mandated patient surveys. Because so much is at stake, administrators push their physicians to generate higher scores. A Press Ganey survey for a large health care system such as the Cleveland Clinic could easily cost a half million dollars. Who pays for this? You, the patient. It is yet one more reason that a night in a hospital room costs more than a stay in a luxury New York hotel.
Yet it is hard to imagine that Press Ganey truly addresses the "pay for performance" mandate. A patient survey is not capable of measuring doctors' competence or performance. What they measure, instead, is patient satisfaction with their visit to the doctor. And there is a serious downside to coercing a physician to accede to their patients' desires, since those desires may be medically inappropriate or even harmful.
A recent study published by researchers at UC Davis (1), using data from nearly 52,000 adults, found that the most "satisfied" patients spent 9% more on health care and prescription drugs, were more likely to be admitted to hospital, and had higher death rates. It has been speculated that these patients were more satisfied because they were given what they requested--including extra tests and medications, which may lead to more harm or complications. Dr. Aleksandra Zgierska, an addiction specialist, believes that the epidemic rise in narcotic addiction is partly due to physicians' over-prescribing pain medication in order to improve their patient satisfaction scores. In an article for the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2012 (2) she wrote, "Patients can report dissatisfaction based on real or perceived problems including whether a clinician did or did not prescribe a desired medication. In some institutions, the first question on the patient satisfaction survey queries the extent of agreement with the statement: 'I was satisfied with the way my doctor treated my pain.'"
Pressures on physicians to drive up patient satisfaction scores to provide better care may thus have the opposite effect of leading to worse care, while further driving up costs. In my opinion it would make more sense if the hospital administrators--who control scheduling, cleanliness, and ambiance--had their salaries tied to Press Ganey scores, and let the physicians establish their own performance measures. There are a number of professional organizations that provide this service, such as The Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations, whose surveys have led to improvements such as decreases in hospital-acquired infections, fewer falls, and fewer unnecessary blood transfusions. But Joint Commission surveys are performed by health care professionals rather than patients, while Press Ganey surveys are performed by a multi-million dollar company with great lobbying power. Perhaps it is time to rethink the "Pay for Performance" mandate.
I was inclined to tell him to throw it in the trash, given my dislike of patient satisfaction surveys. But then I had another thought.
"Answer every question with a 5," I suggested.
"But it's a survey. I can't give all fives!" he protested. Like many adults raised in our school system, he couldn't give all 5's any more than he could answer all his SAT questions with the same letter answer. Or could he?
"Why not?" I asked, "You like your doctor, and there was nothing negative about your experience."
He did as I suggested.
If we patients took a stand and agreed to score every survey item with a "5," then the patient satisfaction survey, and its unnecessary added costs, would become meaningless. With luck, it would be replaced by a system that truly measures a doctor's competence and performance, rather than office ambiance. This is unlikely to happen, but I can dream, can't I?
An Open Letter to Karen Armstrong
by Aasem Bakhshi
This letter was written in 2013 as a self-reflection exercise in response to Karen Armstrong's letter which she wrote in 2011 to the people of Pakistan to discover compassion in their daily lives 1.
In the Name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful
Earlier this week, I was visiting a small roadside bookstall when I discovered your letter. I picked it up, almost offhand, as if it was dropped in my mailbox. It proved to be a page-turner and unable to resist, I skimmed it standing right there in next half an hour. Needless to say that your earnest and sincere demand to rediscover compassion was not only compelling but also based on universal values of reason and harmony.
While driving back, I kept reflecting on some finer nuances of your discourse from various angles, as well as your 'charter of compassion' and found it necessary to engage with you at a more intimate level.
I should perhaps mention, right from the start, that I am cognizant of all your work. I do not claim to have read each word of it, but I have at least read each and every word you wrote about Muslim tradition and of course, about God. I mention this so you must not misconstrue me for a biased and misplaced prattler; rather, contrary to that, I am so overwhelmed by your desire to see a harmonious world that I thought it necessary to convey to you that you must know a little more about it.
Should I tell you about my favorite work of yours? No, it's not about histories of God or fundamentalism, or genesis of faith-based traditions; rather, it's the one about your own climb out of so-called darkness through that proverbial spiral staircase 2. On a lighter note, I do understand that you love to tell the world about yourself, since it's your third autobiography. However, I found it amazing to find in you a person who has opted for religious truth, found it uncongenial, learnt ways to handle that uncongeniality and finally ended up being empathetic to it; that too, despite your ultimate disregard of its metaphysical truth value.
But I tend to digress, since this missive is not about you, but me and the world I live in. I am neither a critic nor a scholar, and not even a formal student of any religion or tradition. I do not claim to have any solutions, neither short-term nor long-term. My motivation is merely to open up and reveal more of my true self and underlying societal being, that in my humble opinion, you do not seem to know too well.
Do you remember writing about that incident when your friend Charlotte invited you over to meet her friend June who was an editor? Remember when June asked you to write about your experiences as a nun? I can't recall your exact words but you talked about a feeling as if you were asked to strip naked in front of a whole lot of people; as if you had to reveal your most sensitive vulnerability to the world. Well that was exactly the urge I felt when I first read your letter addressed to us. I smelled a large disconnect with reality, or at least, the tragicomic side of it. To broaden your perception means revealing where I am most vulnerable. After all, and please pardon my repetition, it's me that we are talking about and not you. While we are on that page, I do like to confess that I don't have an extended first hand experience of your society but I can claim to have a more than decent theoretical exposure to traditions that shape its recent milieu. I assume you reciprocate a more or less similar condition. So before we speak of compassion, that is the foremost principle of your proposed, we must first ensure that you understand your presumed audience.
Of the Silent Choir
Remember you said you are not talking to the terrorist but 'speaking to the choir' which is not singing! The so-called silent majority! It struck me as interesting that you merely gave a passing remark that silent majority in Pakistan believes in a compassionate ideal. That is, it's your a priori assumption before you move forward to develop the rest of your charter. So let me tell you a little more about the silent choir.
Obviously, there can't be any statistics for a claim like this, but the silent majority almost comprises 99% of Pakistan. The remaining proverbial 1% includes people like Perween Rahman, the lady who was trying to bring sewer and water services to the poorest of the third largest city of the world and murdered brutally or Irfan Ali Khudi, the activist who was killed in a bomb blast in Quetta as he was helping the victims of another bomb blast that happened few minutes ago or that glorious martyr of compassion, the beautiful Sabeen Mahmud. Of course, there are many more.
Isn't it what can be truly called a belief in a compassionate ideal? Don't you have to be ready to die for it, if the need arises?
Rest of us, well we tirelessly hangout on our blogs and social-networks, and write about beautiful and compassionate ideals day and night. And yes, we get a lot of praise for articulating them elegantly. What to talk of death, we don't even live by it. You have to bear with me and pay a little more attention here. I am not saying we don't live by it enough; rather, we don't live by it. Period.
Let me tell you what happened yesterday afternoon. It was a Sunday and the evening was committed, so me and my wife went out for shopping at noon. Kids were unattended back home so we were naturally in a hurry and finished quickly. While driving back, we saw a huddle in the middle of the road at some distance. As our car came closer, we saw that there was a lady lying on the road besides a motorbike. A van was parked nearby which presumably collided with the bike. There was some blood on the road. Some pieces of broken glass too. The accident must have happened just a few minutes before. I saw a young man making video recording of the scene using his cell phone. He was standing on a raised ground, in order to rise above the crowd to get a better view. Another man was raising a young boy of about 10 or 11 above his shoulders. The boy ostensibly wanted to get a good look at the scene. Few people were about to get violent with the van driver. Huddle was building up and there were already like fifty odd people. Few passing-by cars, rickshaws and bikes were also there, including ours. Everybody was watching earnestly but not doing anything. At least, not visibly responding with agility, which is theoretically customary upon encountering such eventuality. Already a minute was passed when I asked my wife whether we should see if we can help. She slightly nodded, visibly on the fence, without saying anything but looking outside her window towards the people. "Hmm, where would I park", I uttered in a noncommittal way while looking into my rear-view mirror, "the traffic jam is already building up and drivers behind me seem agitated and angry". "Yeah, I think you must move on. Kids are also alone and they must be very hungry as it's well past lunch-time. And remember we still have to stop ahead for buying strawberries too", she spoke in undertones which were semi-audible. Meanwhile, as if waiting impatiently for our little exchange to end, the car horns behind us resumed in chorus. I pressed my foot on the pedal. As I drove passed the scene, I could make out that lady was now in a half sitting semi-conscious posture with hand on her bleeding head. The huddle was still growing with lots of noise.
You must be wondering whether I felt ashamed. Did I loose some sleep last night, thinking what might have ultimately happened to the lady? What happened to the driver of the bike? Was he injured too? I don't want to psychoanalyze myself, which I usually do on such occasions with characteristic audacity. I do not want to enumerate my other good deeds of the day since you have asked us "to start by doing one small good deed each day to rediscover compassion". But I must tell you that I do not characterize myself as an insensitive person at all, but somehow I am pathologically unable to live by the compassionate ideals. Trust me, your charter of compassion would not change my existential pathetic condition unless you hold my finger and guide me to the root of my problem.
You may ask what triggered me to move on? I have the requisite oral skills to control small mobs. I could have easily stopped, and do something to help in my capacity. It has not happened for the first time, rather it's a quite frequent happenstance here. Collectively speaking, it's almost a norm. It is always difficult to recollect what exactly goes through in my mind at such moments.
I am trying hard not to talk about the psychology of the mob, since I have the tendency to digress into grandiloquent narratives, an almost pathological proclivity to extend the problem outside myself . With you, I am more interested to discuss the individual. Myself. In Pakistan, we always talk ceaselessly about it later. Here we are seldom alone. There is always someone roaming around. You see, we are like a big socially well-knit family. We boast about it being among the traditional marvels of the East sustained in the modernity. The intricate mutli-layered bondage. But we rarely go through any phases of introspection, seldom talk to ourselves, peep inward rather than gazing outward. We have a tendency to incessantly talk about us, explain us to others, defend our nonchalance and brutal selfishness.
Anyway, we bought strawberries and I said to my wife in a somewhat regretful manner that we should have stopped; and wonder what might have happened to the injured lady or perhaps the van driver would have been beaten unjustly by some angry people. She kind of instantly reciprocated my confession and reassured, "Insha'Allah, Bach gaee ho gee (she must have been alive and well)". "Allah karey (may Allah)", I rejoined.
Now, when I recollect our innermost motives to move on, it's a strange inexplicable feeling where the true psychologies always remain hidden under the more expressive, tangible elements. "Am I ashamed?", I sometimes ask myself. I am unable to tell you the answer. I don't think what 'being ashamed' exactly connotes. But this desire to recollect always gives birth to hazy and superficial imagery which tends to quickly go away. Is it what we call 'moving on'? Here is the image that comes to my mind now as I write to you: It was hot as the AC of the car was not functioning, kids were alone and hungry at the home and we were in a hurry.
It's almost always like that and this is pretty much the state of the choir you are trying to reach out to. It is seldom alone, always seen scuttling vaguely as if trying to find some unknown object and usually hungry when it's time to practically stick to the ideals.
Do you know that incident about the young man in Karachi who kept hanging to the eighth floor window pane of a building to save himself from fire? Do you know that scores of people kept watching him in awe with their heads towards the sky for 15-20 minutes doing nothing? All television channels kept televising the incident, lamenting the delay by the rescue teams, till the man eventually jumped on the concrete floor and died due to injuries. The mob on the ground didn't even come up with the simplest or wildest strategy to rescue the man as he jumped. No one moved an inch. This is the nomenclature of the choir. It's not only silent, it's also awestruck. And it's always looking towards the sky.
But we have not just touched the tip of the iceberg. Remember, we still have to talk about the compassionate ideals?
Of Compassion and other Obscure Ideals
As evident from your primary assumption, I see you compartmentalizing Pakistani society in two distinct compartments, that is, 1) the suicidal terrorist or the extremist radical, and 2) who does not essentially belongs to the first category. And this particular compartmentalization supplies you with an unwarranted assumption that the latter somehow believes in an ideal of compassion. So let me briefly characterize the proverbial choir for you. I don't want to waste your time in tracing our now somewhat shared, common roots of socio-political romanticism, the individual, the liberty, the search for a universally valid ethics, the ideals to live and die for. You obviously know it far better than me. I also understand that socio-political ideologies are never stringently located on the extremes of liberalism and conservatism in their respective highest possible degrees. I am also well aware of the perennial ongoing discussion to place a plethora of ideologies in between, such as libertarian conservatism or conservative liberalism.
What I am interested in, however, is how your perceive myself. Me, the smallest part of this chunk of matter you called choir; that is, the proverbial quark inside the atom. Because, only after knowing the exact shape and structure of this quark that you would be able to visualize the atom more meaningfully.
I understand that it has been another perennial problem in the history of human study to sufficiently characterize an individual; but still the modernity, besides giving way to absurd generalization and compartmentalization of all learning mechanisms, has at least established that an individual, besides his own subjective consciousness, is a minimum possible meaningful by-product of the histories, psychologies and attitudes surrounding him. Hence, our subsequent arrival at some elegant linguistic tools to characterize an individual. In this respect, Pakistani individual, albeit being similar to any other individuals of the world in the biological sense, defies all these existing tagging mechanisms. He is essentially a new commodity in the global market of ideological associations. You have to invent new sociological tools to study such an individual, just like you need new and advanced logic to dig truth out of a statement that seems to contradicts itself.
(I see you blinking your eyes at my alleged, almost morbid cynicism but let me tell you that I am no old die-hard self-despising cynic. If I didn't believe in the power of humane ideals, I would not have been conversing with you at first place. Rather, I just wish to reveal it to you that each and every Pakistani belonging to the choir is literally a walking human paradox.)
You should not doubt this statement for a second if you wish to continue teaching us about rediscovering compassion. Sorry for my seemingly condescending attitude, but let me make things a little bit simpler for you to understand. In this imagined community, there is a kind of individual who sincerely wishes that he was not born here, and that is kind of an enough adumbration of his likely paradoxes. Lets call him Liberal-1 for the sake of our conversation. Liberal-2 is an individual who loves to call himself the sole bearer of liberal values, that is, he is for all kind of social reform and progress, and loves to challenge authoritarianism in all its manifestations. His paradox is extremely hard to catch but it lies in a kind of counter-cultural outlook that he tries to project, particularly an aura of impurity among the purest of pure (did you smell a tinge of sarcasm?). In a nutshell, he wants to portray himself as a by-product of classical European Enlightenment without actually going through the process of enlightenment rooted in his own social milieu. A mirror image of the above is Conservative-1, whose misery is no different than Liberal-2, that is, he would love to call himself a conservative, and would always insist to go back to the tradition, but would ask at the same time to reserve the right to pick and choose from the fruits of modernity. His misplaced anachronistic notions of history and tradition, and his pathological agitation towards modernity gives birth to dangerous and lethal paradoxes. Lastly, there is a Conservative-2 who generally moves all along the spectrum of ideological associations. He is subconsciously conservative and always kind of apprehensive in being tagged as liberal; that is, he intelligently and carefully picks and chooses from Liberal-2 and Conservative-1. At times he is liberal in his sociological outlook but when it comes to what liberalism entails in the domain of politics for instance, he conveniently switches to conservativism. Furthermore, he is fixated in a unique semiotic framework arising due to various socio-religious conflicts. In his framework, for example, booze and coke are far greater vices than blatant lying and hypocrisy. As I said, he picks and chooses almost whimsically. This unique framework is apt to raise equally unique paradoxes.
So what do we end up having here? Not one, two, or three, but a whole lot of walking paradoxes; audacious in their precious confoundedness, skittering in a huddle, with their heads towards the sky. Heck, I have now understood while writing these words! it's in fact a coalescence, an amazing congregation of paradoxes! So next time when you sit to draft the Charter of Compassion 2.0, you must keep in mind the kind of choir you need to compel to start singing. Do you really reckon they would sing in unison? Can a single monolithic ideal of compassion bind them together? Has it ever happened anywhere in few thousand years of known human history?
In your letter, you talked about such lovely notions as "compassion being at the heart of all religious, spiritual and ethical traditions", and about alleviating the suffering of other people, and not to consider them inferior in any way. I especially liked the bit about "inviolable sanctity" of the other and "dethroning" oneself from the "centre of the world" and putting the other there. You also embellished your charter with beautiful small examples for Pakistani students; how Wilfred Cantwell Smith used to fast, pray and observe various religious rituals to get momentarily into the shoes of the 'other'; how Toshihiko Izutsu rediscovered the subtleties of Arabic word Hilm in Quran; and how all the great sages of antiquity such as Confucius, Lao Tzu and Buddha followed the so-called Golden Rule - that is to emphasize the compassionate part of their traditions and reject the part that is suspicious about the other.
But this simply does not make any difference because here we follow our own golden rules. Not one, but two. "He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past." Do these lines ring any bell? Well, this is the first Golden Rule we follow in the land of the pure. For must we necessarily pollute our minds with the vulgar impurities of the so-called rich and pluralist tradition of Takṣaśilā or Indus Valley? Must we befuddle the innocent young and old minds with elusiveness of history, culture and tradition? Why not, instead, create our own new innovative textbooks3, while complying with the second Golden Rule, that is: "the best books ... are those that tell you what you know already."
So here is a million dollar question: what do we know already? And the answer: We know what people like Naseem Hijazi has told us. I presume you don't know much about the single most important historian of first fifty years of Pakistan 4. If there is one man that forces me to accept George Orwell the literary prophet of last century, it is Naseem Hijazi. (I see bewilderment in your eyes once again but you must bear with me.) We, the present Pure generation, is a generation who has grown up visualizing itself being part of the whole belligerent spectrum, that is, from landing on the coast of Deebal, breaking into the temples of Raja Dahir with our flashy swords and freeing those wailing women from Raja's horrendous dungeons, to fighting in the armies of Siraj-ud-Daula and Tipu Sultan. During these intensive and bloody conquests (and occasional defeats, only to rise up again with new valor), If we have ever found ourselves in a compassionate love triangle, it has to be somewhere around Basra, amidst preparations to launch missions for upcoming battles of Hind and Khurasan. We have successfully created our own cherished history, our own culture and of course, the all-compassionate Muslim heroes. At least the last two, that is Conservative-1 and Conservative-2 are the by-product of this imagined historical paradigm, always in a discompassionate merciless tension with Liberal-1 and Liberal-2.
That pretty much sums up the choir. So now you are able to see that the world is indeed our oyster but not to explore and implement any compassionate ideals but in a completely twisted way; the peculiar way of a colonial cultural narcissist of good old Victorian times. And a traditional cultural narcissist as well, that is, one who is adamant to create a new imagined culture out of nothing.
Would you now let me ask some simple questions. Is it possible to dethrone a cultural narcissist from the center of his world? Can he truly be able to love the other? With inviolable sanctity? How does a cultural narcissist, completely devoid of any universal aesthetics other than those meant to explore and incessantly magnify his own beauty, conceptualize God? What about the so-called natural climax of Abrahamic tradition that claims to bear the ultimate complete truth in its final form? What about knowledge? And what about those beautiful pointers towards compassion in the whole scriptural tradition?
David Foster Wallace has somewhere written that narcissism is part of depression. But Wallace's characterization is only partially true for a kind of narcissism leading to nihilism, which in a grim way ultimately forces the individual to consume himself. There are other, arguably more stark, forms of narcissism. And cultural narcissism is one such form. A egotist cultural narcissist had a twisted view of reality, which is not only self-centered but also self-protruding, that is all reality emanates from his own self. Consciously or subconsciously, he keeps circumambulating around the Kaaba of his imagined lofty narratives, going on an on in circles without ever having a slight tinge of doubt. Nothing captures him more than his version of cherished reality, of which he is the origin as well as the terminus; always situated in the center of his universe, audacious and fearless of his infallibility.
Consequently, all other ideals are redefined, and those which cannot be redefined are forcefully diminished as invalid, with respect to that reality. Not only that but all the human faculties, such as the abilities to reason, reflect and argue, inadvertently fortify these new definitions. Let me once again emphasize that I am talking about All the Ideals. The liberty of the individual, the love of the other, the truth to be deciphered from the revelation, other humanist ideals such as empathy and justice, and the one you mentioned as the seventh step of your charter: "to know the other".
God is no exception. Isn't He too a supreme ideal to be imagined, after all? Therefore, it is not that a Purist Pakistani - a large part of the choir - is incapable of compassion and empathy with the 'other' but that all these notions are conditioned according to his imagined structures of reality. In the political manifestations of these cherished structures of reality, the 'other' is essentially viewed as an entity to be released from the shackles of darkness and brought into the open arms of an imagined Islamic ideal. Doesn't it seem a lovely cosmological framework to encompass all polity? From darkness to the light? I mean, who would theoretically disagree to that? It's simple and elegant; and if you are already fed on romantically imagined, flimsy and incomplete socio-historical narratives, you are not only conditioned to make perfect sense of it within your precept, but also ideologically prepared to take it forward to the next step.
In these imagined narratives, the world, - which is in utter darkness - will be brought to light before the end of days. Did I hear you say something to yourself ? Ahh, you are probably thinking that such eschatologies are shared by many other religions of the world and there is nothing unique as such. I agree to that but here comes the really innovative part: the final phase of this perennial conflict between the forces of light and darkness will start from Pakistan. After clearing the first two steps, that is an Islamic caliphate in AF-Pak and India, and submission of all modern heathens, caliphate would start expanding and reach its natural limits when all the universe will be unified under an enlightened Islamic polity.
Would you disagree that bringing nations of the world from the darkness to light is not enough pursuance of a compassionate ideal?
I can go on and on but it is not my desire to keep you engaged at length with our intricate and innumerable miseries. Bickering about your well intended charter of compassion hasn't been slightest of my motivations, needless to mention that I do resonate with it in broad terms; what I wanted to tear apart, rather, was myself. Remember that urge to reveal the innermost?
And now when you presumably know the silent majority a little more, I must tell you in the end why the charter of compassion won't work. It is not because the conservatives would refuse to take the prep-talk about the compassionate side of their religion from an atheist, and the liberals would remain indifferent to any religious enquiry whatsoever; rather, its futility lies in its failure to recognize the actual problem. Unable to reach to the core of the Pakistani problem, the whole charter tries to place it within the domain of religious interpretation. Thus it projects the so-called Golden Rule of emphasizing in tradition what should provoke empathy for the 'other' and downplaying what is considered insensitive. I ask you what is it, if not a cunning contrivance? Isn't it simple picking and choosing with wise gimmickry? Aren't all the religious bigots in this country among liberals and conservatives, the sundry drum-beaters projecting Armageddon scenarios every other day, and even the suicidal radicals, doing the same thing; that is picking and choosing?
In the charter, you have time and again insinuated to reject the so-called authoritarian interpretations of religion and tradition, and embrace the more humanistic ones. Well, the cultural narcissist - making large part of the silent majority - whose reality is already transposed, is exactly doing it inadvertently, but for those views which are essentially consistent with his version of reality. Because, all of us necessarily think and act according to our own perceptions of realities and corresponding world-views. Post-modern socio-political thought structures have at least provided some basis to argue that all of us do enjoy this right, and be ready to eat the fruits of this liberty.
In my opinion, what we instead have to do, is to somehow extract the problem from the domain of religion or tradition - where you tend to put it - to the domain of aesthetics, that is the highest point of the pyramid of hierarchy. In other words, we have to explore the relationship of individual with the world according to his notion of what is beautiful, rather than many other alternative notions, such as what his religious belief entails and whether and how he can perceive the 'other' from various standpoints.
I hate to reiterate that I do not speak from the position of a critic or a scholar, but just a Pakistani who has read you and understood you as the 'other'. Through your writings, I have found in you a uniquely profound dimension to believe in humanity and the humane ideals. For what can be a more truer perception of 'other', than being able to perceive his God from his own standpoint. I don't characterize you as an atheist but one that is kind of perplexed in placing faith in God as an ultimately real being or as an ideal to be imagined. Most of us who choose to believe in God as a real Being, have a tendency to define Him according to our own perceptions of reality.
Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) was reported to have said that Allah is beautiful and loves beauty. In my view, a large majority of Pakistani society has a problem with imagination and not with inaction or insensitivity to move towards achieving a compassionate ideal, and subsequently, a humane society. If we want to compel this proverbial choir to sing in harmony, and in an audible voice, we must first challenge their notions of beauty with full force. And there can't be any stronger form of this challenge than challenging their perception of God. For how can believers in an ugly and insensitive God strongly believe in a beautiful and compassionate world-view. We can only rediscover a cogent framework for compassion by bringing all other questions related to sociology of religion under a universal aesthetics.
Regards and peace.
- Karen Armstrong. A Letter to Pakistan. Oxford University Press, 2011
- Karen Armstrong. The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness. Anchor Books, 2005
- Aziz, Khursheed Kamal. The murder of history: A critique of history textbooks used in Pakistan. Vanguard, 1993; also see recently published Nadeem F. Paracha. End of the Past. Vanguard, 2016
- Ahmed, Manan. The Many Histories of Muhammad b. Qasim: Narrating the Muslim Conquest of Sindh. Diss. University of Chicago, Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations, 2008. (Chapter 4)