Monday, June 29, 2015
"the best picture in the world"
I recently found myself marooned with a large group of astronomers in a remote 11th century abbey in Tuscan countryside. Despite the picturesque beauty of the landscape not to mention the abbey's splendid library; still the days (I must admit) stretched on and on…
I guess it's true that google is making me stupid, but I discovered that it is a lot harder for me than it used to be to read for hours on end. And without any wireless nor any real means of getting myself back to civilization, I decided to hatch a means of escape. It wasn't all that hard actually, it was just a matter of reminding him (the astronomer with the driver's licence) that located not all that faraway from the abbey was what has been called "the best picture in the world."
Has anyone else read that wonderful essay by Aldous Huxley called "The Best Picture?"
It is a brilliant essay --and the title says it all. But, wait, you ask, how can there be such a thing as "the best picture" in the world? Isn't it an absolutely ludicrous suggestion to make?
Of course it is, and this is not lost on Huxley--for as you can see in the essay, he addresses this absurdity immediately:
The greatest picture in the world…. You smile. The expression is ludicrous, of course. Nothing is more futile than the occupation of those connoisseurs who spend their time compiling first and second elevens of the world's best painters,eights and fours of musicians, fifteens of poets, all-star troupes of architects and so on. Nothing is so futile because there are a great many kinds of merit and an infinite variety of human beings. Is Fra Angelico a better artist than Rubens? Such questions, you insist, are meaningless. It is all a matter of personal taste.And up to a point this is true. But there does exist, none the less, an absolute standard of artistic merit. And it is a standard which is in the last resort a moral one. Whether a work of art is good or bad depends entirely on the quality of the character which expresses itself in the work. Not that all virtuous men are good artists, nor all artists conventionally virtuous. Longfellow was a bad poet, while Beethoven's dealings with his publishers were frankly dishonourable.But one can be dishonourable towards one's publishers and yet preserve the kind of virtue that is necessary to a good artist. That virtue is the virtue of integrity, of honesty towards oneself.I like this last sentence very much. First of all, I also enjoy compiling lists… from the best essays to my favorite restaurants, I find such lists (and declarations of things that are "the best") to be somehow really interesting. And Like Huxley, not only does Piero top my list of best painters, but in a similar vein, I also perhaps delude myself into thinking that my lists are not merely subjective pronouncements but rather are based on some mind of shared standards of taste and virtue. Touching on two notions dear to my own heart, I think Huxley rightly bases his judgement on the idea that there are Platonic ideals at work in art appreciation and that exposure to art works that express closely such ideals have an uplifting and transformative effect on people. When I studied tea ceremony, for example, the notion that the appreciation and handling of beautiful objects had a morally uplifting element was fundamental-- that is, the beautiful was conflated with the good during the lessons. I therefore agree with Huxley that part of the reason that a particular work of art can be said to be morally, spiritually or intellectually uplifting is related to a kind of fidelity to integrity (to a shared ideal).
Anyway, the famous Piero della Francesca trail started just down the road from the foot of the hill where our abbey was located, in the wonderful town of Arezzo about an hour away. It was there that the young Piero was called upon in 1457 to finish decorating the apse of the Basilica of San Francesco, stepping in to complete the frescoes after the original painter commissioned to decorate the space in the basilica died.
Arriving at the church first thing in the morning as soon as things opened to tourists, we were allowed an hour and a half in the apse with the frescoes. (At busy times, tourists must content themselves with a 25 minute limit). Piero's pictures mainly remain where they were painted and this is what is often cited for why his name was lost to obscurity until comparatively modern times. For unlike Titian or Rembrandt, one has to travel to see his work. In John Pope-Hennessey's wonderful essay, called the Piero della Francesca Trail, he suggested that if Piero's work had been dispersed in the way Botticelli's had, it would be Piero who would have left the greater mark on history--being the better painter after all.
Once discovered from obscurity, however, his pictures would go on to inspire many modern painters--from Cezanne to Seurat (story of that interesting history here). Surprisingly modern, there is something indescribable about seeing his work in situ. We couldn't immediately find the church though. Resembling nothing more than a huge barn, an elderly lady sitting on a bench caught my eye and motioned for us to turn around, pointing at the church.
Walking in, we both were completely overwhelmed. I had never heard of the Legend of the True Cross before--and was surprised to learn it was a favorite of the Franciscans. A medieval story, it tells the tale of the Cross--from its beginnings as the tree of knowledge in the garden of Eden (!!); the wood was then transformed (after being buried with Adam) in the building of the temple of Solomon. (Not surprisingly, it was the Queen of Sheba, who divined its future use and thereby warned Solomon that the future savior of the world would be killed using this very piece of wood). This, foretelling the end of the Jewish kingdom, Solomon hid the wood in a swamp. From Sheba to Saint Helena and the battle between Heraclius and Khosrau, the tale of the true cross is an absolutely mind-boggling story that Piero somehow turned into an intellectually stimulating tour de force that had my astonomer and I utterly speechless.
Indeed, we were totally hooked on his work by the first stop on the Piero Pilgrimage. (It was here, incidentally, where I accidentally flushed my camera down the toilet thereby proving that real journeys are seldom as easy as one hopes). Sigh~~
After recovering from the wonderful shock of the frescoes and the loss of my camera, we had pizza before heading on to the second stop to see the fresco that Huxley declared was the "best picture in the world."
Located in what was basically the spot where Piero painted it, in the old town hall in the city of Sansepolcro, this also happened to be the painter's birthplace. Waiting for the museum to re-open at 2:30, we strolled around the quiet town, stopping to sit in front of a statue of Piero, erected to honor the town's greatest son in the town park, barely making it back to the museum before a rain shower hammered down on us, a harbinger of more trouble ahead. At this point, though, we were still quite excited to finally be able to see Huxley's favorite picture.
The Resurrection by Piero della Francesca-- There is an absolutely wonderful story attached to this fresco that ocurred during WWII. Bombing the city, the British artillery officer in charge could not get the name Sansepolcro out of his mind... "Sansepolcro, Sansepolcro," he wondered, "where had he heard the name before?" It took awhile but suddenly he remembered where he had heard that name. It was an essay he had read many years earlier by Aldous Huxley in which the author declared that the best picture in the world could be found in this very place that he was now shelling!
What a surreal moment that must have been. The officer immediately ordered a halt to the bombing. He then made his way unopposed into the town. Locating the town hall, he stood before the Resurrection which had miraculously survived the building's roof caving in!
"We need no imagination to help us figure forth its beauty,'' Huxley wrote. "It stands there before us in entire and actual splendor, the greatest picture in the world."
What was once the town hall is now the Museo Civico. However when we were finally let in, we had to console ourselves to look at the picture in bits and pieces as it was undergoing restoration. With the entire top half obscured behind scaffolding that we could simply not move around, we could not see Christ's face at all. It was a bitter pill to swallow and swearing to ourselves that we would just have to come back and see it another time, we moved on to see Piero’s oil, Madonna della Misericordia (The Madonna of Mercy) located in the adjacent room.
The final part of our journey involved a wonderful drive through the mountains to Urbino.
While not quite as curvy, the drive reminded me something of the famed Irohazaka road in Japan. Famous as a spot for viewing the autumn foliage, the Irohazaka was also a Buddhist pilgrimage route for pilgrims heading up to Lake Chuzenji. For both Huxeley and Pope-Hennessey, the road to and from San Spulchro is definitely part of the great adventure and allure of the Piero Pilgrimage.
Huxley says this:
BORGO SAN SEPOLCRO IS NOT VERY EASY TO GET AT. There is a small lowcomedy railway across the hills from Arezzo. Or you can approach it up the Tiber valley from Perugia. Or, if you happen to be at Urbino, there is a motor 'bus which takes you to San Sepolcro, up and down through the Apennines, in something over seven hours. No joke, that journey, as I know by experience. But it is worth doing, though preferably in some other vehicle than the 'bus, for the sake of the Bocca Trabaria, that most beautiful of Apennine passes, between the Tiber valley and the upper valley of the Metauro. It was in the early spring that we crossed it. Our omnibus groaned and rattled slowly up a bleak northern slope, among bald rocks, withered grass and still unbudded trees, it crossed the col and suddenly, as though by a miracle, the ground was yellow with innumerable primroses, each flower a little emblem of the sun that had called it into being.
It's true, the Apennines are stunning and the valley pass was filled with wild flowers. It definitely makes my lists of favorite drives of my life! (and it does not take 7 hours as it did in Huxley's day--though it is a very narrow and trecherous mountain road!)
Arriving at the lovely hilltown of Urbino we saw what is perhaps Piero's most discussed and famous picture: the Flagellation of Christ. (this is another work of Piero's considered "one of the world's best ten." The controversy about this one stems from the three men at front. The conventional interpretation is that this is the flagellation of Christ by the Romans with Pilate looking like the Ottoman Sultan to the side... It is a very intriguing but mysterious picture done in oil and tempera on wood. Who are those three people and why are they so oblivious to the cruelty going on in, wonders one of the the characters (on their own Piero Pilgrimage) in John Mortimer's novel Summer Lease.
There are countless interpretations. Pope-Hennessey, for example, doesn't think it is Christ at all--but rather Saint Jerome:
As a young man St Jerome dreamt that he was flayed on divine order for reading pagan texts, and he himself later recounted this dream, in a celebrated letter to Eustochium, in terms that exactly correspond with the left-hand side of the Urbino panel.
A great ascetic, there was one thing Jerome found it hard to give up: Cicero. A great admirer of classical culture, the saint often read the Bible and Stoic philosophy back to back. That is, until he had his infamous dream where he was flogged before God and declared to be "Ciceronian rather than Christian!"
It is such a brilliant dream---plagued by his guilty pleasure of reading Cicero, the saint vows afterward to keep a better perspective when it comes to philosophy.
This would explains the classical sculpture. Pope-Hennessey goes on to claim that the three men on the right are an angel and two scholars who are discussing the merits of classical and patristic literature in relation to Saint Jerome's dream. Hmmm.....(this short video sums things up). It is a wonderful picture and I definitely prefer the Pope-Hennessey explanation (the Ottoman looking Pilate is hard to explain no matter what).
Piero the great: James Hall, in reviewing Larry Witham's new book, Piero's Light says,
Modern critics have compared his mesmerizingly aloof madonnas to Buddhas; his sentinel saints to Egyptian statues; and his consummate micromanagement of light to that of Vermeer. The American painter Philip Guston observed: "His work has a kind of innocence or freshness about it, as if he was a messenger from God, looking at the world for the first time."
It is true that his work is both evocative of ancient sacred art (especially the serenity and deep spirituality of Buddhist sculpture) at the same time as it is surprisingly modern. A great mathematician and dedicated Platonist, Piero is revered in Italy as an early Renaissance genius. Like Leonardo. It will come as no surprise to hear that Larry Witham's new book posits that it is precisely the painter's research into the "sacred geometry" of Plato that makes Piero's work so accessible to us today.The pure geometric shapes and incredible skill in portraying light and color has made him a favorite painter of many modern artists. And, indeed, there was a time when the Piero trail was something of a cult journey.
Differing from Huxley, Pope-Hennessey's favorite Piero is the Brera Madonna, which I am hoping to see in Milan next week. He describes the picture as being of an incomparable subtlety in the lighting, spacial structure and the beauty of the imagery. I have to say that for me it was the True Cross fresco cycle--in particular Constantine's Dream panel of the True Cross fresco series.
These paintings suspended within the stones of the church walls have a three dimensional quality that painting on wood or canvas simply lack and this particular panel of the Dream of Constantine has a night-time intensity I have probably never seen in a painting before. It must be decades ahead of its time--if not centuries? Almost like a hallucination, the fresco seems to jump off the wall in front of the eyes; other-worldly, dreamlike, it is hard to believe these works are so old.
Pope-Hennessey ends his essay on the Piero della Francesca trail in quoting Susan Sontag's essay "Against Interpretation, where Sontag says:
"What is important to me now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more. Our task is not to find the maximum content out of a work, much less to squeeze more content out of the work than is already there... the aim of all commentary on art now should be to make works of art--and, by analogy, our own experiences-- more rather than less real to us."
The fate of our times, Max Weber bemoaned, is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, by the disenchantment of the world. Some say it is science and art which alone have the power to re-enchant us with the world. (Maybe that is part of the vision of this blog?) I do think it's true that science and art can "save" us in this way... For me, there was something truly wonderful about following in the footsteps of an artist--in "pilgrimage." Especially since the pilgrimage involved seeing the works mainly in situ, in the places where they were originally created. I really did feel my senses coming alive in the way Sontag suggested is so necessary for us now. But it was not just that. For being on the trail in this way allowed me to understand what Pope-Hennessey suggested at the end of his book-- that on a subconscious level the tourist who follows on the Piero route (like the Leonardo route) becomes able "of explaining the phenomenon of the trail and the pertinacity with which it is pursued." The thrill of the journey and the quest...This is a marvelous form of re-enchantment with the world, don't you think?
We didn't see the Madonna del parto or go on to Rimino, which are also part of the classical Piero Pilgrimage (someday we will go back and finish it); we did see the Urbino Madonna (Senigallia Madonna--with a Christ child very reminiscent of Buddhist sculpture) and the wonderful double portraits in the Uffizi, the splendid portraits of the Duke and Duchess of Urbino.
Burning My Confederate Flag
by Akim Reinhardt
To be born in America in 1967 is, to some degree, to fall through the cracks.
The Baby Boom was most certainly over by then, its most senior elements old enough to vote and drink. But the Millennials, now the focus of every drooling advertising executive and marketing guru, were naught but twinkles in the eyes of their Boomer sires and dames.
Bookmarked between bigger generations, being born in the late 1960s and early 1970s meant you were conceived and suckled amid the tumult of the Civil Rights and Vietnam protests; in (cloth) diapers when the moon landing occurred; discovering kindergarten as President Richard Nixon’s Plumbers were bumbling the Watergate break-in; and learning to read when the final U.S. helicopters evacuated Saigon.
To be born in 1967 means that when the late 1960s and early 1970s were becoming iconic, you were there, but you weren't. You didn't get to partake in the Summer of Love. You're what it spit out.
Thus, when coming of age, many important things were very familiar to you, but their meanings were muddled. Cultural symbols like bell bottom jeans and rubber Richard Nixon masks were still common enough to be lodged in your consciousness, but deeper insights were lacking. By the time you were waking up in the late 1970s, they seemed to be little more than goofs, unmoored from the bloody anti-war protests that divided a nation, or the collapse of a presidency that shook Americans' faith in their government.
Sure, we understood our own moment well enough. Late Cold War and early computers. AIDS and acid rain. Crack cocaine and homelessness. But the gravitas that had conceived us was by then little more than parody and catharsis. Black Power surrendered to Blacksploitation. Protest songs gave way to disco and synth pop. Vietnam was reduced to Rambo.
And if the late 1970s began glossing over so much of what had immediately preceded it, then the 1980s buffed it into a smooth, porcelain sheen. In pop culture representations of the 1960s and early 19790s, substance had been overtaken by style. Symbols, absent their meaning, were rendered fashion accessories and punch lines. A case in point was the Confederate flag.
Maybe it was different in the South. It almost certainly was, I suppose, at least to some extent. But growing up in a Jewish-Irish section of the Bronx during the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Confederate flag was little more than a rarely seen piece of kitschy exotica. It was about as common as a Don't Tread On Me Flag in the pre-Tea Party era, and seemed to carry about as much meaning, which was almost none. It came across as gaudy and irrelevant, a relic of some bygone era.
If the Stars and Bars, which looked like the redheaded stepchild of Old Glory and the Union Jack, was to be taken seriously at all, it was only as a token of the losing side in the Civil War more than a hundred years earlier. But beyond that, on the rare instances the banner caught your glance, it was merely cartoonish.
The Confederate flag was something you associated with Southern rock bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd. It was painted on the side of a hot rod in the bubble gum TV show The Dukes of Hazzard. For a teenager in the Bronx in the 1980s, if the Confederate flag signified anything at all, it was drunk people in cutoffs.
Which is all just a long winded, and perhaps self-rationalizing explanation of why I bought one at a tourist trap in 1985.
Our senior year of high school, three friends and I piled into a small, brown Toyota Corolla and drove from the Bronx to Ft. Lauderdale for Spring Break. Only two of us knew how to drive a stick. Only one of us had a license.
Our parents were a bit tentative about the whole thing, but when we rotated a smattering of well timed lies among them to tweak the details, they all signed off.
My dad took me down to the bank, got me some traveler's checks, and instructed me to find a good hiding spot in the hotel room for my cash; I elected to stash it above a drop ceiling tile. Another dad, a thickly accented German Jewish immigrant, urged us to be safe and responsible, passing his son a string of condoms through the car window just before we hit the road.
It was a different time.
Our parents had suggested we stop in North Carolina the first night, as it was about halfway and they didn't want us driving tired. But we were young and full of steam, and we plowed on. Late that first afternoon, we crossed the North Carolina-South Carolina state line and pulled into a tourist trap whose billboards we'd been mocking for miles. It's called South of the Border.
For those unfamiliar with the I-95 jaunt down the East Coast, South of the Border is a massive, Mexican-themed rest stop that's been around since the 1950s. It's also got a lot of Southern tchotchkes, and it was there that, on a lark, I purchased a polyester Confederate flag for a couple of bucks.
I thought Daisy Duke was hot. I liked Lynyrd Skynyrd and a few other bands of that ilk. I stuffed the flag into my bag, we crowded back into the Corolla, and continued embarking on our comically misguided adventure.
As the years went by, my flag languished. To be perfectly honest, I have almost no recollection of what I did with it over the next decade. I assume I hung it on various walls and draped it over random objects. But then again, it may very well have remained stuffed in the corners of closets much of the time. It made virtually no long term impression on my life. Rather, the object remained true to its origins: another meaningless piece of crap picked up at a tourist trap while on vacation. The very first, in fact, that I could ever lay claim to, and I quickly learned the lesson: Don't bother.
By the late 1990s, I was living in Lincoln, Nebraska, earning a Ph.D. in history. I had my own place, a spacious 1 BR with beautiful wooden floors, a living room and a dining room, faux Dutch molding on the ceiling, and both a front and back porch.
The back porch was really more of a mud room off the kitchen and it led out the back door. The front porch, however, was reasonably large and screened in. Being the bearded heathen I was, I squandered this pleasant space, using it to stow random crap and to house the litter box for my two cats. Since the screened porch was perpetually ventilated, I allowed myself to change the litter far less often than I should have.
One day, while scooping the poop, I noticed the old Confederate flag, crumpled in the corner and enmeshed in cat hair. I picked it up. It stank. Perhaps the porch wasn't ventilating as well as I'd presumed. Time for this thing to go, I thought. But let's do it in style.
I phoned up my friends and told them I was having a flag burning party. Come on over. We'll drink whiskey (that's about as far as my party planning skills generally take me), and at the stroke of midnight, I'll burn my Confederate flag while playing "Sweet Home Alabama" by Skynyrd.
Now that I was a history graduate student with a better understanding of the past, it seemed like a just ending for this troublesome symbol. It seemed like an appropriate demise for a piece of tourist trap ephemera. It seemed like a good excuse to have a party.
My friends arrived. We drank some whiskey. Mostly we drank cheap beer. And as midnight approached, I placed a Skynyrd album on the turntable and dropped the needle. I went out to the front porch, stood beside the litter box, held the Stars and Bars aloft, and flicked open my zippo.
The song had barely gotten underway before it was all over. I didn't stop to consider that polyester is, after all, that most petroleum based of all our beloved synthetic fibers. Nor that cat hair, of which there was a considerable coating, is also quite flammable.
When you think of a flag burning, you probably envision some angry protestor waving the flaming banner over and over in a display of fierce and dangerous recalcitrance. This, however, turned out to be more like Wile E. Coyote getting burnt to a crisp in no time flat.
It was all a bit anti-climactic. The song still had quite a ways to go. I went back inside, lifted the tone arm prematurely, and popped a tape in the cassette deck. Time to move on, lest the party end as quickly as the flag had.
The ashes remained on the front porch, amid the clutter and litter, until I finally cleaned up the apartment on my way out in 2000.
Symbols, of course, can mean many things to many people. Such is the very nature of symbols. And when those symbolic meanings clash, negotiation is sometimes in order.
In 1995, just before moving to Nebraska, I was best man at a Hindu wedding. Learning that I was half-Jewish, the groom's side assured me they would cover up the Hindu swastika that is used in one of the rituals. Hearing of this, I sent word that I understood the Nazis had misappropriated this ancient symbol from India, and that I would not be offended in the least by its presence. They covered it anyway, out of respect for me.
Shortly thereafter, while studying American Indian history, I learned that the swastika pattern appears in numerous cultural displays across Indigenous North America. In fact, it was so common in Dene (Navajo) woolen tapestries, that during World War II, the United States made them disown it.
However, the various symbolisms of the Confederate flag are not nearly as far flung as the global reach of the swastika. It's pretty much just an America thing, and the palette of meaning is much more limited.
It was the emblem of the rebellious Confederacy during the Civil War. Afterwards, it slowly faded from view, particularly outside the South, remaining in American memory with pretty much just that one meaning. Then, during the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, white supremacists proudly resuscitated the Stars and Bars. It became ubiquitous in the South again, re-emerging as the symbol of modern racism.
Instead of just representing the Civil War of the 1860s, the Confederate flag was now waved to assert "states rights," a common and flimsy excuse for maintaining legalized segregation. And in this effort, the flag once again represented a failed cause. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 led to the end of Jim Crow segregation in the South and in those parts of the West where it was also on the books.
After the Civil Rights movement asserted itself during the 1960s, and the bloody battle over Jim Crow ended, the Confederate flag's symbolic meaning was finally able to become a bit fuzzier. It could represent the Civil War. It could represent a modern white supremacy. Or it could, more innocuously, represent a somewhat generic pride in the South's rich heritage, culture, and traditions.
And of course, as the number of symbolic meanings grew, meaning itself could melt away into the vagaries of fashion and pop culture. It was in this sense that the Confederate flag often got waved at rock concerts, or painted onto the side of a car in a TV show, or purchased at a tourist trap during a truly epic and ill-advised Spring Break fiasco.
Consequently, there is a temptation to say we must emphasize the context. Just as there was no need for that Hindu family to cover up their swastika in my presence, and just as it was wrong for the federal government to strong arm Denes into disowning the swastika, isn't it also wrong for us to now demand that the Confederate flag be erased from official display in the South Carolina state house?
It is not wrong for us to demand that, in light of a Confederate flag-loving racist slaughtering black churchgoers in South Carolina, that the state of South Carolina finally remove this longstanding emblem of racial hatred and repression from its official public display.
For starters, the Stars and Bars is not some ancient symbol cris-crossing world cultures ranging from the Indigenous Americas to India. Rather, it is a uniquely American product, barely 150 years in age.
Second, while we can talk about fuzziness and innocuousness all we want, the simple fact is, the Confederate flag had only one real meaning for about a century. It was the calling card of the Confederate States of America: a would be nation state born from the Southern elite's desperate effort to retain slavery, and the destruction of which is the only reason the United States completely abolished slavery in 1865.
Furthermore, the Confederate flag's rebirth in the 1950s and 1960s was most certainly not fuzzy or innocuous. It was part of a segregationist program. It was the logo of racism. The fuzziness and innocuousness only came later, during my own lifetime, and I'm really not that old.
So on the one hand, I don't have anything against the harmless, reasonably innocent, though perhaps mildly misguided individual who sports a Confederate bumper sticker to announce their love of fried food and bent vowels. Many people, both black and white, love the South and, for reasons that actually make a lot of sense to me, would rather live there than in the North or West. The music, the food, the weather, the sweet tea, and most of all, the people.
However, I also understand the history of this very troubled symbol. And over the years, I have also met and talked with a fair number of very serious racists for whom the Confederate flag symbolizes the goal of initiating a RaHoWa (Racial Holy War) that "cleanses" America of blacks and other non-whites.
Furthermore, I also understand that the Confederate flag was originally flown atop the South Carolina statehouse dome only as recently as 1962, and it was not placed there innocuously or in a moment of fuzziness. Rather, the South Carolina state government raised the Confederate flag as a resentful, nasty, stubborn statement in support of American apartheid. And so it never should have gone up to begin with, regardless of the playfulness it represents to some people nowadays. That it has fluttered this long above a government building is both an insult and an embarrassment.
So I'm glad that not only is the state of South Carolina finally debating removing the Confederate flag from its statehouse, but that this movement of questioning the flag and other Confederate memorials has spread into the wider culture and become part of the national debate.
I'm glad that the nation's oldest maker of Confederate flags has announced it will cease production of them.
I'm glad that retailers including Amazon, Ebay, Sears, and even Arkansas' own Wal-Mart, have announced they will no longer sell the Confederate flag.
I'm glad Warner Bros. will no longer sell Dukes of Hazzard toy cars with a Confederate flag emblem.
And I'm glad that I burned my two-bit polyester version many years ago.
Akim Reinhardt's website is ThePublicProfessor.com
C-print, edition of 7.
Pontifex as Bridge Builder: the Encyclical Laudato Si'
Introduction by Bill Benzon
This month I've decided to turn things over to my good friend Charles Cameron, whom I've known for somewhat over a dozen years, though only online. He's a poet and a student of many things, most recently religious fundamentalism and its contemporary manifestations in terrorism. He characterizes himself as a vagabond monk and he blogs at Zenpundit and at Sembl. When he was eleven he applied to join an Anglican monestery and, while they didn't take him in, that act did bring him to the attention of the remarkable Fr. Trevor Huddleston, who became his mentor for the next decade. Thereafter Cameron explored Tibetan Buddhism, Hindu mysticism, and Native American shamanism. He's been around.
But it's his connection with Trevor Huddleston that got my attention, for Huddleston managed to broker a gift between two trumpet-player heroes of mine. At one point in his career he was in South African, where a young Hugh "Grazin in the Grass" Masekela was one of his students. On a trip to America, Fr. Huddleston met Louis Armstrong and got him to give Masekela a trumpet.
To the bridge builders...
Pontifex as Bridge Builder: the Encyclical Laudato Si'
by Charles Cameron
I propose that in his recent encyclical Laudato Si', Pope Francis is exercising his function as Supreme Pontiff, or @pontifex as he calls himself on Twitter – a pontifex being literally a bridge builder. It is my contention that in his encyclical he bridges a number of divides, between Catholic and Orthodox, sacramental and social, liberal and conservative, religious and scientific, even Christian and Muslim, traditional and of the fast advancing moment, in a manner which will impact our world in ways yet unforeseen.
It is my contention, also, that his pontificate provides the third step in a momentous journey.
The first step, as I see it, was taken by Christ himself in the Beatitudes – blessed are the poor in spirit, they that mourn, the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers – and in his doctrine of forgiveness, not once only but a myriad of times. The second was taken by Francis of Assisi, in his Canticle of Creatures – praised be you, my Lord, with all your creatures, especially Sir Brother Sun, through Sister Moon and the stars, praised be You, my Lord, through our Sister Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us.. blessed those who endure in peace.. – and in his crossing the front lines of war during the crusades to greet in peace the Sultan Malik Al-Kamil in Damietta, Egypt. And in taking the name Francis, in washing and kissing on Maundy Thursday the feet of both male and female, Christian and Muslim juvenile offenders in prison, and in issuing this encyclical, I would suggest Pope Francis, born Jorge Mario Bergoglio, is taking the third step.
The line, the transmission, is of sheer humility. It begins with the Founder of the line, Christ himself, lapses, which all high inspirations must as routine replaces charisma, only to emerge brilliantly a millennium later in the saintly maverick, Francis, lapses again though still fermenting in the imagination of church and humankind, and now at last shows itself once more, in that most unexpected of places: in the heart of the bureaucracy, at the head of the hierarchy, atop the curia, simple, idealistic, practical – a pontifex building bridges.
And in all this, there is lyricism.
It is characteristic of St Francis that he is lyrical, not just in his great Canticle of Creatures but in his lifelong love of chivalry and the songs of the troubadours, in his words – like Orpheus, he could tame the beasts – and in his preaching to the birds.
Of St Francis, the Pope writes:
I do not want to write this Encyclical without turning to that attractive and compelling figure, whose name I took as my guide and inspiration when I was elected Bishop of Rome. I believe that Saint Francis is the example par excellence of care for the vulnerable and of an integral ecology lived out joyfully and authentically. He is the patron saint of all who study and work in the area of ecology, and he is also much loved by non-Christians. He was particularly concerned for God’s creation and for the poor and outcast ..
Just as happens when we fall in love with someone, whenever he would gaze at the sun, the moon or the smallest of animals, he burst into song, drawing all other creatures into his praise.
It is only appropriate, therefore, that Pope Francis titles his encyclical with the ongoing refrain of his chosen name-sake’s Canticle, Laudato Si’. The encyclical’s opening words set this lyrical theme and tone, which is indeed the theme behind Francis’ own pontificate and this encyclical in particular:
“LAUDATO SI’, mi’ Signore” – “Praise be to you, my Lord”. In the words of this beautiful canticle, Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs”.
This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her…
Scott Beauchamp comments in his Baffler piece, It Sounds Like a Melody,
Laudato Si’ is 184 pages long. Only twenty-eight of those are about the politics of environmental change. The rest is theology.
It is. It also, as Beauchamp’s title suggests, sounds like a melody.
Beauchamp is quoting Ornette Coleman here, who said of his own playing, “it sounds like a melody, but it’s not a melody.” An encyclical is not a melody, but in Francis’ voice it sounds like one.
Catholic and Orthodox
In proposing that Laudato Si’ is a work of bridge-building, I want to suggest reading it as an ecumenical document, bridging the Great Schism between the Catholic and Orthodox churches of 1054. Francis’ encyclical is explicit as to the ecumenical impact it hopes to achieve, mentioning and quoting Francis’ “beloved Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, with whom we share the hope of full ecclesial communion."
Indeed, when presented to the world at a conference in the Vatican, the encyclical was introduced by a panel that notably included Metropolitan John of Pergamon, representing Patriarch Bartholomew.
The Ecumenical Patriarch is informally known as “the Green Patriarch”. John Chryssavgis writes of him:
No other church leader has been so recognized for his leadership and initiatives in confronting the theological, ethical and practical imperative of environmental issues in our time as the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople. He has long placed the environment at the head of his church's agenda, earning him numerous awards and the title ‘Green Patriarch'.
John (Zizioulas) of Pergamon himself is known, among other things, as the author of Preserving God’s Creation: three lectures on theology and ecology, published in 1989 and ‘90 in King’s College London Theological Review. In his introductory remarks at the conference announcing the encyclical, he said:
I should like to begin by expressing my deep gratitude for the honour to be invited to take part in this event of launching the new Encyclical of His Holiness Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’. I am also honoured by the fact that His All-Holiness, the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, has asked me to convey to you his personal joy and satisfaction for the issuing of the Encyclical. As some of you may already know, the Ecumenical Patriarchate has been the first one in the Christian world to draw the attention of the world community to the seriousness of the ecological problem and the duty of the Church to voice its concern and try to contribute with all the spiritual means at its disposal towards the protection of our natural environment. Thus, back already in the year 1989, Ecumenical Patriarch Dimitrios issued an Encyclical to the faithful Christians and to all people of good will, in which he underlined the seriousness of the ecological problem and its theological and spiritual dimensions.
But these remarks do no more than touch the surface of the devotional theology in which the Orthodox approach creation. When Metropolitan John says “The issuing of the Encyclical Laudato Si’ is, therefore, an occasion of great joy and satisfaction for the Orthodox”, the words “great joy” convey the merest hint of what is intended.
Let me share and expand here some paragraphs of my guest blog at LapidoMedia, where I am currently serving as editor, Poetry, controversy and praise in Pope Francis’ Encyclical:
It has long been the Eastern Church which has taken an understanding of the sacred gift of the earth to its deepest and most profound levels.
Indeed, Orthodox theologians from St Maximus the Confessor down to the present day have held that the transformation of the earth is central to our human purpose. St Maximus explains the meaning of the world by saying, ‘that is why the Word became flesh: to open to us, through the holy flesh of the earth transformed into a eucharist, the path to deification.’ The world will become a “eucharist” – a word that describes both the great and continuing sacrifice of the Mass, and, literally in the Greek, a thanksgiving.
As man becomes less sinful and more like the Creator in whose image he was made, the world under his care becomes the paradise that has always been its destiny. Again, the high lyrical note sounds in Metropolitan John’s 1989 homily in Zurich, A Theology of Creation:
Christ, through his Incarnation, his Resurrection, his Ascension and his sending of the Holy Spirit, has brought about the potential transfiguration of the universe. ... In him fallen matter no longer imposes its limitations and determinisms; in him the world, frozen by our downfall, melts in the fire of the Spirit and rediscovers its vocation of transparency.
These words express the Orthodoz’ fiery and blazing sense of the world as not merely “the ecology” in peril, not simply “the creation” even, but as the veil and symbol through which our creator aches to speak with us, to reveal his beauty, his love, his care.
Sacrament and Society
The words, the lyricism, the aspirations are so lofty that the secular mind may not reach them, and even the religious mind falter for lack of oxygen, but they are the sacramentally sustained basis for a move outward, into the world, driven by the exigencies of our pre-catastrophic situation.
Francis aims to appeal to both sacramental and social motivations, offering the sacramental value of the human individual as the driver for the highest and fullest movement towards love, truth, justice, and peace.
In my own early adolescence, my own mentor, Fr. Trevor Huddleston CR, counseled me to anchor myself in the sacramental and move out into the world to accomplish what measure of social good I might find myself called and suited to. In his great book Naught for your Comfort – the first non-fiction book to challenge the inhumanity of Apartheid in his much lived South Africa – Fr Trevor made this causal link between the sacramental, contemplative and mystical life and the necessity for actions of social justice explicit, writing in a key paragraph:
On Maundy Thursday, in the Liturgy of the Catholic Church, when the Mass of the day is ended, the priest takes a towel and girds himself with it; he takes a basin in his hands, and kneeling in front of those who have been chosen, he washes their feet and wipes them, kissing them also one by one. So he takes, momentarily, the place of his Master. The centuries are swept away, the Upper Room in the stillness of the night is all around him: “If I, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, ye ought also to wash one another’s feet.” I have knelt in the sanctuary of our lovely church in Rosettenville and washed the feet of African students, stooping to kiss them. In this also I have known the meaning of identification. The difficulty is to carry the truth out into Johannesberg, into South Africa, into the world.
Similarly Pope Francis, from within his richly sacramental perspective, intends and calls for us to shift the world from what he perceives as its present, dire and eventually catastrophic course to one which will by contrast be loving, creative, and sustainable.
Liberal and Conservative
In bridging sacramental and social values, the Pope’s plea is unavoidably and interestingly controversial.
Let me draw again on my observations in my LapidoMedia post:
While those in the environmental movement worldwide welcome it, conservatives who doubt the theory of global warming – or celebrate the global market economy and consumerism – see the Pope’s encyclical as a radical attack on core values.
Ross Douthat in his New York Times op-ed, Pope Francis’ Call to Action Goes Beyond the Environment, notes that the encyclical “includes, as many liberals hoped and certain conservatives feared, a call to action against climate change.” It also contains, as many liberals feared and many conservatives will take comfort in, a clear statement of the Catholic Church’s continuing position on abortion.
“Since everything is interrelated,” Francis writes, “concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion.” And “How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo, even when its presence is uncomfortable and creates difficulties?”
Both climate change believers and doubters, pro-choice and pro-life factions, will find their own concerns addressed in this encyclical. Indeed, Pope Francis offers both liberals and conservatives something to applaud and something to trouble them. And this brings us to the heart of the encyclical.
Francis quotes Pope Benedict XVI, who “observed that the world cannot be analyzed by isolating only one of its aspects, since ‘the book of nature is one and indivisible’, and includes the environment, life, sexuality, the family, social relations, and so forth. It follows that ‘the deterioration of nature is closely connected to the culture which shapes human coexistence’.”
Both the environmental and pro-life strands in Francis’ encyclical stem from his view of the unity of God’s creation, and the human role, created ‘in the image of God’, within it. Indeed, it is this unified vision which makes the encyclical both richly welcome and deeply disturbing to many on both sides of some of the great divides of our time.
This in turn begs the question, what happens when an influential world figure of undoubted moral stature crosses the lines that usually separate opposing camps? Does he lose respect on both sides? Or does he begin to build a bridge between them?
Religion and Science
The same issue arises when we view Francis’ encyclical as building a bridge between religion and science.
Once again, we can turn to the Orthodox church for an early understanding of the situation. John Chryssavgis in Theology, Ecology and the Arts: Reconciling Sacredness and Beauty, tackles the longstanding “war” between religion and science, writing:
In his book Being as Communion, Metropolitan John [Zizioulas] of Pergamon, arguably the foremost Orthodox theologian today, compares these two different approaches, and asserts that: Science and theology for a long time seemed to be in search of different sorts of truth, as if there were not one truth . . . This resulted in making truth subject to a dichotomy between the transcendent and the immanent.
One of the primary and visionary goals of the ecological initiatives of the Ecumenical Patriarchate has been precisely the reconciliation of these two ways, which have long been separated and estranged. Pope Francis has the same visionary goal, expressing it in his detailed exposition of the science behind climate change. As a correspondent in the scientific journal Nature’s News blog put it, “never before has a pope drawn so resolutely from science, a sphere that has long been considered irreconcilable with essential Catholic religious beliefs.”
The encyclical’s passages include such purely scientific observations as this paragraph, chosen as much for its generality as for its detail:
A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system.… It is true that there are other factors (such as volcanic activity, variations in the earth’s orbit and axis, the solar cycle), yet a number of scientific studies indicate that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxides and others) released mainly as a result of human activity.
And what of those who dispute this scientific consensus? He includes them in his regret and hope:
Obstructionist attitudes, even on the part of believers, can range from denial of the problem to indifference, nonchalant resignation or blind confidence in technical solutions.
Christian and Muslim
That greater ecumenism which seeks to reconcile the world’s great faiths finds its quiet place in the encyclical too. St Francis – as Dr Hoeberichts demonstrates to my satisfaction in his Francis and Islam – had a willingness for his “little brothers” to live among the Saracens in humility and peace, at a time when this was far from the normative teaching of the church in those crusading times.
Idries Shah would take the matter further, observing that ”The atmosphere and setting of the Franciscan Order is closer to a dervish organization than anything else” and that Francis’ poetry “so strongly resembles in places that of the love poet Rumi that one is tempted to look for any report which might connect Francis with the Sufi order of the Whirling Dervishes.”
Shah then goes on to recount the tale of St Francis and Brother Masseo arriving at a fork in the road. When Masseo asked which road they should take, Francis instructed him to “turn round and round as children do, until I tell you to stop.” When at last Francis gave the command to stop, Masseo found himself facing the road to Siena. "Then to Siena we must go," Shah tells us St Francis said – “and to Siena they went.”
Perhaps most suggestively, the Pope’s encyclical in a footnote quotes a Sufi poet:
The spiritual writer Ali al-Khawas stresses from his own experience the need not to put too much distance between the creatures of the world and the interior experience of God. As he puts it: “Prejudice should not have us criticize those who seek ecstasy in music or poetry. There is a subtle mystery in each of the movements and sounds of this world. The initiate will capture what is being said when the wind blows, the trees sway, water flows, flies buzz, doors creak, birds sing, or in the sound of strings or flutes, the sighs of the sick, the groans of the afflicted...”
Again, the intense lyricism. And it is perhaps notable that Ibn 'Arabi, the Shaykh al-Akbar, quotes a closely similar saying from another North African master, Abu 'Uthman al-Maghr.
Ali al-Khawas’s words are drawn from his pupil Sha'rani’s Lata'if a-lminan wa-l-akhlaq, or al-Minan Al-kubra. Dr Alan Godlas of the University of Georgia, a noted scholar of Sufism, has kindly allowed me to quote these two sentences as part of a longer translation which he hopes to publish in full in due course:
And among that which God, may He be blessed and exalted, has granted by means of Himself to me is [the following]: my not hastening to repudiate whoever stands up [during sama'] and engages in ecstatic dance, even if he were to be among transgressors or even if he was not used to it, since God (ta'ala) [during such a dance] might unveil the veil from some hearts, such that they would yearn for their primordial homeland and then sway, like the tree that, as it were, desires to pull its roots from the earth. I heard Sidi 'Ali al-Khawwāṣ (may God – ta'ala – have mercy upon him) say, "Samāʿ (the practice of both listening to the singing of spiritual poetry and music as well as dancing) has a great effect on the inrushing of [spiritual] truths [into the consciousness of the practitioner]
The attitude is a merciful and forgiving one – and once again, the whirling dance and song are at the heart of its inspiration.
His pupil, the scholar-sufi al-Sha'rani describes al-Khawwāṣ as “an unlettered man” and “a man who is totally hidden such that almost no one knew of his sainthood and knowledge except for the practicing scholars, for he is indeed a perfect man to us without any doubt!” Such was the poet-saint that the Pope quotes in his encyclical – In a footnote, yet another bridge from this second Francis to Islam.
Traditional and Immediate
In all of this, Francis is balancing the traditional – the magisterium or timeless teachings of the church – with the immediate – the crisis at hand.
Pope John XXIII, he notes, “addressed his message Pacem in Terris to the entire ‘Catholic world’ and indeed ‘to all men and women of good will’.” John XXIII spoke at a time when the world was ‘teetering on the brink of nuclear crisis.’ Pope Francis regards the current world situation as no less dire, and addresses a yet wider audience:
Now, faced as we are with global environmental deterioration, I wish to address every person living on this planet. … In this Encyclical, I would like to enter into dialogue with all people about our common home.’
The final bridge Francis wishes to build is one he hopes we will cross – the bridge between his own and the church’s sacramental insight, and our will to cherish and protect our home, our niche, our planet.
* * * * *
I am indebted to Bill Benzon for his generous invitation for me to post at 3QD on the topic of the Encyclical, to Jenny Taylor for her permission to quote from my LapidoMedia blog post, to Alan Godlas for his permission to quote a part of his upcoming translation of the relevant passage from al-Sha’rani, and for further help regarding al-Sharani and al-Khawwas received from Jane Clark, Julian Cook, and others at Beshara.
Monday, June 22, 2015
The Long Shadow of Nazi Indoctrination: Persistence of Anti-Semitism in Germany
by Jalees Rehman
Anti-Semitism and the holocaust are among the central themes in the modern German secondary school curriculum. During history lessons in middle school, we learned about anti-Semitism and the persecution of Jews in Europe during the middle ages and early modernity. Our history curriculum in the ninth and tenth grades focused on the virulent growth of anti-Semitism in 20th century Europe, how Hitler and the Nazi party used anti-Semitism as a means to rally support and gain power, and how the Nazi apparatus implemented the systematic genocide of millions of Jews.
In grades 11 to 13, the educational focus shifts to a discussion of the broader moral and political context of anti-Semitism and Nazism. How could the Nazis enlist the active and passive help of millions of "upstanding" citizens to participate in this devastating genocide? Were all Germans who did not actively resist the Nazis morally culpable or at least morally responsible for the Nazi horrors? Did Germans born after the Second World War inherit some degree of moral responsibility for the crimes committed by the Nazis? How can German society ever redeem itself after being party to the atrocities of the Nazis? Anti-Semitism and Nazism were also important topics in our German literature and art classes because the Nazis persecuted and murdered German Jewish intellectuals and artists, and because the shame and guilt experienced by Germans after 1945 featured so prominently in German art and literature.
One purpose of extensively educating Germany school-children about this dark and shameful period of German history is the hope that if they are ever faced with the reemergence of prejudice directed against Jews or any other ethnic or religious group, they will have the courage to stand up for those who are being persecuted and make the right moral choices. As such, it is part of the broader Vergangenheitsbewältigung (wrestling with one's past) in post-war German society which takes place not only in schools but in various public venues. The good news, according to recent research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Nico Voigtländer and Hans-Joachim Voth, is that Germans who attended school after the Second World War have shown a steady decline in anti-Semitism. The bad news: Vergangenheitsbewältigung is a bigger challenge for Germans who attended school under the Nazis because a significant proportion of them continue to exhibit high levels of anti-Semitic attitudes more than half a century after the defeat of Nazi Germany.
Voigtländer and Voth examined the results of the large General Social Survey for Germany (ALLBUS) in which several thousand Germans were asked about their values and beliefs. The survey took place in 1996 and 2006, and the researchers combined the results of both surveys with a total of 5,300 participants from 264 German towns and cities. The researchers were specifically interested in anti-Semitic attitudes and focused on three survey questions specifically related to anti-Semitism. Survey participants were asked to respond on a scale of 1 to 7 and indicate whether they thought Jews had too much influence in the world, whether Jews were responsible for their own persecution and whether Jews should have equal rights. The researchers categorized participants as "committed anti-Semites" if they revealed anti-Semitic attitudes to all three questions. The overall rate of committed anti-Semites was 4% in Germany but there was significant variation depending on the geographical region and the age of the participants.
Germans born in the 1970s and 1980s had only 2%-3% committed anti-Semites whereas the rate was nearly double for Germans born in the 1920s (6%). However, the researchers noted one exception: Germans born in the 1930s. Those citizens had the highest fraction of anti-Semites: 10%. The surveys were conducted in 1996 and 2006 when the participants born in in the 1930s were 60-75 years old. In other words, one out of ten Germans of that generation did not think that Jews deserved equal rights!
The researchers attributed this to the fact that people born in the 1930s were exposed to the full force of systematic Nazi indoctrination with anti-Semitic views which started as early as in elementary school and also took place during extracurricular activities such as the Hitler Youth programs. The Nazis came to power in 1933 and immediately began implementing a whole-scale propaganda program in all schools. A child born in 1932, for example, would have attended elementary school and middle school as well as Hitler Youth programs from age six onwards till the end of the war in 1945 and become inculcated with anti-Semitic propaganda.
The researchers also found that the large geographic variation in anti-Semitic prejudices today was in part due to the pre-Nazi history of anti-Semitism in any given town. The Nazis were not the only and not the first openly anti-Semitic political movement in Germany. There were German political parties with primarily anti-Jewish agendas which ran for election in the late 19th century and early 20th century. Voigtländer and Voth analyzed the votes that these anti-Semitic parties received more than a century ago, from 1890 to 1912. Towns and cities with the highest support for anti-Semitic parties in this pre-Nazi era are also the ones with the highest levels of anti-Semitic prejudice today. When children were exposed to anti-Semitic indoctrination in schools under the Nazis, the success of these hateful messages depended on how "fertile" the ground was. If the children were growing up in towns and cities where family members or public figures had supported anti-Jewish agenda during prior decades then there was a much greater likelihood that the children would internalize the Nazi propaganda. The researchers cite the memoir of the former Hitler Youth member Alfons Heck:
"We who were born into Nazism never had a chance unless our parents were brave enough to resist the tide and transmit their opposition to their children. There were few of those."
- Alfons Heck in "The Burden of Hitler's Legacy"
The researchers then address the puzzling low levels of anti-Semitic prejudices among Germans born in the 1920s. If the theory of the researcher were correct that anti-Semitic prejudices persist today because Nazi school indoctrination then why aren't Germans born in the 1920s more anti-Semitic? A child born in 1925 would have been exposed to Nazi propaganda throughout secondary school. Oddly enough, women born in the 1920s did show high levels of anti-Semitism when surveyed in 1996 and 2006 but men did not. Voigtländer and Voth solve this mystery by reviewing wartime fatality rates. The most zealous male Nazi supporters with strong anti-Semitic prejudices were more likely to volunteer for the Waffen-SS, the military wing of the Nazi party. Some SS divisions had an average age of 18 and these SS-divisions had some of the highest fatality rates. This means that German men born in the 1920s weren't somehow immune to Nazi propaganda. Instead, most of them perished because they bought into it and this is why we now see lower levels of anti-Semitism than expected in Germans born during that decade.
A major limitation of this study is its correlational nature and the lack of data on individual exposure to Nazism. The researchers base their conclusions on birth years and historical votes for anti-Semitic parties of towns but did not track how much individuals were exposed to anti-Semitic propaganda in their schools or their families. Such a correlational study cannot establish a cause-effect relationship between propaganda and the persistence of prejudice today. One factor not considered by the researchers, for example, is that Germans born in the 1930s are also among those who grew up as children in post-war Germany, often under conditions of extreme poverty and even starvation.
Even without being able to establish a clear cause-effect relationship, the findings of the study raise important questions about the long-term effects of racial propaganda. It appears that a decade of indoctrination may give rise to a lifetime of hatred. Our world continues to be plagued by prejudice against fellow humans based on their race or ethnicity, religion, political views, gender or sexual orientation. Children today are not subject to the systematic indoctrination implemented by the Nazis but they are probably still exposed to more subtle forms of prejudice and we do not know much about its long-term effects. We need to recognize the important role of public education in shaping the moral character of individuals and ensure that our schools help our children become critical thinkers with intact moral reasoning, citizens who can resist indoctrination and prejudice.
Voigtländer N and Voth HJ. "Nazi indoctrination and anti-Semitic beliefs in Germany" Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2015), doi: 10.1073/pnas.1414822112
Artificially Flavored Intelligence
"I see your infinite form in every direction,
with countless arms, stomachs, faces, and eyes."
~ Bhagavad-Gītā 11 16
About ten days ago, someone posted on an image on Reddit, a sprawling site that is the Internet's version of a clown car that's just crashed into a junk shop. The image, appropriately uploaded to the 'Creepy' corner of the website, is kind of hard to describe, so, assuming that you are not at the moment on any strong psychotropic substances, or are not experiencing a flashback, please have a good, long look before reading on.
What the hell is that thing? Our sensemaking gear immediately kicks into overdrive. If Cthulhu had had a pet slug, this might be what it looked like. But as you look deeper into the picture, all sorts of other things begin to emerge. In the lower left-hand corner there are buildings and people, and people sitting on buildings which might themselves be on wheels. The bottom center of the picture seems to be occupied by some sort of a lurid, lime-colored fish. In the upper right-hand corner, half-formed faces peer out of chalices. The background wallpaper evokes an unholy copulation of brain coral and astrakhan fur. And still there are more faces, or at least eyes. There are indeed more eyes than an Alex Grey painting, and they hew to none of the neat symmetries that make for a safe world. In fact, the deeper you go into the picture, the less perspective seems to matter, as solid surfaces dissolve into further cascades of phantasmagoria. The same effect applies to the principal thing, which has not just an indeterminate number of eyes, ears or noses, but even heads.
The title of the thread wasn't very helpful, either: "This image was generated by a computer on its own (from a friend working on AI)". For a few days, that was all anyone knew, but it was enough to incite another minor-scale freakout about the nature and impending arrival of Our Computer Overlords. Just as we are helpless to not over-interpret the initial picture, so we are all too willing to titillate ourselves with alarmist speculations concerning its provenance. This was presented as a glimpse into the psychedelic abyss of artificial intelligence; an unspeakable, inscrutable intellect briefly showed us its cards, and it was disquieting, to put it mildly. Is that what AI thinks life looks like? Or stated even more anxiously, is that what AI thinks life should look like?
Alas, our giddy Lovecraftian fantasies weren't allowed to run amok for more than a few days, since the boffins at Google tipped their hand with a blog post describing what was going on. The image, along with many others, were the result of a few engineers playing around with neural networks, and seeing how far they could push them. In this case, a neural network is ‘trained' to recognize something when it is fed thousands of instances of that thing. So if the engineers want to train a neural network to recognize the image of a dog, they will keep feeding it images of the same, until it acquires the ability to identify dogs in pictures it hasn't seen before. For the purposes of this essay, I'll just leave it at that, but here is a good explanation of how neural networks ‘learn'.
The networks in question were trained to recognize animals, people and architecture. But things got interesting when the Google engineers took a trained neural net and fed it only one input – over and over again. Once slightly modified, the image was then re-submitted to the network. If it were possible to imagine the network having a conversation with itself, it may go something like this:
First pass: Ok, I'm pretty good at finding squirrels and dogs and fish. Does this picture have any of these things in it? Hmmm, no, although that little blob looks like it might be the eye of one of those animals. I'll make a note of that. Also that lighter bit looks like fur. Yeah. Fur.
Second pass: Hey, that blob definitely looks like an eye. I'll sharpen it up so that it's more eye-like, since that's obviously what it is. Also, that fur could look furrier.
Third pass: That eye looks like it might go with that other eye that's not that far off. That other dark bit in between might just be the nose that I'd need to make it a dog. Oh wow – it is a dog! Amazing.
The results are essentially thousands of such decisions made across dozens of layers of the network. Each layer of ‘neurons' hands over its interpretation to the next layer up the hierarchy, and a final decision of what to emphasize or de-emphasize is made by the last layer. The fact that half of a squirrel's face may be interpellated within the features of the dog's face is, in the end, irrelevant.
But I also feel very wary about having written this fantasy monologue, since framing the computational process as a narrative is something that makes sense to us, but in fact isn't necessarily true. By way of comparison, the philosopher Jacques Derrida was insanely careful about stating what he could claim in any given act of writing, and did so while he was writing. Much to the consternation of many of his readers, this act of deconstructing the text as he was writing it was nevertheless required for him to be accurate in making his claims. Similarly, while the anthropomorphic cheat is perhaps the most direct way of illustrating how AI ‘works', it is also very seductive and misleading. I offer up the above with the exhortation that there is no thinking going on. There is no goofy conversation. There is iteration, and interpretation, and ultimately but entirely tangentially, weirdness. The neural network doesn't think it's weird, however. The neural network doesn't think anything, at least not in the overly generous way in which we deploy that word.
So, echoing a deconstructionist approach, we would claim that the idea of ‘thinking' is really the problem. It is a sort of absent center, where we jam in all the unexamined assumptions that we need in order to keep the system intact. Once we really ask what we mean by ‘thinking' then the whole idea of intelligence, whether we are speaking of our own human one, let alone another's, becomes strange and unwhole. So if we then try to avoid the word – and therefore the idea behind the word – ‘thinking' as ascribed to a computer program, then how ought we think about this? Because – sorry – we really don't have a choice but to think about it.
I believe that there are more accurate metaphors to be had, ones that rely on narrower views of our subjectivity, not the AI's. For example, there is the children's game of telephone, where a phrase is whispered from one ear to the next. Given enough iterations, what emerges is a garbled, nonsensical mangling of the original, but one that is hopefully still entertaining. But if it amuses, this is precisely because it remains within the realm of language. The last person does not recite a random string of alphanumeric characters. Rather, our drive to recognize patterns, also known as apophenia, yields something that can still be spoken. It is just weird enough, which is a fine balance indeed.
What did you hear? To me, it sounds obvious that a female voice is repeating "no way" to oblivion. But other listeners have variously reported window, welcome, love me, run away, no brain, rainbow, raincoat, bueno, nombre, when oh when, mango, window pane, Broadway, Reno, melting, or Rogaine.
This illustrates the way that our expectations shape our perception…. We are expecting to hear words, and so our mind morphs the ambiguous input into something more recognisable. The power of expectation might also underlie those embarrassing situations where you mishear a mumbled comment, or even explain the spirit voices that sometimes leap out of the static on ghost hunting programmes.
Even more radical are Steve Reich's tape loop pieces, which explore the effects of when a sound gradually goes out of phase with itself. In fact, 2016 will be the 50th anniversary of "Come Out", one of the seminal explorations of this idea. While the initial phrase is easy to understand, as the gap in phase widens we struggle to maintain its legibility. Not long into the piece, the words are effectively erased, and we find ourselves swimming in waves of pure sound. Nevertheless, our mental apparatus stills seeks to make some sort of sense of it all, it's just that the patterns don't obtain for long enough in order for a specific interpretation to persist.
Of course, the list of contraptions meant to isolate and provoke our apophenic tendencies is substantial, and oftentimes touted as having therapeutic benefits. We slide into sensory deprivation tanks to gape at the universe within, and assemble mail-order DIY ‘brain machines' to ‘expand our brain's technical skills'. This is mostly bunk, but all are predicated on the idea that the brain will produce its own stimuli when external ones are absent, or if there is only a narrow band of stimulus available. In the end, what we experience here is not so much an epiphany, as apophany.
In effect, what Google's engineers have fabricated is an apophenic doomsday machine. It does one thing – search for patterns in the ways in which it knows how – and it does those things very, very well. A neural network trained to identify animals will not suddenly begin to find architectural features in a given input image. It will, if given the picture of a building façade, find all sorts of animals that, in its judgment, already lurk there. The networks are even capable of teasing out the images with which they are familiar if given a completely random picture – the graphic equivalent of static. These are perhaps the most compelling images of all. It's the equivalent of putting a neural network in an isolation tank. But is it? The slide into anthropomorphism is so effortless.
And although the Google blog post isn't clear on this, I suspect that there is also no clear point at which the network is ‘finished'. An intrinsic part of thinking is knowing when to stop, whereas iteration needs some sort of condition wrapped around the loop, otherwise it will never end. You don't tell a computer to just keep adding numbers, you tell it to add only the first 100 numbers you give it. Otherwise the damned thing won't stop. The engineers ran the iterations up until a certain point, and it doesn't really matter if that point was determined by a pre-existing test condition (eg, ‘10,000 iterations') or a snap aesthetic judgment (eg, ‘This is maximum weirdness!'). The fact is that human judgment is the wrapper around the process that creates these images. So if we consider that a fundamental feature of thinking is knowing when to stop doing so, then we find this trait lacking in this particular application of neural networks.
In addition to knowing when to stop, there is another critical aspect of thinking as we know it, and that is forgetting. In ‘Funes el memorioso', Jorge Luis Borges speculated on the crippling consequences of a memory so perfect that nothing was ever lost. Among other things, the protagonist Funes can only live a life immersed in an ocean of detail, "incapable of general, platonic ideas". In order to make patterns, we have to privilege one thing over another, and dismiss vast quantities of sensory information as irrelevant, if not outright distracting or even harmful.
Interestingly enough, this relates to a theory concerning the nature of the schizophrenic mind (in a further nod to the deconstructionist tendency, I concede that the term ‘schizophrenia' is not unproblematic, but allow me the assumption). The ‘hyperlearning hypothesis' claims that schizophrenic symptoms can arise from a surfeit of dopamine in the brain. As a key neurotransmitter, dopamine plays a crucial role in memory formation:
When the brain is rewarded unexpectedly, dopamine surges, prompting the limbic "reward system" to take note in order to remember how to replicate the positive experience. In contrast, negative encounters deplete dopamine as a signal to avoid repeating them. This is a key learning mechanism which is also involves memory-formation and motivation. Scientists believe the brain establishes a new temporary neural network to process new stimuli. Each repetition of the same experience triggers the identical neural firing sequence along an identical neural journey, with every duplication strengthening the synaptic links among the neurons involved. Neuroscientists say, "Neurons that fire together wire together." If this occurs enough times, a secure neural network is established, as if imprinted, and the brain can reliably access the information over time.
The hyperlearning hypothesis posits that schizophrenics have too much dopamine in their brains, too much of the time. Take the process described above and multiply it by orders of magnitude. The result is a world that a schizophrenic cannot make sense of, because literally everything is important, or no one thing is less important than anything else. There is literally no end to thinking, no conditional wrapper to bring anything to a conclusion.
Unsurprisingly, the artificial neural networks discussed above are modeled on precisely this process of reinforcement, except that the dopamine is replaced by an algorithmic stand-in. In 2011, Uli Grasemann and Risto Miikkulainen did the logical next step: they took a neural network called DISCERN and cranked up its virtual dopamine.
Grasemann and Miikkulainen began by teaching a series of simple stories to DISCERN. The stories were assimilated into DISCERN's memory in much the way the human brain stores information – not as distinct units, but as statistical relationships of words, sentences, scripts and stories.
In order to model hyperlearning, Grasemann and Miikkulainen ran the system through its paces again, but with one key parameter altered. They simulated an excessive release of dopamine by increasing the system's learning rate -- essentially telling it to stop forgetting so much.
After being re-trained with the elevated learning rate, DISCERN began putting itself at the center of fantastical, delusional stories that incorporated elements from other stories it had been told to recall. In one answer, for instance, DISCERN claimed responsibility for a terrorist bombing.
Even though I find this infinitely more terrifying than a neural net's ability to create a picture of a multi-headed dog-slug-squirrel, I still contend that there is no thinking going on, as we would like to imagine it. And we would very much like to imagine it: even the article cited above has as its headline ‘Scientists Afflict Computers with Schizophrenia to Better Understand the Human Brain'. It's almost as if schizophrenia is something you can pack into a syringe, virtual or otherwise, and inject it into the neural network of your choice, virtual or otherwise. (The actual peer-reviewed article is more soberly titled ‘Using computational patients to evaluate illness mechanisms in schizophrenia'.) We would be much better off understanding these neural networks as tools that provide us with a snapshot of a particular and narrow process. They are no more anthropomorphic than the shapes that clouds may suggest to us on a summer's afternoon. But we seem incapable of forgetting this. If we cannot learn to restrain our relentless pattern-seeking, consider what awaits us on the other end of the spectrum: it is not coincidental that the term ‘apophenia' was coined in 1958 by Klaus Conrad in a monograph on the inception of schizophrenia.
Isaac Cordal. "Politicians Discussing Global Warming" as nick-named by social media. Part of a series titled Follow the Leaders. 2011.
The Archetype Of The Suffering Artist Must Die
by Mandy de Waal
Click on over to the New York Times and you'll find a gallery of tortured artists. First up is a youthful, but ghostly looking Jean Nicolas Arthur Rimbaud. The caption for the dark painting on the NYT site reads: "The Poet Rimbaud. Serial runaway. Absinthe and hashish benders. Shot by poet-lover Verlaine."
Born in October 1854 in the Champagne-Ardenne region of France, Rimbaud started writing poetry in primary school. By the time he was 16 he'd already written Le Dormeur du Val [The Sleeper In The Valley].
"It is a green hollow where a stream gurgles," the poem begins, before telling the story of "A young soldier, open-mouthed, bare-headed, With the nape of his neck bathed in cool blue watercress," sleeping stretched out on the grass under the sky.
Written during the French-Prussian war, the denouement of this piece is tragic:
"No odour makes his nostrils quiver;
He sleeps in the sun, his hand on his breast
At peace. There are two red holes in his right side."
Rimbaud's life was no less grim. His genius flowered early, and then stalled. By the time he was 21 he'd stopped writing. Four years earlier he'd send Le Dormeur du Val to celebrated French poet, Paul Verlaine, who'd forsake his wife and child for Rimbaud. The relationship would end after a few short years after Verlaine discharged a gun at Rimbaud in a jealous, drunken rage. Rimbaud wouldn't die then, but at at the age of 37 after suffering many agonising months from bone cancer.
Also on display in the gallery of the artiste manqué is Frida Kahlo (1907 to 1954) who got polio at the age of six which withered her right leg, which was eventually amputated. It is also thought that Kahlo had spina bifida. When she was 18 the artist was in a freak bus accident. "The tram she was riding collided with a bus and the tram's handrail penetrated her vagina. In an extra and tragic irony, someone on the tram had been carrying gold paint which spilled over Frida and the other passengers," Mike Gonzalez writes in ‘Frida Kahlo: a Life' for the Socialist Review.
After the crash there was a long period of painful convalescence, and the Mexican painter would suffer from bouts of pain for the rest of her life. Then there was the emotional torment. The troubled, tempestuous relationship with Diego Rivera. His jealousies over her affairs, and her fury over his relationship with her sister, Cristina.
Others featured in the NYT's hall of hardship "The Composer Beethoven. Sixteen when mom died. Went deaf at height of his gift. Chronic pain." You'll also find the Novelist Jean Genet. ["Mom a prostitute. As was he. Put up for adoption. Vagabond. Thief."].
The underlying narrative of these and countless other stories that underscore the archetype of the suffering artist which pervades and permeates the psyches of today's creators and makers. The narrative goes like this: if you want to be a Van Gogh you've got to cut off your ear. You've got to suffer for your art.
But thankfully, there are those who think that the notion of the anguished artist is bullshit, and I've got to say I agree with the wholeheartedly. Surrealist film legend David Lynch thinks that suffering doesn't turn artistic dross to gold, but says it hinders artists.
"It's good for the artist to understand conflict and stress. Those things can give you ideas. But I guarantee you, if you have enough stress, you won't be able to create. And if you have enough conflict, it will just get in the way of your creativity," writes Lynch in his book Catching the Big Fish.
"Some artists believe that anger, depression or these negative things give them an edge. They think they need to hold onto that anger and fear so they can put it in their work. And they don't like the idea of getting happy — it makes them want to puke. They think it would make them lose this supposed power of the negative," Lynch writes.
But torturing oneself for some kind of creative return doesn't make sense, now does it? Where's the logic in that? Or as Lynch writes: "It's common sense: The more the artist is suffering, the less creative he is going to be. It's less likely that he is going to enjoy doing his work and less likely that he will be able to do really good work,"
In South Africa, educator and digital luminary, Dave Duarte, is no fan of the starving artist archetype either and is actively doing to disrupt it. The CEO of learning and teaching company Treeshake.com and a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum believes "the story of the struggling artist has gone on long enough."
"We don't treat the artistic and creative disciplines with the same current economic respect as we do so many other disciplines, and yet artists can be just as impactful and transformative as entrepreneurs and businesses – if not more so," says Duarte, who together with Elaine Rumboll [managing director of The Creative Leadership Consultancy] teaches artists how to reject the myth of the ‘starving artist' by becoming successful creators and makers.
"Each year we get about 30 to 40 artists from a range of different disciplines - from sculpture and fine art to Graphic design and product design and video or writing or comedy. People with a diverse range of disciplines come together to learn the basic business skills that aren't taught," Duarte says. "This problem was identified by Elaine [Dave's muse and life partner] as critically important because fundamentally, practicing artists are creative entrepreneurs - they enter the business market and have to fend for themselves."
"We're disrupting the ‘starving artist' myth by dealing with misconceptions that are deeply ingrained in the culture of arts. One of these fantasies is that being commercially oriented undermines the integrity of one's work. Myths like these are deeply held misconceptions that are perhaps even taught at art and/or design schools and become criticisms of art or artists. Culturally artists who are commercially successful can be seen as sell-outs or lacking integrity, which is nonsense," Duarte says.
Duarte – who serves on Endeavor's Venture Corps and in so doing helps the organisation achieve its goal of supporting high-impact entrepreneurs across the world – explains that it doesn't make sense for society to enable athletes or lawyers or accountants to be professional, while expecting artists to suffer and starve. "We are conscientising and changing the creative space by showing people how making money is not the opposite of doing good art," he says.
"The first thing that artists need to realise is that as an artist you are a creative entrepreneur essentially, and that what you want to do is to create financial constancy for yourself so you can focus on your work at the very least," says Duarte, adding that artists need to create platforms for their business that enable scale.
What are the first things all artists, makers and creators need to learn? "Things like cash flow are really important to understand but are not well understood business concepts in the arts community. In creative spaces we don't talk about deal flow leads; how to negotiate; how to make sales; or how to close deals. All of these conversations are really important for creating sustainable businesses," says Duarte.
Other important lessons artists need to learn speak to sales and marketing. "Sales is like hunting and marketing is like farming," says Duarte, who then explains: "Sales will give you a quick win. You get a quick win, but this requires a lot of energy because artists must go out and to get these quick wins." Being in a ‘sales oriented mode' is very different to creating art, and is almost a separate part of an artist's work.
"Sales can take you out of your process. This is fine, and this is necessary, but to be sustainable as an artist in the long run, creators and makers should be thinking about the branding and marketing perspective, which is more about being a farmer. Being a farmer is about taking a long view on things," says Duarte. Just as farmers plant and nurture and nourish, so too artists need to consider and do that which grows their brands.
Farming is about of investing in the creative brand, the artist's reach, and the artist's community which enables a pull, rather than a push type marketing strategy. "Farming as an analogy for branding means artists don't have to go out to their markets that much and disrupt their creative work and process. Farming is about creating branding that enables an artist's market to come in and meet them a lot more often," Duarte says.
Rumboll and Duarte's key teachings for artists also include the basics of branding. Sensory consistency shows creatives how to look and sound the same online as in the real world, and there are teachings in experiential consistency. "For instance if your work is provocative, hopefully you are as provocative in your marketing of the work. Emotional consistency is how you make people feel around your work and you," Duarte explains, stressing that it is important to have an underlying consistency and to communicate consistently to the marketplace, because this is what grows brands. "In other words don't consider marketing as something that is separate from the act of producing your work. It is an extension and a part of your creative product that that you need to imbue your philosophy into," he says.
The thinking behind this speaks to a concept articulated by the founding executive editor of Wired magazine, which is that of ‘a thousand true fans'. In a wildly popular blog post written in March 2008 the author of New Rules for the New Economy: 10 Radical Strategies for a Connected World Cand What Technology Wants states: "The long tail is a decidedly mixed blessing for creators. Individual artists, producers, inventors and makers are overlooked in the equation. The long tail does not raise the sales of creators much, but it does add massive competition and endless downward pressure on prices. Unless artists become a large aggregator of other artist's works, the long tail offers no path out of the quiet doldrums of minuscule sales."
The Long Tail is an expression used to articulate the market shift from mainstream products to the niche, a shift that was enabled by the democratisation of economies and markets by the internet. The best thinking on this phenomenon is captured in a book written by the current editor-in-chief of Wired Magazine, Chris Anderson called The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More.
Kelly says that rather than "aiming for a blockbuster hit" artists should escape the long tail by finding 1,000 "true fans". "A creator, such as an artist, musician, photographer, craftsperson, performer, animator, designer, videomaker, or author – in other words, anyone producing works of art – needs to acquire only 1,000 True Fans to make a living," writes Kelly. "A True Fan is defined as someone who will purchase anything and everything you produce."
"They will drive 200 miles to see you sing. They will buy the super deluxe re-issued hi-res box set of your stuff even though they have the low-res version. They have a Google Alert set for your name. They bookmark the eBay page where your out-of-print editions show up. They come to your openings. They have you sign their copies. They buy the t-shirt, and the mug, and the hat. They can't wait till you issue your next work. They are true fans," Kelly writes.
In short the thinking is that to become sustainable businesses, artists should aspire to have at least one thousand true fans.
Why do we want our artists to survive and thrive? "For innovation to thrive in a country, you need artists," says Rumboll on a YouTube video that promotes Business Acumen For Artists. "You need that creativity to drive any innovation. Without artists, innovation cannot happen. Rumboll says that in a coming paradigm shift, artists will be known as creative entrepreneurs.
Rumboll declares: "The absolute starting point is the knowledge that what Andy Warhol said is true, and this is that being good at business is the most fascinating kind of art."
The archetype of the artist who must suffer for society is as flawed as it is outdated. It is time for that myth to depart. Long live artists who create, and contribute to society, and who make a sustainable, happy livelihood doing this.
* * *
Why I hate the myth of the suffering artist by Al Kennedy at The Guardian.
The Myth of the Tortured Artist at The Daily Beast.
Monday, June 15, 2015
Anne Walsh. Study for The Triumph of Light. 2010.
Monday, June 08, 2015
12 inch spikes, 9 x 84 x x84 inches.
Art in a Disenchanted World
by Mathangi Krishnamurthy
In the middle of a semester of endless world travel, and a series of screechy deadlines, I gifted myself a three-day weekend to go meander at the Kochi Muziris Biennale of 2014/15. Our survival as, dare I say, members of a sensate world, depends on the idea of a full life, and into every full life, some art must fall is what I told myself as I made plans to visit. Gathering up a friend, and all my depleting stamina, I boarded a plane and then a cab to reach the wonderfully lovely town of Fort Kochi across the breadth of which were strewn the venues for this year's installations enunciating "Whorled Explorations". 94 artists from 30 countries held court for a hundred and eight days across thirty venues.
Even as I disembarked prepared to be impressed, the superbly humid Kochi weather seeped slowly into my skull, rendering inchoate my cultural ambitions. Kochi is by the sea, the month was February, and we were catching summer in all its ambitious force. Our charming inn-keeper had been pretty certain over the phone when confirming our booking that we would not need an air-conditioned room. It's a good thing he left the choice open. The air-conditioning was all that lay between us and a lifetime vow to never pursue art. Spoilt; I know.
The curatorial note for the Biennale reads thus, "Two chronologically overlapping, but perhaps directly unrelated, historical episodes in Kerala during the 14th to 17th Centuries become parallel points of departure for Whorled Explorations. Drawing from them, allusions to the historical and the cosmological recur throughout the exhibition like exaggerated extensions to gestures we make when we try to see or understand something. We either go close to it or move away from it in space, to see it clearly; we also reflect back or forth in time to understand the present. Whorled Explorations draws upon this act of deliberation, across axes of time and space to interlace the bygone with the imminent, the terrestrial with the celestial."
Having glanced at this note, and having seen more words than I could connect to objects in the world, I did what every good art walker does. I bought myself a catalogue and decided to get us some breakfast. Bright and early one Saturday morning, we found our way to the neighborhood café for thick slices of buttered toast, cheese, and coffee. Thus fortified, we found our way to the largest venue of the Biennale, Aspinwall House.
Everything after that is a magical blur. Room after room of magnificently curated exhibits awakened brain cells that I did not know existed. The note began to make sense. This year's installations were all perched at that strange, delicate, edge of ideology, history, historiography, myth, and discovery. The pieces reminded us that discovery and scientific knowledge are intimately connected to both the work of imagination, but also the work of power. Fantasy and utopia are escapes, but are also critiques. We need a scalar vision to both understand and dismiss the location of our sometimes paltry, and sometimes wonderful desires in the world.
Charles and Ray Eames' 1977 film, "The Power of One" for example, beamed us out of the world, beginning at a Chicago park and zooming out every few seconds by the power of ten, until our gaze floated at the edge of a universe, and then zoomed us right back in, vertigo and all, into the everyday scene of a family lounging outside on a summer day. I haven't been this wonderstruck since a childhood jaunt to the Science Museum. Susanta Mandal's sculptures titled, "Where have all the stories gone?" made slow soap bubbles. A gaggle of school children and I stood transfixed, mouths agape, hoping someone would come by selling cotton candy. Janine Antoni's video installation, "Touch" had the artist walking a tightrope at the edge of the beach, creating the arguably optical illusion of her walking the horizon.
Three days and the firing of many synapses later, I returned to home and hearth and wondered about the role of art in the world. Even as I am a dedicated museum-er, I am also aware of the ways in which elite, exclusive spaces define art in its adequacy and translatability. Yet, across the biennale, I saw groups of families, children, photographers, interested parties of all ages and persuasions, curious and gazing. Normative understandings of the theme of the Biennale aside, surely these objects did something for everybody? Surely, in the absence of any common, protracted engagement, the object could be enough?
What is art? Do we define it by its fetish object, its ability to be magical, its meaning making function, or its "auratic" presence comprising all of the above and then some? Is a building art? Is a painting art? Are the little squiggles made by the little kid on my neighbor's compound walls art? Democracy would entail that I answer yes to all the above, but then I lose specificity (God forbid!). So for purposes of exigency and this highly limited set of pontifications, let's assume that art is self-conscious. So, to begin with, we are assuming a certain distance; art stands apart even as it is part of the world. We need art even if we are not completely agreed on the parameters of evaluation or even on its definition.
Further, art needs support. To say this, of course, is to either deny or to admit to the consummately capitalist nature of the world we live in and therefore to say one of the following (a) Works of art must be allowed reprieve from the vagaries of supply and demand, (b) Why should art escape commodification? Markets dictate taste; in other words, shape up or ship out.
I'm afraid I fall rather squarely on the side of (a), mainly because the market and its rather droll logics neither appeal to my aesthetics nor to my humanity. As Benjamin writes, "that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art", indicating therefore Max Weber's discussion on the loss of magic in a world disenchanted by the advent of capitalism and consumption. But then, if placing myself within the confines of an "art for art's sake", I am also hoping, indeed insisting that there is an art qua art outside the mechanics of the market, and this, I am not so willing to stake my paltry scholarship upon. The categories I discuss above are neither mutually exclusive nor clearly delineated. All forms of art can be bought and sold and they do bear some sort of function with the economy, especially when trucked in "for art's sake". They are within the clutches of market and patronage and can neither be considered above nor completely within. In other words, I have successfully argued myself into a corner.
Somehow, discussing the "role" of art makes it seem so, well, blase. As if, everything in this world ought to have a "role". What of the appendix then? Or colored bandages? Or koi fish? So then, does art have a point? I am going to be slightly sneaky here and borrow from a forever ongoing debate on the role of the humanities and its continued relevance in the world as we know it, a world of hard-headed utilitarianism and efficiency. Anthony T. Kronman, a professor at Yale Law School, argues that the humanities' initial and essential role in higher education should be to address the deeper questions of the meaning of life. Gayatri Spivak emphasizes that the only hope of reclaiming the arts "from the investment circuit" lies in the painstaking work of criticism and support that the humanities undertakes. Even more infamously and exclusively, Stanley Fish claimed that the humanities "cannot be justified except in relation to the pleasure they give to those who enjoy them."
Let me quote further from Fish before returning to our original discussion,"You can't argue that a state's economy will benefit by a new reading of "Hamlet." You can't argue – well you can, but it won't fly – that a graduate who is well-versed in the history of Byzantine art will be attractive to employers (unless the employer is a museum). You can talk as Bethany does about "well rounded citizens," but that ideal belongs to an earlier period, when the ability to refer knowledgeably to Shakespeare or Gibbon or the Thirty Years War had some cash value (the sociologists call it cultural capital). Nowadays, larding your conversations with small bits of erudition is more likely to irritate than to win friends and influence people." He thus concludes with the equivalent to the God argument -- if you don't know God already, then there is no way you will know God. On the other side of the fence, we can always find gems such as these, "When a poet creates a vaccine or a tangible good that can be produced by a Fortune 500 company, I'll rescind my comment."
So then, what does art do for us? Is it, like the humanities, that which will nudge us ever so gently to continue examining the meaning of life? Is it but representation clad sublime? Does thinking about art render its location in the world counterintuitive?
But the Biennale was so much more to my naïve gaze. It was deeply political. And I do not mean politics in the narrow version of a card-carrying anything, but rather, in the sense of what Hannah Arendt might call the opposite of totalitarianism. In other words, politics becomes the necessary condition to find solutions, albeit messy, albeit incomplete, but solutions nevertheless to the inequities of the world.Outside the confines of the Biennale, things burst forth on the streets of Kochi. There were critiques of the Biennale, KFC, capitalism, and the Man. The student Biennale screamed with things unsaid, words unfinished, seams tattered, and hands unpaid. Heat and humidity and the city were all efflorescent with the spirit of enchantment.
Monday, June 01, 2015
The Current Spike in Baltimore Violence
by Akim Reinhardt
As has been widely reported, May was an exceptionally violent month here in Baltimore. The city has witnessed dozens shootings and 38 murders. That is the most murders in any one month since 1996.
Such a spate of violence is certainly worth reporting, and the national media has been quick to pick up on it. However, many media outlets are also drawing lazy connections to the riot and protests that took place several weeks back.
The typical analysis, whether implied or explicit, goes something like this.
There was a riot in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray from injuries sustained while in police custody. The riot amplified already troubled relations between Baltimore's African American community and its police force. The police, unhappy about the indictment of six officers in the Gray case, are staging a work slowdown. The result is tremendous violence across the city.
Examples are: here, here, here, here, and here.
This brand of analysis is not factually wrong. Some of those statements may be a bit vague, but they're wrong in and of themselves. However, when those those facts are strung together in this manner, the narrative they produce is just a bit too facile to offer a penetrating explanation for recent upswing in violence.
The problem with such an analysis is that it's:
- Too focused on the present to account and fails to account for historical forces, and;
- Too narrow in the way it corrals all the immediate factors but fails to make room for larger structural forces
All of this leads to questions bout causality. For example, to what extent could Baltimore's bloody May be part of a seasonal burst of violence that has taken place across the country?
And how, exactly, does a bad relationship between black Baltimoreans and Baltimore police directly lead to more black-on-black murders (which is mostly what has happened)? Black people don't trust cops, so now they're murdering each other more? That seems like a very peculiar correlation to make.
Finally, what constitutes a police slowdown? Baltimore police lodged about 55 arrests per day in May. That's certainly way down from the 126 per day they averaged in May, 2014, but what kind of arrests are we talking about? We need to differentiate between the quantity of arrests and quality of arrests, an issue not discussed in any of the coverage I've seen.
That's not to dismiss the effects of a police slowdown. There's clearly one in play, and as the month has wound down and the statistics have become more gruesome, police spokespeople are beginning to publicly acknowledge the slowdown, and blame it on city officials. Their justification was recently summed up by Lt. Gene Ryan, President of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3, who claimed police officers "are more afraid of going to jail for doing their jobs properly than they are of getting shot on duty."
Make of that statement what you will. But regardless, the question lingers: How exactly does the police slowdown actually relate to the rising murder rate?
The big mistake many analysts are making is to imply that it's causally related. As if police not doing their job makes people want to kill each other more. But the actual connection, as one local journalist told me, might boil down to this: As the police back off, an increased level of lawlessness gives people the opportunity to deal with old grudges.
In other words, the prior heightened police presence may have been problematic in many ways, but it also served to clamp down on violence, at least to some degree. And so the diminished police presence does not activity doesn't spur more violence, but temporarily releases the pressure valve; outstanding scores are getting settled.
Ah, but then why are there so many old scores to settle?
Listing the recent events in Baltimore, and then stirring them into a causal swirl that supposedly explains May's increased murder tally, it far too simplistic.
It's just not enough to say there were bad policing policies and bad community-police relations, which led to Freddie Gray's death, which led to protests, which led to a riot, which led to more protests and public outcries, which led to the indictment of six officers, which led to a police slowdown, which has now caused a historic rise in the Baltimore murder rate.
After all, in April Baltimore endured 22 murders. There were another 23 amid the bitter cold of January. In other words, this here city is a pretty murderous place.
So what might be a more logical explanation for the May murders than to simply say everything since Freddie Gray's death is causally connected? What larger forces help us understand the base violence that afflicts this city, regardless of the protests or Gray's death or cops doing bad things or cops not doing enough things?
My instinct is to look at what usually causes murderous violence in Baltimore and many other American cities: the drug war. And indeed, my local journalist contact corroborated my instinct, alluding to this as probably being a vital factor in the May murder spree.
In other words, the police slowdown, which stems from all those other factors, has merely made possible the rise in murders. But what's actually driving the vast majority of these killings is the same thing that's driven them for decades: the drug trade.
I mean, come one now. All those old scores getting settled aren't about neighbors at a Memorial Day barbeque getting pissed off over borrowed lawn equipment that never got returned. It's violence stemming from the dug trade and drug war.
As I discussed in my previous 3QD articles about Baltimore (here and here), the poverty and violence that afflicts this city has two major components:
- The poverty of a decimated blue collar economy gutted by de-industrialization and mechanization.
- The violence resulting from the criminalization of drugs and the federally funded drug war, which has unleashed a nearly unfathomable wave of incarceration and bloodletting.
So when we note that Baltimore has seen a 19 year-high in its monthly murder rate, we also need to acknowledge that Baltimore has consistently produced one of the highest murder rates in the country for over two decades now, thanks in large part to widespread poverty, the illegal drug economy, and the drug war, which foment an endless cycle of turf battles, revenge killings, and sundry other motives for violence.
Baltimore has logged at least 200 murders per year, or very close to it, every year for nearly four decades, even as its population as sunk from nearly a million to barely 620,000. Some years the total number of murders is near or over 300, which is how 2015 is now shaping up. As a result, Baltimore usually hovers around the nation's top 5 in per capita murder rate among cities with more than 100,000 people.
And like every other year for the past several decades, most of those murders are a result of the drug trade and the drug war.
Which is why, as this map makes abundantly clear, nearly all of the shootings that take place in Baltimore are in neighborhoods saturated with drug traffic. Note on the map how shootings are almost entirely absent from the monied (middle class and up), mostly white corridor of neighborhoods that runs down the center of the city east of the Jones Falls Expressway (I-83) and west of Greenmount/York Avenue (highway 45), all the way down to the harbor and then eastward along either side of the water. There, one sees no shootings listed at all.
Instead, the shootings are clustered in well known hot spots for the drug trade in east and west Baltimore. That is also where the recent surge in shootings and murders has been.
In other words, what the May murders probably represent is a slight up tick in business as usual in the town we sometimes call Bodymore, Murderland a.k.a. Harm City a.k.a. the City that Bleeds a.k.a. Mob Town. The politicians feign righteous indignation whenever someone mentions these sobriquets, but the bloody truth is, no one from the outside gave them to us; Baltimore gave itself these nicknames, and we use them knowingly.
The drug war is likely the most important historical and structural factor explaining Baltimore's juiced murder rate for May. Yet it has gone completely unmentioned in all of the national press reporting I've encountered.
This omission is both frustrating and depressing, and I can’t help but think the media silence about drug violence reflects a society scared of facing up to the truth about itself. That we are a society riven by fear, and those fears lead us to turn away from obviously truths. And that it’s easier to be afraid than it is to think about what the real causes are and what we can do to reverse them.
It's easier for well-to-do people to be scared of poor people. For white people, and those minorities aspiring to be white, to be scared of black people. For suburbanites and country people to be scared of city people. For the educated to be scared of the dropouts. For those with cars to be scared of those who ride the bus. For people who speak and dress and listen to music like this to be scared of people who speak and dress and listen to music like that.
All of that is easier than owning up to the mess that we, as a society, have partially created, and which we, as a society, can at least partially fix. It's easier than admitting that political decisions our democratically elected leaders have made and implemented during the past several decades have contributed mightily to oppression that leads to incidents like Freddie Gray's death, to the segregation of crime and violence in cities like Baltimore, and even to the startling rate of murders that consistently mars them.
In other words, it's easy for us to lump all of these various tragedies and disruptions together, from Gray's death to the riot to the protests to the indictments to the police slowdown to the spike in murders, and claim the share a causal relationship. What's hard is for us to acknowledge are the common threads that we as a society have sewn to unify them, like so much stale popcorn on a browning Christmas tree.
But all of it, the specifics of the Gray tragedy, the consistently high murder rate, and the generally bad cop-civilian relations in affected areas, are not part of some inevitable horror. Nor are they merely feeding each other in a vacuum. Rather, they're all directly related to the drug war. It's really pretty simple.
If there weren't an absolutist prohibition on drugs like cocaine and heroin, there wouldn't be a lucrative black market for them, with life-threatening risks and outsized rewards for dealers. Forget the job creation and tax revenues that would come with legalization, or the dwindling drug profits (marijuana prices have dropped by roughly a third in the three states where its recreational use is now legal). Simply decriminalizing and responsibly regulating such drugs would greatly reduce the flood of mostly young black and brown men being sent to prison, and would also eliminate much of the violence.
If drug addicts who lose control of their lives, like alcoholics who do the same, were sent to rehab instead of prison, and if government regulation allowed for a functional drug market instead of the medieval style thug market that currently exists for the exclusive benefit of violent criminals, then all sorts of human misery up to and including the endless parade of murder, might be seriously mitigated.
If I really wanted to get moralistic, then this is the part of the essay where I would point out the hypocrisy of our comparatively lenient laws on alcohol, a drug that causes a horrifying amount of damage to our society. Or I could even talk about the laws for dangerous prescription medications, which allow companies to pimp them like sexy tic tacs.
But it's the second decade of the 21st century, and I think those hypocrisies should be readily obvious to all but the most obstinate among us. As should be the effects of the drug war.
So instead of moralizing, I'd like to train our gaze on what we so often turn away from: The firm fact that so much of America's misery is the result of American policies. That, to a large degree, we have created our own horror, and we have both the power and responsibility to ameliorate it.
In order to do that, we need to stop pretending that something like the current round of murders in Baltimore is really that unusual, or that it's even a direct result of the Freddie Gray tragedy and its aftermath. While there is likely an indirect connection to current police practices, the larger truth is a consistent one.
Baltimore has suffered under one of the nation's highest large-city murder rates for several decades. And that is the direct consequence of a toxic combination of widespread poverty and the drug war. To pretend otherwise is either to be profoundly ignorant, very scared, or worse, intellectually dishonest.
I have no idea how to fix the economy. I don't really think anyone does. But neutering much of the violence is a relatively a simple matter: End the drug war.
Akim Reinhardt's website is ThePublicProfessor.com
Lieko Shiga. Rasen kaigan (Spiral Shore), 46, 2011, from the series Rasen kaigan (Spiral Shore), 2011.
Photograph, digital print.
"The Great East Japan Earthquake struck on March 11, 2011, and an enormous wave of water swept through towns in the Tōhoku (Northeast) region, destroying virtually everything in its path and irrevocably damaging the Fukushima nuclear power plant. This triple disaster was of such epic proportions that it became a defining moment for Japan. A number of photographers felt compelled to record not only the events’ physical effects on the land, but also to interpret the overarching significance of the tragedy through art. ..."
Part of current exhibition titled In The Wake at MFA, Boston.
Why Did America Kill Hundreds Of Thousands Of Iraqi Women And Children? Ask Jeb Bush
by Evert Cilliers aka Adam Ash
But he got asked the wrong question.
The right question to ask Jeb Bush is this:
"How dare you run for president when you should be dying of shame instead, because your brother is a war criminal?"
We seemed to have banished simple morality from all our discussions of public policy.
We call the Iraq War our "most serious foreign policy blunder" instead of what it really was: a war crime. An evil deed conceived by evil men because Saddam Hussein cut oil deals with Russian, French and other foreign oil companies, instead of with American oil companies — a snub that our two Texas oil men in charge, Bush and Cheney, could not abide. So they committed a war crime, and lied our whole country into their war crime.
Their act of evil makes the all-too-often-invoked Nazi analogy applicable to America. Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld-Rice-Powell are the mini-Hitlers of our time, and our country, America, is the Nazi Germany of our time, because of the war crime of the Iraq War. Because of our evil, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi women and children are dead.
We are a nation steeped in evil.
We are the biggest manufacturers and sellers of arms in the world. We export evil to an evil regime like Saudi-Arabia, the country that funded 9/11 and beheads women for adultery.
We have a presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, who took years to apologize for her vote to allow Bush and company to commit the evil of the Iraq War.
We had another female secretary of state, Madeline Albright, who was an apologist for evil on "60 Minutes" in December 1996. Read this exchange and weep:
Lesley Stahl on U.S. sanctions against Iraq: "We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean, that's more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?"
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright: "I think this is a very hard choice, but the price — we think the price is worth it."
We have our American Psychological Association in cahoots with our government in practicing torture. American psychologists — instruments of evil.
We have a police force who goes around shooting a black 12-year-old in a park playing with a toy gun stone-dead, and another black man running away in the back: a police force with trigger-happy racist evil doers in its midst. According to a black ex-cop, 15% of our cops will abuse their authority at every opportunity, 15% won't, and the other 70% will go either way, depending on how much their department has been corroded by the 15% who abuse their authority. (Personally, I think it's crazy to give young men in their 20s a gun and the authority to use it, when their brains haven't fully developed yet. Cops should NOT be allowed to carry guns till they're 30.)
We put a woman of conscience in jail for 30 years because she revealed to us the evil that our military wreaked in Iraq. We've done evil unto Chelsea Manning, when all she did was expose our evil.
We have an ex-president. Bill Clinton, who did nothing about a holocaust happening in Rwanda — a man who allowed monstrous evil to happen on his watch.
We experience a gunman's mass-killing of little children in Sandy Hook, and do nothing about gun control, because our politicians fear an evil organization, the NRA.
We believe it's OK to make a profit out of people getting sick. Our entire health insurance industry is an industry of evil.
We have a political party, the Republican Party, who is the face of pure evil. Because they hate our black president and his signature achievement, Obamacare, so much, many Republican governors refuse to expand Medicaid to poor people in their states (which will cost their states nothing), and so cause the unnecessary deaths of 17.000 Americans a year. The Republicans: a party who would kill their own people out of hate for our president. A party of stunning evil.
We have a teenage Pakistani girl, Malala, telling our president to stop his drone killings, but our president won't listen, because he likes his little evil habit of drone killings too much, and doesn't care that his drones kill more innocent folks than actual evil folks.
Verily, America is the exceptional nation. We Americans behave like the scum of the earth, and we don't even know it, let alone acknowledge it.
So let's take a look at our biggest war crime since the Vietnam War (which plunged Cambodia into a holocaust):
The Iraq War.
Why did we commit this deed of utter evil? Why did we kill innocent Iraqi women and children by the hundreds of thousands?
There are seven reasons why we invaded Iraq. Four of the reasons were real, and they were hidden from the American people. The remaining three were fake ones Bush and Co. used to bamboozle us — or as the pundits say, "to mislead us into war."
1. THE REAL CHENEY REASON: OIL
As CEO of Halliburton, Cheney shared the mindset of Texas oil barons. For them, Iraq was a mouth-watering treasure ripe for pillage.
In Cheney's Halliburton days, Iraq was producing almost three million barrels a day. However, there was potential for much more. Within 20 years, its oil fields could, if fully exploited, reach Saudi levels (full-steam, that's 11 million barrels a day).
So there was Iraq, "floating on a sea of oil" — this rich, plump, juicy plum.
Iraq was socialist. The state owned the oil. And the state was ruled by a two-bit dictator. He had to go: so let's invade Iraq and secure its oil fields for our oil companies.
Not that there's anything inherently evil about invading a country for its oil, especially if the invasion can be said to be some sort of liberation. It might be bad manners, but it's a good reason. Oil is oil. We use it, so maybe it ought to be ours to start with. You can do what you want with your country, as long as we get to pump out your oil. The only problem with this good reason: It doesn't sound all that good. Too damn mercenary. A scary, fake reason was needed to cover up the real reason.
2. THE FAKE CHENEY REASON: WMD
Paul Wolfowitz famously called WMD the "bureaucratic" reason for the war. In other words, not the real reason.
The question is, did Cheney himself believe his hype?
Let's consider the known facts. Cheney was looking for a reason to sell his oil war. He was bugging the CIA to come up with evidence that Saddam had to be taken out. He was grabbing on to the slightest hint, the merest rumor — on to any scrap of information, any data, any source, no matter how compromised or dubious. "Curveball," by all accounts an alcoholic, "crazy, congenital liar," was the source for Saddam's biological weapons, but the mobile labs turned out to be trucks that made helium for weather balloons.
Why would Cheney believe any of this crap when he had his good reason already – oil — and didn't need WMD to be a good reason, as long as it was enough of a reason to sell the country?
So he started the war before the UN could finish its investigation. And to stop any truth-telling, he went so far as to commit treason by leaking the identity of a whistleblower and former ambassador Joseph Wilson's wife, who happened to be a covert CIA agent.
Cheney and Chalabi, his Iraqi source who wanted a war so he could take over Saddam's job, fed their WMD "facts" to journalist Judy Miller, who dutifully wrote them up for publication in The New York Times.
The next day, if anyone asked Cheney about WMD – say, another reporter, or Tim Russert on TV — Cheney would quote the Times as a reliable source that reported that Saddam had WMD.
Slick. They even conned poor Colin Powell into trying to sell their story to the UN.
Cheney had a whole task force devoted to selling the war to the public: the White House Iraq Group, or WHIG, which met weekly in the White House Situation Room. What a crew: Andrew Card, Karl Rove, Scooter Libby, Condi Rice, Karen Hughes, and Mary Matalin – bare-faced liars who'd bullshit their own grandmothers insisting that they were virgins while fresh sperm was running down the insides of their guilty thighs.
When it was revealed that there were no WMD, Cheney and his conspiracy neatly sidestepped all responsibility and pointed at the CIA — acting like they'd been sheepishly fooled, and shaking their heads sorrowfully over the CIA's "faulty intelligence."
The New York Times duly reported this "fact," too. Having helped the warmakers to sell the war, our proud newspaper of record then helped these same instigators escape responsibility by blaming everything on the CIA.
A huge hew and cry was instigated over the CIA's "incompetence." George Tenet dutifully fell on his sword and was rewarded for his loyalty with a Medal of Freedom by the president himself.
"We were all wrong," they chorused. No, they weren't all wrong.
There were the bullshitters and the bullshitten. The bullshitters knew, and the bullshitten didn't. The whole hype was neatly flagged by the president himself when he made a funny film for reporters of him looking for WMD under the furniture at the White House and not finding a thing. Only a man who didn't believe any of it in the first place could make jokes about it.
Wink-wink, nod-nod: See me make fun of my own bullshit.
3. THE REAL BUSH REASON: VINDICATE HIS FAMILY'S NAME
Bush, also an oil man, subscribed to Cheney's oil reason – hadn't Texas oil companies given him $50 million to run for president? But he had his own reasons for wanting a war with Iraq before he even became governor of Texas.
For George W. Bush, son of George H.W. Bush, this was personal.
His dad had made war on Saddam. His dad did not like Saddam. The feeling was mutual. Saddam had tried to kill his dad. Saddam was a bad guy. A boogieman.
His dad had expected one of two things to happen after the Gulf War: that a Shiite uprising would topple Saddam, or that the Iraqi officer corps would remove Saddam for screwing up by exposing them to a war with America (the way the elite steps in and removes anyone who fails them).
But Saddam survived. The bastard was alive and well and taunting America. His survival was a personal blow to the Bush family prestige. Bush wanted to vindicate his family and "take out Saddam." The defier of America and the Bush family had to go.
4. THE FAKE BUSH REASON: 9/11
The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks gave Bush a good fake reason to invade Iraq. He let it be known that Saddam was connected to 9/11, and cloaked the Iraq War in the mantle of a pre-emptive war on terror.
Former US government official and counterterrorism expert Richard Clarke revealed that Bush had asked him to find out if Saddam had anything to do with 9/11 right after it happened — even when Clarke told him there was no connection. (Actually, Saudis were behind it, but Bush allowed the Saudi royals — two-generational friends of the Bush family – to refuse the FBI access to any suspects in their country.)
Bush only had to hint at a connection between 9/11 and boogieman Saddam, and the rest of the country ran with it. A despairing American public wanted to believe it, so they did. Even after Bush himself admitted that there was no connection, more than 40% of the country still believed there was one.
5. THE REAL KARL ROVE REASON: RE-ELECTION
When Karl Rove watched Margaret Thatcher fight a teeny war in the Falklands in 1982, he noticed that her popularity soared because of it. A war can make you popular. Rove, now White House Senior Adviser, knew the best way to assure his boss's re-election was to make Bush a wartime president. The country always rallies behind a president at war.. A second term would give Rove the opportunity to push his far-right agenda through, starting with the destruction of Social Security.
6. THE REAL WOLFOWITZ REASON: U.S. EMPIRE
The other good but covert reason (like oil) was the neocon reason: to establish a US empire after we won the Cold War, when Russia couldn't check our imperial ambitions anymore. The neocons even had a cute name for our empire: the Pax Americana.
In 1992, then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney had a strategy report drafted for the Department of Defense, written by Paul Wolfowitz, then Under-Secretary of Defense for Policy.
In it, the US government was urged, as the world's sole remaining superpower, to move aggressively and militarily around the globe. The report called for pre-emptive attacks and ad hoc coalitions, but said that the US should be ready to act alone when "collective action cannot be orchestrated."
The central strategy was to "establish and protect a new order" that accounts "sufficiently for the interests of the advanced industrial nations to discourage them from challenging our leadership," while at the same time maintaining a military dominance capable of "deterring potential competitors from even aspiring to a larger regional or global role."
An imperial posture. Hubris of the highest order. The doctrine of a python fixing to hypnotize a helpless rat.
Wolfowitz outlined plans for military intervention in Iraq as an action necessary to assure "access to vital raw material, primarily Persian Gulf oil" and to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and threats from terrorism.
In 1997, the Project for a New American Century (PNAC) was founded to press for this new strategy –- and for a war with Iraq. (The PNAC's members were Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Condi Rice, John Bolton, Richard Armitage, Elliot Abrams, Douglas Feith, James Woolsey, Scooter Libby and Zalmay Kahlilzad — now US Ambassador in Iraq.)
The PNAC urged:
a) a policy of "preemptive" war — i.e., whenever the US thinks a country may be amassing too much power or could provide some sort of competition in the "benevolent hegemony" region, it can be attacked, without provocation.
b) nuclear weapons would no longer be considered defensive, but could be used offensively in support of political/economic ends; so-called "mini-nukes" could be employed in these regional wars.
c) international treaties and opinion will be ignored whenever they are not seen to serve U.S. imperial goals.
d) The new policies "will require bases and stations within and beyond Western Europe and Northeast Asia."
In September 2000, with Cheney now VP, the Project released its grand plan for the future in a report titled "Rebuilding America's Defenses: Strategy, Forces, and Resources for a New Century."
It reads like a clear prescription for empire.
The report begins with the premise that "The United States is the world's only superpower, combining preeminent military power, global technological leadership, and the world's largest economy ... America's grand strategy should aim to preserve and extend this advantageous position as far into the future as possible."
The report recommends new missions for the US armed forces, including a dominant nuclear capability with a new generation of nuclear weapons, sufficient combat forces to fight and win multiple major wars, and forces for "constabulary duties" around the world with American rather than UN leadership.
Hey, we've got to rule the world, y'all. As owners of the biggest military dick, we've got to wave it over the world's heads for all to see and fellate.
The report states that "the presence of American forces in critical regions around the world is the visible expression of the extent of America's status as a superpower" and proposes "a network of 'deployment bases' or 'forward operating bases' to increase the reach of current and future forces."
(Currently the US has over 800 military bases and deployments in different countries around the world, with the most recent major increase being in the Caspian Sea/Afghanistan/Middle East areas. Call it a Pax Americana if you want, but the real name for this is empire. Or evil empire.)
As for the Persian Gulf, the report says "the United States has for decades sought to play a more permanent role in Gulf regional security. While the unresolved conflict with Iraq provides the immediate justification, the need for a substantial American force presence in the Gulf transcends the issue of the regime of Saddam Hussein … Over the long term, Iran may well prove as large a threat to U.S. interests in the Gulf as Iraq has."
Making no secret of its imperial posture, the report baldly remarks that "the failure to prepare for tomorrow's challenges will ensure that the current Pax Americana comes to an early end."
To further its ambition for a US empire, the PNAC channeled millions of taxpayer dollars to a Saddam opposition group called the Iraqi National Congress, which was formed by Iraq's self-styled leader-in-waiting Ahmed Chalabi. (The Project overlooked the fact that Jordan sentenced Chalabi in absentia to 22 years in prison on 31 counts of bank fraud). Chalabi's INC had been gaining support for its cause by promising oil contracts to anyone who helped put them on top in Iraq.
The Cheney oil conspiracy couldn't have wished for a better partner. The PNAC reckoned a Chalabi-led American protectorate in Iraq was needed to:
a) acquire control of the oil heads to fund the entire enterprise.
b) fire a warning shot across the bows of every leader in the Middle East.
c) establish a military staging area for the eventual invasion and overthrow of several Middle Eastern regimes, even those who were US allies.
In the September 2002 issue of his journal, Commentary, editor and fellow neocon Norman Podhoretz writes that the regimes "that richly deserve to be overthrown and replaced, are not confined to the three singled-out members of the axis of evil. At a minimum, the axis should extend to Syria and Lebanon and Libya, as well as 'friends' of America like the Saudi royal family and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, along with the Palestinian Authority, whether headed by Arafat or one of his henchmen." This, he says, is all about "the long-overdue internal reform and modernization of Islam."
So this was the theory of empire in the Middle East.
The hard plan was to get a US company, Brown & Root, in there to build permanent American military bases.
Cheney's Halliburton and Brown & Root have worked cheek-by-jowl with governments in Algeria, Angola, Bosnia, Burma, Croatia, Haiti, Nigeria, Rwanda, and Somalia during terrible times for these countries. Many environmental and human rights groups say that Cheney, Halliburton and Brown & Root were central to these terrible times. Brown & Root was contracted by the Defense Department to build cells for detainees in Guantanamo Bay for $300 million (sounds like one more overcharge, doesn't it?). Another company with a vested interest in both a war on Iraq and massively increased defense spending is the Carlyle Group. Former President George H. W. Bush was himself employed by Carlyle as a senior advisor, as was long-time Bush family advisor James Baker III.
7. THE FAKE WOLFOWITZ REASON: FREEDOM FOR IRAQ
On May 7, 2005, Bush heralded a remarkable change in his Iraq policy in a speech in Russia of all places:
"We will not repeat the mistakes of other generations appeasing or excusing tyranny, and sacrificing freedom in the vain pursuit of stability. We have learned our lesson; no one's liberty is expendable. In the long run, our security and true stability depend on the freedom of others. And so, with confidence and resolve, we will stand for freedom across the broader Middle-East."
This was a remarkable rhetorical about-face. Suddenly Bush was saying that instead of boning the Middle-East with a blood-hard military dick, he was going to zip up America's pants. Why this 180-degree turn?
Let's go back to what happened after the administration rigged a brilliant photo-op by staging the "spontaneous" pulling down of the Saddam statue and declared "mission accomplished" with Bush in a pilot outfit, his testicles deftly strapped to show a bulging package.
At first the Cheney conspiracy moved quickly to impose its neocon vision of empire on Iraq (even though, to its great surprise, our troops weren't welcomed with flowers as liberators, as Chalabi had promised). When the first viceroy, General Garner, a great friend of the Kurds, wanted to have elections, they pulled him out pronto, like an unwanted pig from their ripe little pasture. They sent in Paul Bremer instead with a list of instructions. He worked on establishing voting caucuses in various areas, with the voting taking place in a controlled manner over a number of months – a rather obvious attempt to rig elections in favor of US-paid cronies. Even after a smokescreen of tasking the UN to pick an Iraq leader, the US still foisted their own stooge on everyone, Dr. Ayad Alawi, who happened to be a former CIA-controlled Iraqi agent.
Bremer also decreed an entirely new economy. Corporate taxes were capped at 15%. Anyone could buy a business in Iraq and repatriate their profits. The stage was set for Texas to take over Iraq's oil fields. Bremer's decrees guaranteed the perfect Republican business-friendly state. The people would not necessarily be free, but the business people sure would.
In the event, these economic decrees turned out to be mere wishes on paper for empire. Because most disastrously, Bremer enacted two real-world decrees:
a) Urged on by Chalabi, he fired all the Sunni Baathists in government – the entire bureaucratic leadership who were actually running the country. In one instant, he created the insurgency, and gave them their leaders.
b) He fired the army too, and created the foot soldiers of the insurgency, as well as providing its weapons.
With these two acts of epic psychopathology, Bremer destroyed all security in Iraq. More: he nuked the entire fabric of a working Iraqi society, and ensured a rebellion (a mini-civil war between Shiites and Sunnis, with the Kurds ready to hive off into their own state). It ended up in the creation of ISIS by former fired Baathist generals, who today are set to take over Syria and Iraq.
It's got to be the most ham-handed, thoughtless act of modern history. It would have been better for Iraq if Bremer had covered its entire landmass in a six-inch coat of hillbilly diarrhea imported from Kentucky.
But then reality stepped in big-time to slap all US imperial pretensions back into the dark bunghole they'd steamed from. The leading Iraqi cleric, a doddering old codger from Iran, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, got pissed at America for trying to rig elections. He demanded a same-day general election by all Iraqi citizens. He called out his followers, the 60% Shiite majority who'd been oppressed by Saddam, and they marched in thunderous protest against America's gerrymandering.
Abruptly, power switched — from the occupiers to the occupied. The Shiite majority flexed its muscles; the imperial Cheney oil conspiracy was forced to blink.
8. UNFORESEEN: THE LAW OF UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES
''Wars generate their own momentum and follow the law of unintended consequences," Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, once wrote.
Damn right. With al-Sistani and his Shiite majority calling foul, Chalabi was no longer an option (especially since he'd been unmasked as being an agent for Iran all along). Establishing military bases became more difficult. Most frustrating of all, divvying up Iraq's oil riches for Texas became less likely.
The administration was stumped; it couldn't go against 60% of the occupied. General elections were announced. In the election, they managed to rig a goodly chunk of votes for their stooge Alawi, but not enough to save his ass. A rigid Shiite won. Al-Sistani had single-handedly saved his nation from a US puppet government.
The real reasons for the war – oil and empire — were marching right out the door, leaving their holders bereft, and one of the fake reasons walked in and said, hey, I'm the only reason left for you to be in Iraq. So now freedom for Iraq turned out to be why we were in Iraq. This was the last thing the Cheney conspiracy had in mind.
Ironically, the fake reason of freedom killed the real reasons. Ironically, the folks who never wanted nation-building, who never prepared for it, suddenly found themselves doing it.
Needed: a new rhetoric to put an engaging face on this humongous, unforeseen f-up. Hence, Bush's speech. We're getting shat on, but we're smiling about it, all upbeat and bravado-positive, trying to ignore the Shiite crap in our teeth.
America went from the "paranoid style in American politics" during the Cold War to the post-9/11 swagger of the Bush "unilateral" style to what may now be called the "helpless giant" style. Instead of dominating the world, we're helping it to defy us.
Talk about the chuckling irony of history. We thought we were going to bone the planet, but now we're the ones being boned big-time — with Iraq as the world's most uncomfortable dick shoved right up our asses. Instead of guaranteeing our empire, the Cheney conspiracy has guaranteed its downfall. In the end, absolute power has turned out to be absolutely powerless.
For the ancient Greeks, hubris unerringly invited tragedy. But our hubris cannot even console itself with the dignity of tragedy.
We've ended up with something merely pathetic. Blame the nature of our hubris, which is not high-born, but sprouts instead from the shallow soil of our lust for oil and from the pitiful vainglory of us masturbating the biggest military phallus on earth. No nobility there. Only things grubby and mean.
Meanwhile our warrior kids, whose mothers live among us, got their faces blown off by explosive devices over there. For no noble cause at all. For the vanity of oil and empire. They died in vain, sacrificed by Bush-Cheney for absolutely nothing. Tragically, we lack the moral dimension one needs for true tragedy. We lack the heroism we demand of our troops. We're a nation of moral dwarves, starting with war criminals Bush, Cheney et al.
And now a brother of a war criminal will be running for president. And neither he, nor we, will raise an eyebrow in protest against this outcome of evil.
Cry, my beloved country. You were duped into war. You let down your sons and daughters. The stink of your grubby reasons will follow you for decades to come. Would that there was some miracle detergent to wash your hands clean. But there isn't. There is only the smell of blood crying out to you from countless graves -- thousands of our soldiers, and hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqi women and children.
Baku Firing the Imagination
by Maniza Naqvi
I wake up to the sounds and smells of explosives, the whiff of dynamite mixed with a faint scent of petroleum which sometimes wafts on the breeze here, it is midnight in Baku, and there are extravagant fireworks, over the Caspian waters, framed in my hotel window—as Azerbaijan marks its Independence day. I am awake, and from the tower where I lie, I stare into the near distance at the make believe flames superimposed on three glass towers shaped as flames and lit up at night, appearing like the licks of burning tongues. These are, yes, The Flame Towers, a monument of sorts to free enterprise, trading and a homage to fire temples in the beautiful city of Baku on the shores of the Caspian Sea on the peninsula of Absheron, in Azerbaijan, in the South Caucuses, north of Iran, South of Georgia and Russia, west of Turkmenistan across the sea and East of the region of Nagorno-Karabakh and that other country one doesn't name here.
Baad e koo--city of winds---the strong gusts that rise from the south and the sea are called Khaezaeri while those from the north are called Kilavar. The Caspian in Azeri is Khaezer.
I am wide awake, resolutely denying jetlag and contemplate if I should work and finish the note I am to write on Somalia.I have a few hours before my day is to start. But staring at my reflection on the window glass, all I manage to scribble is: From Mogadishu to Baku there is you in common---From Mogidishu to Baku it always ends with you. I mull over the lines and tell myself I will write this. At some point. But as I drown and drowse and surrender to sleep, the moon wanes over the sea slick with oil rising to its surface and I dream of suns rising. My back hurts from the long flight over. I send whatsapp videos back home of the Towers.
Azerbaijan was known as the land of eternal flames---because mysteriously, flames erupted from the ground and water and the people since antiquity, have worshipped fire. And later in the fifteenth century and nineteenth century this drew traders from the North of Europe from the land of the Aurora Borealis and from the banks of the Indus from Multan in South Asia. First the Nobels.
Robert Nobel, lived here, in Baku in his Villa Petrolea and added substantially to his fortune here. This is a little known fact. Nobel, yes that one, the Swede whose family fortune with his brother Alfred funds the Nobel prize, arrived in Baku from Sweden in search of the ideal walnut wood for his shotguns and instead smell oil fumes in the air in Baku and oil floating on the water and the eternal flames. He stayed and set up his family's petroleum company. The Nobels Oil company was called Branobel and their home Villa Petrolea. The Swedes regret that what could have been their oil wealth became Norway's fortune. But then, all that time they had Azerbaijan's.
The main and very impressive boulevard in Baku is called Neftchilar--Oilmen's Avenue. Along with expensive hotels there are the shops of almost every well known designer here.
Branobel Oil with a logo of the fire temple, officially began operating in 1879. The first oil tanker of the Nobel's was called Zoraster. It is said in Baku that the Nobels were Zorastrian. The oil profits from Azerbaijan along with the profits from dynamite and weapons funded the Nobel fortune (Villa Petrolea in the photograph below).
Few people outside of Azerbaijan know that the Nobel family has strong ties to Azerbaijan, to Baku and that the Nobel Prize is also funded from the fortunes of the oil in the Peninsula of Absheron where the city of Baku is located. In the old part of the city which was referred to as the Black town because of the black oil stands the Villa Petrolea, the home of Robert Nobel. When he arrived here in the 1870s he saw that people were soaking up the black oil in the water along the shore and wringing the oil soaked clothes into pots to use as fuel. The rest is history. (here,here)
‘Azerbaijan first caught the eye of the Nobel brothers in 1873, when the Russian government offered free competition for plots of land there. Robert Nobel, a chemist with experience selling American petroleum products in Finland, saw an opportunity. He and his brothers, Ludvig and Alfred, already knew about the discovery of oil in Pennsylvania. In fact, Ludvig later went on to invent a type of refinery that was much more sophisticated than those created by the American oil companies. In 1879, the three brothers created a shareholding company and became the main owners.In 1882, Ludvig invited more technical staff to Baku from Finland, Sweden, Norway and Germany, and founded a colony that he called Villa Petrolea, located in what was then called, and still is - the "Black City" district of Baku. Oil products from their venture were distributed all over Russia by train and by ship to Central Asia and Europe. The logo of the Nobel Brothers' Petroleum Company depicted the Surakhani Fire-worshippers' Temple, with its flames fueled by gas from the oilfield nearby. It should be noted that the Nobel ships took on names of various religious and philosophical personalities- Zoroaster, Mohammad, Buddha, Brahma, Socrates, Spinoza and Darwin. Religious ceremonies took place within the Nobel Factory Compound. Sometimes they would go on for days and the workers were free from work.' (here)
Stalin. Yes Josef Stalin lived in Baku. And yes there was a connection to the fire in the belly of Azerbaijan and of his. We know about Czarist Russia and its role in the making of Stalin. But we don't have light shed on the role of the Nobel family the ones who give the peace prize, on the making of Stalin. He arrived there in the 1900s to rally workers in the oil industry, to organize them against the oligarchs of oil, who then jailed him in Bayil Prison in Baku. His second wife was from Azerbaijan, Nadezhda Alliluyeva. A love story of a Georgian man and an Azeri woman. Joe and Nadya? The jail was razed to the ground later. (here and here)
Here is an excerpt contained in the blog cited above which quotes from "Twenty Letters to a Friend" by Svetlana Alliluyeva, (Stalin's daughter). Harper & Row: New York, 1967, p. 47. '"My father had known the Alliluyevs for a long time, since the end of the 1890s. He loved and respected them both, and they felt the same way toward him. In his reminiscences my grandfather has dealt at length with their early meetings, which had to do with the underground workers' circles. There is a family legend that as a young man my father rescued my mother [Nadezhda] from drowning. It happened in Baku when she was two years old. She was playing on the shore and fell in. He is said to have gone in after her and fished her out. Years later my mother met my father again. She was a schoolgirl of 16 by that time, and he an old friend of the family, a 38-year-old revolutionary, just back from exile in Siberia. Maybe the fact that he had rescued her seemed significant to her, for she was a romantic - full of feeling and imagination."
'On July 9, 1903, while in prison in Kutais, Stalin was sentenced to three years of exile to Siberia, and in November of that year he was transferred to the bleak, remote village of Novaya Uda. There he received his first letter from Lenin in response to one posing certain questions concerning Bolshevist policy and tactics. The letter confirmed him in his adherence to Lenin, whom he glorified as "Mountain Eagle." Determined to escape, Stalin made his way safely to Irkutsk at the end of the year. From there he proceeded to Baku, in the Caucasus, where he experienced his second baptism of fire as leader of a strike of oil workers. It was part of a wave of strikes that swept Russia with her defeat by Japan, a wave that was the harbinger of the Revolution of 1905.Shortly after the outbreak of the general strike which was the key element in the revolution of 1905, Stalin met Lenin for the first time at a party conference in Tammerfors, Finland. From the Tammerfors conference Stalin returned to his activity in the Caucasus, where on June 26, 1907, on Erivan Square in Tiflis, he directed the celebrated "expropriation" which netted the Bolshevik party 340,000 rubles. There had been other such "expropriations," but this was the biggest and most dramatic. Formally, Lenin and his associates had frowned upon these acts, but they, nevertheless, accepted the proceeds to help finance the party's work. In the Erivan Square affair a band of revolutionists directed by "Koba" fell upon a convoy of two carriages carrying Government funds from the railway station to the state bank, and after bombing the Cossack guard escaped with the money, which was sent to Lenin. Following the "expropriation," Stalin was arrested and lodged in Bailov fortress, in Baku, where the incident of his running the gantlet of rifle butts took place. Soon thereafter he was exiled for the second time to Solvychegodsk, in Siberia, from which he escaped on June 24, 1909. He returned to Baku to resume his revolutionary activity, but remained at liberty only eight months, when he was again arrested and sent back to Solvychegodsk. From that place he conducted secret correspondence with Lenin and his staff at Bolshevik headquarters in Cracow.' (here)
Today the petroleum industry in Azerbaijan, a joint venture between the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan (SOCAR) and the British Petroleum, produces about 800,000 barrels of oil per day and 1 billion cubic meters of gas per year. ‘There is so much oil and natural gas reserve under the Absheron Peninsula that the ground practically leaks all over.' (here).
‘Fire-worship was prevalent in the second half of the first millennium in Absheron and Christianity was widespread in the early Middle Ages in Shirvan, Mughan, Lenkeran, the Talysh region, South Azerbaijan and in the north of Azerbaijan. In several regions the most ancient cults have been preserved – the cults of rock, wood, moon and sun worship etc.' (here) Pilgrims as far as from Multan in present day Pakistan came to worship here. Still to this day there is a carvansaerai in the old city in Baku called Multana Carvanserai.
‘I was looking at the curious shape of the Maiden Tower when I came across a sign that pointed to the ‘Multani Caravanserai'. Caravanserais — temporary abodes of ancient trade caravans —there were many in Azerbaijan, but why Multani? What did it have to do with our Multan (in Pakistan)? I followed the signs and after passing through a narrow passageway reached two stone buildings that had restored exteriors: one was Bukhara Caravanserai, the other one was Multani Caravanserai. I was told the Multani Caravanserai was built in the 15th century and was the resting place for traders coming from Multan. Presently, a restaurant by the name of‘Karvansarayi' occupies both buildings that face each other. Multani Caravanserai's basement with its vaulted ceilings appeared to be the original construction. This is where businessmen from Multan stayed during their stay in Baku. The trade caravans in the ancient times must have had to travel around 2,000 miles going from Multan to Baku. With a maximum speed of 20 miles a day it would take 100 days to cover that distance. Did the trade caravans leaving Multan — with stopovers in between —reach Baku in six months? From Multan did they first travel north to Kabul, then East to Mashhad and finally reaching the southern point of Caspian; and from there they just went along the coast to Lankaran and then onwards to Baku? Trade caravans were the main connections between towns of antiquity. That is how students reached the centres of learning they wanted to go to. All the holy men landing in Multan too must have come with those trade caravans. Ideas and technologies too must have travelled that way. Maritime activity over long hauls being a dangerous proposition till around the 17th century, the ancient trade routes were mostly overland. South Asia was connected to Central Asia and Eurasia through these trade routes. The British came to our region through the sea; their domination of South Asia changed the trade patterns of this area. Even after the end of the colonial era, our region could not re-establish its vibrant historic trade connection with landmass north of it. I also nurtured thoughts about the power of ancient trade centres. Why was Multan so important? Its location by the Chenab River is vital, but did the Suraj Mandir with its awe- inspiring idols too elevate Multan's status?' How were the ancient trade routes formed? Little trade connections must have merged together to form routes that were thousands of miles long. And who decided when would a trade caravan leave a place? Who were those caravan leaders and what were their skillsets? How large were the caravans? What merchandise would they carry with them? Were there armed men with each caravan? Coming out of the Multani Caravanserai I could see silk,spices, grains, and perfumes, all loaded up on mules present outside the caravanserai.' (here)
What is the relationship between the Zoroastrian fire temples in Baku and Suraj Mandir and other temples in ancient Multan (here)? What is the relationship of these temples and the Sufi Shrines in Multan to Baku and its fire temples? (here)
'In the 15th century, a colony of Indian merchants lived and had caravanserais in Baku, Shemakha,Tabriz and other Azerbaijani cities. The 15th century Indian Multana caravanserai still stands in the ancient fortress of Baku – Icheri Sheher. Trading by Indian merchants, who mainly bought raw silk produced in Shirvan, Shemakha and other places, continued in Azerbaijan until the 16th century and later. About 50 m north-west of the Baku temple, Maiden Tower, there is a caravanserai building – totally reconstructed in the 14th century on the foundations of a more ancient construction - which had obviously served the same purpose. This building still carries its ancient name – the "Multana" caravanserai, taking the name of an Indian tribe of fire- worshippers. It seems that the name was given to the caravanserai in the 15th century, inherited from its more ancient predecessor, built in times of rigorous Zoroastrianism -the Sassanid era, or even earlier; This caravanserai was restored again in the 17th century and the last major work carried out on it was a reconstruction from 1974- 1976. Constructed right next to the high stone wall surrounding the temple, not far from the main gates, which were located a little further west,the Multana caravanserai served as a shelter for Zoroastrian pilgrims from far India.The Indian pilgrims often came to the ancient city of Ateshi Baguan and stayed at their caravanserai to participate in worship and sacrificial offerings at the principal temple of the Mazdaites - and later the Zoroastrians-the Baku temple of seven- headed fires. The temples of Baku were clearly visited by followers of the Zoroastrian religion. Opposite the caravanserai for Indian fire worshippers was the Bukhara caravanserai for merchants from Central Asia. The latter had been reconstructed in the 15th century on the site of an older building which had probably been a shelter for fire- worshippers from Sogda, Khorezm and Bactria.It would seem that these caravanserais enabled merchants from distant countries to combine business with worship of their God in the cult complex. While the flames continued to burn in the Baku, the temple complex of the ancient city of Ateshi- Baguan was probably the main cult centre of Mazdaism and Zoroastrianism, popular across Caspiana,Albania and Midia –Atropatena.' (here)
On June 12, 2015 again the world will come to Baku but this time to worship at the shrine of Games and sports in a glittering Olympiad constructed just for this purpose. Azerbaijan will be the host and welcome the world as the host to the European Games in stadiums built for this purpose. It's a proud moment for a newly wealthy country anxious and eager to put up a good show and to show off its glittering brand new city and its decade of new construction. There are the BMW five series used for police cars, there are the fleets of black Mercedes limousines for guests, and of course there are the wide boulevards lined by show rooms for Mazaratis and Astin Martins, and Giorgio Armani and Brioni, in a Dubai touch of ‘look what money can buy'. It is that same old new of a capitalist present but here it does not rise out of a barren desert, here it mixes and builds on the old graceful limestone buildings of an imperialist past –and all of it as though a film set lit up at night, gleaming glass and metal skyscrapers flashing light montages on their facades of sportsmen and flames.
The city boasts an award winning breath taking architectural gem which must surely be the envy of many major cities. It is the museum named after the father of modern day Azerbaijan Heydar Aliyiev and designed by the formidable architect Zaha Hadid—a woman originally from Iraq.
The design seems as if it is a shrine to a rebirth of spirituality and the eternal birth of modernity and space and a temple to aesthetic sensibility of feminine curves and the sense of a drop of liquidity—which sensually and comfortingly shapes itself and grows and morphs as you enter into it-- emerging from it renewed. The outer and inner walls as if freshly fallen snow drifts, or breeze solidified, or a membrane or a draping, eggshell white, as if an egg---in the motion of elongation—pulled this way and that. (here and here).
At the opposite side of the city, past the national flag the size of several football fields and past the conference center created for the Eurovision 2012 contest and nestled in the hills is the shrine of another woman, Iraqi in origin, Bibi Heybat, or Ukeyma Khanum, (here) granddaughter of the 6th Shi'a Imam Jaffar Sadiq, the daughter of the 7th Imam Musa Kazim and the sister of the 8th Imam Raza— whose shrine is in Mashad Iran.
People go there to pray for fertility-for the birth of their children.
The Mosque over the shrine was first built in the 13th century by the Shirvanshah of the Yazdid dynasty that ruled present day Azerbaijan from the 9th to the 16th century (here). It was destroyed by the Bolsheviks in 1936 and rebuilt later.
Perhaps both, the modern museum and the ancient shrine, are built on sites which in antiquity were already sacred and were fire temples given the proliferation of flames?
And in between these two points at the Ministry which protects those who are socially, economically and in limbs disabled by war, by accidents by birth and by age sits a statue on a tall pedestal installed during the Soviet era. There, in front of the Ministry of Labor and Social Protection of the Population stands the statue of ‘The Independent Woman', a beautiful figure of a woman her back and head still draped in a chador in the process of removing the chador—her breasts thrust forward her stance of stepping forward—an image of beauty, body, breasts, womb—strong, a symbol of fertility and strength her chador half unfurling—half draping, like a banner at her back.
The language of Baku's architecture is of a past and present dreaming of the future. Of fire temples, to caravanserais, shrines, villas, penthouses, hotels, and from Czarist Russia and Swedish oil barons to the Soviet Union to present day museums, conference centers, stadiums and business towers trading oil, shops for designer clothes and fancy cars and shops selling Azeri carpets, and markets full of delicious tomatoes, cucumbers and potted caviar; and oil derricks like giant chickens pecking on the ground on the edges of the city and oil rigs out at sea. Its ancient roots of globalization of people traveling to these parts to worship and or to profit are still to this day the source of its reality.
Globalization and free enterprise in every sense of the words are not new concepts to Baku. The new modern steel and glass skyscrapers are modern versions of carvanserais and Villas Petroleas.
The spoken Azeri language is the pure form of Turkish complete with its Turkic roots and Persian and Arabic words—spoken in Azerbaijan but no longer spoken in Turkey after Ataturk expunged the language of its Persian and Arabic words and alphabet.
This is a land where thousands of stories can be woven depending on which of the many strands are grasped at a time, coming together as they do on ancient trading routes, the silk road from Asia on to Europe. No wonder then that here in the streets and parks and cafes there is that soulful sweetness in the music and the languages. At every corner and turn the possibility of many more questions and many more stories. The tones of Russian, Turkic, Persian, Arabic and more, mix here creating a brew as delicious and intoxicating as its wines. I recommend the Savalan. And the gorgeous carpets made by the hands of women--and which will endure for ever and which weave stories of the crops they tended, the families they gave birth to and of insects and flowers and of caravans of camels, of turtles and dragons and of flowers and herbs-- of Marco Polo and of travelers all the way from China.
My brother sends me a text message, asking me if everything is alright. He's just woken up from a dream, he's looking to connect his IPhone to an adapter, and I suddenly walk in my head is wrapped up and I'm hurt. It's my back and there is a fire, somewhere. So he's texting me to find out if I'm okay. I am.
I listen to our host in Baku,over dinner, a lost twin it seems to Gary Shteyngart in humor, regaling us with stories. I barely catch my breath from laughing so hard when he continues ‘So you can only imagine the distress, when my childhood Russian friend, Vasiliy's prosthetic leg, as a result of an accident when he was eight, on the train tracks one day on his way to school, comes off on the Ferris wheel at Disney land in Paris where he is vacationing with his kids, and the prosthetic--please imagine it--- goes flying across the air and lands in a nearby tree—imagine then the poor Algerian Ferris wheel operator who on seeing the projectile sail through air—is traumatized for life at such a sight---such a possibility that such an amputation, which is now air borne—please can you follow the arc of my story, the awful thought that this missile may have been caused by him the simple operator of this amusement park Ferris wheel. Imagine his condition, when the prosthetic is retrieved from the tree, and is brought to Vasily just as he the Algerian operator is coming to. Imagine the poor man's further distress, the re-fainting and so on.' By this time in the story we are laughing so hard that I find it hard to breath, I am already hurting from laughing about all the stories of Vasily's exploits and all the variations of what can go wrong and does when bears are involved and on the yearly summer vacations when our host and he go to some region of Russia with more bears than people and spawning trout---while our dead pan voiced story teller complete with doleful eyes and a melancholic delivery waits for us to recover and downs another vodka.
And of course there is Alexander Dumas, the 19thcentury author of French and African extract, who wrote the Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, who visited Baku the end of the 1858, as part of his nine-month journey through several guberniyas (regions) of the Russian Empire. He visited the site of the ancient fire temple in Ateshgag, where there is a gas field with an eternal flame near Baku. It made an indelible impression on his imagination.
'Alexandre Dumas left Astrakhan by carriage for the Caucasus. He knew of the area from the ancient plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles. The grandeur and epic peace of the mountain peaks that hid the Titan Prometheus, the ancient traditions and local culture of the mountain people attracted the writer like a magnet and inspired his imagination. He devoted a whole book of essays, entitled The Caucasus, to the region. "When viewing the Caucasus, first of all you see a huge range of mountains, the gorges between them harboring representatives of all nations" is the somewhat dry beginning of his report. Yet the very next line is filled with poetry and amazement: "This was the Caucasus – the theatre where the first dramatic poet of ancient times set his first drama, with its hero a Titan and the gods as actors." After traveling all through the Caucasus (Abkhazia, Cirkassia, Ossetia and Chechnya) and visiting Tiflis and Poti, Dumas proceeded through Derbent to Baku, the ancient capital of Azerbaijan. The panorama that opened before him captivated him immediately. It appeared as if the city were divided in two: the "black" city and the "white" city. The "black" city was the old part of Baku, on the seashore, where the oil industry was located. At a distance of 26 versts from Baku was the famous Ateshgag fire sanctuary, with its eternal flame. Having heard of the fire-worshippers' temple, Alexandre Dumas immediately wanted to see this wonder of nature and ancient craftsmen with his own eyes: "…The carriages were ready. The idea was to see the Baku flames known to all, with the exception, perhaps, of the French, as the least traveled nation." After visiting the temple, he wrote: "This fire is maintained with oil, that is, kerosene, which is easily inflammable, light and transparent." The writer's inquisitive mind could not ignore the practical use of oil or "black gold" as it is called. The scale of the Russian oil fields on the Apsheron Peninsula fired his imagination. Like a scientist, he began describing what he saw in detail and with great precision. "Oil is the disintegration of dense mountain tar, produced by subterranean fires. There is oil in many parts of the world, but the greatest abundance is to be found in and around Baku. In the environs of Baku, along the entire shore of the Caspian Sea, wells have been dug to a depth of from 3 to 20 meters; black and white oil seeps through the marl earth, which is soaked in oil. Almost 100,000 centners of oil are produced every year. This oil is sent to Persia, Tiflis and Astrakhan." Alexandre Dumas continued: "Take a look at a map of the Caspian Sea and draw a straight line parallel to Baku to the opposite shore, and then imagine, right next to the shore, an island named Cheleken or 'oil island,' inhabited by nomadic Turkmen. From the other side, the Apsheron Peninsula stretches out into the sea, forming, along the same line, a large number of oil and brea beds. At the tip of Apsheron, creating a bay, is an island considered sacred by the Guebres and Persians because it also has gas and oil wells. And it thus spreads under the sea as far as the region of Turkmenia." To conclude his account of the Baku oil, he makes economic calculations in favor of yet another economic application of oil: "A big company is currently being created to make candles from oil. A pound of the finest candles, like our sun candles, would cost 15 kopecks in silver, instead of 50 kopecks a pound for stearic candles in Tiflis and 35 kopecks in Moscow." (here and here)
There is, of course, the well-known novel ‘Ali and Nino' by Kurban Said set at the time of World War I. A love story between an Azeri Muslim boy and a Georgian Christian girl who meet in the old city of Baku. The novel ends with the death of the boy and the Russian occupation of the Caucuses (here). The book is set in the backdrop of the history of the region and of Baku.
To be Azeri is to be part of a proud heritage of poetry and culture that extends far beyond Azerbaijan's borders--and includes fabled cities such as Tebriz and is a shared heritage with 25 million Azeris in Iran. Azerbaijan and the city of Baku are the homeland of great poets, philosophers and artists and most of the monuments and statues in the city and in its parks are dedicated to them and not to war or soldiers as in other places around the world. Here, there are statues and sculptures paying homage to the 12th century poet Nizami, and the 16thcentury poet Fizuli and the 20th century poets Vahid and Jabbarali and many others (here).
But more often than the verses of these poets, a particular verse of Pushkin another great author of African descent, is quoted here and it is related to the attributes of the character of a neighboring country. A statue of Pushkin is located at the corner of 28th May Street in Baku. May 28th marks the day that Azerbaijan declared its independence in 1918 after the collapse of the Russian Empire. But that declaration of independence was unfulfilled and shackles were only partially cast off with the Soviet invasion and occupation which came just two years later. And then decades later, the Soviet Union gone, there remain other grievances of invasion and occupation supported by the Russians. Despite this, or, because of it a statue to the Russian poet was erected in Baku as late in the day as 2001, perhaps pointedly on the corner of 28th May Street, and perhaps because of his much quoted verse here.
Almost 3 million of 10 million Azerbaijan citizens live in Baku---outside this glittering city the country remains mainly untouched by development, rural and remote for city dwellers. I am told proudly that of the earth's 13 climatic zones 9 can be experienced in Azerbaijan. That explains, its flavorful harvests of fruits, vegetables and dairy. The delicacies of lamb, quail, sturgeon and caviar, olives, and cheese are without a doubt delicious, but the fresh vegetables, the various leafy herbs, the cucumbers and sweet plump tomatoes at this time of the year can transport you to happiness. And there are wonderful wines, did I mention that already? The Savalan wine, in particular, this lazy Saturday afternoon, is spectacular. Yes, let me contemplate the wine, the tones and fire, the sun and the stars here. There are inscriptions of the sun and stars which have been recovered from the sites of ancient temples and which I have seen displayed in Zaha Hadid's architectural marvel, today. The Azeri currency is called Manat. I wonder why it is called Manat. It would tie in nicely for all that is the coin of feminine and worshipped here. But no, what I want it to be—for the sake of a story, it is not. Shucks. The currency is named from the word Moneta—purely for money, the Russian word for coin.
And lucky, lucky me. I am again in a land that treats me as an honored guest, refers to me as Khanim and Jan and adds the dimunitive ishka at the end of my name in affection. I feel this to be part of me, I am part of it, it is part of my soul, the Caucuses, Russia, Eastern Europe, the Balkans, Central Asia, Turkey, Iran. Here I am in the South Caucuses on the shore of the Caspian Sea in the fantastical city of Baku and all around me are the modern day traders from everywhere and everyone is anxiously waiting for the Games to begin here. The sun has set, the Flame Towers in front of me are bathed in red light and soon this light will switch to the dramatic orange flames. And it is time for me to call it a day.
The Next 100 Years in the Human Sciences, a Reply to Frank Wilczek's Remarks about Physics
by Bill Benzon
Frank Wilczek, theoretical physicist and Nobel Laureate at MIT, has recently published his speculation on what physics will yield over the next 100 years . It’s an interesting and provocative read, if a bit obscure to me (I never studied physics beyond a mediocre high school program). And, of course, I had little choice but to wonder:
What about the human sciences in the next 100 years?
My initial reaction to that one (with a nod to Buster Keaton): Damfino!
But then I actually began to think about it and things got interesting, in part because some of Wilczek’s speculations about physics have implications for the human sciences.
I begin with a failed prognostication of my own from four decades ago. Then I move on to Wilczek’s central theme, unification, and conclude with some observations about memory and quantum computing.
Computing, the Prospero Project, and Cultural Singularity
Back in 1976 David Hays and I published a review of the then current computational linguistics literature for Computers and the Humanities . At the time Hays was a senior scholar in the Linguistics Department with a distinguished career going back to his early days at the RAND Corporation, where he led their work in machine translation. I was a graduate student in English literature and a member of Hays’s research group.
Once we’d finished with the research roundups standard in such papers we indulged in a fantasy we called Prospero (p. 271): “a system with a semantics so rich that it can read all of Shakespeare and help in investigating the processes and structures that comprise poetic knowledge. We desire, in short, to reconstruct Shakespeare the poet in a computer.” We then went to specify, in a schematic way, what would go into Prospero and what one might do with Prospero as a research tool.
We did not offer a delivery date for this marvel, specifying only a “remote future” (p. 273). That, I’m sure, ways Hays’s doing; he was too experienced in such matters to speculate on due dates and told me so on more than one occasion. I’m quite sure that, in my own mind, I figured that Prospero might be ready for use in 20 years, certainly within my lifetime. Twenty years from 1976 would have been 1996, but nothing like Prospero existed at that time, nor was it on the visible horizon. Now, almost two decades after that we still have no Prospero-like computational systems nor any likely prospects for building one.
I’m not going to put Prospero down as something likely to happen within the next 100 years, that is, by 2115. Nor, for that matter, am I going to assert that a Prospero class system will not happen by 2115. I just don’t know.
I will offer, however, that the existence of Prospero-class system is likely to present ethical problems of the sort attending research on human, and increasingly, animal subjects. The general idea would be to set Prospero some task – read Hamlet, write an essay on Much Ado About Nothing, etc. – and then open her up and examine what she did in the process of performing that task. Would Prospero have to give us permission to do so? You can play with such possibilities all you will, in the manner of inventing books to be found in Borges’ “Library of Babel”, but that’s a side issue.
The issue: What happened that I’m unwilling to speculate about Prospero’s likelihood? Well, I’m no longer in my late 20s and I’ve learned a thing or two since then. More significantly, WE, the intellectual community, have learned a lot since then, and things have gotten more complex. The more we know about this new intellectual world, the stranger and larger it gets.
That last feature – that increasing knowledge also increases our sense of the unknowns running around out there (the unknown unknowns in an infamous recent formulation) – suggests we are passing through a cultural singularity. As far as I know, the term, “singularity” was first used in this sense by Stanislaw Ulam in 1958 in a summary of the intellectual achievements of John von Neumann . He’d had many conversations with Johnny (as von Neumann was known to his associates):
One conversation centered on the ever accelerating progress of technology and changes in the mode of human life, which gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue.
These days, when used in reference to human affairs the term “singularity” most often designates an event in which, through some means or another, computers equal and then quickly surpass us in “intelligence” – whatever that is. Once that happens, so the speculation goes, all bets are off and we have no way of predicting what will happen as the computers will be way ahead of us and begin working their devious ways with us.
I prefer Ulam’s somewhat more modest usage in which a historical singularity is a regime which so changes human affairs that they cannot continue on their old course . And I submit that the advent of the programmable digital computer has already sent us headlong into a cultural singularity. It is as though one undertakes a long and perilous ocean voyage in search of the Indies. Explorations undertaken after reaching landfall reveal that these Indies are not at all what one expected. Perhaps we’ve landed somewhere else, somewhere deeply unknown? All bets are off.
That’s where computing has landed us, though we try valiantly to pretend we’re but living out the mid-20th Century hopes and predictions of Vannevar Bush (“As We May Think”), Walt Disney (the many Tomorrow Land episodes of his TV show), and many others. We take comfort in the steady increase in computing power captured in the observation known as Moore’s Law, but we don’t in any deep sense know where computing technology is headed. They promised us a jet pack but delivered the Internet.
It is in this spirit that I offer a response to Wilczek that one dheera offered in a discussion at Hacker News:
My speculation for the next 100 years, that Wilczek does not propose, is that a notation revolution will happen.
The standard way of representing mathematics today is tedious to write and extremely non-intuitive in many ways. Unfortunately alternative representation systems of physical processes (e.g. block diagrams, Feynmann diagrams, etc.) don't yet provide a way for the user to operate on higher-level objects while staying on an abstracted level. One has to tear open all the black boxes, rewrite them as integral/sigma/matrix/bra/ket soup before they can be operated upon.
Most of the time when I read a physics paper, even in my own field of research, I spend abount 95% of my time and brain power parsing and 5% of the time understanding. This should be reversed.
Perhaps this seems like a peripheral matter – a mere matter of notation. But I’m not so sure.
From a certain point of view the Arabic notation of arithmetic is but an alternative to the Roman notation. But the Roman notation exists today only as a historical curiosity. It is not used as a practical tool for calculation. In that respect it has been completely eclipsed by the Arabic notation, which happened centuries ago. The Arabic notation allows one to represent any numerical quantity using a small number of symbols. That is not true of the Roman notation, which becomes intractable for large values. The Arabic notation is thus conducive to the formulation of explicit and replicable computational procedures – algorithms – while the Roman notation is not, requiring the invention of ad hoc procedures for new problems.
Seen in this light it is obvious that scientific revolution in the West would have been impossible without the prior adoption of the Arabic notion. The very fruitful metaphor of the clockwork universe would have likewise been impossible. Obviously there was more going on than the arithmetic notation, but the adoption of a more perspicuous notation was important . Will a notation revolution be important in the future of physics? If so will it support the changes Wilczek envisions or will it transform the imagination in a way that physicists find themselves looking at a new agenda?
Unification, Consilience, and Evolution as a Theme
Wilczek sees seven unifications in the next 100 years. But he begins by posing unification as a question, noting that at a public lecture he was asked (p. 2): “Why do physicists care so much about unification? Isn’t it sufficient just to understand things?” I’m certainly glad the question was posed.
Before going on to detail his hypothesized unifications, Wilczek acknowledges (p. 2):
It’s a profound question, actually. It is not at all self-evident, and may not be true, that going after unification is an efficient way to advance knowledge, let alone to address social needs or to promote human welfare.
He then proceeds to point out unification has been important in the past and, in any event, unification is pleasing (“esthetic” is the word he uses).
For as long as I can recall there have been calls for and attempts at ‘unification’ in the human sciences. That was a prime motivation behind the (in)famous structuralism conference that took place at Johns Hopkins back in 1966 (when I was an undergraduate there) and it’s behind calls for ‘consilience’ that have been circulating here and there over the last two decades at the instigation of E. O. Wilson, the evolutionary biologist. But these calls seem different in kind from the unifications Wilczek cites in physics’ past.
Thus he mentions the “unification of celestial and terrestrial physics (Galileo, Newton” and the “Unification of electricity, magnetism, and optics (Maxwell)” (p. 2) to cite two of his examples. Those are fairly specific, if large, bodies of knowledge, with specific conceptual objects and mathematical forms. Talk of unification among the social sciences or between the humanities and the sciences seems a bit more modest.
While I am trained as a humanist, you’ll find that over the years I’ve also called on work in cognitive and neuroscience, behavioral biology, anthropology, sociology, and event bits of computer science and physics here and there. But I can’t say that unification was ever a goal of mine. I’ve just been trying to figure out how things work. In doing so it is helpful if there is a measure of conceptual commensurability across different disciplines. Is commensurability the same as unification?
Regardless of just what these unification calls may imply, Wilczek believes that physics has something for us. The seventh of the his projected unifications is that of mind and matter (p. 19):
Although many details remain to be elucidated, it seems fair to say that metabolism and reproduction, two of the most characteristic features of life, are now broadly understood at the molecular level, as physical processes. Francis Crick’s “Astonishing Hypothesis” is that it will be possible to bring understanding of basic psychology, including biological cognitive processing, memory, motivation, and emotion to a comparable level. [...] And if physics evolves to describe matter in terms of information, as we discussed earlier, a circle of ideas will have closed. Mind will have become more matter-like, and matter will have become more mind-like.
This seems right to me.
Just how that works out, of course, remains to be seen. It would be nice, for example, if this unification could come to the aid of linguistics. Why linguistics? Language pervades human life for one thing. For another, the Chomskian revolution in linguistics was central to the cognitive revolution of the 1960s and 1970s.
But, alas, linguistics is itself far from being internally unified much less unified with anything else – though psycholinguistics has proven fruitful in the past. By way of comparison all biologists hold evolution in common though the details are much in dispute. But there is no comparable theoretical framework that unites linguists. As Peter Hagoort, director of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, recently told the 47th annual meeting of the European Linguistics Society :
The field of linguistics as a whole has become internally oriented, partly due to the wars between different linguistic schools. With exceptions, linguists have turned their backs to the developments in cognitive (neuro)science, and alienated themselves from what is going on in adjacent fields of research. The huge walls around the different linguistic schools have prevented the creation of a common body of knowledge that the outside world can recognize as the shared space of problems and insights of the field of linguistics as a whole.
What will it take to create that “common body of knowledge”? Will that come in the wake of Wilczek’s postulated unification of mind and matter or will it precede it?
Finally, I note that evolution is a major theme in the calls for unification of the human sciences. There is, of course, biological evolution, but the past two or three decades have seen a somewhat diffuse interest in cultural evolution as well. Moreover humanists have, in the last decade or two, ramped up their use of statistical methods for the analysis of large bodies of texts that have recently become available. While they have, for the most part, steered clear of evolutionary formulations, that abstemiousness will disappear as it becomes clear the the population thinking of evolutionary biology is well-suited to thinking about populations of texts being read by populations of people. While it remains to be seen whether or not we will one day be able to say, to paraphrase Theodosius Dobzhansky, “Nothing in the human sciences makes sense except in the light of evolution”, I think the prospects are good .
Quantum Computing and States of Mind
Once he’s gone through the unifications, Wilczek moves on to making things. That is, from proposing new and more capacious modes of understanding, Wilczek goes on to propose new things that we’ll be able to make. Under this rubric he discusses quantum computers (p. 23):
• Quantum computers supporting thousands of qubits will become real and useful.
Artificial intelligence, in general, offers strange new possibilities for the life of mind. An entity capable of accurately recording its state could purposefully enter loops, to re-live especially enjoyable episodes, for example. Quantum artificial [intelligence] opens up possibilities for qualitatively new forms of consciousness. A quantum mind could experience a superposition of “mutually contradictory” states, or allow different parts of its wave function to explore vastly different scenarios in parallel. Being based on reversible computation, such a mind could revisit the past at will, and could be equipped to superpose past and present. I must confess that I don’t quite understand what he’s talking about. Oh, sure, I don’t understand quantum mechanics much less qubits.
But that’s not what I’m talking about. Doesn’t the human brain more or less already re-live the past? The nervous system is a vast collection of neurons and synapses. As one lives a life that system evolves through a trajectory of states that is coupled to the external world through perception and action. When one recollects something, isn’t we (just) reactivating a past trajectory of states?
Oh yes! I know that I’m now tap-dancing and hand-waving to beat the band. But hear me out.
Perhaps we don’t reactivate the complete neural trajectory, perhaps only a compressed simulacrum. But we ‘run’ that simulacrum on the same neurons that registered the original trajectory. Moreover when we create rituals and create works of verbal, visual, and auditory art, we are deliberately fashioning “re-livable enjoyable episodes”.
There are neuroscientists who think of the nervous system as a complex dynamical system having a vast number of states. Berkeley’s Walter Freeman is one. I mention him because I make use of his work in writing my book on music, Beethoven’s Anvil. In that book I argued the rhythm is the fundamental musical phenomenon, and rhythm is about repeating states. It’s one thing to talk of a simply isochronous beat. That’s nothing, but it’s a start. What of a Beethoven symphony? Is it not a way of creating a sonic object to which we can entrain our nervous system, time and again, so that we re-experience the same “enjoyable episode”?
The late Leonard Bernstein talked of how, when he became absorbed into a composition, while conducting it for example, that it was as though he ‘became’ the composer . We need not imagine that, when conducting Mahler or Beethoven or Mozart, that Bernstein traveled back in time. We need only imagine that a certain ensemble of neural states is so deeply entwined with musical sound that the ensemble can be re-created, re-lived, in any brain that immerses itself in it .
My point is simply that, in a very general way, Wilczek is talking about the quantum computer of the future in terms rather like one can now talk about the human brain and its experience (recall his 7th unification, that of mind and matter). When Wilczek talks of an “entity capable of accurately recording its state” I’d assume the entity he has in mind is the quantum computer of future (QCF). It’s this QCF that experiences enjoyment and re-lives experiences, no? Is the QCF alive that it experiences enjoyment? Is that the speculation on offer?
What about Prospero? Would a quantum computer have the power needed to realize a useful simulation of Shakespeare? Perhaps, though it’s clear that simple computing capacity is not enough for the job. In the old days researchers would painstakingly hand-code knowledge into computational form; that’s what Hays and I had in mind when we envisioned Prospero. These days statistical learning techniques have come to dominate artificial intelligence and computational linguistics.
Just how would a quantum computer learn to read Shakespeare, or watch performances? My intellectual experience since the Prospero days in the mid-1970s tells me that minds are self-constructed from “the inside”. How would quantum computer learn to be humanlike? Would we have to supply it with a (simulated) body which it could take out into the world? Would it have to somehow grow from infancy into adulthood?
I don’t know the answers to those questions. On the other hand, there’s no reason a quantum computer couldn’t learn the Internet from the inside. That, after all, would be its native territory, wouldn’t it?
1. Frank Wilczek. Physics in 100 Years. MIT-CTP-4654, URL = http://t.co/ezfHZdriUp
2. William Benzon and David G. Hays. Computational Linguistics and the Humanist. Computers and the Humanities 10: 265 - 274, 1976. URL = https://www.academia.edu/1334653/Computational_Linguistics_and_the_Humanist
3. Stanislaw Ulam. Tribute to John von Neumann, 1903-1957. Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society. Vol 64, No. 3, May 1958, pp. 1-49, URL = https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B-5-JeCa2Z7hbWcxTGsyU09HSTg/edit?pli=1
4. I have already discussed this sense of singualirty in a post on 3 Quarks Daily: Redefining the Coming Singularity – It’s not what you think, URL = http://www.3quarksdaily.com/3quarksdaily/2014/10/evolving-to-the-future-the-web-of-culture.html
5. David Hays and I discuss this in a paper where we set forth a number of such far-reaching singularities in cultural evolution: William Benzon and David G. Hays. The Evolution of Cognition. Journal of Social and Biological Structures 13(4): 297-320, 1990, URL = https://www.academia.edu/243486/The_Evolution_of_Cognition
6. Neurobiology of Language - Peter Hagoort on the future of linguistics, URL = http://www.mpi.nl/departments/neurobiology-of-language/news/linguistics-quo-vadis-an-outsider-perspective
 See, for example: Alex Mesoudi, Cultural Evolution: How Darwinian Theory Can Explain Human Culture & Synthesize the Social Sciences, Chicago: 2011.
Lewens, Tim, "Cultural Evolution", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2013/entries/evolution-cultural/ Cultural evolution is a major interest of mine.
Here’s a collection of publications and working papers, URL = https://independent.academia.edu/BillBenzon/Cultural-Evolution
 Helen Epstein. Music Talks: Conversations with Musicians. McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1987, p. 52.
 I discuss these ideas in more detail in Beethoven’s Anvil, Basic Books, 2001, pp. 47-68, 192-193, 206-210, 219-221, and in
The Magic of the Bell: How Networks of Social Actors Create Cultural Beings, Working Paper, 2015, URL = https://www.academia.edu/11767211/The_Magic_of_the_Bell_How_Networks_of_Social_Actors_Create_Cultural_Beings
On the possibility of superposed mental states, you might look at my Ayahuasca Variations, Human Nature Review 3 (2003) 239-251, URL = https://www.academia.edu/12667500/Ayahuasca_Variations
Monday, May 25, 2015
Christian Faur. Melodie 02, 2011.
Installation, 2000 hand cast encaustic crayons.
On the Sight of Sound
"I can't understand why people are frightened of new ideas.
I'm frightened of the old ones."
~ John Cage
Not long after moving to New York around 2000, I picked up an odd little side gig, as a gallery sitter at a space called Engine 27. Taking its name from the decommissioned TriBeCa firehouse which housed it, Engine 27 wasn't your usual art gallery, but rather one that focused exclusively on sound art. It achieved this by meticulously renovating the ground floor of the firehouse into a nearly perfect acoustic environment. Floors, walls and ceilings were treated with rugs and acoustic paneling. Speakers were strategically situated throughout the roughly 2000 square feet; they could be found lurking in corners, or hanging from the ceiling. If you weren't careful you might stub your toe against a subwoofer squatting on a seemingly random patch of floor. Pretty much anything that wasn't already black was painted so, and the lights were kept low. Feeding all the speakers was a basement full of amplifiers, computers and other hardware. It was, to put it mildly, a sound nerd's paradise.
Engine 27 was the brainchild of Jack Weisberg, a self-taught sound engineer who earned his nut innovating approaches to both arena-scale sound and smaller, more high-brow projects. As an example of the latter, he worked with artist-composer Max Neuhaus on the 1978 MoMA iteration of his "Underground" project, which projected sound into the Sculpture Garden from beneath a ventilation shaft. (Neuhaus' Times Square version, sponsored by the Dia Foundation, ran from 1977 to 1992, then was reincarnated ten years later, but, befitting the fragility of sound, is currently ‘temporarily unavailable due to construction'.) Jack was a curmudgeonly fellow and used to getting things done his way. This is perhaps why Engine 27 became an extraordinary space for practicing what some people call "deep listening", which for me is just a tacit admission that we don't listen very closely to much of anything anymore.
Part of what makes good sound art so fascinating is exactly this prerequisite. Perhaps I am being overly optimistic here, though, since our culture, and especially what we consider to be ‘art', is so biased towards the visual. And for the purposes of the current argument – ie, I am sidestepping the question of what differentiates sound from music – the visual bias provides us with the dispensation of a quick scan. The people who speed-walk their way through an art museum will later on assert how great the museum was. They may even have the selfie to prove it. In some minimal way, they would be correct to say that they saw the art, but this is no different from saying that you "saw the grass" while driving down the freeway at 80mph. In this manner a viewer is entirely justified in dismissing an Ad Reinhardt painting as ‘just black' (although ‘none more black' might be more accurate). What else could he or she do, without spending the time needed to let the painting actually unfold before one's eyes, as was Reinhardt's intention?
Sound art does not really allow for this kind of aesthetic speed-dating. Nor can it rely on the conventions of concert-going, hence one indication as to how ‘sound' differs from ‘music'. A deep and complex installation, like the kind that Engine 27 sought to encourage, requires time and attention. It also requires movement, which is what one would expect when a work is spread over such a large space. One example was "Drift", a 2002 gamelan-inspired piece created by Christopher J. Miller, which explicitly leveraged the potential of Engine 27's 16-channel system. Some listeners would stroll around the space, while others would root themselves to a single spot. As the sampled swirls of Javanese gamelan – timbrally far less metallic and abrasive than the better-known Balinese counterpart – waft across the space, the immersive qualities of the piece began to make themselves felt. But in order for this environment to be successful, a certain modicum of patience is required from the listener, and a willingness to submit to experiences that, unlike the visual, may not have easy verbal, let alone visual, equivalents.
The ephemerality of sound art is also disadvantageous when it collides with the established tropes of the art world. Consider for example the time-honored Art Opening. Let's be honest and admit that no one goes to an opening to see the art. You go for the free booze and the mystery cheese cubes. Maybe you know the artist, or know someone who knows the artist. Of course, one hopes that the artist will be there, along with others – gallerists, collectors – who actually have some skin in the game, but they are generally difficult to recognize without a good deal of insider knowledge. If you do possess that knowledge, chances are that you are the one looking askance at the hoi-polloi rushing the bar.
Nevertheless, it is still possible to see the art at an art opening. It may be noisy, but the act of looking isn't generally impeded (unless the bar stays open too long). Not so for sound art. Without the explicitly visual cues of things-hanging-on-walls, you may not even realize you are at an opening; you may rightly ask yourself, Who are all these strangers having drinks in an overlit space? I had this experience recently when I went to the opening of David Tudor's "Rainforest V". Now, I should note that Tudor, a giant of 20th-century avant-garde performance and composition, passed away in 1996. But "Rainforest" stretches back to a 1968 Merce Cunningham commission; the fifth incarnation of the installation was realized by the collective Composers Inside Electronics.
Rainforest V is a complex installation that, according to one of the collective's members, takes "a simple idea of feedback and modulation that gives rise to monumental structure – the crafting of howls into symphonies. The act of folding input to output gives rise to expansive new worlds." This is obviously a somewhat grand claim, and illustrates the difficulty in translating sound art into description. Would a person reconcile these words with the experience of the installation? In more mundane, physical terms, a bevy of suspended objects are connected to one another and to a central computer that issues acoustic impulses, which are amplified via the resonant properties of those objects by means of attached vibrating units. Furthermore, these objects interact with one another through a deliberately inscrutable set of feedback loops. Despite the fact that the gallery provided us with stethoscopes so that we might engage in some close listening, the noise of the opening crowd rendered the entire installation as more sculptural than anything else.
"Displaying" sound art is problematic even without the crowds. An obvious advantage of visual art is the ability to cram many different pieces into close quarters, whereas the acoustic monopoly created by sound implies, at the very least, an uneasy co-existence of works, and at the very worst, an unmanageable cacophony. Anyone who has been to the end-of-semester show put on by students of New York University's Interactive Telecommunications Program has had this experience. While not strictly sound art, many of the works have audio components, and these works, and the students explaining them, are jammed into a few rooms with little regard for the space that these works require. It's the unholy love-child of a thesis show and a trade fair, and is just as exhausting as it sounds.
The more general concern is how to make sound art a part of the art world mainstream. If sound art is to be regarded as more than just the eccentric step-sister of the visual and plastic arts, certain conditions must be met. In the first place, we need artists! But artists don't just spontaneously generate. It is true that the indefatigable efforts of people like Douglas Repetto have led to the creation of the Sound Arts MFA program at Columbia University, but more is needed. There must be a critical mass of gallerists willing to promote these artists and their works. As David Krasnow wrote about Engine 27 in the Village Voice:
Showcasing electronic and electroacoustic music as the last bastion of experimentalist formalism is some pretty high art, and its timing couldn't be better. Big sellers this year were Caipirinha's Early Modulations and Ellipsis Arts' Ohm, both compilations of electronic-music classics—which means there are electronic-music classics. And classics need institutions. Difficult Music meets scrappy DIY art space: a heartwarming tale of Old Tribeca.
On the other end of the feedback loop, there must be a sense among buyers that these works are in fact collectible, and that it is desirous to do so. I don't really know what this means, since ‘displaying' sound art at home retains the same problematics as doing so in a gallery. Nevertheless, given the ongoing, extraordinary bubble in the art market, there will almost never be a better time to strike. Finally, museums and other institutions need to grant their own imprimatur via well-curated retrospectives and group shows. In 2013, MoMA took a step in this direction, but unfortunately wound up creating a case study in how not to curate sound art, or for that matter, anything else. As a last resort, having a rock-star artist who almost single-handedly establishes the genre's credibility might do the job, but I'm afraid sound art still awaits its Bill Viola.
Setting aside these vexing questions, what would a compelling work of sound art look like today? I had a chance to experience one at the beginning of 2014 when I chanced across an installation entitled "The Sea Is A Big Green Lens". Installed at Studio 10 in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn, brothers Douglas and David Henderson respectively divided the auditory and sculptural labors to create a magnificent environment. Inspired by the Paul Celan poem "Whitesounds", the installation asks what a message in a bottle can convey, if it were told from the point of view of the bottle itself.
The principal physical form of the installation is lenticular, but this shape is actually negative space. These contours are implied by the presence of several dozen ‘stems' of varying length, which look like golf tees that have been connected at the sharp ends. Half are rooted to the floor, while the other half are suspended from the ceiling. To add to the dynamism of the work, the stems are not vertical in relation to the room, but lean in one direction, as if they were being nudged by an ocean current. For its part, the negative lenticular space is also at an angle, further increasing the sense of motion. (Or, if that description didn't make any sense, just watch this video.)
Built into a dozen of these stems are speakers, which project Douglas Henderson's carefully composed soundtrack. Consisting of hundreds of maritime-themed samples that were recorded around the world, the piece ranges from incredibly detailed recordings of water splashing gently at close quarters, to the massively reverberant noises of a car ferry being unloaded after landing on a Greek Island. The recordings are pristine, and reproduced with exceptional clarity. The continuity of the fifteen-minute loop is seamless, and manages to be simultaneously abstract and perfectly logical (you can listen to an excerpt here). But the most compelling aspect of the piece is the deep integration between the physical forms and the sounds. As a listener drifts through the installation, there is the unmistakeable feeling of being drawn into a kelp forest. Time itself seems to slow and the rhythm and flow of the sound infuses itself into that of the physical objects, and vice versa. Despite the fact that the gallery's floor-to-ceiling windows flood the space with natural light, one soon acquires a distinct sense of being elsewhere. It is an achievement of great beauty, executed with craftsmanship, restraint and impeccable instinct.
It is works like "The Sea Is A Big Green Lens" that give me great hope for the future of sound art, simply because it succeeds in not being self-consciously about sound art. There is no hipster irony of obsolete technology that has been smirkingly repurposed. Nor is it tempted into attention-seeking by bludgeoning the listener with the abrasive potential that sound offers. While you can look away from an ugly painting, it's more difficult to look away from an ugly sound; also, the latter is infinitey more irritating. In the Hendersons' work, the medium melts away, privileging the experience itself. Like so much else, sound art will have found its stride when this experience merits placement alongside other mediums, in the same way that visitors to the new Whitney Museum can see painting, sculpture and video all in the same room, and not think anything of it. But there is still a long way to go.
The “Invisible Web” Undermines Health Information Privacy
by Jalees Rehman
"The goal of privacy is not to protect some stable self from erosion but to create boundaries where this self can emerge, mutate, and stabilize. What matters here is the framework— or the procedure— rather than the outcome or the substance. Limits and constraints, in other words, can be productive— even if the entire conceit of "the Internet" suggests otherwise.
Evgeny Morozov in "To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism"
We cherish privacy in health matters because our health has such a profound impact on how we interact with other humans. If you are diagnosed with an illness, it should be your right to decide when and with whom you share this piece of information. Perhaps you want to hold off on telling your loved ones because you are worried about how it might affect them. Maybe you do not want your employer to know about your diagnosis because it could get you fired. And if your bank finds out, they could deny you a mortgage loan. These and many other reasons have resulted in laws and regulations that protect our personal health information. Family members, employers and insurances have no access to your health death unless you specifically authorize it. Even healthcare providers from two different medical institutions cannot share your medical information unless they can document your consent.
The recent study "Privacy Implications of Health Information Seeking on the Web" conducted by Tim Libert at the Annenberg School for Communication (University of Pennsylvania) shows that we have a for more nonchalant attitude regarding health privacy when it comes to personal health information on the internet. Libert analyzed 80,142 health-related webpages that users might come across while performing online searches for common diseases. For example, if a user uses Google to search for information on HIV, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) webpage on HIV/AIDS (http://www.cdc.gov/hiv/) is one of the top hits and users will likely click on it. The information provided by the CDC will likely provide solid advice based on scientific results but Libert was more interested in investigating whether visits to the CDC website were being tracked. He found that by visiting the CDC website, information of the visit is relayed to third-party corporate entities such as Google, Facebook and Twitter. The webpage contains "Share" or "Like" buttons which is why the URL of the visited webpage (which contains the word "HIV") is passed on to them – even if the user does not explicitly click on the buttons.
Libert found that 91% of health-related pages relay the URL to third parties, often unbeknownst to the user, and in 70% of the cases, the URL contains sensitive information such as "HIV" or "cancer" which is sufficient to tip off these third parties that you have been searching for information related to a specific disease. Most users probably do not know that they are being tracked which is why Libert refers to this form of tracking as the "Invisible Web" which can only be unveiled when analyzing the hidden http requests between the servers. Here are some of the most common (invisible) partners which participate in the third-party exchanges:
Entity Percent of health-related pages
What do the third parties do with your data? We do not really know because the laws and regulations are rather fuzzy here. We do know that Google, Facebook and Twitter primarily make money by advertising so they could potentially use your info and customize the ads you see. Just because you visited a page on breast cancer does not mean that the "Invisible Web" knows your name and address but they do know that you have some interest in breast cancer. It would make financial sense to send breast cancer related ads your way: books about breast cancer, new herbal miracle cures for cancer or even ads by pharmaceutical companies. It would be illegal for your physician to pass on your diagnosis or inquiry about breast cancer to an advertiser without your consent but when it comes to the "Invisible Web" there is a continuous chatter going on in the background about your health interests without your knowledge.
Some users won't mind receiving targeted ads. "If I am interested in web pages related to breast cancer, I could benefit from a few book suggestions by Amazon," you might say. But we do not know what else the information is being used for. The appearance of the data broker Experian on the third-party request list should serve as a red flag. Experian's main source of revenue is not advertising but amassing personal data for reports such as credit reports which are then sold to clients. If Experian knows that you are checking out breast cancer pages then you should not be surprised if this information will be stored in some personal data file about you.
How do we contain this sharing of personal health information? One obvious approach is to demand accountability from the third parties regarding the fate of your browsing history. We need laws that regulate how information can be used, whether it can be passed on to advertisers or data brokers and how long the information is stored.
We may use information we collect about you to:
· Administer your account;
· Provide you with access to particular tools and services;
· Respond to your inquiries and send you administrative communications;
· Obtain your feedback on our sites and our offerings;
· Statistically analyze user behavior and activity;
· Provide you and people with similar demographic characteristics and interests with more relevant content and advertisements;
· Conduct research and measurement activities;
· Send you personalized emails or secure electronic messages pertaining to your health interests, including news, announcements, reminders and opportunities from WebMD; or
· Send you relevant offers and informational materials on behalf of our sponsors pertaining to your health interests.
Perhaps one of the most effective solutions would be to make the "Invisible Web" more visible. If health-related pages were mandated to disclose all third-party requests in real-time such as pop-ups ("Information about your visit to this page is now being sent to Amazon") and ask for consent in each case, users would be far more aware of the threat to personal privacy posed by health-related pages. Such awareness of health privacy and potential threats to privacy are routinely addressed in the real world and there is no reason why this awareness should not be extended to online information.
Libert, Tim. "Privacy implications of health information seeking on the Web" Communications of the ACM, Vol. 58 No. 3, Pages 68-77, March 2015, doi: 10.1145/2658983 (PDF)
Monday, May 18, 2015
Bad Women (A Retro View)
by Lisa Lieberman
Frigid women. Manipulative wives. Bad mothers. Dumb blondes. Alcoholism. Failing marriages. Furtive sex. Before Mad Men revived these retro conventions and somehow made them hip, they were just tawdry. The poster for BUtterfield 8 (1960) shows Liz Taylor in a slip, highball in one hand, a mink coat hanging off her shoulder. "The most desirable woman in town and the easiest to find. Just call BUtterfield 8." (In the more risqué version, she's standing by a pink telephone wearing nothing but a sheet).
In real life, Liz had just wrecked Eddie Fisher's marriage. He plays her friend Steve in this picture, long-suffering an older-brotherly way, a real prince. He left Debbie Reynolds for Liz, but she's the one doing penance here. Liz's character, Gloria, is angry, manipulative, and a nymphomaniac: the dark side of 1950s womanhood, as perceived by 1950s men. Nobody would ever mistake her for a nice girl.
The married guy she's cheating with, Liggett, is married to a nice girl, Emily. She's long-suffering too. She knows her husband is lying to her, he drinks too much and beats her around, but she blames herself for tempting him with a job in Daddy's company when she should have let him stand on his own two feet. Actually, it's not all Emily's fault. Emily's mother played a part in emasculating Liggett. They blamed mothers for everything in the 1950s and, let me tell you, Gloria's mother's got a lot to answer for too.
Poor Gloria. Behind her back, the men who buy her drinks and expensive trinkets (less crass than paying money for her "services") make jokes about how they ought to rent out Yankee Stadium, the only place big enough to hold all her ex-conquests. Poor Liz. She may have won the Oscar for her role, but it wasn't worth the humiliation.
It wasn't only Liz, though. "Prepare to be shocked," promised the trailer to A Summer Place, "because this bold, outspoken drama is the kind of motion picture excitement demanded by audiences today." Really? I can't imagine what audiences in 1959 found shocking about this picture. As an exposé of sexual hypocrisy, it's pretty tame. Yes, there's an extramarital affair, but the betrayed spouses are so unsympathetic you're cheering the adulterous couple on. There's a pair of teenaged lovers having sex too, but Molly (Sandra Dee) and Johnny (Troy Donahue) are driven into one another's arms by the screwed-up adults in their lives. Knowing the mess that both Dee and Donahue made of their own lives, it's tempting to read more into this picture. When Johnny's alcoholic father calls Molly "a succulent little wench," we're obviously meant to feel, with Johnny, that this accusation is unjust, but he only disputes the "wench" part. Dee is indeed succulent, her surface innocence barely concealing her sexual readiness. Toward the end of her life, the actress revealed that she had been raped repeatedly by her step-father as a child. The way she was presented in A Summer Place, it's all there. Poor Sandra.
Forget the squadron of pointy-breasted blonde bimbos in Goldfinger (1964). Sean Connery was having too much fun playing 007 for me to object to such an over-the-top satire. I have no problem with Marilyn Monroe either in Some Like it Hot (1959). No, it's the smutty stuff that bothers me: Anne Bancroft, all of thirty-five when she made The Graduate (1967), a beautiful woman playing a washed-up housewife. She's got no life, admits she's an alcoholic, is messing up her daughter while having meaningless sex with a boy barely out of his teens and busy manipulating every male within arm's reach. Take away the jaunty Simon and Garfunkel soundtrack and Mrs. Robinson is just sad.
Makes me long for witty Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday (1940) or Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve (1941). Or one of those really bad B movie heroines, the type who takes a good man down with her without so much as a twinge of remorse. The character Jean Simmons plays in Angel Face (1952) "traps a man into marriage . . . and murder," as the trailer puts it. You don't feel sorry for her, you feel sorry for Robert Mitchum, the chump she plays. The guy was out of his depth.
But that's the point of misogyny, in the movies and in the world at large. Sandra Dee was succulent, but not particularly smart. She didn't have to die at the end of A Summer Place. Liz, on the other hand, and Jean Simmons's character in Angel Face: all I can say is, enjoy your power while you can, ladies, for the end is nigh.
Lisa Lieberman's historical noir, All The Wrong Places, was published in March by Five Star, a part of Cengage Learning.
"(Bee-eaters) forage over grasslands and Acacia savanna, and are well known for the ingenious use of ‘beaters’ to chase up grasshoppers, dragonflies and other prey species. These beaters usually take the form of grazing herds of game and domestic animals, and large flocks of carmine bee-eaters may gather overhead. They also use various creatures as convenient mobile perches from which to swoop off, snatching insects flushed by their ride.
Northern Carmine Bee-eaters in particular are masters of this trait, and rides range from elephants, donkeys and goats to Kori and Arabian Bustards, Abyssinian Ground Hornbills ..."
Monday, May 11, 2015
Eric Sealine. Breathing Room, 2012.
Forced perspective construction of wood, Lexan, paint.
At the end of Manhattan, across the Atlantic breakwaters, or at the beginning, swim fish from Lake Tanganyika and Lake Malawi. Those bodies which, appeared, of water, almost touched each other, on account of Plates moving, shifting, rocking; Rift Valley you know. But there they are, these fish, here. Go figure. At the end of Manhattan or at its beginning. To and fro, to and fro—Wearing expressions of ‘Who cares bro' or of worry, the more you stare, some anxious. Some not so much. Like it's hard to find your feet here. You know? Some look like they're happy. Yes. Like fish in water. Like this is exactly where they want to be. Aye? Others, eh it's not a bad place to end up, as places go. Some not so much…Blue with bulging foreheads. Yellow too. Colors for which I don't know names yet. Even. Wide eyed, aware, not a muscle twitching—just the fins or are they wings—swishing, wishing, shimmering. It's easy to see how fish out of water, might be us. Me. In a glass aquarium in the Staten Island Ferry Terminal. Now as I wrap my arm around the pole on a swaying speeding 2 train wondering if I should switch to the R or stay on this one—or maybe take the Shuttle to the 6 or move to the M and the E train. I'm on my way to City Hall, Not used to going to work here. To talk to folks, about how they care for those who haven't been born yet, for those on their way to growing up. For those done growing, for those in between all this, the work and the emotions, the business of living. In between good and bad days and limbs. In need of a helping hand, a fair shake, I'm on my way to exchange with the good folks there, cross pollinate. We are birds of a feather, same kettle of fish, they'll tell me and I'll tell them what in the World we are up to elsewhere. In this city they spend 9.7 billion—that's dollars, on such care. On 3 million—good people here. Elsewhere, whole countries, on billions not so much is spent….I wonder how the Cichlids got here. Fully formed and born already? Brought across the salty oceans in jars sloshing fresh water or what? Or, did they arrive as eggs here? I look around me at the morning commuters. This car is quiet, heads mostly down, dangling ear plugs, some sleeping, some reading novels or staring at IPhones. I glance at possible subjects; that face there, should be painted with gold leaf or silver. Maybe. Suddenly a man, beyond my vision on the other side of this thicket of passengers screams out ‘Aargh, Death squad, Stop!'---Some bite; Glance over--- No one flinches, Some shrug. I nonplussed, smile and exchange glances with a fellow straphanger--a strapper I guess--who says reassuringly, unimpressed—‘He's just trying to get attention. That's all'. In silence the car hurtles on. Three stops later, with each periodic outburst, the car load leans towards the scream, glances become compassionate. The load here on this car understands. All these faces, from other places, on their way to fixing life, understand. Hurtling through the city, this life blood of the city in this vein—the artery---flowing, flying, moving fast from one end to the other, now leaning, now bumping, now brushing, jostling, jolting--- now rocking against each other. Towards, a better life. This car load, understands. Train stops, doors open, a fresh pack loads on. And I resolve to return to the Ferry Terminal, take a photograph—wondering, still, about those colors, what shape they arrived in here, hatched or waiting to be. To spend their life—to live it watching commuters go by.
Painting by: Esma Djutovic
Monday, May 04, 2015
A Love Letter from Baltimore
by Akim Reinhardt
Last Wednesday, over at my website, I published an essay on the riot that took place in Baltimore, a city where I've lived since 2001. Sincere thanks to 3QD for re-posting it here.
That essay primarily focused on the riot itself, not the protests that followed or the de facto police state Baltimore has become since then. I considered the conditions in Baltimore that led to the riot and and examined rioting as a form of social violence.
In this essay, however, I would like to offer a more personalized reaction to the events of the past two weeks: fragments of thought and experience amid the choppers circling overhead, parks filled with protestors, and streets lined with soldiers.
Unleashing a Beast?: The Legitimizing of Governor Larry Hogan.
The night of the riot, a dear friend and fellow historian called me up and said: "This legitimizes Hogan."
That's a very prescient insight.
When 9-11 happened, Bush the Younger was woefully unqualified to handle the situation. In the end, he seriously botched it in numerous ways. But it didn't matter. He was the man in charge. People turned to him, and he played it macho, maintaining his image enough to reap the political benefits. He was instantly legitimized, and despite all of his bungling over the next three years, was able to win re-election in 2004.
Eight months ago, Larry Hogan was kind of a nobody. Until 2003, he was just a businessman working in commercial real estate. Then, when Bob Erlich became the first Republican governor of Maryland since Spiro Agnew (yes, former disgraced Richard Nixon VP Spiro Agnew), Hogan finagled a spot as Secretary of Appointments. In other words, he was responsible for patronage appointments in the Erlich administration.
After Erlich was one-and-done, going down to former Baltimore mayor Martin O'Malley, Hogan remained a political operative; he founded and ran his own anti-tax organization.
Look, Hogan didn't come out of nowhere. His dad was a congressman, and he himself has been active in politics since the 1970s. His first stint as a delegate to the GOP national convention was 1976, and he first ran for office (and lost) in 1981.
But when Larry Hogan announced his candidacy for governor last year, most Marylanders responded: "Who?" And nationally, he was a complete and utter Nobody.
But Martin O'Malley's handpicked successor ran a disastrous campaign, and Hogan managed to become the second Republican governor of Maryland since Sprio Agnew.
The chances of Hogan being a one-and-done novelty like Erlich just got a helluva a lot slimmer. Shit, he's even got some real national name recognition now. That's what happens when you're the guy in a suit who sends in the troops.
It's too early in Hogan's term for me to make any pronouncements about him. I was not impressed with his first national press conference, when he threw Baltimore mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake under the bus for supposedly waiting too long to call him to do his macho man routine. It was amateur hour bullshit, the kind of thing you might expect from an incompetent corporate middle manager, not a state governor.
But because of these riots, he may be here to stay. Time to take note.
I realize that there are myriad important differences between wars and riots. However, after writing my essay and contemplating the commonalities between the two, with both being forms of social violence, I increasingly became sickened by the Left's celebration of the riot.
It became ever clearer to me that fairly mindless leftist support for social violence in the form of urban riots is not entirely different from fairly mindless right wingers' support of social violence in the form of warfare by the state.
No wonder neither ideology speaks to me. Both are so steeped in rationalized violence as to sicken me.
That being said, there's a world of a difference between an outside ideologue and a local person who's in the mix.
Which is why I have a tremendous amount of sympathy for local protestors who are damn proud of the high schoolers who ran amok at Mondawmin Mall on Monday afternoon (which was the initial phase of the riot), even if I personally am not.
It's very difficult for many outsiders to understand how parents and grandparents could be proud of teenagers for starting a riot. But several factors go into it.
One was the way many black Baltimoreans rallied in opposition to the notion that their children were "thugs." Numerous politicians, including the governor and mayor, and many in the press used that word. And there was a local backlash.
These are their children, both metaphorically and literally, and how dare you, who do not know them and only ever look down on them, call them "thugs." That was a very strong sentiment.
And while the rest of the nation is enamored with the woman who beat her teenage son to get him away from the riot, many of the people here in Baltimore think the teens who rioted at Mondawmin Mall actually did something positive and important.
Which brings us to the next factor. There is a widespread sense among Batlimoreans that the indictments, which D.A. Marilyn Mosby handed down on Friday against the six police officers responsible for Freddie Gray's death, would not have come to pass without the riot.
It's hard to describe what those indictments meant to many folks in this town. People cried. They cheered. I saw it, I heard it. The indictments, in the minds of many, are an unquestioned victory for justice.
And while many people are very grateful to Mosby, who was just nationally legitimized in much the same way Hogan was, these folks also have a strong sense of agency. Many people here earnestly believe that the officers would not have been indicted without the riot.
And it's their kids who started it. So when you call them "thugs," you're not just insulting their children, you're also denying the good that supposedly came from their actions.
Finally, there's the need to be heard. In America, poor people are usually invisible to the middle and upper classes. They might pop up in the occasional and uncomfortable interaction. A panhandler asks you for money. A homeless person is sleeping on a public bench. You took a wrong turn and passed through a neighborhood.
But the middle and upper classes almost never actually hear from poor people. The poor have almost zero access to mass media. They host no shows, run no commercials, and only get interviewed for a few seconds if the local evening news is covering a nearby shooting or fire.
You never hear from the poor, and they know that. Because, oh boy, they're always hearing from you. From the bureaucrats involved in their lives, to the pretty faces on TV, to yup, you guessed it, the police who roam their neighborhoods: the poor are always hearing from the middle and upper classes. And those better-to-do folks tell them what they think, tell them how to act and think and feel, tell them what's wrong with them, and tell them how to fix it.
Christ, David Brooks' recent article was little more than a litany of insults aimed at America's poor. Like every well meaning person of means, he thinks he's doing them a favor by filling some version of the Savior or Prophet roles. But it's really just another example of shitting on the poor while they can't respond, because they don't get to write columns for the New York Times.
All this adds up to poor people wanting to be heard. Needing to be heard. That was a major theme at various protests.
And one of the things the riot did was to make middle class and wealthy Americans listen to poor black people in Baltimore.
Their words got filtered through crap like CNN, which led them to chant things like "Fuck CNN!" But despite that, poor people got heard far more than they normally do, which is never.
Thus, many of them look at those kids who started the riot, and they have a sense of gratitude and pride for helping them get heard.
So how come I'm repulsed by outside observers who celebrate the riots, yet sympathetic to local people who do so for some (but not all of) the same reasons?
Because fuck you, asshole. People got hurt. Businesses were destroyed. And I don't mean just that infamous CVS. I mean dozens of mom and pop shops. People struggling to make a living and a little dream for themselves watched it go up in smoke.
You wanna celebrate that? Just some unfortunate collateral damage on the road to revolution? Go fuck yourself, you piece of shit.
But a local person living in this maelstrom with their ass on the line? Yeah, they can be proud. They earned it. You didn't. Now fuck off.
That's how I feel. I'm not saying it's right, but it's how I feel, and I'm not apologizing for it.
Despite the sincere sympathies I just proclaimed, I'm not happy about the riot.
I think Mosby would have indicted the officers regardless. If you believe that, and I do, then you look around and see short term damage from the riot that is probably about to be compounded by it's long term aftershocks.
In other words, this is gonna fuck shit up for a while.
To clarify, I'm not talking about the protests. Those I support very much. But the riot itself was, I think, unnecessary for our much needed social progress, and may prove difficult for this city to overcome right away.
This isn't some gaudy, overpriced hot spot trading on its erstwhile street cred like Boston, Manhattan, or, increasingly, Washington, D.C. This is Baltimore, that singularly broken miracle of geography: the red headed stepchild of the Northeast corridor, the faded rose of the South, and the eastern most fringe of the Midwestern rust belt.
Man, if that weren't so long, it might be a good license plate slogan.
The long term damage may be wide ranging, beginning with the tourist economy. Other than the drug trade, I find the tourist economy to be the least endearing part of the Baltimore economy. Tourism is only fun if you're a tourist, and even that's pretty dubious. Of course it's profitable for many businesses, but too many of those businesses are national and international corporations siphoning money off to their shareholders, instead of small businesses keeping it local.
On the labor side, it's a pretty mixed bag. Some people certainly do well with it, and kudos to them. But too much of the tourism sector's job creation adds up to crappy service jobs. You know, like go wash dishes at the P.F. Chang near the Inner Harbor. I'm not being the least bit sarcastic when I say you can find dignity in work like that, but you sure as shit can't find much money.
For many locals unattached to the tourism industry, the Inner Harbor is mostly something to ignore, or something to point unwanted guests towards. Or maybe that's just the attitude of me and my jaundiced friends.
But putting my own cynicism aside, tourism is indeed an important part of the economy, and this here city needs as much economic activity as it can get.
The problem of course is that nothing scares faster than a white suburbanite. So that tourist economy is probably gonna be fucked for a year or two.
The local housing market might take a hit as well. Prices had generally been going up over the last few years, but one wonders how this will affect things. Undoubtedly, some people will now refuse to move here under any circumstances. I mean, those generally aren't the people you want anyway, better off without ‘em, I say. But just like the economic activity from tourism, we need as much tax base as we can get.
But that downturn will probably play out very locally and unevenly. Some neighborhoods might tank, others might level off, while those areas the middle class deems to be "safe" may actually see housing prices go up as supply and demand dance their heartless dance.
The riot and military occupation will probably also hurt outside investment. How many businesses that might have considered moving here will now nix that idea? It's impossible to say. Only time will tell, but I can't imagine this won't have any negative consequences. My totally unscientific, horse race handicapper's estimate was that each night of rioting would fuck the local economy for a year. Fortunately, the riot was just one night. We'll see.
Overall, I suspect the revival of Baltimore's economy will continue, but the lines of disparity may worsen. That revival, as in many post-industrial American cities, is based in large part on an urban playground model in which young professionals move into hip neighborhoods, then move out to the suburbs when they have kids, but continue visiting for more mature forms of entertainment.
In other words, a less successful version of the shit shows up in Boston, Manhattan, and D.C.
So hip neighborhoods will probably remain hip. Placid, middle class neighborhoods are probably likewise unaffected. But I worry that poor neighborhoods will just get poorer.
The best media coverage by far, and I mean by light years, was local. In particular, alternative weekly newspaper Baltimore City Paper and local daily newspaper The Baltimore Sun (which recently bought City Paper), just churned it out. Top notch stuff.
Obviously, like anyone living here, I have insights and opinions. But if I didn't, and I had to rely only on crap like cable news . . . pretty fuckin' stark.
Here's a recent upload from City Paper. They ignored the "media corral," that spot where well behaved media were supposed to herd together under police orders. Instead, they went out into the streets and shot important pictures: curfew arrests of protestors, street medics, and observers from the National Lawyer's Guild.
The highest bail any of the six indicted BPD cops got was $350,000. Meanwhile, a sixteen year old kid who bashed a police car, then turned himself in, got a $500,000 bail. That shit does not go unnoticed.
I suppose the judge imagined he was sending a message about how rioting won't be tolerated. Instead the message received was: a car is worth about twice as much as Freddy Gray's life.
Walking home last night before curfew, I came across a scene not usually seen in my neighborhood, or in this city generally for the most part: A young, dirty, white couple with bad dread locks, sitting in the doorway of a closed store on a busy street, him strumming a guitar and singing, her humming and bobbing her head, both of them hoping you'd stick some money in their hat.
They also had the requisite dog.
We've got plenty of homeless whites in Baltimore, some mentally ill, mostly drug addicts out hustling for the next score. But this particular brand, a callow bastardization of the hippie movement that seems permanently attached to leftist protests and rallies (I don't imagine they show up at Tea Party rallies, if that's even still a thing), can't help but bring out my inner Archie Bunker.
Go do something productive! Or not. But if you wanna skate through life, stop begging. We all know you're not actually poor. Self-indulgent brats.
Mostly, I just feel bad for the dog.
After I posted my essay about the riot last week, fielded some initial responses, made some final copyedits, and pushed back in my chair, I felt emotionally exhausted. I teared up a little bit. I guess I do love this fucked up little city that has been my home these last fourteen years. And I really hope it gets better. Or at least doesn’t get any worse.
Finally, I’m blaming God. Usually when something bad happens, there are all sorts of people who are quick to say "It's all part of God's plan." Yet, I just haven't heard anyone blaming the Baltimore riot and subsequent military occupation on God. Those people seem to have gone AWOL. So let me pick up the slack for them.
This is all God's fault.
Akim Reinhardt's website is ThePublicProfessor.com
Utopia, Frame By Frame
"A map of the world that does not include Utopia
is not worth even glancing at."
I've recently become obsessed with a TV show, which is rather unusual for me. I like to tell people that, after HBO wrapped The Wire, I went ahead and sold my TV. Perhaps more melodramatic than true, but this is nevertheless close enough for essayistic purposes. The present show, however, could not be more different than the gritty realism of David Simon's character-driven creation. Created by Dennis Kelly and broadcast by Channel 4, the UK's fourth public service broadcaster, Utopia had a short run – only two seasons of six episodes each. Late in 2014, it was decisively announced that the series would not be renewed for a third season, but I think this was for the best. My grandfather once related an old Arab proverb to me: "One should always stop eating when it tastes the sweetest". I don't know if this is really an old Arab proverb, but there are certain things one just isn't inclined to Google.
At any rate, one thing that is certainly true for Utopia and shows like it: if you thrive on massively complex, increasingly far-fetched scenarios, the longer you go on, the more likely you are to trip over your own plotlines, and all hopes for a tightly orchestrated dramatic tension eventually evaporate. The most instructive recent example, which still rankles with fans, is how Lost wrecked itself on reefs of its own devising, despite the impressive hermeneutical gymnastics deployed by some in its defense. I would imagine that few producers and executives enjoy contemplating a similar fate for their own endeavors.
The hazard for Utopia's genre – the paranoid thriller – is especially acute. And settling on the proverbial ‘shadowy international conspiracy' as the principal plot mechanism only doubles down on the risk, since it is tempting to mop up any inconveniences using said conspiracy. Nevertheless, I have always had great faith in the British when it comes to the respect required to make conspiracies, erm, plausible. That's right – a conspiracy needs to be treated respectfully if it is to have any currency.
Obviously, we must at this juncture invoke the masters of the genre, such as Albert Hitchcock and John le Carré. More recently, Chris Mullin's novel A Very British Coup comes to mind, not only for the fact that it was also adapted into a serial by Channel 4 in 1988, but also because the premise – the consolidation of Margaret Thatcher's grip on power in 1979-1980 with the help of MI5 – forms one of many casual subplots thrown off by Utopia. If you always suspected that Labour got shivved in that election, this is the show for you.
The British are also decidedly superior at conveying paranoia, at least in the English-speaking world (although the Russians may have a cultural advantage here). By my reckoning, Duncan Jones' Moon is one of the masterpieces of paranoid sci-fi filmmaking of the last 25 years, and essentially relies only on the talents of Sam Rockwell's acting and Kevin Spacey's voice. The loneliness of Rockwell's character – the sole human resident of a lunar base, locked in to a three-year contract – is a different kind of loneliness than that of Dave Bowman, Kubrick's astronaut in 2001: A Space Odyssey. In Bowman's case, he is coddled by an alien intelligence whose intentions may be unknown, but never come off as sinister. Weirdly, there is a kind of comfort in the cosmically inscrutable nature of his fate, which is one of instrumentality. Rockwell's character, by contrast, struggles to understand the purposes for which he has been deployed to the lunar base, in this case by his corporate sponsors. It is therefore appropriate that those purposes are decidedly practical and driven by economics, to the exclusion of any moral considerations. In order for the paranoid genre to reach its fullest expression, it seems best to have only a few people around, and for the ultimate author of one's fate to be present and known, if only just out of reach – something that Kafka understood most intimately. In an ideal world, paranoia and claustrophobia are generative of one another.
Kubrick also occupies an interesting reference point when considering the visual appeal of Utopia. Almost every scene is shot from a one-point perspective, which was favored by Kubrick (and, truth be told, Wes Anderson). The psychological effect of centering the camera angle with its subject matter generally forces attention and creates drama and suspense – think of the hotel hallways in The Shining. Now you see the twins, now you don't. For his part, Anderson subverts the dramatic in favor of the ironic (you can view supercuts of the two directors' use of one-point perspective here and here, respectively). But in both cases the result is one of visual depth. Those hallways go on for a long time, perhaps forever.
For its part, Utopia drives the one-point perspective to new levels of zealotry. Remarkably, however, the end result is that depth is entirely sucked out of the frame. A crucial reason for this flatness is the equally fanatical use of color. Before you begin finding your way around the characters and plot, the first thing that hits you is the extraordinarily acidic nature of the palette. Blues are not warm but cyan and teal, and there are exquisite purples and pinks. The greens take on a lurid quality, and the yellows and oranges are nothing short of radioactive. Just as the one-point perspective is ever-present, for the length of the series there is no respite in the assault of color. Somewhat remarkably, this is not exhausting to the eye. The relentlessness consolidates itself into a sort of queasy consistency. Taken together, the resulting flatness forces a paradox onto the viewer: a kind of hyperreality mashed right up into an utter disregard for reality. What are we really seeing here?
Too often we mistake – or perhaps more accurately, accept – striking visual effects as a semi-autonomous phenomenon, existing within a film but not necessarily fully integrated into it, either. This blunting of our critical faculties may be the most pernicious legacy of CGI in cinema today. The fact that "The movie was crap, but the effects were really great" is considered an acceptable thing to say about a film at all (if not an actual endorsement!) illustrates just how far we have fallen. But the use of color and perspective in Utopia is so extreme that it clearly warrants further consideration.
The event that sets the Utopia universe in motion is the discovery of a manuscript, thought to be a sequel to a graphic novel, The Utopia Experiments, that was originally published in the late 1980s. The original novel is less a coherent narrative, and more of a cryptic set of drawings that imply the tale of a brilliant geneticist who has made a deal with the devil. All that is known of the author is that he was a paranoid schizophrenic who created the drawings as part of his art therapy while institutionalized. Soon after, the author/patient died in the same institution. Twenty-odd years later, a marginal yet robust community of enthusiasts continue to discuss and parse the novel and its possible meanings via an online discussion forum. Through chance timing, four of these participants are called together by a fifth, who claims he has just acquired the sequel manuscript. This motley mixture of the curious, bored, afflicted and conspiratorially minded constitutes the core protagonists of the series.
However, the first people we meet are the nemeses of this group, the representatives of the aforementioned ‘shadowy conspiracy'. Arby and Lee are cryptic, implacable killers who come to a comics shop, attempting to track down the manuscript ‘sequel'. The importance of the manuscript, or rather what it may hide, is demonstrated by the fact that, in the opening four minutes, about as many people get offed.
Needless to say, Arby and Lee don't recover the manuscript, but procure a lead that sets them on a collision course with the first group. But more importantly, what is established, in a sort of strange loop fashion, is the key to both the substance and the presentation of Utopia: the graphic novel is both the object of desire, and the lens through which that world is seen. For to watch Utopia is, literally, to watch a graphic novel unfold on the screen, panel by panel. This has been attempted previously, the prime example being the 2009 film adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons's Watchmen, but Utopia has no precedent source material, so it is free to invent itself from whole cloth. Hence the very deliberate use of color and one-point perspective I discuss above – the resulting flatness makes each scene easily imagined as a frame in a graphic novel that is itself entirely imaginary.
As visually rewarding and intellectually stimulating as it is, do not think that Utopia shirks violence. In keeping with the aesthetic of a paranoid conspiracy theory graphic novel, plenty of people meet untimely ends. Pretty much everyone seems to be a good shot; when they aim for the head, they tend not to miss, and they rarely aim for any other part of the body. Children are not only murdered in cold blood, but become murderers themselves. There is a stark unsentimentality, and not a small dose of psychopathy, that befits a narrative that ultimately concerns itself with the end of the human race, or rather its possible salvation.
But this also introduces a further interesting consequence of the integration of substance and presentation: as the stakes rise implacably higher and the characters find themselves in more absurdly improbable and dangerous circumstances, the ‘graphic-novelization' of the visual style acts as a vaccine against our disbelief. Once jarring, the cinematography offers us license to accept what is happening. I think that if the series had been filmed in a more conventional, that is to say, realistic way, losing the audience would have been far likelier, regardless of how tightly scripted both seasons have been.
To say more about Utopia risks running into spoiler territory. In fact, there are quite a few timely issues that are either alluded to, or form core parts of the narrative. Some historical events that were appropriated by the show's writers even riled up the public, although I doubt that this contributed to the show's cancellation. Suffice to say that, except for some shoddy microbiology, I didn't really find myself rolling my eyes at each next big reveal, mostly thanks to the series' clever construction.
That said, throughout Utopia, there are plenty of Easter eggs for sci-fi enthusiasts: Bejan's fall off the terrace of his London high-rise is a reference to The Comedian's similar demise in the opening of Watchmen; a common spoon becomes an object of meditation for Wilson Wilson, but for entirely different reasons than it did for Neo in The Matrix. Utopia also has a close kinship with Black Mirror, about which I have written previously, but whereas Black Mirror is concerned with excavating the intended and unintended consequences of the relationship between society and technology, Utopia does not indulge in the dark satire that is Charlie Brooker's stock in trade. It is more otherwordly than didactic, and yet does not lack its own moments of leavening humor, which are expertly sprinkled. Nevertheless, both shows truck with the idea that we, either as individuals or as a society, are not nearly in control of our destinies as we might like to believe. Decisions have alrady been made, ostensibly in our collective best interest, whether we like it or not; such is the nature of Utopia.