Watching Hotel Congo in 2014?

Michael Kavanagh writes a disturbing piece some weeks ago about the crisis in Congo. It concludes:

“When will the world pay attention?” is the question the IRC poses in its report. It would be nice to answer by saying, “There’s always hope.” But instead I find myself thinking of a quote from Hotel Rwanda‘s Col. Oliver, Nick Nolte’s Romeo Dallaire-inspired character. In the first weeks of the genocide, when Rusesabagina suggests that the international peacekeepers will fly into Rwanda and save them, the colonel rebukes him: “We think you’re dirt,” he says. “You’re not even a nigger. You’re an African.”

This was the conclusion many Rwandans came to after 1994. Looking at the situation in eastern Congo 10 years later, there’s still little to disabuse them of this notion.

I would also direct your attention to a first person account of experiences in the Congo from our colleague Edward Rackley at Old Town Review.

The human catastrophe of Eastern Congo is, for visitors,         a bundle of numbness and raw nerves. In September, at the invitation of         a British think-tank, I visited the unstable region to assess the causes         of ongoing violence against civilians. With close to 15,000 peacekeepers         on the ground, a transitional government anticipating national elections         in six months, and well-funded efforts to disarm, demobilize and reintegrate         combatants into civilian life—the “DDR process”—why         are civilians still being killed with such impunity? Scores of interviews         with humanitarian actors, UN staff, and Congolese revealed the usual suspects:         predatory governance, uncontrolled armed groups, endemic impunity, and         the inaccessibility of civilian populations due to ongoing combat.

None of these factors is particularly well understood         by outsiders; this opacity keeps the “heart of darkness” myth         alive. For insiders, Africa remains a Dark Continent by sole virtue of         its ability to generate degrees of suffering that surpass human comprehension.         Unfettered anarchy it is not. Recent African crises have birthed a new         truism: “If it looks like anarchy, then you don’t understand         what you see.” Eastern Congo fits the adage well: “chaos”         and “senseless tragedy” are the inevitable, indelible impressions         etched on any visitor’s memory. But behind the barrage of extreme         scarcity, mute agony, and feverish suspicion is a clear pursuit of economic         interest, a highly dexterous application of disorder as political instrument.       


A brief history of the memo

Like many, I’m taken by histories of things like footnotes, the number zero, small and convenient things which I largely related to functionally.  In the most recent Critical Inquiry, John Guillory has a piece on the memo and its place in modernity.

“The genre of the memo has attracted little attention as an object of study, because it would seem to lack the features of what in literary theory we like to call a ‘text.’ Individual memos are less representative of the genre in the very proportion that they are more interesting as texts. But the ubiquity of the memo belies its triviality, and raises questions about writing in modernity that cannot be answered by asking these questions only of figures such as Joyce, Freud, Darwin, or Heisenberg. We can begin to enrich the interpretive context of the memo by referring it to the theme of bureaucracy , a subject of longstanding sociological interest. Unsurprisingly, Weber observes in his great work, Economy and Society , that ‘the management of the modern office is based upon written documents (‘the files’),’ and that this form of writing is necessarily connected to the very idea of the office or ‘bureau,’ as the spatial means of organizing scribal labor.

. . .

[T]he memo emerged as a result of a new kind of managerial practice, and not as a development of rhetorical theory . On the contrary, the invention of the memo entailed a deliberate forgetting of rhetoric, an act of oblivion. The memorandum was not an evolution of the business letter but a new genre of writing. The term ‘memorandum’ in this new generic sense began to be used in the later 1870s and early 1880s, although it did not become common until the 1920s, by which time the form of the memo was in widespread use. (‘Memo,’ 497). The idea of the memorandum as a ‘note to oneself’ precisely captures the situation of internal communication within an organization. Hence [JoAnne] Yates speaks of the memo as constituting an ‘organizational’ memory.”

Varieties of National Style

Few intellectuals write as eloquently as Benedict Anderson, a thinker whose well-turned sentences surely belong in the tradition of Hume, Burke, and Ruskin. (Among late twentieth-century academics, perhaps only Said was his equal.) In this recent review, he considers topics as diverse as alien abduction and Irish pubs: “If one wished to see modern world history as an endless soap opera, in every country the one character centrally cast in each interminable episode would be one’s own nation. Newspapers everywhere are invariably divided between national news, on the one hand, and international and local news on the other. Television exhibits exactly the same morphology. A tyro visitor to the United States, absorbing the American mass media, will feel the terrifying force of every-minute ‘banal nationalism’, but for most nationals the cultural-political air will seem almost windless. There is nothing peculiarly American about this.”

Hobsbawm on how evolutionary biology can save history

The Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm has an interesting piece on truth in history and historiography.  He suggests that evolutionary biology can save “total history”.

It is time to re-establish the coalition of those who believe in history as a rational inquiry into the course of human transformations, against those who distort history for political purposes – and more generally, against relativists and postmodernists who deny this possibility. . .

The Marxist approach is a necessary component of this reconstruction of the front of reason. While postmodernists have denied the possibility of historical understanding, developments in the natural sciences have put an evolutionary history of humanity firmly back on the agenda.

Firstly, DNA analysis has established a firmer chronology of the spread of the species from its original African origin throughout the world, before the appearance of written sources.

. . .

[T]he DNA revolution calls for a specific, historical, method of studying the evolution of the human species. It also provides us with a rational framework for a world history. History is the continuance of the biological evolution of homo sapiens by other means.

Secondly, the new evolutionary biology eliminates the distinction between history and the natural sciences and bypasses the bogus debates on whether history is or is not a science.

Thirdly, it returns us to the basic approach to human evolution adopted by prehistorians, which is to study the modes of interaction between our species and its environment and its growing control over it.

. . .

However, the new perspectives on history should also return us to that essential, if never quite realisable, objective of those who study the past: “total history”.

Read some responses here. (Via normblog)

Even More on Social Security Privatization

I’m one who thinks that the space allotted to op-ed columns in The New York Times is too small for some issues.  One can, as Krugman does, have several columns on the same topic.  But it may work better with less frequent but longer pieces for each columnist, as Brad DeLong once suggested.  In either case, here’s a longer piece by Krugman on Social Security in The Economists’ Voice, the sort of thing I had in mind–though some may and do object to the focus on the motivations of the other side, seeing it as unfair filler by the opposition.

“As I’ve described it, the case for privatization is a mix of strange and inconsistent budget doctrines, bad economics, dubious political economy, and science fiction.  What’s wrong with these people?

The answer is definitely not that they are stupid. In fact, the case made by the privatizers is fiendishly ingenious in its Jesuitical logic, its persuasiveness to the unprepared mind.

But many of the people supporting privatization have to know better. Why, then, don’t they say so? Because Social Security privatization is a solution in search of a problem.”

Expected scientific discoveries, 2005

We here at 3QD like lists.  Here’s one from The Guardian, a list of scientific discoveries we should have made by the end of 2005.  Some of it’s rather strange.

4. How someone looks after a face transplant

A surgical team from Louisville, Kentucky, is hotly tipped to perform the world’s first face transplant this year, taking a face from a donor corpse and attaching it to a severely disfigured recipient.

The team, which includes bioethicists, submitted a detailed proposal to an ethics panel last May, and the lengthy approvals process concludes soon. In Britain, meanwhile, plans have been put on hold after a Royal College of Surgeons’ working party concluded that the risks outweighed the benefits.”

Also via Political Theory Daily Review.

Happy people are less well-connected to reality and what it may mean for the rest of us

Most explanations and explanatory frameworks in the social sciences ignore the role of emotions in determining human behavior.  Largely, this is a product of the fact that it’s hard to address emotions within a theoretical framework.  There have been attempts to systematically study the role of emotions in recent years.  I suspect that the events of the past few years will lead to a even great focus on things like a sense of humiliation, anger, envy, fear, etc. 

Here’s a study that reports the results of two experiments on the influence of mood on moral judgments. “[T]he data support other empirical research showing that individuals in a positive mood (here, happiness) tend to process information more superficially than those in a negative mood (here, anxiety).”

(Via Political Theory Daily Review)

Rorty’s Kripke

About ten years ago I picked up Kripke’s Naming and Necessity in the midst of lots of reading that centered on German Idealism and the Ancient Greeks. I didn’t really get the point of Kripke, I didn’t ‘feel the force’ of the philosophical problems except to notice that the emphasis on language’s relation to natural kinds seemed vaguely Aristotelian in an unpalatable sort of way.

Still, the urgency with which Kripke wrote also created the impression that something important was going on. In a way, that led me to a much deeper engagement with analytic philosophy and I’m thankful for that, even if much of the stuff is turgid scholasticism.

A lovely short tour through the Kripkean ‘revolution’ is Rorty’s review of Soames’ new tomb in the London Review of Books. If only more people could write like Rorty does about contemporary philosophy.

Before Kripke, most analytic philosophers would have said that all essences were merely nominal. That is, they thought that the question of whether water was ‘essentially’ H2O, or whether something with much the same properties but a different chemical composition might also be water, was uninteresting, because merely verbal. (This is also the view of most non-analytic philosophers: Heideggerians treat talk of real essences as part of the discredited onto-theological tradition, and Derrideans as a distressing symptom of phallogocentrism.) On a pre-Kripkean view, it may indeed be found convenient to find a word other than ‘water’ for the strange new substance, but there are no deeper reasons – nothing like what Kripke had dubbed ‘metaphysical necessity’.

Darwin was generally thought to have struck a blow against Aristotelian essentialism by showing that the lines between biological species had not been drawn by God, and that species kept mutating into different species. But Kripke argued that one could accept Darwin’s story but still say that ‘Whales are not fish’ is a necessary a posteriori truth. For whales would not be whales if they did not have a certain DNA sequence, just as water would not be water if it were not made of hydrogen and oxygen. Microstructure is a tip-off to intrinsic nature, not just a pragmatically useful redescription of things that were originally identified by their macrostructural properties.

Kripke thought that their refusal to take natural kinds seriously showed that everybody from Russell to Quine had been arrogantly turning their backs on what Soames calls ‘the great mass of ordinary, pre-philosophical convictions arising from common sense, science and other areas of inquiry’ – convictions that philosophy cannot ‘overturn wholesale’. A typical result of this arrogance was Quine’s claim that everything we talk about – water, electrons, numbers, mountains, you, me, the Olympian deities – is just a pragmatically convenient ‘posit’. This looked to Kripke, as it does to Soames, like frivolous paradox-mongering. The popularity of such frivolity in the winter of 1970 was, Soames thinks, a sign that analytic philosophy was in dire need of reform.

Tsunami Philosophicus

I suspected in a post here at 3Quarks just after we learned of the devastating Tsunami that such events do not occur without generating a little reflection about the meaning of it all. Terrible natural disasters are particularly difficult to accept without raising fundamental Kantian-themed questions about the relation between Nature and Freedom and the like. As I noted then, nothing shattered the confidence of the Enlightenment like the Lisbon earthquake.

In an offering from Leon Wieseltier at TNR, exactly that theme is expounded upon.

On the morning of November 1, 1755, an earthquake destroyed Lisbon. It lasted ten minutes, and concluded with a tsunami at the mouth of the Tagus River. Tens of thousands of people perished, and the philosophical confidence of Europe was forever shaken. When I began to grasp the magnitude of what the Asian ocean wreaked last week, it was to the Lisbon literature that I turned for assistance. I was in no mood to open a Bible. It is indecent to move immediately from catastrophe to theodicy. Evil should shock and disrupt. The humanity of the dead should be honored with the tribute of dissonance, the tribute of doubt. I do not see how a theistic view of the world cannot be embarrassed, or damaged, by such an event. If it is not possible to venerate nature for its goodness, then it is not possible to venerate the alleged author of nature for His goodness.

And Hendrik Herzberg muses in the New Yorker:

The terrible arbitrariness of the disaster has troubled clergymen of many persuasions. The Archbishop of Canterbury is among those newly struggling with the old question of how a just and loving God could permit, let alone will, such an undeserved horror. (Of course, there are also preachers, thankfully few, who hold that the horror is not only humanly deserved but divinely intended, on account of this or that sin or depredation.) The tsunami, like the city-size asteroid that, on September 29th, missed the earth by only four times the distance of the moon, is a reminder that, one way or another, this is the way the world ends. Man’s laws are proscriptive, nature’s merely descriptive.

Yet it is the very “meaninglessness” of the catastrophe—its lack of human agency, its failure to fit into any scheme of human reward and punishment—that has helped make possible the simple solidarity of the global response. President Reagan, to the exasperation of his aides, used to muse that human beings, faced with some mortal threat from beyond the skies, would put aside their differences in common cause. Something like that, on a very modest scale, appears to be happening as the world clamors to help the survivors of the destroyer from beneath the seas. Tsunamis have no politics.

Democratic Vistas

We observe this week the eagerly awaited translation of Giorgio Agemben’s State of Exception (Chicago, 2005). Among the most creative political theorists on the international scene, Agemben here takes stock of the fate of democracy in the post 9/11 era, placing the suspension of civil liberties in a long historical and philosophical context. Agemben describes the two-fold dimension of the argument in a recent interview in the German Law Journal as follows: “The first is a historical matter: the state  of exception or state of emergency has become a paradigm of government  today.  Originally understood as  something extraordinary,an exception, which should have validity only for a limited period of time, but a historical transformation has made it the normal form of governance.  I wanted to show the consequence of this  change for the state of the democracies in which we live.  The second is of a philosophical nature and  deals with the strange relationship of law and lawlessness, law and anomy.  The state of exception establishes a hidden  but fundamental relationship between law and the absence of law.  It is a void, a blank and this empty space  is constitutive of the legal system.”

Agemben received some attention stateside last year when he refused to take up a visiting position at NYU because traveling to the US would have required fingerprinting.

The System of World Literature

Few books in the literary humanities today have much of an impact outside their respective fields. Such is the fate of a discipline objectively in crisis. Even so, Pascale Casanova’s recently translated World Republic of Letters (Harvard, 2005) is making quite a mark. An analysis of “the global economy of prestige that ushers some authors into the international literary sphere while keeping others shut out,” Casanova’s study argues that the Parisian cultural establishment gives shape to national literatures far outside its geographical and linguistic purview.

Cultural Capital Volume Two

An analysis of the debate over the literary canon, John Guillory’s Cultural Capital (Chicago, 1993) was among the most widely cited and influential books published in the academic literary humanities in the 1990s: “the idea was to push the debate off the term ‘identity’, or social identity, and move it more in the direction of considering schools, institutions, language, the discourse of literature, the discourse of criticism.” In this recent interview, Guillory considers the impact that his book had and takes a look at the current state of the academic discipline of literary study. He also discusses what it was like to be a graduate student at Yale during the heyday of deconstruction and how his early Jesuitical training influenced his later, secular vocation as a critic.

On Pickles

The New York Times recently piqued my interest when it ran a short piece about at-home-pickler Rick Field: Pickle

Along the way broader realizations about pickling’s impact on his emotional fortitude became clear to Mr. Field in therapy. “The world is incredibly crazy and complicated,” he said, “and at some point I started to feel as if there was something very satisfying about putting something in a jar, looking at it, closing it, tucking it away, watching it, giving it to someone and moving on.”

To see Mr. Field’s surprisingly elegant pickle website, click here.

For a good index of New York City pickle spots, including long-time favorite Guss’s Pickles, click here.

Mark Kurlansky’s book, “Salt: A World History” provides a useful gloss on the process of pickling:

The process by which the Chinese, and later the Japanese, fermented beans in earthen pots is today known as lactic acid fermentation, or, in more common jargon, pickling. Optimum lactic fermentation takes place between sixty-four and seventy-one degrees Fahrenheit, which in most of the world is an easily achieved environment.

As vegetables begin to rot, the sugars break down and produce lactic acid, which serves as a preservative. Theoretically, pickling can be accomplished without salt, but the carbohydrates and proteins in the vegetables tend to putrefy too quickly to be saved by the emerging lactic acid. Without salt, yeast forms, and the fermentation process leads to alcohol rather than pickles.

Between .8 and 1.5 percent of the vegetable’s weight in salt holds off the rotting process until the lactic acid can take over. Excluding oxygen, either by sealing the jar or, more usually, by weighting the vegetables so that they remain immersed in liquid, is necessary for successful lactic fermentation.

On Atmospheric Augury

The American Institute of Physics website contains a fascinating and enjoyably dense history of the science of climatology. Particularly pleasurable is the website’s explication of related developments in chaos theory, computer science, and hermeneutics, all of which deeply effected climatology’s evolution as a science:

The more people worked with computers, the more examples they found of oddly unstable results. Start two computations with exactly the same initial conditions, and they must always come to precisely the same conclusion. But make the slightest change in the fifth decimal place of some initial number, and as the machine cycled through thousands of arithmetic operations the difference might grow and grow, in the end giving a seriously different result. Of course people had long understood that a pencil balanced on its point could fall left or right depending on the tiniest difference in initial conditions, to say nothing of the quantum uncertainties. Scientists had always supposed that this kind of situation only arose under radically simplified circumstances, far from the stable balance of real-world systems like global climate. It was not until the 1950s, when people got digital machines that could do many series of huge computations, that a few began to wonder whether their surprising sensitivity pointed to some fundamental difficulty.

In 1961, an accident cast new light on the question. Luck in science comes to those in the right place and time with the right set of mind, and that was where Edward Lorenz stood. He was at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where development of computer models was in the air, and intellectually he was one of a new breed of professionals who were combining meteorology with mathematics. Lorenz had devised a simple computer model that produced impressive simulacra of weather patterns. One day he decided to repeat a computation in order to run it longer from a particular point. His computer worked things out to six decimal places, but to get a compact printout he had truncated the numbers, printing out only the first three digits. Lorenz entered these digits back into his computer. After a simulated month or so, the weather pattern diverged from the original result. A difference in the fourth decimal place was amplified in the thousands of arithmetic operations, spreading through the computation to bring a totally new outcome. “It was possible to plug the uncertainty into an actual equation,” Lorenz later recalled, “and watch the things grow, step by step.”

Lorenz was astonished. While the problem of sensitivity to initial numbers was well known in abstract mathematics, and computer experts were familiar with the dangers of truncating numbers, he had expected his system to behave like real weather. The truncation errors in the fourth decimal place were tiny compared with any of a hundred minor factors that might nudge the temperature or wind speed from minute to minute. Lorenz had assumed that such variations could lead only to slightly different solutions for the equations, “recognizable as the same solution a month or a year afterwards… and it turned out to be quite different from this.” Storms appeared or disappeared from the weather forecasts as if by chance.

Full article here.

For the American Petroleum Institute’s wholly predictable take on the unpredictability inherent in forecasting drastic climate change, click here.

A shorter article from Physics Today can be found here.

The Return of Still in Theaters

Darger3In the Realms of the Unreal, Jessica Yu’s documentary on recluse artist Henry Darger, who passed away in 1973, has been held over at Film Forum for at least the next week. Working with almost foolproof material, the documentary provides insight into Darger’s inner world through interviews with the handful of people left alive who knew him, as well as extensive and cleverly animated imagery from his 15, 000 page graphic novel and life’s project, The Story of the Vivian Girls, in what is known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. But the film also reflects important trends in contemporary art displaying interest in the queer, the subcultural, and the handcrafted. Video artists such as Paul Chan, as in his Happiness (finally) after 35, 000 Years of Civilization, and Tom Kalin, as in his new short Every Wandering Cloud–part of MoMA’s Premieres last Sunday (Jan. 9)–have expressed outright their inspiration drawn from Darger’s seminal work, and scores of other young artists aspire to his imagination, aesthetic, and inimitable Outsider-artist chic.

For a comprehensive list of Darger links click here.


The Counter-Inaugural 2005 website appears to be the main digital hub responsible for the organization of a wide variety of political action groups that, however disparate, do share one common goal: expressing their strong objection to the upcoming presidential inauguration.
Of a numerous list, one of my favorites would have to be a political action group going by the name of Bang!Zoom! Their inaugural day protest takes the form of a collective mooning of the president.

For a full index of all the groups set to converge on Washington, D.C. come inauguration day, click here.