Interior experiments (part I: the fringes of self-applied psychoanalysis)

800px-Freud_Sofaby Rishidev Chaudhuri

I

My first psychoanalyst was an old German woman, who lived in a faded flat overlooking a small lake in Calcutta and who spent our time making me lie on a couch and free-associate. Later, she’d point out things that I seemed to be avoiding – the putative hidden centers around which my thought moved. I was fifteen and alternately charmed and troubled by the inscrutability of this all. Of course I censored myself and said what I thought she wanted to hear. And, of course, it didn’t really do anything to help me, at least not in the short term.

For many years later I’d intermittently free-associate on paper, scrutinizing the traces of the workings of my mind for clues to its substrate. Of course I censored myself and created what I thought I wanted to hear, and of course I was aware of this. I puzzled over how to cut this knot. I think Freud says that psychoanalysis doesn’t begin with free-association; it ends when one is able to free-associate. I’m not sure whether this was supposed to mean a Zen-like state where the productions of the unconscious can flow out unhindered by conscious monitoring, or one where the unconscious has no more conflicts to reveal and so can be purely random.

But to free-associate with yourself is to simultaneously experience the thrill of the detective and that of the criminal, creating the signs of a crime and then trying to decipher them. It is a replay of cops and robbers, even if the roles are often muddled, and, since the act of interpreting the unconscious events often serves to create them, the criminal is sometimes framed.

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How to spend billions and not make friends

Raymond-Davis-LahoreIf it were fictional, the Raymond Davis saga would have had a shot for best original screenplay. This one had it all — shootouts, car chases, duplicitous allies and one humdinger of a courtroom climax.

The bare bones of the Davis episode are well known. On January 27, 2011, a man subsequently identifying himself as Raymond Davis shot and killed two men at a busy intersection in Lahore, Pakistan’s second largest city. After shooting the two men, Davis emerged from his car and filmed their bodies with his cell phone. He then got back into his car and tried to drive away. However, in an unusual display of efficiency, he was chased and arrested by two traffic wardens. A separate vehicle then tried to assist Davis but in the process ran over and killed a motorcyclist.

In his initial interrogation, Davis stated first that he had acted in self-defence and second that he was a contractor employed by the U.S. Consulate in Lahore. The subsequent statement was particularly important because applicable diplomatic conventions distinguish between the limited immunity of consular officials as opposed to the absolute immunity enjoyed by embassy officials on duty. This statement was then corroborated by Assistant Secretary of State Philip J. Crowley who also added the mysterious rider that “reports identifying the employee’s name are false.”

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A crab canon for Douglas Hofstadter

Crab
Since it first came out in 1979, Douglas Hofstadter’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid” has widened the eyes of multiple generations of nerdy kids, and I was certainly no exception. The book draws all sorts of parallels between music, art, math, and computer science, ultimately shaping them into a bold thesis about how consciousness arises from self-reference and recursion. It’s also a very playful book, full of puzzles, puns, and imagined dialogues between Achilles and a tortoise which weave in and out of the main chapters, illustrating the concepts therein.

One of those dialogues, titled “Crab Canon,” seems puzzling when you begin reading it – sprinkled with seeming non-sequitors, the word choice a bit awkward and off-kilter. Then shortly after the halfway point, when you start to see recent lines repeated, in reverse order, you realize: the whole dialogue is a line-level palindrome. The first line is the same as the last, the second line is the same as the second-to-last, and so on. But because Hofstadter chooses his sentences carefully, they often have different meanings when they reoccur in the reverse order. So, for example, the following bit of dialogue in the first half…

Tortoise: Tell me, what's it like to be your age? Is it true that one has no worries at all?
Achilles: To be precise, one has no frets.
Tortoise: Oh, well, it's all the same to me.
Achilles: Fiddle. It makes a big difference, you know.
Tortoise: Say, don't you play the guitar?

… becomes this bit of dialogue in the second half:

Achilles: Say, don't you play the guitar?
Tortoise: Fiddle. It makes a big difference, you know.
Achilles: Oh, well, it's all the same to me.
Tortoise: To be precise, one has no frets.
Achilles: Tell me, what's it like to be your age? Is it true that one has no worries at all?

Hofstadter does “cheat” a bit, by allowing himself to vary punctuation (for example, “He often plays, the fool” reoccurs later in a new context as “He often plays the fool”). Nevertheless, it’s an impressive execution of a clever conceit.

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Rahima’s War

By Maniza NaqviGreenSilk1x1

‘This is the new Bosnia,’ Rahima says bitterly, looking around her with apprehension at the people crowded in the restaurant. Her fingers push back hair the color of a passing storm, all silver and mercury, just before the sun breaks through over the Adriatic. Rahima has emerged from the labyrinth of casualties at the hospital. She has come out of the constant dull green-blue light of the casualties ward for head injuries to which she is devoted and from where she seldom surfaces. The hospital preserves for her the atmosphere of war that she has lived through. The world that she confronts in its emergency room approximates the one that she frantically returned to during the war when most were desperate to leave it. That world wracked by war, she had returned to it. Hitchhiked with supply convoys; crawled back to it on her belly through mud and snow through the Igman tunnel; dodging bullets in the city’s alleyways. It was a world played out in the ER which she returned to every day during the war to keep it going, keep it alive and surviving every day. It is the world which she still years later keeps returning to and keeps alive as though the war had never ended. She has never stopped for it and it has never stopped for her.

Now Rahima, on my insistence, against her better judgment, emerges into this new world of wine glasses chinking and dinnerware clattering. In its deafening din, of loud boasting voices and short bursts of abrasive laughter that roar of power and money, we find ourselves seated self-consciously amongst the town’s self-appointed beautiful people, glancing over menus and wine lists that scream ‘let the good times roll.’ This outcome of war bewilders and buries her. How the rich have emerged with their banners of religiosity and how people like her have been ruined. Here, she is a lost being, a walking missing, lost completely after the war. In these merry-prospering surroundings, they don’t know her, these new people in her town, they were not here, then. And amongst them she thinks she is invisible. The aftermath is always an opportunity and belongs to someone else.

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Tughluq, Innovator

By Aditya Dev Sood

Tugluq One day the Sultan was looking from a turret window onto the city of Delhi and he no longer liked what he saw. These people were spoiled and unimaginative. Like the residents of every other large and imperial city, they reeked with the parochialism of the metropolis. Even before he became Muhammand bin Tughluq, the Sultan of Hindustan, he had ridden across the burning plateaus of Mahratta, Warangal and Kampili, down deep into Ma’bar, the Tamilian tip of the subcontinent. He knew what they didn’t — the rest of Hindustan lay to the south — all the unconquered petty kingships, all the riches, all the lands yet to be assimilated into his Sultanate. This city of Delhi was just too far north.

With the precise and strategic thinking that had marked all his successful military campaigns, Tughluq began looking for a place that would be more accessible to the furthest reaches of the Sultanate. It had to be equidistant, more or less, from Gujarat and the Sindh, from Delhi and the Gangetic plains, from Bengal, and from the new territories in the South, which he had himself conquered. In this way, he arrived at Devagiri, a small military encampment, from which he planned more efficiently to administer his empire. In 1327, he ordered his subordinate officers of the court, their families and servants, the artisans and traders who supported and served them, to move to Devagiri.

At first, nothing happened. No one would agree to move. He renamed the city Daulatabad, or Money-Ville. He built a wide and safe road to the new city to encourage his courtiers and the rest of the general public of Delhi to relocate. Frustrated in his several inducements, proclamations, commandments, he force-marched the population of Delhi to Daulatabad in 1330. Miserable in their new surroundings, his people were struggling to come to terms to their new conditions when water ran out at the fort. The Sultan himself never remained in Devagiri, being compelled to ride out repeatedly to whichever distant realm of the empire was in crisis or in danger of being lost to local revolt. It was only years later that Tughluq finally relented, allowing those who still survived in Daulatabad to trickle back to Delhi. About this time the Moroccan travel writer Ibn Batutta arrived in the city to record the anger of the surviving local populace of Delhi. What had once been a large and great city, on the order of Cairo or Baghdad, was now empty, abandoned, deserted.

What was Tughluq thinking?

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Personals Narrative

by Alyssa Pelish

CindySherman libraryRobert McKee, in that how-to book called Story that everyone in L.A. quoted to me without citing, says that story is what the world demands of us. I won’t quibble with this. There’s also a popular theory which has it that narrative is really all about desire (to tell one’s story, to find out what happens next, to be heard, etc.). In L.A., as it happens, it was typically in bars and in bed that both McKee’s dictums and people’s screenplay pitches were repeated to me.

Everyone has their theory about stories, about why we tell them. And we do tell them —even though most of the stories we tell on a daily basis are more like the unedited spools of a voice mail message than like the intricate involutions of, say, The Faerie Queene or the latest Terry Gilroy screenplay, or even the simple symmetry of an Aesop’s fable. Most of our stories have no compelling climax, or they fizzle out before they conclude and bore our listeners before they’re over, or they’re needlessly repetitive, or nothing really happens in them. But still we tell them. We’re story-telling animals — homo narratus — is the happy conventional wisdom. It’s how we make sense of stuff. Or pass on information. Or entertain each other. Or learn. Or something. And so it’s there to wonder about, and to explain: why do we tell stories? What evolutionary purpose, what social purpose, what purpose at all does it serve?

This is an incredibly popular question. Game theorists and literary theorists and evolutionary biologists — everybody, at one time or another — have taken a stab at explaining it. When I lived in L.A., people handed McKee’s pronouncements to me. When I was in grad school, I was partial to Peter Brooks’ and Roland Barthes’ ideas on the subject. But I have no novel theory. I’m not here to float a revolutionary explanation for cocktail party anecdotes or campfire tales. The thing is, I’ve become fascinated by the profiles on online dating sites. This is mainly because they’re telling stories for such a transparent purpose. The self-summaries, the self-justifications, the lists of favorite things and unique skills and continents traveled: they all constitute parts of an autobiography composed for public consumption, and they’re all being told, of course, to seduce.

This is one of the sexier ideas of narrative theory — the pairing of narrative and desire. So it’s somewhat gratifying to see it played out so unequivocally, and on such a large scale, in a non-academic, even non-literary, setting. There is never any question about the role desire plays in these profiles. Even if you consider the most guileless among them, every single profile is written out of desire. And not just the sort of desire in the abstract that’s so often used as a titillating metaphor in literary studies; people write these profiles because they’re looking for, at the very least, a date — and at most, a mate.

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Thoughts On Rape Occasioned By That Big Fat Groper Strauss-Kahn

By Evert Cilliers aka Adam Ash Le perv

1. MEN RAPE FROM LUST NOT RAGE

Let me start with a facetious declaration: the only reason I'm not a potential rapist is that I'm 5' 5″ and weigh a 125 pounds. Unless I go on a two-year weight-training regimen, most women would be able to fight me off successfully.

Which brings me to the point of why men rape. It's because they can. Men have physical power over women. They're bigger and stronger than their victims, so they rape them. Being pragmatic, men have availed themselves of this advantage since the dawn of man.

In fact, rape is as natural to mankind as nesting is to womankind. We may frown upon it now — thank heavens — but a few hundred years ago men were raping and pillaging like locusts tearing up a cornfield, which afforded them a pleasant diversion from burning women as witches or killing them not-so-softly via childbirth. Back then, men had absolute power over women; accordingly, so did their penises.

Did that mean they had anger issues with women? I don't think so. They just did what came naturally. In fact, I don't buy into the notion that men rape because they hate women. I think most rapists rape because they lust, not because they're mad at women. Of course there are some serial offenders who are psychopaths, with the empathy section of their brain MIA. But I believe rape is a different story for most Ivy League students who date-rape co-eds, or for army guys who rape fellow soldiers, or for Peace Corp volunteers who rape fellow volunteers. We're talking about thousands of nice, well-brought-up lads, who will go on to marry and have children, if they haven't done so already. I don't think they rape because they hate women, as comforting a notion as that may be to the ears of pop-psychology feminists. I think these men rape because they want a particular woman and have few qualms about forcing themselves upon that woman; they know they can get away with it. Their physical power makes them feel entitled to having their way with their lust object. Heck, they probably think they're doing their victims a favor by throwing them a boner. It's not hate or anger that makes them do it — they just want to screw a particular female. Some of these errant bastards will do it again. Some might even make a habit of it.

2. BHL AND DSK

A prick like Dominique Strauss-Kahn has most probably been leaping on French chambermaids all his life, and gotten away with it. The mistake he made was to try and rape an African immigrant in New York, a ballsy woman who was strong enough to fight back, and who let him stick his manhood in her mouth twice after he slapped her around a bit, but in the end she escaped.

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The Politics of Manny Pacquiao

250px-Pacquiao-ClotteyPacquiao has achieved what most Philippine leaders have not—stop crime. For the duration of the Pacquiao fever at least. The widely shared sentiment is more than a joke. Every time Pacquiao goes to the boxing ring, everyone stays in their homes, glued to the television sets. Strangers in bars watching television become instant friends, hollering in unison for their hero.

Pacquiao seems to be all about winning. He has won in eight weight divisions, gathering ten world boxing titles, a feat matched by no other. In 2009, he was included in Time’s 2009 Most Influential People. He has recorded an album and starred in several box office movies. He has become a commercial model for all sorts of products—liquor, gadgets, shoes, milk. Politicians have tried to attach their names to his, hoping perhaps his charisma, his fame would rub off. His wife and mother have gone from being ordinary citizens to icons constantly seen on feature shows, their opinions sought after on issues of marriage, lifestlyle, fashion. He ran for a congressional seat, representing South Cotabato in 2007 and lost. When he ran again in 2011, this time representing Saranggani, he won.

All throughout his campaign he has identified poverty as his main focus. It would be the greatest fight of his life. The Philippines is a Third World Country, and most candidates identify poverty as the focus of their campaigns, but somehow with Pacquiao, there seemed to be a genuineness attached to it. This was after all, a man who was once poor, who did his best to make something better of himself. He was everyone’s hero. His media portrayal also didn’t hurt—his album was dedicated to the country; its lead single ‘Para Saiyo (roughly translated in English as ‘For You’) basically told of how he was talking the blows of his opponents as a sacrifice to his country. During his post-win interviews, he would often reiterate the sentiment, that he was glad to have been of service to his fellowmen—an act sometimes read as arrogance, a sense of bloated self importance.

Despite qualms of his inexperience in politics, Pacquiao has gotten the nods of environmentalists and NGOs when he took a stand to investigate illegal mining in Sarangani. Feared to be one of those lawmakers who would avoid discussions because of lack of knowledge, Pacquiao has proved critics wrong, speaking up in his much-derided English on bills, expressing his arguments the way he expressed himself before international media, with confidence and not a hint of shyness. That alone must have gathered enough respect for the boxer-turned-politician.

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Imprisonment and the Lash

OB-OD534_0602fl_G_20110602121552 Peter Moskos in the WSJ (via Crooked Timber):

Not too long ago, in 1970, America had 380,000 incarcerated people. That was considered normal. Today, thanks in large part to a misguided war on drugs and get-tough sentencing laws, there are 2.3 million Americans behind bars. Something has gone terribly wrong. Never in the history of the world has a country locked up so many of its people. We have more prisoners than soldiers. We have more prisons than China, and they have a billion more people than we do.

The problem is so abysmal in California that the Supreme Court ordered 33,000 prisoners to be housed elsewhere or released. But even this is a drop in the bucket, compared to what is needed to bring our levels of incarceration back to what is acceptable for a free and civilized republic. Were California to return to its 1970s rate of incarceration, it would have to release more than 120,000 criminals.

Today’s prison reformers—and I wish them well—tinker with the machinery of incarceration while being dismissed too readily as soft on criminals. And even the most progressive reformer has no plan to reduce our prison population by 85%. I do: let’s bring back the lash.

If you think flogging is too cruel to even consider, what would you do if given the choice between five years in prison and 10 brutal lashes? You’d probably choose the lash. Wouldn’t we all? What does that say about prison?

We should offer criminals the choice between the status quo of prison and being caned, Singapore-style. If flogging were really so horrible, nobody would choose it. But of course most people would. And that’s my point. I defend flogging because something radical is needed to reduce the cruelty of incarceration.

Bulb In, Bulb Out

Mag-05lightbulb-t_CA0-articleLarge Andrew Rice in the NYT Magazine:

Over the past few years, in conditions of strict secrecy, a multinational team of scientists has been making a mighty effort to change the light bulb. The prototype they’ve developed is four inches tall, with a familiar tapered shape, and unlighted, it resembles a neon yellow mushroom. Screw it in and switch it on, though, and it blazes with a voluptuous radiance. It represents what people within the lighting industry often call their holy grail, an invention that reproduces the soft luminance of the incandescent bulb — Thomas Edison’s century-old technology — but conforms to much higher standards of energy efficiency and durability. The prototype is supposed to last for more than 22 years, maybe as long as you own your house, so you won’t need to stock up at the supermarket. And that’s fortunate, because one day very soon, traditional incandescent bulbs won’t be available in stores anymore. They’re about to be effectively outlawed.

As a consumer product, light bulbs belong to what one industry executive calls a “low-thought category,” and yet, of late, they’ve become a surprising flash point. Conservatives like Rush Limbaugh have denounced the “light-bulb ban” — actually, a new set of federal efficiency regulations that the traditional incandescent can’t meet — as a symbolic case of environmentalist overreaching, and Michele Bachmann invoked it in the Tea Party’s response to the State of the Union. Wherever your political sympathies lie, you may have found yourselves nodding along with Representative Joe Barton, a Texas Republican who has lambasted the harsh glare given off by those “little, squiggly, pigtailed” compact fluorescents. When it comes to making light, a fundamental necessity of human civilization, libertarians and aesthetes are joined in an unlikely alliance. Environmental groups say the complainers are a cranky minority — that consumers will eventually get used to new light — but those in the illumination business can’t afford to be so sanguine.

Morality Without “Free Will”

Boyballoon Sam Harris over at his blog (via Andrew Sullivan):

We are conscious of only a tiny fraction of the information that our brains process in each moment. While we continually notice changes in our experience—in thought, mood, perception, behavior, etc.—we are utterly unaware of the neural events that produce these changes. In fact, by merely glancing at your face or listening to your tone of voice, others are often more aware of your internal states and motivations than you are. And yet most of us still feel that we are the authors of our own thoughts and actions.

The problem is that no account of causality leaves room for free will—thoughts, moods, and desires of every sort simply spring into view—and move us, or fail to move us, for reasons that are, from a subjective point of view, perfectly inscrutable. Why did I use the term “inscrutable” in the previous sentence? I must confess that I do not know. Was I free to do otherwise? What could such a claim possibly mean? Why, after all, didn’t the word “opaque” come to mind? Well, it just didn’t—and now that it vies for a place on the page, I find that I am still partial to my original choice. Am I free with respect to this preference? Am I free to feel that “opaque” is the better word, when I just do not feel that it is the better word? Am I free to change my mind? Of course not. It can only change me.

There is a distinction between voluntary and involuntary actions, of course, but it does nothing to support the common idea of free will (nor does it depend upon it). The former are associated with felt intentions (desires, goals, expectations, etc.) while the latter are not. All of the conventional distinctions we like to make between degrees of intent—from the bizarre neurological complaint of alien hand syndrome to the premeditated actions of a sniper—can be maintained: for they simply describe what else was arising in the mind at the time an action occurred. A voluntary action is accompanied by the felt intention to carry it out, while an involuntary action isn’t. Where our intentions themselves come from, however, and what determines their character in every instant, remains perfectly mysterious in subjective terms. Our sense of free will arises from a failure to appreciate this fact: we do not know what we will intend to do until the intention itself arises. To see this is to realize that you are not the author of your thoughts and actions in the way that people generally suppose. This insight does not make social and political freedom any less important, however. The freedom to do what one intends, and not to do otherwise, is no less valuable than it ever was.

While all of this can sound very abstract, it is important to realize that the question of free will is no mere curio of philosophy seminars. A belief in free will underwrites both the religious notion of “sin” and our enduring commitment to retributive justice.

Sunday Poem

I Try To Wake You In The Dark

I try to wake You in the dark.
From Mecca or Jerusalem.
I try to wake You in the dark.

But You've been sleeping alone on dark stones.
Who knows for how long. In Mecca
or perhaps Jerusalem. Some say
millennia.
Or much longer.

But stubborn me, I still try.
I don’t give up. I'm still trying,
giving it my all, in the dark,
to wake You up.

From Mecca or Medina.
Jerusalem or Hebron.

Can You hear my voice
in the dark? To the right, down
there, in the tunnel?

Can You see me?
A tender youth, in the dusk
of madness?

Because all through the night
I have been throwing words at You,
expecting You.
In vain.

From Mecca or Medina.
Jerusalem or Hebron.

Perhaps some of the words hurt Your feelings?
Forgive me. I am only trying.
Perhaps millennia or more have passed.
In the dark. To wake You up.
With great tenderness.

Now,
from Jerusalem,

or

from Mecca.

Because if You awaken,

spontaneously, with a smile,
as my heart predicted,
You will say

suddenly:
Where art thou?

by Admiel Kosman
from Alternative Prayerbook
publisher: Hakibbutz Hameuchad,
Tel Aviv © 2007
translation by Lisa Katz and Shlomit Naor
© 2010