Žižek on Tibet and China

Slavoj Žižek responds to his critics in the LRB

When I was a young student in socialist Yugoslavia, criticism of the regime was dismissed by those in power as ‘Western propaganda’. It was always enough to say threateningly: ‘We know whom such reasoning serves.’ To my surprise, the critics of my letter on Tibet and China rely on the same manoeuvre: my statements are dismissed with the claim that they repeat Chinese propaganda (Letters, 5 June). But I base my claim that Tibet before 1949 was an oppressive and corrupted feudal society on by far the best and most extensive study of the Tibetan legal system, Rebecca Redwood French’s The Golden Yoke: The Legal Cosmology of Buddhist Tibet (1995), which has absolutely nothing to do with Chinese propaganda.

If it were the custom to dedicate letters, I would dedicate mine to the Tibetan exile settlements in Mundgod and Bylakuppe in southern India. All the media attention is on upper-class Dharamsala: nobody – the Dalai Lama and Richard Gere included – talks about the destitute thousands in these two larger camps.

A Natural Basis for Musical Consonance?

Phillip Ball in Nature News:

What was avant-garde yesterday is often blandly mainstream today. But this normalization doesn’t seem to have happened to experiments in atonalism in Western music. A century has passed since composer Arnold Schoenberg and his supporters rejected tonal organization, yet Schoenberg’s music is still considered by many to be ‘difficult’ at best, and a cacophony at worst.

Could this be because the dissonances characteristic of Schoenberg’s atonal compositions conflict with some fundamental human preference for consonance, embedded in the very way we perceive musical sound? That’s what his detractors have sometimes implied, and it might be inferred also from a new proposal for the origins of consonance and dissonance advanced in a paper by biomathematicians Inbal Shapira Lots and Lewi Stone of Tel Aviv University in Israel, published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface 1.

Shapira Lots and Stone suggest that a preference for consonance may be hard-wired into the way we hear music.

Joseph Stiglitz on the Oil and Food Crises

Over at The Guardian’s Comment is Free:

The world needs to rethink the sources of growth. If the foundations of economic growth lie in advances in science and technology, not in speculation in real estate or financial markets, then tax systems must be realigned. Why should those who make their income by gambling in Wall Street’s casinos be taxed at a lower rate than those who earn their money in other ways? Capital gains should be taxed at least at as high a rate as ordinary income. (Such returns will, in any case, get a substantial benefit because the tax is not imposed until the gain is realised.) In addition, there should be a windfall profits tax on oil and gas companies.

Given the huge increase in inequality in most countries, higher taxes for those who have done well – to help those who have lost ground from globalisation and technological change – are in order, and could also ameliorate the strains imposed by soaring food and energy prices. Countries, like the US, with food stamp programmes, clearly need to increase the value of these subsidies in order to ensure that nutrition standards do not deteriorate. Those countries without such programmes might think about instituting them.

Two factors set off today’s crisis: the Iraq war contributed to the run-up in oil prices, including through increased instability in the Middle East, the low-cost provider of oil, while biofuels have meant that food and energy markets are increasingly integrated. Although the focus on renewable energy sources is welcome, policies that distort food supply are not. America’s subsidies for corn-based ethanol contribute more to the coffers of ethanol producers than they do to curtailing global warming.

Why it’s never father’s day on stage

From The London Telegraph:

Lear The rise of the birth-attending, nappy-changing, self-sacrificial new man is not an archetype that playwrights tend to celebrate much. Indeed, in the theatre it’s almost never a happy father’s day. Drama often being about conflict, and conflict often being between paternal authority and rebellious youth, there are relatively few plays and musicals around that say, “Thanks, Dad, I love you loads”. And even fewer operas. So this Father’s Day say it with a tie, a bottle or a pair of socks but don’t say it with theatre tickets. Unless, of course, you calculate that a trip to the West End might encourage your father to see the error of his ways.

“At least two fathers have already been reduced to a state of sobbing,” says David Calder, currently playing King Lear at Shakespeare’s Globe and receiving stricken dads backstage afterwards. The lesson they’re taking from Lear is simple: that even if they’re kings, fathers cannot boss their children around with impunity. “Lear makes the mistake all human beings make: he believes that because he thinks it, others will think it,” says Calder. “He wants everybody at his feet, writing gooey poems about how wonderful a father he is. He is self-obsessed. It’s a one-way street. ‘I give out the goodies and you fall on the floor and thank me.'”

More here.

What Kind of father am I?

James McConkey in The American Scholar:

Mcconk2 In this exploration of my past for whatever understanding it can give me of my present self—probably my final attempt, though I’ve believed that before—I’ve touched upon questions beyond my competence to answer. But the issues of chance, genetic inheritance, the relation between fathers and sons, and the debate between determinism and free will, important to human meaning as they are, fade into insignificance before the most encompassing paradox that I know: death, that great opponent of life and ultimate victor over it, is also responsible for all the values of life that we struggle to rescue from it. Without mortality—that is, if we lived forever, uncaring of the ticking of clocks—would we have need of religion, of families with children for a new generation, of dreams for a better future? Wouldn’t scientists lose their urgency to discover, artists to create? Without my ever-keener awareness of Jean’s and my mortality, I certainly wouldn’t be writing this account in my 87th year. And what about love? As lyrical expressions, sonnets typically represent the poet’s personal emotions. One sonnet in particular, by Shakespeare, moves both Jean and me; I liked it as a graduate student, but not in the way I do today. The first-person narrator acknowledges that life, like a fire, is consumed by the source nourishing it, and tells his beloved in the concluding couplet, “This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong, / To love that well which thou must leave ere long.”

That’s the best summation I’m capable of making.

More here.

Sunday Poem

D.A. Powell

soon, industry and agriculture converged
                            and the combustion engine
sowed the dirtclod truck farms green
                                          with onion tops and chicory

mowed the hay, fed the swine and mutton
                            through belts and chutes

cleared the blue oak and the chaparral
                                          chipping the wood for mulch

back-filled the marshes
                            replacing buckbean with dent corn

removed the unsavory foliage of quag
                                          made the land into a production
made it produce, pistoned and oiled
                            and forged against its own nature
and—with enterprise—built silos
                                          stockyards, warehouses, processing plants
abattoirs, walk-in refrigerators, canneries, mills
                                                      & centers of distribution

it meant something—in spite of machinery—
                            to say the country, to say apple season
though what it meant was a kind of nose-thumbing
                                                      and a kind of sweetness
                            as when one says how quaint
knowing that a refined listener understands the doubleness

Read more »

Saturday, June 14, 2008

fort, dreiser, metaphor


According to Jim Steinmeyer’s perceptive and entertaining new biography, “Charles Fort: The Man Who Invented the Supernatural” (Tarcher/Penguin: 332 pp., $24.95), some of the 25,000 metaphors found their way into his tenement-based pulp fiction and “The Outcast Manufacturers” (1909), his only novel. A sailor’s forehead has “[e]xactly five wrinkles in it, as if it had been pressing upon banjo strings.” One woman possesses a “nose like a tiny model of a subway entrance; nostrils almost perpendicular and shaped like the soles of tiny feet.” Steinmeyer writes that Fort would often tinker with the metaphor as it was unfolding, as if “continually whispering into the reader’s ear”: “[S]he flushed a little — flushes like goldfish in an aquarium, fluttering in her globe-like, colorless face — goldfish in a globe of milk, perhaps — or goldfish struggling in a globe of whitewash, have it.”

Of these metaphors, Dreiser wrote: “It was amazing, the force or beauty of these sentences.” But Fort would soon burn this priceless hoard, as he turned from fiction to a new sort of writing, requiring the assembly of a different kind of hoard.

more from The LA Times here.



Simon Louvish’s elegantly exhaustive study of Cecil Blount DeMille (1881-1959) carries the respectful if not necessarily reverent title “Cecil B. DeMille: A Life in Art.” It examines that life largely though not entirely through his 70 movies, completed during a 42-year career, from “The Squaw Man” in 1914 to “The Ten Commandments” in 1956, itself a remake of his own 1923 “Ten Commandments.” “The Squaw Man” was also remade as an early talkie in 1931, during a period in which all of Hollywood, and DeMille especially, was struggling, often pathetically and disastrously, to make sense and cinema out of the newfangled dimension of talk.

As it happens, I grew up listening to DeMille’s mellifluous voice on the weekly “Lux Radio Theater” as he introduced the stories of recent Hollywood movies, most often with the original stars reading their lines from scripts. Unlike Louvish, however, I was never an admirer of DeMille’s biblical epics, which, as Louvish himself acknowledges, are DeMille’s chief claims to fame, though his only film to win an Oscar for best picture was his 1952 circus extravaganza, “The Greatest Show on Earth.” And yet for all his remarkable ability to outlast and in some instances outlive much greater contemporaries — including D. W. Griffith, Ernst Lubitsch, King Vidor, John Ford, Howard Hawks and the ill-starred Erich von Stroheim and Josef von Sternberg — he remains something of a joke among sophisticated cinéastes, largely because of his tin ear for dialogue. (One famous howler is from “The Ten Commandments,” in which Yul Brynner’s Egyptian pharaoh says of Charlton Heston’s Hebraic Moses, “His God IS God!”)

more from the NY Times Book Review here.

Rediscovering Eero Saarinen

Witold Rybczynski in Slate:8_twa

Much to the critics’ chagrin, Saarinen’s work did not follow a straight-line trajectory. Unlike his contemporaries—Philip Johnson, Paul Rudolph, Minoru Yamasaki, and Edward Durell Stone—he did not stick to one style but went off in different, seemingly unrelated directions. At the same time as he was building Morse and Stiles, for example, he was also designing the most fanciful building of the 1950s, the TWA Terminal in New York’s Idlewild (now JFK) Airport. Responding to his client’s demand to convey “the spirit of flight,” Saarinen, who had earlier designed a thin concrete vault at MIT, combined concrete shell construction with his sculptural training. He said that he always wanted his architecture to make people feel things, and nowhere is this truer than at TWA, which was a throwback to the German Expressionist architecture of Erich Mendelsohn. Another heresy, since modern architects were supposed to look forward, not backward. We now can see that TWA also anticipated the late-20th-century Expressionism of architects such as Greg Lynn and Zaha Hadid.

And So What If It’s Not Even Wrong

Jon Cartwright over at the Physics World blog:

“So what would you do if string theory is wrong?” asks string theorist Moataz Emam of Clark University, US, in a paper posted on arXiv yesterday. It’s obvious, you might think. String theorists would briefly mourn the 40 years of misspent speculation and leave furtively through the back door, while anti-string theorists would celebrate in light of their vindication.

Not so, says Emam — string theory will continue to prosper, and might even become its own discipline independent of physics and mathematics.

Oddly, the reason Emam gives for this prediction is precisely the same reason why many physicists despise string theory. For example, in reducing the 10 dimensions of string theory to our familiar four, string theorists have to fashion a “landscape” of at least 10500 solutions. Emam says that such a huge number of solutions — of which only one exists for our universe — may make string theory unattractive, but in studying them physicists are gaining “deep insights into how a physical theory generally works”:

Richard Wright: black first

James_campbell_tls_350767a James Campbell in the TLS:

Critics have wondered what to do about Wright ever since his death, when Baldwin published a devastating memorial article under the title “Alas, Poor Richard”, one of the most influential obituaries in post-war literary history. The pertinent passage concerns Wright’s ignorance of the civil rights movement, which had gained momentum over the course of the 1950s. The “young Negroes” who crossed the ocean and beat a path to his door, Baldwin wrote, “discovered that Richard did not really know much about the present dimensions and complexity of the Negro problem” in the United States, “and, profoundly, did not want to know”. More than four decades on from that, Wright’s reputation remains largely the product of two books written before he reached the age of forty (three, if you include the short stories contained in Uncle Tom’s Children, 1938), in which he drew unique pictures of black life during the segregation era: in the Deep South, where his “days and nights were one long, quiet, continuously contained dream of terror, tension and anxiety”; and later in the Chicago slums. (Wright moved north with his mother and aunt in the late 1920s.) Between 1953 and 1960, he published roughly a book a year, and wrote a good deal more besides, but little of it was welcomed by the literary press or the reading public, or by his agent and editor, in the way of Native Son and Black Boy.

A variety of motives has been put forward to explain the neglect – the inevitable imputation of racism, the suggestion of a too-shocking subject matter, the glimpse of a conspirator at every neighbouring café table – but the likeliest explanation is the usual mundane one. Wright was never much of a stylist, and when his subject matter ceases to be topical, there are few reasons for the disinterested reader to open his books.

The Place of Sex in Indian Civilization

William Dalrymple in the NYRB:

If poets have long been engaging with the erotic in Ancient India, historians of South Asia have until recently tended to avoid confronting this elephant in the classical Indian living room. The first scholarly edition of the Kamasutra appeared only in 2002. This was the work of the great American Sanskritist Wendy Doniger, and it brought into print a serious study of a book that had for a long time been found only on top shelves, in dubious and grubby illustrated editions.

Doniger’s Kamasutra proved to be a revelation, showing that the text was central to understanding classical Indian society. The Kamasutra was not just about acrobatic sexual positions as many had assumed; it was instead a sophisticated guide for the courtly paramour to the maze of ancient Indian social relationships and, as Doniger put it,

the art of living—about finding a partner, maintaining power in a marriage, committing adultery, living as or with a courtesan, using drugs—and also about the positions in sexual intercourse.

Indeed, on the subject of sexual technique the book recognizes the limitations of textbooks: “slapping and moaning are no matter for lists or tables of contents,” we are told. “For when the wheel of sexual ecstasy is in full motion, there is no textbook at all, and no order.”

Compiled from a variety of previous manuals by an old roué named Vatsyayana, around the third century AD, and probably in Pataliputra, the great city on the Ganges near modern Patna, the Kamasutra was aimed at an urbane and cosmopolitan courtly class, and was intended as a guide to the life, sensibility, moods, and experience of pleasure, “not merely sexual,” writes Doniger, “but more broadly sensual—music, good food, perfume, and so forth.”

The Long Life of the Frontier Mullah

Basharat Peer in The Nation:

Book_2 Frontier of Faith by Sana Haroon

Late one evening in March, I sat in Haandi, a Pakistani restaurant on Lexington Avenue, and watched the swearing in of the new Prime Minister of Pakistan, Yousaf Raza Gillani. Gillani is a loyalist of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), which since its founding in 1967 has been led by the Bhutto clan. The general election in February was held seven weeks after the PPP’s chair, Benazir Bhutto, was killed by a bomb blast and a bullet to the head at an election rally in Rawalpindi, and in an acrid climate of grief, anger and bewilderment, the PPP ended up trouncing President Pervez Musharraf’s Pakistan Muslim League. A television suspended from the ceiling at Haandi showed Pakistan’s new prime minister discussing the restoration of democratic institutions and then announcing the release of the sixty-two judges, including Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, who had been living under house arrest since President Musharraf imposed martial law on November 3. Soon after Gillani’s announcement, the television showed Chaudhry on the balcony of his house in Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital. Crowds of supporters danced about and showered him with rose petals.

The news anchor then claimed a scoop, as one of the network’s reporters thrust a cellphone into Chaudhry’s face. The chief justice spoke into it, and his words reached me and the dozen or so Pakistani cabdrivers staring at a television in a restaurant in New York City. “There is still a long struggle ahead of us,” he said. Three men at my table broke into a spontaneous discussion. The newscast’s images of reform and hope reminded them of their country’s failures: a feudal social system, the rule of the landlords, nearly four decades of military rule, widespread inequality. These were men who worked twelve-hour shifts in their rented cabs and had for years lived apart from their families in Pakistan, to whom they regularly remitted their meager savings. One man talked about the tragedy of the partition of British India into India and Pakistan. Another compared prepartition India to a neighborhood: the country had been a cluster of houses owned by people who were related, often sons of the same father. They argued and fought, but at the end of the day they lived together as part of a larger whole. “We didn’t even maintain the house we got,” the man said.

The rooms long thought to be Pakistan’s messiest are the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), which hug 500 miles of the country’s mountainous and dangerous border with Afghanistan.

More here.

The Late Dictator

From The New York Times:

Hanif Mohammed Hanif’s exuberant first novel, “A Case of Exploding Mangoes,” extends this tradition of assassination fiction and shifts it east to Pakistan. The death at its center is that of Gen. Muhammad Zia ul-Haq, president of Pakistan from 1978 to 1988. Zia’s fate is one of Pakistan’s two great political mysteries, the other being the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. The established facts concerning his death are as follows. That on Aug. 17, 1988, after inspecting a tank demonstration in the Punjab, Zia boarded a C-130 Hercules — “Pak One” — to fly back to Islamabad. That he was accompanied on board by a number of his senior army generals, as well as by the American ambassador to Pakistan, Arnold Raphel. That shortly before takeoff, crates of mangoes were loaded onto the plane. That shortly after takeoff, the C-130 began to fly erratically, alternately dipping and rising: a flight phenomenon known to aviation experts as “phugoid.” And that the plane crashed soon after, killing all on board.

Theories as to the cause of the crash have ranged from simple machine failure to the idea that one of the mango crates contained a canister of nerve gas, which, when dispersed by the plane’s air-conditioning system, killed both pilots. Among those many groups or persons suspected of being behind the assassination — if assassination it was — are the C.I.A, Mossad, the K.G.B., Murtaza Bhutto (Benazir’s brother) and Indian secret agents, as well as one of Zia’s right-hand men, Gen. Aslam Beg.

More here.

Friday, June 13, 2008