Infinity and Before!

15 November 2008

The Profound Possibilities of Impersonal Beauty

Thank you my friend, by Janusz I, with Creative Commons licenceBeauty, we so often say, is in the eye of the beholder. It’s personal, a matter of perception. But what of those things we can’t exactly perceive? Consider first the limits of personal beauty.  The old Shakespearian saw still holds true in our thinking: “that which we call a rose/ By any other name would smell as sweet”. We tend, far too often, to limit our conceptions of beauty to the finite and knowable. If we can imagine its essence, name it in one way or another, limit it and presume that we can know it, then an object can be beautiful to the highest degree, or awesome when we are less inclined to emphasise adoration over other, less comforting, impressions. And we are so very often inclined to extend these limits to the inspiring infinite.

If we believe in the Christian God, who should be a vast and mysterious presence that transcends our infinitesimally bounded experience, we point out his characteristics. Compassion, vengeance, love, even omnipresence – all these rubrics define as purposefully as they limit. And things unusual, notions grand beyond our reckoning, become little more than tawdry, usual, restrained.

This unfortunate turn of perceptions often applies to our understanding of what other people have made possible, even when we don’t really understand their logic and would struggle to follow their words. I’ve been reading a great deal about Albert Einstein lately, largely to understand the background of a little-mentioned episode in his life. I’ll discuss more of that in a post soon, but for the moment I want to consider reactions to what he achieved.

For most of us Einstein is the quintessential genius, an emblem of the possibilities explored during the Twentieth Century that we’ve dragged lovingly into the Twenty-First. Amongst other things he gave us the equation E = MC2, using different notation but still meaning that an object’s energy is equal to its mass multiplied by the speed of light squared. This boils down to the observation that a small mass can hold nearly unlimited energy.

Welcome to the nuclear age.

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The Teacher as Token

12 November 2008

A Lesson in Communication

Sms, by Pixel Action, with Creative Commons licenceCommunication is an abstraction, regardless of how we look at it. Writing, reading, talking, listening, waving, frowning – these are all immediate actions that convey information. Communication is but the rubric under which we usually group them, the point at which hindsight dwells on their similarities rather than their differences, considers the sum rather than the parts. A teacher, for instance, communicates in a number of different ways: pointing, talking, pausing, walking. Together these actions constitute not only the lesson in action, but also the way in which meaning shifts from one mind to many. There is a certain symbolism in them all and the teacher becomes a token, at once surface alone and substance entirely, imposing order and challenging the structure of existing thought.

Having spent time lecturing honours students about academic writing at a Hong Kong university recently I’ve had time to ponder the multiple meanings of the token as a concept rather than an artefact. At the most obvious level a token is a souvenir, a small reminder of something. In that sense I’ve been nothing but a presence, reminding 70 students that their classes are compulsory, that something must be said between the start and finish of each lesson. This is the teacher’s role as an authority figure, and with students in their third year as undergraduates the figure is a little more obvious than the authority.

We begin, then, with a sort of restrained communication, which is really closer to tokenism.

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The Contours of Language

29 September 2008

On Possibilities and their Problems

No language is purely descriptive. Each shapes our world in its own manner because it allows us to understand life in a particular way, defined not only by personal inclinations but also by vocabulary, grammar and syntax, those things that tell us we can say this but not that. All languages generate limits that we push against, borders that we find difficult to cross. We might think that all things exist before words, for instance, but some don’t and that holds us back.

Consider the phrase ‘premenstrual syndrome’. Before it became accepted terminology women suffered isolated symptoms, often misunderstood or denigrated. Afterwards it allowed an understanding of the complex ways in which the menstrual cycle affected the rest of the body, including the brain. In its generality it described anew, it created something that could be held against existing descriptions to prove them wrong at worst or inadequate at best.

Where once lay untroubled plains of life now rose hills and crags, a difficult geography that challenged just as much as it confirmed.

Language has that sort of capacity to both exceed and disturb only because people are willing to look beyond what is and consider what might be. Some brave souls travel outside the general conversation, turn aside from the conventions of words piled against each other, and then return with new ideas that become new words that describe age-old things. Discontent is their condition, and we’re lucky that they’re so troubled.

But in our more common grappling with language we open new territory far less often. We’re more likely to stumble over words, weigh ourselves down with presumptions rather than possibilities. Much has been said about the capacity of English speakers to shift rather effortlessly from ‘ought’ or ‘should’ to ‘must’, from describing an action that is morally or ethically correct to insisting that the same action is necessary. That we must do it, now. Instead of exploring new terrain we simply fall back on a familiar landscape of old ideas and comfortable words.

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Defining the Local

31 August 2008

On Being and (Not) Belonging

The act, or at least the assumption, of being local is a defining element of human identity. Unlike other animals, we characterise ourselves not so much by where we are, but by where we might belong. Being local is about limits instead or exceptions, probabilities instead of possibilities. I grew up on the coast of Queensland in northern Australia, but the locals never forgave me for the audacity of birth in Victoria on the southern coast. My two youngest children were born in Hong Kong, but can never hold Hong Kong passports. One day they may become permanent residents, but never citizens – the Basic Law limits that privilege to ethnic Chinese.

You know, the locals.

Why is it so hard to fit in, to become a local? Language and culture play their roles, but something else is at work. We’re often told that globalisation is redefining the distinctions between the common and the specific, and we even have ludicrous terms like glocal to delineate the interactions between global pressures and local resistance. Seen as a system of competing influences, the world becomes a series of sites at which universal values are reshaped and re-prioritised deep down in the dirt around the grass roots. But beyond that rhetoric of change, insularity is still the norm.

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You Will Believe!

17 August 2008

The Economist on Marx

Every publication needs a conceit, a sort of literary attitude that extends across issues, separates believers from the heathen, occasionally flows into a full article, but more often manifests in a well-placed quip or a scornful remark. Wired has its peccadillo for predication, and the New Yorker its disdain for the drudge of popular culture. The Economist is a little more sophisticated, but no less enthusiastic in its construction of a bête noire. It has Karl Marx, and it just won’t let go.

Consider last week’s issue of the magazine. Buried in a leader on the failed intellectual “heirs” of Russian literary dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the grand old rag of English conservatism slipped in a warning that “ideas should not be suppressed, but nor should they be worshipped”. In the context of the article that wasn’t a particularly significant statement – the problem of co-opted intellectuals, of ideas held rigidly in place and manipulated by the state, was its central theme. So why bother to distil the argument into a single sentence at all? Because it set up a strained comparison of Solzhenitsyn’s fictionalised condemnation of Soviet excess, the Gulag Archipelago, and the Communist Manifesto.

Of course Karl Marx and Manifesto co-author Friedrich Engels weren’t named in the article, all the better to maintain Solzhenitsyn’s status as a “great man” and underscore his well-known opposition to Marxism. But more than a simple genre-hop in pursuit of easy political points, the comparison pointed back to a long-term illogic in the magazine’s stance towards communism in general and Marx in particular. An illogic, I should add, that is very likely to comfort its core of conservative readers.

The article mentioned that “in 1848 two well-meaning intellectuals published another powerful indictment of a system, and their ‘Communist Manifesto’ went on to enslave half of mankind”. In the broadest possible sense, taking the words not at their literal meaning but as a loose pointer towards a series of documented historical events, you could say – on the balance of probabilities – that this is an adequate observation.

But if you think in more precise terms, the statement is clearly illogical. A book enslaved half of mankind? No, a political system did, or might have done depending on how you define ‘enslave’. And when you consider how that political system – wherever it was localised after the Bolshevik revolution – started at precisely the point at which the Communist Manifesto ended, with the dissolution of the old state, then the argument is little more than wasted ink.

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On Freedom

6 August 2008

For Yayah and Beth

What is freedom? That seems like an easy question, but it can never be answered without equivocation, the implication of limits to protect some-one or something else. We tend to think of freedom as an absolute, as unconditional liberty, but who would be prepared to grant free choice over life and death, the freedom to harm as well as to help? At the dawn of the Philippine Revolution against Spain a new word entered the Tagalog language to capture this ambivalence, to speak both of liberty and obligation. The word was kalayaan, which implied cooperation for liberty and its rewards.

Freedom is a fundamentally social concept, with tension between the individual and the group, or between the group and yet other groups, always at its core. By their very nature groups contain, condense and consolidate. In doing so they force their members to relinquish something, even those members who have the greatest influence over others. A group needs a focus at best, or an alibi at worst, and not all members are prepared to accept that under all circumstances. Ultimately, some members attempt to negate the compulsion to belong, which is as often born of necessity in one form or another as it is of coercion.

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Tread Warily, Fair Traveller

23 July 2008

A Socioeconomic Journey into Vengeance

The world of economics is a curious domain, beset by mathematics, often at odds with the reason of everyday life, but enormously informative should you traverse its difficult terrain. I’m reminded, each time I enter, of J.R.R. Tolkien’s perilous land, the enchanting realm of Faerie wherein lie “pitfalls for the unwary and dungeons for the overbold”. But I doubt another place could offer the governance of pirate crews and longevity of nuclear deterrence both to illuminate the human condition, still speaking of interest rates and supply matched mostly to demand.

Economics has taught me that much of what we assume is in no way actual, and that logic other people can’t understand is no less logical for it. So now I venture there again, to look around, to shout BEWARE! and to marvel at the concepts that lie in wait within.

The National Bureau of Economic Research in the US recently uploaded Naci Mocan’s working paper on vengeance. Yes, you read that correctly – vengeance. Those of you who, like me, have spent a while in and around academia might be tempted to think first of departmental politics, but not this time.

Mocan’s paper is a very carefully argued study of statistics drawn from the International Crime Victim Survey conducted by the United Nations, covering the responses of 89,000 interviewees from 53 countries. To cut a very long story short, it’s about what is likely to happen if your colour television is stolen that the perpetrator caught. How are you likely to feel?

That doesn’t seem entirely within the realm of economics, but it is given that Mocan finds different attitudes prevalent in different places, and according to different income levels, including per capita levels for the whole country. People from lower socioeconomic groups, and in poorer countries, will want to send that TV-stealing thief to jail for longer, and sometimes even for life.

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