A Tale of Interesting Times

25 October 2008

Nick Paumgarten’s Literature of Crisis

These are interesting times, as the Chinese would say, and all the more worrying for it. Last week I spoke to a man who has built a reputation as a long-term value investor in Hong Kong’s stock market. “The market’s crazy”, he said, “I’m going to Shanghai for a while”. You just can’t argue with that. But there are other ways of perceiving the situation, and we can’t all afford a cross-country jaunt for the clarity of distance. So I’ve turned not to the dry financial press, with its hyperbole and gloom, but to a writer who knows how to weave a story a little better than well. Sometimes the technique is almost important as the telling, especially in describing what would otherwise be unknowable, or at the very least arcane.

Nick Paumgarten seizes on the role of credit in the current travails, writing in last week’s New Yorker. His brief argument is not in the least difficult to follow – interbank lending has dried up and all else has followed. “Hoarding”, he writes poetically, “is panic’s quiet twin”.  That might seem a little too rhetorical, but allusion can often trump analysis in drawing the bigger picture. First the banks panic, and then they – and everyone else – start to hoard. It follows that when someone mentions recession, no-one really wants to spend. Everyone’s thinking about whether they can keep their jobs, whether their savings will last if they don’t. So things get worse, and hoarding really does become panic’s quiet twin.

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So You Think You Want a Revolution?

30 August 2008

The Misbehaving Middle Classes and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis

Revolutions are rarely what they seem. Forget streets awash with slogan cant and fists clenched in undiminished rage. Ignore pundits who proclaim the death of hope as wayward regimes slide beneath the waterlines of hubris. Revolutions move, change, retreat and advance. They’re about people doing things beyond the norm, when the status quo no longer holds sway. Revolutionaries might well be ideologues, or keepers of the faith, but within the chaos of change they haven’t really got a clue. Revolutions fail because all things fail – that’s preordained – but their dynamics catch everyone by surprise. Take the time to read Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and you’ll ask yourself not so much what you’ve learned about the act of revolution, but how much you’ve cast aside.

What does Satrapi’s graphic novel, re-released to accompany the film of the same name, tell us about this weighty matter, this thing we call revolution? How can a mere comic book speak of concerns more significant than teenage angst and passing fancy? By combining two earlier volumes of black and white simplicity, by illustrating with an economy of effort that balances a density of dialogue, it gives us tumultuous change through the eyes of a girl who grows into a woman, and grows apart. By casting herself as the main character Satrapi tells us that revolutions are not simply events, they’re intensely personal. And by their very nature they’re built on middle class misbehaviour, with the bourgeoisie struggling to retrieve a relinquished past that they might or might not really understand.

At one level a simple account of teenage rebellion, along with premonition and consequence, Satrapi’s narrative also slaloms across her more impressive family history. Her grandfather was a prince of Persia, her uncle imprisoned by the second Shah of Iran and again after the Shah fled, she a teenage brat packed off to Austria after radical Islamists captured the post-revolution state and made of it a doctrinaire training camp for martyrs in the war against Iraq. To mention, without that sort of reflection, that her parents were committed Marxists who lost their rebellion and chose quietude over death would have been to offer a sanitised middle-class soap opera. Instead we are given pathos in the repudiation of action to ensure that young Marji might know freedom elsewhere.

Even after the girl slinks back from Austria, a whiney, unlikeable adolescent stumbling into adulthood, it is to her parents’ home she returns. And it is they who refrain from condemning the calamity of her marriage, her many mistakes. When Marji finally leaves for France as an adult her personal revolution is complete. She has returned to her origin and gained the freedom to move out again. All the while her parents, and her almost ever-present grandmother, counterbalance the changefulness of the Iranian regime. They offer freedom and growth, they give their daughter the chance to learn for herself, while the regime constrains, deforms, murders.

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Out of Time

13 July 2008

On Hadrian and Being Harried

History is battleground of ideas, a terrain laid with hidden dangers and the sad remains of methods passed beyond the pale. You might imagine – or even remember – the dull drag of history across the page, but the dates and happenings are never just there, ready formed, waiting to be relayed. Historians take positions, form perspectives, dash in, out and around conventions that the reader may never recognise and would rarely care to know. History is, after all, a profession for some and carries with it the arcana of half forgotten lore.

But a feature of history on the run – magazine articles, television interviews, newspaper columns – is that the traces of skirmishes past, of major shifts in thinking, just barely show through, if at all. Take Robin Lane Fox’s account of the Roman emperor Hadrian in yesterday’s Financial Times, for instance. It’s a battle fought against the shadows of opponents long since gone.

Lane Fox is a long established historian at New College in Oxford and knows well the intricacies of ‘classical’ Europe. He has written with authority on Alexander the Great and published his Classical World: An Epic History from Homer to Hadrian to a very favourable reception. Spend even a moment reading his Financial Times article and you’ll see why – his style is fluid but clear, his logic straightforward and his capacity to engage the reader in considering the relationship between past and present exemplary in a field that has elevated waffle to a high art.

Writing to coincide with the opening of an exhibition on Hadrian at the British Museum, Lane Fox argues that ancient history “is both powerfully near to and far from our own world”. His case for Hadrian as “a thoroughly modern emperor” is not entirely personal – it flits agilely between the emperor’s enthusiasm for hunting to address the recent hunting ban in England, his love of a younger man, which Lane Fox reminds us was by no means the same as contemporary homosexuality, an invasion of what is now Iraq and the always troublesome problem of Jerusalem. Hadrian solved the problem brutally, by levelling the city and forbidding Jews entry to the site.

There’s pause for reflection in that for us all.

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Wrong Arm of the Law

14 June 2008

Remedial Reading for a Would-Be Sleuth

Cycle (TC 5), by Irena Kittenclaw, with Creative Commons licenceJustice is a complex issue, covered over with perceptions and shot through with assumptions – many of which are surprisingly wide of the mark. In the move from being just, or morally right, to dispensing justice, an elite intercedes and begins to make decisions on what is usual, what is fair, what seems out of place. Like any apparatus of power, the legal system is a step aside from society, with its own, often fragmented, understanding of how people live, prosper, decline and die.

The new micoreviews in the toolbar at the right are part of my reaction to that disassociation – the hesitant beginning of an inquiry into what makes justice just, and the ways in which it can err.

A crucial element in that inquiry is the disappearance and death of Vicky Flores here in Discovery Bay, Hong Kong. The police inquiry into the case is currently plodding towards a conclusion that the dead woman was irrational, prone to dabbling in the occult and by implication – though never explicitly stated – a likely candidate for suicide. But gathering together the scant documentary evidence of police conduct so far, and keeping in mind what they have said publicly, the investigation seems strangely curtailed. Why focus on the possible activities of a dead woman when her home and work life (she was a live-in domestic helper) are by and large ignored?

Detective_Tales_Dec48, by PopKulture, with Creative Commons licenceWith that sort of oversight in mind I began reading about police investigation and the English legal system, which is the basis for Hong Kong’s own. And where else to turn for a soft introduction but to that perennial super-sleuth Sherlock Holmes?

That decision was a little less whimsical than it might seem, because E. J. Wagner has written an eminently readable history of forensic investigation using Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous character as a foil. Wagner’s Science of Sherlock Holmes picks out episodes in Conan Doyle’s tales of mystery to trace the history of forensic investigation as it emerged in Victorian England, all the while highlighting the benefits and limits of precision detective work.

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Needless to Say

12 June 2008

Eviatar Zerubavel on Silence and Denial

The Elephant in the Room, by Eviatar ZerubavelWords are powerful, words change lives. Spoken or unspoken they shape and focus perceptions, permit or deny action. Even the absence of talk isn’t devoid of words. In our least articulate moments silence speaks to us, urging thought in a specific direction, demanding that we describe life in certain ways when the conversation starts again. Eviatar Zerubavel knows this, and pries open silence to reveal the babble of repression in things best left unsaid.

Zerubavel’s Elephant in the Room: Silence and Denial in Everyday Life is a brief but utterly perceptive guide to the undiscussable. In only eighty seven pages of argument it outlines the social collusion that culminates in conspiracies of silence, tracking through examples ranging from survivor silence about the holocaust to the unwillingness of families harbouring alcoholics to speak their self-imposed sentence.

Central to Zerubavel’s thesis is the proverbial elephant in the room, that overwhelming presence of denial we confirm with an absence of speech. The point is not that no-one knows about an untoward event or a pervasive social ill. Rather, they fail to acknowledge the obvious, acting as though it doesn’t exist, and through their actions might yet not exist. By failing to speak we skirt the awkward truths grown abundantly throughout life, hoping irrationally that the family, the group or the society will benefit from our constant evasion.

Shame, by Joe Gatling, with Creative Commons licenceAnd this is not a haphazard process. Zerubavel shows that we’re “socialized to focus only on certain parts or aspects of situations while systematically ignoring others”. We don’t ignore by chance or inclination, but through social pressures that turn us one way and then another, unspoken censures that ensure achievement, satisfaction and happiness are not forthcoming for those who greet any situation with a cry of ‘this is wrong! Things must change!’

So it should be obvious that conspiracies of silence are counterproductive – they cripple lives, and through that harsh, grinding process they retard society. Look around you and ask, what is obvious but unspoken? What proverbial elephant passes by, too close for comfort but not close enough for shouts of alarm? And, more to the point, who actively denies the elephant when it’s exposed?

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When the Message Matters

20 May 2008

On the Importance of Communicating Importance

365.016, by r5d4, with Creative Commons licence‘Speak truth to power’ is an often cited phrase, a catch-cry for change in a world that flaunts stability. But even if we have a message, and it’s a message that matters, how do we speak its truth? What methods should we use to argue for social justice when every government, every authority, has heard it all before? Unfortunate as it sounds, the direct approach isn’t always the most successful. So for this week’s microreviews, now in the sidebar at the right, I’ve drawn together three volumes that describe unusual ways of delivering important messages. And it’s fitting that they do so to varying degrees of success.

Over 40 years ago Marshall McLuhan pronounced that “the medium is the message”, that how we communicate shapes what we say. He was particularly keen to show that each medium, whether it be the alphabet itself or a television programme, has limits and possibilities that affect both the speaker and the listener, the writer and the reader, the actor and the audience. Take a message, shift it from a movie theatre to the radio, and the message changes in the process.

But what if we take one message out of its original medium, maybe not even legally, shove it into another, and mix in a few more ways of tailoring it to a new audience? We can now control messages in new ways because they are not so tightly strapped to any particular method of communicating. Yet we have to become a little unlawful, we have to be prepared to share information in uncertain conditions – no-one really owns the message any more. That’s what Matt Mason calls “the pirate’s dilemma”, and he wants to unleash the buccaneer in us all.

Mason’s Pirate’s Dilemma, the subject of my first microreview this week, focuses on what you might call ‘remix culture’. It captures the ways in which ideas can shift between youth culture – in movements such as punk, hip-hop, graffiti tagging and file sharing – and commercial culture, changing in outline, skipping across media, but retaining and even strengthening their messages.

New, by karroozi, with Creative Commons licenceThe result, he writes, is a world in change, where – to give an intriguing example – disco’s original message of tolerance and the open society, born in the Loft with David Mancuso, has delivered us the open source movement. In computer operating systems such as Linux, Internet browsers like Firefox, and many other forms of software, the exchange of once proprietary information is now leading towards greater possibilities for collaboration in education, library work, and even the concept of intellectual property itself.

Bill Gates, you would image, never learned to boogie.

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Not the Usual Fare

15 April 2008

On the Value of Exceeding Expectations

Direction, by 23am.com, with Creative Commons licenceExpectations are what ground us in life. They give us instructions about the things we’re likely to value, or fear, to treat with indifference or just plain disregard. But they also lead us away from perspectives that require a little too much thought in peculiar directions. I mentioned this briefly when I wrote about cartoonist Scott Adams recently – he has always succeeded against other people’s expectations. But what about ideas? Are we too dismissive of ideas that don’t fit our expectations?

That’s what I had in mind when I set out to write a new batch of microreviews this week. The books highlighted in the sidebar aren’t the usual fare. They shift from the surprising delights of comics to the far more dubious social mechanics of drug-dealing gangs, all the while taunting, asking whether you, leisurely reader, will buy their big ideas. And whether I appreciate them or not, that’s a valuable asset in itself.

Probably the most disappointing book of the batch is Sudhir Venkatesh’s Gang Leader for a Day. An account of Venkatesh’s unusual approach to sociology forms most of one chapter in Seven Levitt and Stephen Dubner’s Freakonomics. But where that version cuts to the bone and reveals society writ small in the economics of drug dealing, Venkatesh’s book wallows in a sort of tough but scared sociologist mode.

Aghast in Green, by Irish Typepad, with Creative Commons licenceAnd there’s also a sort of repulsiveness about the subject that makes it at once fascinating and almost loathsome. Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution describes the effort as very interesting but “somewhat evil, if I may call upon that old-fashioned concept”. Interesting because it offers a unique view of how close gang dynamics are to more acceptable social norms, but evil because Venkatesh spent years encouraging and supporting the vicious gang leader JT. As a narrative the book fails, but as a surprising affront to middle-class values I truly hope it lingers on the best-seller lists.

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Monkey See, Monkey Do

7 April 2008

Throwing Poo at Andrew Keen’s Cult of the Amateur

Three Wise Monkeys, by Leo Reynolds, with Creative Commons licenceThe world needs a stirrer, someone willing to dislodge existing patterns of thought. Think Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein or Marie Curie. They all worked carefully against the orthodoxies of their times. Andrew Keen tries to ape that sort of iconoclasm in his Cult of the Amateur, but just makes a monkey of himself.

Or does he? Monkeys are far more clever than he seems to think.

First, let’s consider what Keen has to say. He takes issue with Web 2.0, the participatory culture of social networking sites like Facebook, the carnivale of YouTube, the black economy of file sharing and the gabble of blogs. He argues that amateurs are ruining the Internet by dumbing it down, like the infinite monkeys who might – given enough time and typewriters – tap out a masterpiece. In the meantime they’ll just type rubbish and abuse copyright, encouraged by a cabal of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, particularly Tim O’Reilly.

Guard Statue, by Jennoit, with Creative Commons licenceThe result, Keen claims, is hard times for the newspaper and music industries, clearly without any understanding of the creative destruction that helps industries grow through innovation. He also frets at the loss of control by “gatekeepers” – editors, journalists, authors and the like, those traditional arbiters of information content. Or you might think of them as bereft zoo keepers now that the monkeys have escaped the enclosure.

Keen initially reserves his monkey comment for bloggers, who he thinks never read – at least books like his to go by comments reported in the Guardian. So I imagine empty shelves around me and – behold! – I feel a tail growing. I want to take Keen on his word, and see how a monkey could suggest that today’s Internet is actually improving the world.

Now where’s my banana.

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Being Led Astray

6 April 2008

On e-Books and Eugenics

Shock, by Meredith_Farmer, with Creative Commons licence The Internet is a bit like the sea here in the Pearl River Delta: sometimes it washes up curios, little gems of information, but at others it vomits grotesquries upon us. Clicking through the Clustr map in the sidebar on the right today to check visitor locations I noticed an advertisement for a free online book. Having spent time this week watching someone grow increasingly frustrated with actually trying to use Google Adwords, and given my previously mentioned interest in e-books and copyright-free sharing, I decided to take a look.

The link led to the dedicated website for a pamphlet by a retired professor of Russian literature, John Glad. Not entirely interesting you might think. A quick search of Amazon will produce a list of volumes edited and translated by the good professor. He apparently gained a little notoriety in the 1980s by predicting the collapse of the Soviet Union. But his is hardly a household name. Wikipedia has a posted a notice on his biography stating that it “may not meet the general notability guideline” for such entries.

figurines, creator unknown, dowloaded from whatwemaybe.orgSo what’s the fuss? Glad’s pamphlet is entitled “Future Human Evolution: Eugenics in the Twenty-First Century” and the site’s only graphic is a play on the famous monkey to man illustration that often accompanies latter day editions of Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species. Except this is of what appears to be South Americans in a line, the last sitting on a Donkey. Mexicans waiting in a US immigration queue?

Maybe not, but it’s suggestive and pulled me away from what I was already writing about. Eugenics, put mildly, is the selective breeding of humans. Like cattle. The elimination of the weakest genetic strains, to be a little more precise. It might be possible to do that humanely, but who decides? And what ethical right does anyone have to make the choice? Eugenics reached its ‘scientific’ zenith during the First World War and its horrific climax with the Nazis in the Second World War.

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Who Are You?

2 April 2008

The Difficulty of Identity

Mystery Guy, by walmink, with Creative Commons licenceOne of the more perplexing questions we deal with is that of identity. Sure, you know who you are – or a least you think so. But there are many different ways of describing yourself, and probably even more ways in which people can see you. Identity is never really certain; it shifts, changes, falls apart and re-forms in unusual ways. So after banishing the last set of microreviews to the dedicated page, I pulled together a new set of books that could say something about the ever-present difficulty of identity.

The latest reviews are now in the sidebar at the right. They cover comics, cartoonists, geopolitics and representation, already a mismatch of ideas. And that’s the thing about identity – we think of it as a defining element in our lives when it’s often elusive. How do we know who we are? From Sigmund Freud via Jacques Lacan, psychiatrists have come to understand the formation of identity as a process in which the small child observes in itself those things that are variations in others. Cultural theorists put it this way: the Other imperfectly reflects the Self.

M, by FredArmitage, with Creative Commons licenceForgive the capitalisation, it merely indicates that these are emphatic categories – just like the West and the East, which was much the point of Edward Said’s groundbreaking Orientalism. Said detailed how those who we might now call ‘Western’ scholars built a system of knowledge around an image of the benighted ‘East’ that they essentially wanted to see, that confirmed their own conceptions of an enlightened West.

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The Sneaky Art of Storytelling

28 March 2008

John Irving, J.G. Ballard and the Best of Genre Fiction

farenheit burn, by mrtwism, with Creative Commons licenceStories rarely do what we expect of them. Somewhere, in between the words, fiction becomes a little too much, detail doesn’t seem quite right. Few people ever read a story and think yes, that’s exactly how it should be, or was, or will be. And that’s surprising, because we search for structure, for shape and form, even as we lead unstructured lives.

Pity the poor storyteller. John Irving got in right in his autobiographical Trying to Save Piggy Sneed when he wrote that ‘real life’, or what we expect of it at least, is just not believable in fiction. “When the father drops dead with an apple in his mouth while urinating on the front fender of his mother-in-law’s car . . . uh, well, I just had trouble seeing it”. But it happened, and one of Irving’s students wrote it down.

There are, of course, ways of dealing with improbabilities on the page, or genre fiction would also be dead. Imagine that – no detective noir, no science fiction, no fantasy, no tragicomedy. The best case in point is Irving himself. It seems unlikely that someone’s mother would accidentally bite off her lover’s penis while giving him a blowjob in his car when her husband coasts down the driveway in the family station wagon with the headlights off to thrill the kids and – again accidentally – rams them. But I read that in Irving’s World According to Garp as a kid and I believed it.

two sides to every story, by Norma Desmond, with Creative Commons licenceWhy? Because it carried with it equal measures of fear and titillation for the boy that never fade in the man, because emotion dictates what I should believe, if only in one instance. That’s the first thing about this art called storytelling – we’re forever at the mercy of the scribe, always willing to shift perceptions just a little bit, to say yes, alright, just this once. But maybe not again.

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Wild and Wiley Romans

24 March 2008

Ruminations on Anthony Everitt’s Augustus and Tacitus’ Annals

Trash People @ Rome 1, by robie06, with Creative Commons licenceCelebrity sex scandals, marriage and remarriage, the convolutions of temporary, loveless relationships – they’re all the trashy hallmarks of our day and age, right? Well, yes . . . but we shouldn’t think we’re unique, that civilisation is somehow tipping towards moral catastrophe. Next time you reach for People magazine, read the latest episode of Britney Spears’ sad derangement or wonder how happy Woody Allen is a decade into marriage to his ex-wife’s adopted daughter, remember that the Romans did it first. And, yes, they did it much better.

Sure, everyone knows the Romans weren’t saints. Most of you have probably heard of Roman orgies, even though they had more to do with gluttony than libido. Caligula, by all accounts, was fond of fornication – and we’ll meet him again soon – but even for him it wasn’t just sex and sweat.

Reading Anthony Everitt’s biography of Augustus Caesar recently I was struck by the melodrama in his account of the machinations between the First Citizen himself, his co-ruler and former son-in-law Mark Antony, and Egypt’s Macedonian queen, Cleopatra. In Everitt’s defence, he relies heavily on the writing of Cassius Dio and Appian, who are still the best we’ve got. And the situation was, even for the standard of the times, a little tawdry.

Leiden-RMO Roman box, figures ERL1007 web, by CESRAS, with Creative Commons licenceEveritt makes the point several times that sex, love and social relations were intertwined but by no means inseparable as the Roman Republic breathed its last. That Cleopatra was a sexual conquest for Augustus and Antony was largely incidental to her role in the politics of the coming Empire. She was both a chattel and a subordinate ruler: one did not necessarily imply the other.

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