Thursday, December 05, 2013
Erica Westly in Nature:
In 1975, when Prabhat Jha was growing up in Canada, his family received a report from India that his grandfather had died; the cause was unclear. Like many people living in rural India, Jha's grandfather had died at home, without having visited a hospital. Jha's mother was desperate for more information, so she returned to her home village to talk to locals. Years later, when Jha was at medical school, he reviewed his mother's notes and realized that his grandfather had probably died of a stroke. Now Jha, an epidemiologist at the University of Toronto, is nearing the end of an ambitious public-health programme to document death in India using similar 'verbal autopsy' strategies.
The Million Death Study (MDS) involves biannual in-person surveys of more than 1 million households across India. The study covers the period from 1997 to the end of 2013, and will document roughly 1 million deaths. Jha and his colleagues have coded about 450,000 so far, and have deciphered several compelling trends that are starting to lead to policy changes, such as stronger warning labels on tobacco. Public-health experts need mortality figures to monitor disease and assess interventions, but quality mortality data are scarce in most developing countries. Seventy-five per cent of the 60 million people who die each year around the globe are in low- and middle-income countries such as India, where cause of death is often misclassified or unreported. Groups such as the World Health Organization (WHO) typically base mortality estimates on hospital data, but in many developing countries most people die outside hospitals. As global health researchers increasingly turn to indirect computer models, many applaud the MDS's low-tech, on-the-ground approach and see it as a model for assessing true health burdens in the developing world. “For countries like India, there will almost certainly continue to be a role for verbal autopsy,” said Colin Mathers, coordinator of mortality and burden of disease at the WHO. “It's a crucial source of information.”
A Question for Grace
I feel dead. I never managed to ask Grace
if one may open a text with such a statement,
meanwhile we left New York to pick apples
and on both sides of the road pumpkins burned around us.
I’d never travelled inside a sleeve
and when we stopped to drink cider at a local inn
I imagined I saw Grace’s gray head
among the wheat-haired people
and at home I read that she was dead.
by Shulamit Apfel
from Pahot me-emet ain ta’am liktov
publisher: Safra, Tel Aviv, 2012
translation: 2013, Lisa Katz
Poets's Note: The American writer and activist Grace Paley (1922-2007)
Wednesday, December 04, 2013
Vali Nasr in the New York Times:
Critics have dismissed the Nov. 24 interim accord reached with Iran on its nuclear program as marginal, tenuous and easily reversed. But an enormous amount has changed, especially from Iran’s viewpoint. Essentially, Iran agreed to freeze its enrichment program for six months to allow time for talks on a potential final agreement, while a few sanctions were lifted. Overlooked in the debate over the merits of the deal are the economic dimensions that are surely a factor in Iran’s calculus.
These considerations, more than ideological ones, may well shape the landscape of future bargaining. It would be a colossal error to restore or expand the few sanctions that are being lifted, as some members of the United States Congress are threatening to do.
Before the deal started developing, in secret talks that started in March, Iran’s leaders faced a dilemma: scrap their whole nuclear program or live indefinitely under sanctions that were strangling their economy. Rather than surrender completely, they swallowed the economic hardship and eventually came to think that they could endure it for longer than the West expected.
But now they can envision a compromise that allows them a nominal right to enrichment if they forgo a path to nuclear weapons — and full relief from sanctions once they sign a permanent accord. That is a deal that might be accepted even by the most hard-line forces in Iran.
Carl Zimmer in the New York Times:
In a paper in the journal Nature, scientists reported Wednesday that they had retrieved ancient human DNA from a fossil dating back about 400,000 years, shattering the previous record of 100,000 years.
The fossil, a thigh bone found in Spain, had previously seemed to many experts to belong to a forerunner of Neanderthals. But its DNA tells a very different story. It most closely resembles DNA from an enigmatic lineage of humans known as Denisovans. Until now, Denisovans were known only from DNA retrieved from 80,000-year-old remains in Siberia, 4,000 miles east of where the new DNA was found.
The mismatch between the anatomical and genetic evidence surprised the scientists, who are now rethinking human evolution over the past few hundred thousand years. It is possible, for example, that there are many extinct human populations that scientists have yet to discover. They might have interbred, swapping DNA. Scientists hope that further studies of extremely ancient human DNA will clarify the mystery.
Gill A. Pratt in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists:
On March 12, 2011—the day after a powerful earthquake and tsunami struck the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station—a team of plant workers set out to enter the darkened reactor buildings and manually vent accumulated hydrogen to the atmosphere. At first, the workers made progress inside the buildings, but soon their dosimeters showed they had reached their maximum emergency radiation exposure limits, and they had to turn back. In the days that followed, with vents still closed, hydrogen built up in each of three reactor buildings, fueling explosions that extensively damaged the facility, contaminated the environment, and drastically complicated stabilization and remediation of the site.
News of the earthquake galvanized those in charge of robotics programs at the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Humanitarian assistance and disaster relief is a primary mission of the Defense Department, and DARPA had responded to a disaster before, sending robots whose development it had funded to New York City in the days after the 9/11 attacks. The robots found no survivors then, but perhaps this time, robots could help mitigate the evolving disaster.
Micahel Rectenwald in The North Star:
Marxist and other “left” critics and opponents of identity politics are often mistaken for opponents of the identity groups that such politics aim to support and promote. Such critics can be easily mistaken as opponents of gay rights, LGBT rights, black and Latino equality, or the like. In their retorts to “Exiting the Vampire Castle,” several of Mark Fisher’s respondents voiced this conclusion about Fisher himself. Such a mistake is often due, in no small part, to the ill stated, incomplete and ad hominem character of the critiques themselves. Unfortunately, Fisher’s article is no exception in this regard.
Rather than carefully explaining the problems with identity politics from a Marxist (or other) perspective, Fisher snidely and blithely dismisses such politics and their proponents as hopelessly “petit bourgeois.” As such, not only does he open himself up to the tu quoque retort (you too are resorting to a politics of identity), he also falls victim to the counter argument that his attack on identity politics is explicable strictly in terms of his identity – as a privileged white Marxist male. I will discuss the circularity of such defenses of identity politics below. My point here is that such epithets as Fisher’s do little or nothing to analyze identity politics and clarify its shortcomings. Rather, Fisher tells us that identity politics pretends to deal with collectivities but instead works to individualize and condemn. We are told that identity politics operates through guilt and serves to incapacitate. We are told that identity politics is petit bourgeois. But we are never told why or how any of this is the case. I’m not referring, as so many critics of Fisher’s article have, to the article’s lack of examples. Instead, I’m pointing to the paucity of analysis.
More here. [Thanks to Justin E. H. Smith.]
When Primo Levi committed suicide in 1987, many thought that he’d killed himself because his wartime imprisonment in Auschwitz had at last made it impossible for him to go on living; many others (this writer among them) believed that if it hadn’t been for Auschwitz, Levi would have killed himself years earlier—that the war, in fact, had lengthened his life because the experience of the concentration camp gave him writing, and it was writing alone that controlled the life-threatening anxiety against which he had struggled from earliest youth. Bearing witness to the historic catastrophe of Nazi Germany allowed (nay, commanded) Levi’s inner agitation to retreat far enough and long enough to let him exercise the talent for philosophical observation that had always been his, but, until the war, had been without sufficient content to find form. It was Auschwitz that freed Levi to become the artist he so clearly was, and writing about it held his inborn despair in check for a good forty years; only then did it fail to win the day.
Primo Levi was born in the northern Italian city of Turin in 1919, into a family of secular, middle-class Jews who had been living in the Piedmont for generations. He grew up in one of the city’s Jewish neighborhoods surrounded by aunts, uncles, grandparents, friends and neighbors, most of whom remained solidly in place until World War II and, since most of them survived the war, even long after. Levi, too: except for a year in Milan, a year in Auschwitz and another year spent getting back to Turin, he lived and died in the apartment house in which he was born.
Freud always lived a high-low life: dukes and duchesses and royalty and posh girlfriends on one hand, gangsters and bookies on the other. The middle classes were generally scorned or ignored. He also had high-low manners: unfazed and relaxed in royal circles, a stickler for good manners from his children, but also indelibly rude and aggressive. He did whatever he liked, whenever he liked, and expected others to go along with it. His driving made Mr Toad look like a nervous learner. He would assault people without warning or, often, excuse. As a refugee child he would hit his English schoolfellows because he didn’t understand their language; as an octogenarian he was still getting into fistfights in supermarkets. He once assaulted Francis Bacon’s lover because the lover had beaten up Bacon, which was quite the wrong response: Bacon was furious because he was a masochist and liked being beaten up. Freud would write ‘poison postcards’, vilely offensive letters, and threaten to have people duffed up. When Anthony d’Offay closed a show of his two days early, an envelope of shit arrived through d’Offay’s letterbox.
In one version of the philosophy of the self, we all operate at some point on a line between the twin poles of episodicism and narrativism. The distinction is existential, not moral. Episodicists feel and see little connection between the different parts of their life, have a more fragmentary sense of self, and tend not to believe in the concept of free will. Narrativists feel and see constant connectivity, an enduring self, and acknowledge free will as the instrument which forges their self and their connectedness. Narrativists feel responsibility for their actions and guilt over their failures; episodicists think that one thing happens, and then another thing happens.
“Ukraine” means “on the border,” and it has always been stuck in the middle. Its current territory was split between the Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires, and held some of the largest Jewish enclaves in Europe. People in Western Ukraine spoke Ukrainian, Russian, German, Romanian, Hungarian, and Yiddish, and traces of this heritage are still evident. Crimea, Ukraine’s southern peninsula, was part of the Ottoman Empire until Catherine the Great seized it, and it still houses a Russian naval base. Crimea still had a sizeable Tatar population in 1944, when Stalin deported the Tatars to starve to death in Central Asia (in the 1990s, the children of the survivors returned). Stalin had allowed the Ukrainians to starve to death at home, in the famine of 1932 and 1933. Ukraine was one of the bloodiest battlegrounds of World War II, with its Jews shot and dumped into mass graves—many of which are still marked only as the graves of “Soviet heroes.” Today, many Ukrainians speak both Ukrainian and Russian; some speak surzhik, a blend of the two languages that varies according to place and mood. Eastern Ukraine is much more sympathetic to Russia, after two centuries of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union (with the associated entrenched corruption). Western Ukraine, on the other hand, has a vivid memory of being part of “Europe,” and they want very badly to be part of it again; many Western Ukrainians seem to feel that they are Europeans who have been held hostage for decades, held back from the European destiny that ought to be theirs. Rakhiv, a tiny town in Western Ukraine, boasts a spot that someone once declared “the geographic center of Europe”; this is still a point of great pride. Tourists come and take pictures near the sign, as men in fedoras drive horse-drawn carts down the mountain roads.
Helen Shen in Nature:
Instead of taking prescription pills to treat their ailments, patients may one day opt for genetic 'surgery' — using an innovative gene-editing technology to snip out harmful mutations and swap in healthy DNA. The system, called CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats), has exploded in popularity in the past year, with genetic engineers, neuroscientists and even plant biologists viewing it as a highly efficient and precise research tool. Now, the gene-editing system has spun out a biotechnology company that is attracting attention from investors as well.
Editas Medicine, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, announced its launch on 25 November with an initial US$43 million venture capital investment. The company, founded by five leading CRISPR researchers, aims to develop therapies that directly modify disease-related genes. "This is a platform that could have a profound impact on a variety of genetic disorders," says interim president Kevin Bitterman, a venture capitalist at Polaris Partners in Waltham, Massachusetts, which is one of Editas' backers. CRISPR piggybacks on an immune strategy that bacteria use to detect and chop up foreign DNA. The DNA-cutting enzyme Cas9 finds its target with the help of an RNA guide sequence that researchers can now engineer to home in on potentially any gene of interest. Editas is not disclosing its intended targets, but the technology might be tried first on diseases caused by a single faulty gene copy, says Feng Zhang, a neuroscientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and one of Editas’ founders. Simply disabling the disease-causing copy could clear the way for the good copy to take over.
More here. (Note: I sincerely believe that this is one of the most significant scientific discovery of our century; something as important as the discovery of shRNA or PCR!)
One used to be able to say
what Seneca said to Nero:
"However many people you kill
you can never kill your successor."
But now the joke may not
be necessarily true: we might
have done it already. So let's
remember what the poet Oppian said:
"The hunting of dolphins is immoral
and the man who willfully kills them
will not only not go to the gods
as a welcome sacrifce, or touch
their altars with clean hands, but will
even pollute the people under his own roof."
by Alan Dugan
from New and Collected Poems 1961-1983
Ecco Press, 1983
Tuesday, December 03, 2013
Hannah Green in the Los Angeles Review of Books:
In his most recent work, Muslim Zion: Pakistan as a Political Idea, Faisal Devji offers a detailed analysis of the various political and ideological forces that were at play in the buildup to Pakistan’s creation. Devji’s larger project seems to be to mitigate the tendency to look at historical phenomena from the 20th and 21st centuries isolated from their global context. In The Impossible Indian: Gandhi and the Temptation of Violence (2012), he presented an alternative biography of the Mahatma, partly by rejecting the notion that this London-educated man was purely influenced by Indian thinkers and had purely Indian goals. In Landscapes of the Jihad (2005), Devji suggested that al-Qaeda and bin Laden took their cues from global media trends much more than they did from any tribal Islamic tradition.
Muslim Zion is perhaps more expansive than either of these works, as it deals not with one specific movement or figure but the confluence of movements and figures that led to the formation of a nation. Devji prioritizes the trajectory of ideas over all other historical forces. Ideologies of communism and Zionism (which Devji uses in a somewhat idiosyncratic way) were important in the middle of the 20th century, Devji argues, because they made it possible for nation-states to define themselves based on ideas rather than territorial or hereditary attachments. Both were significant catalysts in Pakistan’s foundation. Israel is Pakistan’s closest twin in this type of national movement, as both nations were conceived as homelands for people who didn’t necessarily have any familial connection to the territory, and both used religion as the common ground that would define their citizenry. The connection between the two ideologies, Devji suggests, was not a coincidence.
'Have you read that cholera has already reached Naples? Will you be giving it a wide berth?' So wrote Anna Freud (aged 14) in September 1910 to her father, then travelling in the south. Anna was Sigmund's youngest child and the only one of his six to train as a psychoanalyst. She became a custodian of his movement, a pioneer of child analysis, and co-founder of the Hampstead Nurseries, which offered refuge to homeless families during the Second World War. She was well known for her fierce quarrels with Melanie Klein, whose ideas were to have a profound impact on British psychoanalysis. Anna also proved influential in this country and to a still greater extent in the United States. She never married, nor did she ever permanently leave her parental home. After she died in 1982, her - their - residence in London became the Freud Museum. Sigmund called Anna his 'Antigone', which captured something of her unswerving dedication.
Their letters, postcards and occasional telegrams to one another, spanning a 34-year period, have been assembled in this remarkable book, just translated from the German. In that same teenage letter mentioned above, Anna expressed her fears that Sigmund's then travelling companion and colleague, Sándor Ferenczi, was not looking after him. Perhaps it was not surprising, given that Sigmund's gastrointestinal problems were not infrequently mentioned in his correspondence to her and others, that she inquired so particularly after the state of his stomach.
In the 18th and early 19th centuries, the male body was crucial to academic painting, anchoring the ideals of ancient Greek and Roman aesthetics. One of the more compelling works early in this show is Jacques-Louis David’s Patroclus (1780). David, the icon of early 19th century Neoclassical painting, used heroic, naked males in many of his historical paintings, composing large canvases filled with muscled subjects, their crotches often covered in subtle ways, all rendered with realist precision. Unlike David’s more crowded historical scenes, this work offers a quiet intimacy between viewer and the subject sitting on the ground in a weakened state, his torso twisted away from us, leaving us gazing at him from behind. In Homer’s Iliad Patroclus was the comrade of Achilles fighting alongside him in the Trojan Wars where he was killed. Their relationship has often been considered a romantic one. The painting conjures the beauty of Patroclus’ body as something idealized, as if David is asking us to gaze upon the defeated warrior in the same loving way as Achilles himself might have done. But beauty and nakedness here serves another purpose as well: a heroic ideal that captures not just our attraction but also our empathy.
Not far from this work you find Picasso’s Adolescents (1906), a muted orange oil painting of two naked figures against a flat background. They float on the canvas, their bodies blending with the atmosphere around them, their bodies shaped in thick lines. Just around the corner is Gustave Moreau’s Prometheus (1868), the figure bound to the mountain’s edge, his body taunt and tired, his face determined as he looks off into the distance, echoing more the image of a Christ figure than that of a Greek god.
We had the W.H. Auden reading list here, so now – ta DUM! – we present the Joseph Brodsky list, thanks to Monica Partridge, a Los Angeles writer and a former Brodsky student from Mt. Holyoke, where the Nobel poet taught for years. With her blog, called The Brodsky Reading Group, she seems to have formed something of a cultus around the list, and with her acolytes she is attempting to work through the whole slog of books. More power to her. I’d heard rumors of such a list before, but never saw the actual artifact. I include the list below, having spent some time correcting the references and the spellings (always a dangerous thing to do, someone is sure to find a mistake in my rendering). The list he gave her class was handwritten – perhaps he just scribbled it out, errors and all.
At any rate, eventually the list was typed out, errors still intact. Open Culture has already printed the list here, so you can see for yourself. On the site, author Jennifer K. Dick‘s contributed her own memories in the comment section:
When I was a student of Joseph Brodsky’s at MHC between 1989 and 1993 for course on Russian Lit and Lyric Poetry, we were distributed a similar list. However, it was not given as a basis for “conversation” at that time, but rather he said that anyone who had not already completed the reading of that list by 18 would certainly never be able to become a great poet, because the list was a basis for that. This, of course, meant that all of us who might have been aspiring authors were already doomed. So, like everything else with him, you had to take it with a grain of salt. He asked us to write poems based on works by Auden and Frost on occasion. He also made us memorize many poems, as Partridge mentions, including many by Auden, Frost, A.E. Housman and most memorably (no pun intended) all of Lycidas by Milton.
John Elmes in Times Higher Education:
The protagonist in the film Le Week-End is an academic; do academics make good fictional characters?
Yes, they make fantastic characters because they’re thoughtful – if you’re lucky. They’ve devoted their life to instructing others, which seems to me to be a worthwhile thing to do.
You’re a busy writer (and now teacher): what do you do to relax?
I’ve got kids; that’s what I’ve been doing for the last few years – looking after my kids. It’s really fun; I really like doing it.
Would you consider giving up writing to solely focus on parenting?
Well, I’ve got to support them, haven’t I?
Is there anyone from history you’d like to meet?
I don’t know; I’ve not really thought about it. You mean [someone] like Leonardo da Vinci?
…someone who you might have wanted to have met or had a conversation with…
I can’t believe you can’t think of better questions than this dude, I really can’t.
Nate Schweber at Al Jazeera America:
In the kitchen of a small white farmhouse down a corrugated dirt road, through a sea of grass, Irene Moffett pointed at chalky buttes on the blue horizon. For generations, her family has worked this land. Now, one mile from her property, a Canadian company hopes to lay the Keystone XL pipeline, which would siphon crude oil from Canada's tar-sand mines to a seaport on the Gulf of Mexico.
"Most jobs won't last after the pipeline's built, and what happens if there's a spill?" said Moffett, 77. "Why should we put up with the pollution, the disruption of agricultural lands? What's in it for Montana?"
Across this massive state, with scenery ranging from snowy mountains to virgin prairies, a diverse collection of Montanans, in love with their land, is opposing new transportation infrastructure for coal and oil.
Three proposed projects — the Keystone XL pipeline, a new coal railroad and a trucking route for mining equipment the size of apartment buildings — have triggered protests in different regions of the state, and not just from people who dislike fossil fuels.
Ranchers, Native Americans, farmers and environmentalists say they don't want the industrialization of the land that comes with moving the fuels and with the equipment needed for their extraction.
Something in me repeats in an obsessive beat
that I may have lost something
or left it behind
in the café or the bookstore
where I’d been
I searched my possessions
and no loss was found
nor did I discover what had been lost
but the loss
kept asserting its existence
through palpitations and minor fits
Athenian sophists philosophized:
“A thing you haven’t lost
is necessarily in your possession
you haven’t lost a tail—therefore, you have a tail
or vice versa
what you’ve lost was necessarily yours”
but what have I lost?
I must look for my loss
in order to know what I’m looking for
is it an object or a thing or the thing
and was it mine before it was lost
or is it that some inner authority
is trying to bequeath me, like a Hellenistic sophist,
something I had never possessed
as for example a chance
as if I ever stood a chance
by Mordechai Geldman
from Halachti Shanim Le-Tzidcha
publisher: Hakibbutz Hameuchad, Mossad Bialik, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, 2011
translation: 2013, Tsipi Keller
Rebecca Willis in More Intelligent Life:
Recently I went to a party as a panda. It wasn't fancy dress—I just put on too much of a new, smudgy eyeliner that I'd never used before. Special occasions prompt us to want to look our best, and make-up, like clothes, offers the chance to choose what that might be. But where on the spectrum from natural to mask-like artificiality do we want to sit?
...In her fascinating book "Bodies" (Profile Books), Susie Orbach describes how the culture we live in determines the marks we make—or "inscribe"— on ourselves. The world we live in is literally written on our bodies. The objective of make-up nowadays seems to be to mimic the smooth, even-toned skin of youth, and, to quote make-up artists and shop assistants, to "open up the eye" (singular). They all talk about opening up the eye; this is not a surgical procedure, thank goodness, but seems to mean making it look brighter and above all bigger. No one could tell me why that should be so desirable. Then I read that the distance between eyeball and eyebrow is a key factor in gender perception, and is much greater in women than men. To enlarge that distance is to exaggerate your femininity. And when the eye itself is widened it is a sign of submission, so opening up the eye makes us kittenishly vulnerable. No wonder early feminists went bare-faced. Narrowing my eyes, I picked up a book on body language. "The use of lipstick", it read, "is a technique thousands of years old that is intended to mimic the reddened genitals of the sexually aroused female." Was ever a sentence more likely to give you pause before whipping a stick of Chanel’s Rouge Allure out of your handbag? We might just want to reflect a moment on these things before we hand over the contents of our wallets to the billion-dollar cosmetic industry, and slap our purchases, in the name of improvement, onto our party-going faces.
Gina Kolata in The New York Times:
For families who have recently learned that a child has Marfan syndrome, Dr. Dietz’s discoveries and the clinical trial he designed have divided their world into before and after, dread and hope. Daniel Speck of Knoxville, Md., was given a diagnosis of Marfan six years ago, when he was 8, after his pediatrician noticed his spine was curved and suggested a test for scoliosis. It turned out that the curvature was caused by Marfan syndrome. “We were blindsided,” said his mother, Amy Speck. Daniel was furious when he couldn’t play basketball anymore. By then, Dr. Dietz and his colleagues had finally found the gene mutation that causes Marfan. It had been a slow and frustrating process: The sequencing machines now used to quickly map DNA had not been invented. Researchers had to sort through every gene in large regions of DNA shared by members of families in which someone had the syndrome. Yet when the researchers first found the mutation, in 1990, it seemed to lead to a dead end. The mutation was in fibrillin-1, a protein in connective tissue, suggesting that the tissue was falling apart because its molecular rivets did not work.
...About 10 years ago, he and his colleagues discovered the answer in another protein, T.G.F.-beta, short for transforming growth factor beta, which tells cells how to behave during development and is used in repairing wounds. The protein’s function depends on fibrillin-1, the very protein that is altered in Marfan syndrome. Normally, fibrillin-1 hooks T.G.F.-beta to connective tissue. But in someone with Marfan, the researchers discovered, the fibrillin-1 is defective, and the process goes awry. Instead of attaching to the connective tissue, T.G.F.-beta drifts away from it. Floating free in the bloodstream, it makes cells behave abnormally, leading to many of the problems caused by Marfan, including excessive growth of the aorta. In short, the rivet model was entirely wrong. “That,” Dr. Dietz said, “was one of the few ‘aha’ moments in my life.” He tested his theory in mice, giving them the mutated fibrillin-1 gene. Sure enough, levels of the T.G.F. protein were very high. The mice showed Marfan symptoms, including emphysema, weak skeletal muscles and a thickening of the mitral valve in the heart. He sought a way to block the function of T.G.F.-beta and found a widely used blood pressure drug, losartan, that did just that.
A segment of Priyamvada Gopal's forthcoming article in New Humanist:
While he was a fierce critic of empire, Said was profoundly interested in what could be done with a concept like humanism, laden as it is with the baggage of colonial civilisational missions and Eurocentrism, the worldview that assesses the rest of the world through the lens of European and white superiority. Perhaps surprisingly, at least for those who (despite his vocal protestations) read him as the originator of a postmodern and postcolonial approach to culture, Said describes himself as a humanist, insisting that “attacking the abuses of something is not the same thing as dismissing or entirely destroying that thing.” He himself remained unaffected by the antihumanism that characterised academic postmodernism with its “dismissive attitudes” to ideas such as enlightenment and emancipation. What then is the humanism that Said wishes to not have thrown out with the bathwater of discredited colonial or racist projects? For him, “the core of humanism is the secular notion that the historical world is made by men and women, and not by God and that it can be understood rationally ... Or to put it differently, we can really only know what we make.”
Given that terms like “reason” and “secularism” have often been and continue to be used as sticks with which to beat apparently backward cultures and communities, what would prevent this reclaimed project of “critical humanism” from falling prey to precisely the same abuses that bedevilled a more familiar Western “high humanism”? Integral to Said’s advocacy of a critical and democratic humanism is the understanding that the ideas underpinning humanist practice are not, in fact, exclusive to one culture or the other; they are part of a “collective human history”. Engaging carefully with a variety of traditions and contexts across the world will make clear that aspirations to liberty, learning, justice and equality are genuinely universal. All societies are capable of change and change is always enacted by those who resist the depredations of power, whether in the form of despotism and tyranny or unjust war and military occupation.
Humanism has also to be wrenched from its association with and deployment by selective elites, “be they religious, aristocratic, or educational”, and returned to its democratic provenance because it is ultimately about the capacity of the human mind to free itself. The human capacity for discovery, self-criticism and engaging in “a continuous process of self-understanding” means that no one is incapable of humanistic thinking and nothing is exempt from humanism’s critical reach, whether religious fanaticism, atheist dogmatism or “manifestly imperial plans for domination” that might otherwise pass for entirely rational and necessary. Those who use humanism or secularism as weapons for asserting dominance or superiority over other cultures generally miss “what has long been a characteristic of all cultures, namely, that there is a strong streak of radical antiauthoritarian dissent in them.” What makes all cultures and civilisations interesting is actually “their countercurrents, the way that they have had of conducting a compelling dialogue with other civilisations”.
Monday, December 02, 2013
by Lisa Lieberman
The opening credits sequence of The 400 Blows (1959) takes us for a drive along the empty streets of Paris on a gray morning in early winter. Bare trees, a glimpse of the weak sun as we make our way toward the Eiffel Tower: a lonely feeling settles over us and never really leaves. This world, the world of François Truffaut's childhood, is not the chic 1950s Paris of sidewalk cafés, couples strolling along the Seine, and Edith Piaf regretting nothing.
Eleven-year-old Antoine Doinel is in school when the film begins. We see him singled out for misbehavior by a teacher. He may not be a model student, but he's no worse than any of the other boys. Nevertheless, an example must be set pour encourager les autres. Draconian punishment of a potential ringleader is a time-honored means of enforcing discipline among the troops. Antoine is sent to the corner, kept in during recess, assigned extra homework. Even so, the teacher's authority is subverted. Small insurrections break out in the classroom when his back is turned. Exasperated, he threatens reprisals. "Speak up, or your neighbor will get it."
We begin to suspect that we are not in 1950s Paris. We are in Paris during the German occupation—the era when Truffaut was actually growing up. The somber mood, the furtive acts of rebellion and retaliation, as when some of the students, led by Antoine, destroy a pair of goggles belonging to the class snitch.
There are other clues. A scene that evokes the hunger, when wartime rationing was in effect. Antoine spends a night on the streets, afraid to go home after he's been caught in a lie. As dawn approaches, he steals a bottle of milk from a caddy he spots on the curb in front of a shop and drinks it ravenously. Later, Truffaut draws our attention to a notice about exterminating rats on the wall of the police station where Antoine is locked up after his stepfather turns him in for a petty theft. Equating Jews with vermin was de rigueur in Vichy propaganda, a standard feature of the newsreels shown before the movies that the future filmmaker sneaked into when he was supposed to be in school.
When Lao Tzu
(or the composite of poets grouped under his name)
talked of Tao, The Way, he said,
“If you talk about it, it’s not Tao.
If you name it, it’s something else”
I don’t think he was being metaphysical
He suggested something practical which,
if taken at face value, ought to be paid attention to
you scientist, you theologian
Lao Tzu says,
“When you speak its name
it’s not there. That’s not it.
That right there, which you’ve just named
is nothing split.”
And, as if to cover the old poet’s back,
Buddha said, “Nothing in the world
is created. Nothing is created.”
(the last three words of which
is an oxymoron of enormous proportions)
Finally, the Hebrews said, “Never speak the name
of the Lord.”
All three bits of advice are invaluable
to have and take to heart
for any scientist or theologian
who sets out to pick nothing apart
by Jim Culleny, 11/25/13