Sunday, June 28, 2009

Cesare Lapini's Psyche with Butterfly

Speaking of Beauty in Art, here's a sculpture currently on display in Hamilton, which is pure aesthetic bliss. Cesare Lapini's late nineteenth-century statue of Psyche with a butterfly is beautifully sculpted in a serpentine S-shape of a crystalline marble that glitters in the light when you stand close to it. And, the closer you get to it, the more you appreciate the incredible skill that must have gone into chiseling something so elegant from marble. It's one of the highlights of the current AGH show of Italian Art and comes as close to "art for art's sake" as you can get. As Claire said, it's hard to imagine finding anything wrong with this piece of masterful eye candy.


1969: The Stonewall Riots

Today, there were Gay Pride parades around the world, and it was unique because this year is the 40th anniversary of the arrests at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, New York. Back in 1969, it was quite common for police to raid gay bars and throw people in jail. I remember, even when I was a child, sodomy was still illegal, and the argument you heard from people when there would be gay rights marches was "Well, look, those people might have a point, but remember: they are criminals." (Actually, the Iranian government is making the same point now about their protests) Back then, there was a whole legal apparatus set up to prosecute "loitering" and other offenses that amounted to cruising for sex- much of which dates back only to the Victorian era, but which intensified after WWII in the United States- and scholars have wondered what effect the legal definition of homosexuality had on public understanding of gay lives.

Perhaps the most interesting book I've found on homosexuality was the one written by the British literary critic John Addington Symonds, who wrote in its defense trying to understand his own desires. He also wrote an essay in 1883 that ranks as one of the first English-language defenses of homosexual behavior. But his autobiographical writings on love between men, which he intended to be published years after his death, are remarkably forthright and forward-thinking for the late 1880s. His criticism and poetry is also first rate.

At any rate, the Stonewall Inn raid that took place forty years ago today was a landmark in gay history because it triggered a spontaneous riot- something that had never happened before. There were gay rights organizations, but not really activism, or even just the outpouring of anger that happened at Stonewall. It was the beginning of the marches and forthright public attempts to change consciousness about homosexuality. It's possible that the repressive apparatus of the time triggered the response, in addition to the fact that 1969 was a good year for social rebellion.

Whatever the causes, this was the beginning of four decades of gay rights marches, movies, activism, and political agitation. Ideally, it should all be over by now. Society has had enough time to get over its progressive era obsession with remaking human beings in a Victorian image. Clearly, gay prohibition worked as badly as alcohol (and drug) prohibition. So, it's fairly absurd that things like Don't Ask Don't Tell (which about 3/4ths of Americans want repealed) still exist in law. For people my age, the argument is over. Let's get over this!

At some point, gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered people will be legally the same as everyone else and the gay rights struggle will be completed. What will all these organizations do then? Will they exist solely to plan for a big party every year? I think that would be fine.


Friday, June 26, 2009

Doll Face

Here's a cool artistic take on beauty, of a sort, by Andrew Huang.


Beauty and Art: Why Can't they get Together?

In a recent article (and book), Roger Scrunton describes the low estimation that the contemporary art world has for Beauty. It's an interesting piece. His main point:

At any time between 1750 and 1930, if you had asked an educated person to describe the goal of poetry, art, or music, “beauty” would have been the answer. And if you had asked what the point of that was, you would have learned that beauty is a value, as important in its way as truth and goodness, and indeed hardly distinguishable from them.
Alas, this is not the case today. I remember the Hirshhorn actually doing a show about Beauty a number of years ago; but the gist of the show was, indeed, that most artists aren't comfortable with the idea of Beauty! They see it as unserious, kitschy, or reactionary. "Reality" is ugly and art should follow suit; et cetera. On the other hand, I can't tell you the number of gallery shows I've attended with mediocre shock art that the program promises will "subvert", "transgress", "challenge", and "upend" all of our staid notions of something-or-other! Must every artist be a scourge now?

I do think Scrunton too easily divides the world into an elite of artists and a downtrodden public crying out for Beauty. He runs everything together- Serrano's 'Piss Christ' = rap music = Tarantino movies = a horrific production of Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail! But, his idea that the experience of Beauty challenges the viewer much more than the experience of transgression is interesting. Works of beauty- the first thing I thought of were some of Mozart's piano concertos- are challenging because you don't feel you are intellectually- or spiritually- ready for them. Shock Art might transgress your values, but the experience of Beautiful Art calls on you to live them or even get better ones!

Some questions come to mind. Is it perhaps just a lot harder to make something beautiful, without failing and creating kitsch, than it is to create something ugly? Isn't there an imperative for artists to create the experience of Beauty at least as strong as the imperative to transgress? Are artists like Francis Bacon entirely overrated? And are artists who create works of beauty unfairly neglected? And is a beautiful work of art as much a triumph of skill- which is sorely lacking right now- as a triumph of the spirit? Lastly, isn't there some really freakin' ugly art that is as sublime and transcendent as beautiful art?


Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Speaking of Fancy Windows...

Claire took this picture in downtown Hamilton. I'm not sure where. We have buildings like this throughout the city, most dating to somewhere around the 1880s.


Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Stop me if you know this song!

The Iranian Regime has changed its tune. Instead of singing about conciliation, they've switched to a more sickeningly predictable ditty; anyone who recognizes this song already knows how it goes: propagandist state television broadcasts, forthcoming show trials of state enemies, killing protesters in the streets, banning burial of those protesters, rigged elections, and state-supported mobs of pimply young men encouraged to beat anyone who seems disloyal. Generally, tyrannies continue this business until everyone is disloyal, and therefore an enemy of the state, but at least they're all lying about it, in one-part harmony. A state rooted in lies needs a lying populace, the hope being that eventually, no one can recognize the truth anymore.

The song began in earnest after the Ayatollah spoke at length on Friday about the election. It seems as if most authoritarian leaders speak "at length"; the more power granted to an individual, the more loquacious they become apparently. You wonder if you could judge a ruler's power simply by measuring the length of their speeches. At the far end of absolute power, you have Stalin, who was known for giving five-hour speeches and sentencing to death whoever stopped clapping first. This created the spectacle of audiences clapping to the point of exhaustion; it's better to have bleeding hands and stay alive. Authoritarians do save some time by cutting the jokes out of their speeches, and they never seem to have a question and answer period; they certainly have answers, but take no questions. One might hope, however, that a man of God would emulate the Lord, who is known for very rarely speaking in public. No such luck.

The Ayatollah's lyrics were fairly clear. The election was fair. Of course, the regime counted all of the votes; they were so concerned with counting the votes that they counted them before anyone voted. The protesters are criminals and will be treated as such. If they want to criticize the election results, they can do so, provided they're not criminals. Incidentally, anyone criticizing the election results is breaking the law in doing so. Finally, the Islamic Republic of Iran is a free and open democracy and will be glad to discuss the results of the election with any citizen who would like to meet with the local militia at a jail cell of their choice. Sing along if you know the words! Of course, if you know the words, you might not feel like singing right now.

While doing this canny musical impersonation of tyranny, the Republic has started the steady drumbeat of manufacturing martyrs, whose strangely beatific photos have circulated around the Internet. There's something oddly aesthetic about martyr images that one assumes every martyrologist recognizes, although none would say so aloud. The martyr achieves a state of beauty in this moment that is all the more painful for being their last moment. Perhaps it's the pain of realizing that the sort of person who would give their life for their society has done so. And, after all, every martyr gives their life for their society. The cheap view is that they die "for an idea" or "for their beliefs". I think this is wrong- instead, they die so that their civilization may live. It's akin to older tribal sacrifices- they die to expurgate evil, by being a victim of that evil.

So far, the Islamic Republic, which is neither, has created a few hundred martyrs, but they're just getting started. Following the 1979 revolution, and incidentally with Mr. Mousavi singing along, they created something like 20,000- possibly more than the Shah's secret police had done in nearly four decades. This was still a low ball figure for the twentieth century. It was just a warm up to get the populace singing about theocratic democracy. The song entitled "Theocratic Democracy" told of a "republic" in which people voted and political life as usual took place, only the state was overlaid with a body of religious clerics who had final say on all decisions. So, basically, a democracy with a dash of absolute power.

[Incidentally, my favorite news moment was when a question-asking haircut on CNN asked an Iranian scholar on the air: "Do we have anything like the body of clerics in our American government?" The scholar nervously replied, "Uh... no." But, not for lack of trying, eh?]

What's amazing is how easily it would have been for the regime to maintain this nonsense about a democracy with theocratic absolutism even being possible. All they would have had to do was open the election to a recount. Iranians want to believe. Instead, when it came time to choose between democracy and tyranny, the regime decided to reinforce the tyranny quite publicly, but keep calling it democracy. It's another old tune, but of course, no population can sing forever, even if stopping for breath gets them the death penalty. Indeed, the regime itself has started singing off-key, as if even they can't repeat the lying lyrics with a straight face.

One last note: the 1979 Revolution took an entire year to be completed. It's hard to believe the regime can keep singing for that long, even if they do only know one note, but there's no doubt the Persian people can sing longer than their state.


Monday, June 22, 2009

book notes: Within a Budding Grove (Proust)

Alright, on to more pleasant things! I've gotten through Volume II of In Search of Lost Time: "Within a Budding Grove", and am finding that the story is largely coming back to me, although there are numerous characters that I had forgotten. In general, if I remembered Volume I largely for the scene in which the narrator is a young boy waiting for his mother to come up to his room, I remembered volume II largely for the scene on the beach, when he first sees Albertine, his future wife as a young girl. For some reason though, I remembered this scene as occurring at the end of the book and occupying several pages.

In fact, the scene with the little band on the beach at Balbec is suprisingly short and inconspicuous, but it hovers into view throughout the last third of the book, the way memories of loved ones become dearer than the actual event, or the way we suddenly recognize a cherished friend in a crowd of strangers. When the narrator visits the studio of the painter Elstin, the art suddenly makes him aware of, "the possibility of raising myself to a poetical understanding, rich in delights, of manifold forms which I had not hitherto isolated from the total spectacle of reality." It's this ability to look back on the total spectacle of reality and pluck certain images and memories that will make the narrator a novelist one day. It's the basis of creating art, but for Proust, all remembering is creative, and actually all perception is creative as well. In this sense, the narrator, who spends so much time in this book observing and studying the face of his first love, Gilberte, like a jeweler walking around a diamond and counting the facets, is already a great artist and destined to be a great writer.

Not yet, though. This book details his childhood and adolescence, in which he spends much more time planning to write than actually writing. A Proust website once featured a contest to summarize Proust (a la Monty Python) in one sentence. My favorite was, "Mmmmmm, cookies!" But many of them summarized the six volumes as, "How Marcel became a great writer". That won't come until later- in fact, his name won't be revealed until later, and then just once. The temps perdu in the title refers also to the years he spent not writing. In a sense, it's the story of a writer who finally got around to writing.

This time through, I'm also noticing how much of this volume has to do with art and our appreciation of art. The key scenes for me are the narrator's highly anticipated chance to see the actress Berma in performance- he's a bit let down; his chance to dine with his favorite author Bergotte- I think there's a kinship there; and his friendship with the painter Elstin. Artists, and those with an artistic temperment, form their own class in Proust's novel. I would include Swann with this band, although his sensibilities are far decayed by this point.

This gets at the question of snobbery- Proust writes volumes about snobs and snobbish social circles, but there always seems to be a ironical distance to these scenes. He's a much funnier writer than he ever gets credit for. But there's a scene in "Within a Budding Grove" that, I think, tips his hand. The family is dining with the gas-bag Norpois, and our young narrator is put down by the older man for his admiration for the novelist Bergotte- a creation of Proust. The old ambassador criticizes this sort of writing as "art for art's sake", and certainly not suited for a world in which geopolitics have become as serious as they are in the Belle Epoque. The narrator is shamed into silence.

But, of couse, Proust sides with all of those beings whose artistic sensibilities place them outside of the crowd. When his snobs are most ridiculous is when they're talking about art they have no sense for. And when his heroes reach to the depths of themselves, it is most often art that helps them get there. It is this ability to create our lives- which consist only of memories, after all- through a poetical understanding, and to be helped in that lifework through art, that I believe Proust places at the heart of human existence.


Let Them Eat MBAs!

It's funny- whenever I find myself talking to a grad student from another university, we wind up commiserating about university work instead of talking about our scholarship. Last week, a grad student told me about her university's plan to save money by getting rid of their unionized faculty and scrapping certain departments; in particular, Women's Studies.

Women's Studies departments are sort of easy targets. Conservatives criticize them as amounting to activism instead of scholarship, and not being intellectually serious. Some stuents and parents complain that a degree in Women's Studies is not very profitable; like a Latin degree, you're most likely to end up working in academia. I can't comment on the intellectual criticisms, having never taken a course in that field. However, I will note that the word "studies", which some take as left-wing code, just means that the department is interdisciplinary- scholars from different areas working together on a common topic. Interdisciplinary work is sorely needed in academia, where scholars tend to know everything about one topic and nothing about how it relates to the rest of the world.

Nevertheless, the criticisms make the department easy prey. Make no mistake- the university administration objects to the department primarily because it has low enrollment: many of the Women's Studies courses attract less than ten students, or as they are apparently called internally, "basic income units". Like the American universities that have begun to rid themselves of publishing houses argue, losing money during a recession is a sure ticket to the scrapyard. Those of us who are aghast that a university would see publishing scholarly books or encouraging interdisciplinary study as peripheral to the academic mission already know the response: it's just business.

This, I think, is what's unnerving to me about dismantling women's studies. We're living in an era in which worried parents are likely pushing their children to major in something profitable- or euphemistically "responsible"; we can expect law and business schools to be sitting in the cat bird seat. In contrast, expect things like Medieval History and Classical Languages to be underenrolled. When you've decided that the academic mission is first and foremost to make a shit-load of money, it's hard to justify keeping unprofitable departments around at all (although, interestingly, it's never hard to justify keeping unprofitable sports programs). It's therefore possible to imagine a future university- a lot of universities- without a degree in Latin. After all, life is about the Benjamins, not the Augustins.

The problem with this mentality- often called a "free market" ideology, but perhaps better called the Middle Class Mindset- is that it's nearly impossible to argue with. Why should societies choose to lose money? Why would anyone choose to lose money? Norman Mailer, who was basically middle class himself said something funny about this:

"In the middle classes, the remark, 'He made a lot of money,' ends the conversation. If you persist, if you try to point out that the money was made by digging through his grandmother's grave to look for oil, you are met by a middle-class shrug."
I think the problem though is that it's impossible to argue with a bourgeois for devoting one's life to anything unprofitable. Why should a student get a degree in Medieval Literature? Have you seen what they pay those people?

And yet, I suppose I'm a 'cultural conservative' in that I believe that culture which elevates is worth more than that which lowers. So for me the novels of Aurthur Schnitzler are worth more than those of Dan Brown- this in spite of the fact that "the market" says I'm wrong on that count. I believe that Chopin is better than gangsta rap and Ingmar Bergman's movies are better than rape porn- according to the market, I'm dead wrong there as well. In fact, before they take me to the asylum, I might as well admit that I'm fine with judging culture by other standards- say beauty and truth- than their market share. I believe that cultural value has nothing to do with market value.

In that regard, it's interesting to me that nobody has talked yet about "letting the market decide" which religions are worth preserving. The idea that a priest is a leech on society because he doesn't create wealth would, thankfully, appall the middle class- although students of the French Revolution might remember a time in which the rising middle class was all-too-happy to be rid of those leeches. But, in fact, all of us recognize certain things as having cultural value, even if they have no market value. There are few of us who would argue that Van Gogh wasted his life by painting instead of becoming an accountant, although there are certainly parents who would rather have the accountant than Van Gogh for a son.

But, to the students, I say- don't worry. In the end, all degrees increase your 'earning power'. The legend of the philosophy PhD who works at 7-11 is totally exaggerated. There are plenty of people in the white collar world who got their job simply because they have a college degree, even if that degree happens to be in Medieval Literature. We have a friend who works in ordering and shipping who makes money hand over fist, and her degree was in something much more interesting than ordering and shipping. The job bores her to tears; but she can buy things that Claire and I can only dream of. She's on her second house!

Here's the punchline though: if you spend your life doing something that bores you to tears in order to buy nice things, it will slowly and surely eat you alive. Sorry. Your parents never tell you this, because in many cases it hits too close to home, but people who spend all day at jobs they hate are not free. It's as simple as that. They might be semi-free- after all, they constitute the free market- but in a fundamental way, they are unfree. And libertarians, who never seem to consider economic servitude to be unfreedom, might ask themselves how they can expect people who are dragging themselves through their lives to stand up for political freedom. What difference does it make to live in a police state, so long as you can get to the supermarket before curfew? Can I still buy a black leather couch under tyranny?

It's hard for me to explain why it is that letting the market decide the value of academic programs strikes me as being as culturally poisonous as letting the market decide the value of churches. I'm certainly not "anti-Capitalist", if only because the societies that have been anti-capitalist tended to be less free. I just recognize other sorts of value as being worth more than market share. I think the priests would understand.

And societies, if they hope to facilitate the sort of life that's worth living, need people who can say "This poem/ painting/ book/ thought/ dream/ faith/ etc. is worth having and preserving, even if its worth is not immediately evident or economic in nature". Some of the people who could say that sort of thing used to work in universities. Indeed, people who work in universities need to start saying those sorts of things a hell of a lot more often to people who don't work in universities. It's a matter of their cultural survival.


Saturday, June 20, 2009

Chinese Propaganda Posters, Part 3

I have realized one of the reasons I like this stuff is because it is so much not in the catalog of images of China that has accumulated in my brain over the years. It's like some other China, the alternate reality China. Of course, it may well seem that way to some Chinese folks, as well.

Part 3 in the series.


Friday, June 19, 2009

Cottages and Cups

We're off to the cottage for the Father's Day weekend! See you all later. Before, we go, I wanted to share this...

These Styrofoam cup sculptures were created by Robert Clark Yates and are on display in Hamilton at the You Me Gallery. They're part of Yates's Show "Groups of 7: a solo group exhibition" a small miscellany from a chronic producer of objects often called art.
Have a good weekend!


Operation AJAX

One of the dumber things I've read about Iran in the last few days was a fellow asking why the Iranians can't "get over something that happened in 1953". It was stupid because he was complaining about the protesters, whose hopes for more normalized relations with the United States are certainly a step towards "getting over 1953". Also, the comment revealed the mentality of those living in the eternal present- failure to forget the past is seen as some sort of character flaw.

Anyway, the best way to explain why people still care about the 1953 coup is this: The American people elected Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1953. However, some of the economic steps he took offended... say, Iran and Britain, who wanted to have stronger control over American industry. So, they took a guiding role in orchestrating a coup d'état to remove Eisenhower and replace him with a hard line ruler*, whose secret police then spent over a quarter of a century repressing all forms of dissent through torture, intimidation, and even murder, until finally, there was a violent revolution to remove him, followed by more purges, violent intimidation, etc. etc.

It's critical to remember all of this because even before the coup, the protests against Mosaddeqin were orchestrated by Kermit Roosevelt's boys- they simply paid the protesters to march against the Prime Minister and stirred up the clerics against him. None of this is a secret either. At the time, it was seen as a great success- the model for future CIA involvement in the world. More importantly, everyone in Iran knows about this, which is why the protesters now- who I fear are about to be repressed yet again- are so adamant about not being associated with the US. The regime will call this a foreign-backed coup, and the situation will, yet again, get a lot bloodier before it becomes "peaceful".

Again, I'm thinking of Prague Spring watching this and afraid of what comes next. I'm also thinking of Tacitus's classic description of tyranny: ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant. "where they made a desert, they called it peace."

*I know that doesn't quite work with the Shah, but I can't think of an American equivalent.



Thanks to Min's note, I've been reading about the Iranian protests on Nico Pitney's top notch blog.

I noticed this shot among all the pictures of protesting Persians yesterday. There have been protests in Ferdowsi Square (?) and someone has given Ferdowsi a green armband- the symbolism is great.

Hakīm Abu'l-Qāsim Firdawsī Tūsī, or just Ferdowsi, was a Persian poet from the tenth century who has the honor of having created a foundational text, the Shāhnāma, generally called the Book of Kings in English. A foundational text is one that was central to the founding of a culture- examples would include The Iliad, The Nibelungenlied, The Baghavad Gita, The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Song of Roland. They tend to be looking backwards on past events, centering on men and battles, often with a mythical element. We could also call them national epics.

The Book of Kings was written in pure Persian at a time when Persian was being snuffed out by a deluge of Arabic. The book tells the history of Persia from the creation of the world to the Arab invasions in the seventh century. It is a monumental work of heroes and legends- monumental taken in both senses- the full work runs to 990 chapters. The first 2/3rds takes place before the conquest of Alexander the Great, and the Book is also an invaluable source for information about Zoroastrianism.

I've yet to read the complete text- a full translated version hasn't been published since the 1920s. However, Dick Davis's recent abriged translation is supposed to be excellent, and when I get the chance I'm going to read that to see if it would be suited for a World Civilizations course I'm slowly designing. Michael Dirda's review is here.

You can order the Penguin Classics edition of the Dick Davis translation here.


Thursday, June 18, 2009

Hamilton, Ontario Signage


fancy window is fancy

fancy window is fancy
Originally uploaded by oferchrissake
I really wish people could be bothered with ornamental architectural details these days. Most of the new buildings look like aluminum boats around here.


more scenery!

more scenery!
Originally uploaded by oferchrissake
Southern Austria sure does know how to lay out a good bike path! This is south/east of Graz, not so far from the Hungarian and Slovenia borders, looking west.


Schloßburg Biergarten at Sunset

biergarten at sunset
Originally uploaded by oferchrissake
Those black specks are crows, not bits of dirt. Promise.


Wednesday, June 17, 2009

American, Canadian, and French media on Iran

Sorry to keep yammering on about Iran, but I think the main rule of blogging is to write about crap that you find interesting, and I find this interesting.

Joe Klein has a sort of softball column up at Time in which he castigates John McCain for being a know-nothing about Iran; basically picking low-hanging fruit. But I found this (where he's castigating someone else) interesting:

"...comparing Iran in 2009 to the Soviet Union of the 1980's which, of course, is completely ridiculous. I visited Russia back in the day and I've now visited Iran twice. There is no comparison. The Soviet Union was the most repressive place I've ever been; its residents lived in constant terror. I'll never forget my first translator in Moscow telling me that his parents had trained him never to smile in public--it could easily be misinterpreted and then he'd be off to the Gulag. There was no internet in those days, no cellphones, no facebook or twitter."
This is the rub to the new technology, isn't it? It's a lot harder to be a totalitarian than it used to be. The flipside of the ever-present video surveilance is an equally ever-present digital resistance. Of course, the problem is that actual resistance takes time and attention, which Internet addicts tend to lack.

Most blogs I read are criticizing the American Mainstream Media for "dropping the ball" on Tehran. I've noticed that they're all focusing on CNN here; it's not that Fox News and MSNBC have done better- they haven't, but nobody takes them seriously anyway. CNN has been a disappointment. Of course, I don't think CNN has any foreign bureau left, aside from Christiane Amanpour. They have her in a hotel in Tehran, where she grew up, but the press is under lock and key in Iran. It might be asking too much for her to get shot for the sake of Lou Dobbs.

In Canada, meanwhile, the news media has been completely abysmal, although we do have our own election crisis going on. The Liberals and NDP are threatening to call for another election and nobody wants to be bothered to vote again. Canucks can be expected to march in the streets ere long holding signs reading, "No, seriously, our votes don't matter, okay?"

The French media is, as usual, fired up about the protests. Actually, they're more fired up than the US or Canadian media. Le Monde has an editorial from an Iranian expert at the Sorbonne who writes:
"Il ne faut ni se réjouir ni se lamenter : la République islamique, cet oxymore politique invraisemblable, vient de signer sa propre condamnation. Prise dans la contradiction de ses fondements démocratiques et de sa superstructure théocratique, elle n'a pu assumer les conséquences du feu d'artifice citoyen que fut la dernière campagne présidentielle."
Basically, the rough translation of this is, "A democratic Republic with a theocratic superstructure??? Ha! Impossible!" And then the writer snorts derisively (something my French grandfather was famous for doing) and takes an agitated drag on his cigarette (something his wife was famous for doing). I would imagine the French will soon march in the streets in solidarity, as well they should. But, we are approaching the summer vacation months, so who can say?


Tuesday, June 16, 2009

More Hamilton Art

The side of the Sonic Unyon Records building.


Where are the links?

I'm not sure if anyone's reading this thing anymore, but if you're wondering what's up with the links- I accidentally erased them while messing around with the template. They'll gradually return as I muster up the wherewithal to re-code them.


Another friend on Iran

A bit more about what's happening in Iran. Here are some notes from Dawoud, a friend of mine who studies the history of the region:

"Iran is shaky right now- this is hard for a lot of Americans to get, but the amount of violence and unrest going on right now is close to actual rebellion, not just protest- whether or not it gets to actual revolution will depend on how much we are doing (and can get away with) behind the scenes. Iran's democratic system since the early 80's has actually worked pretty well for the majority of Iranians up to this election, with very little in terms of fraud, and it is considered by many Iranians to be better than the Shah's former regime. I would not be surprised if things get worse before they get better, and you can bet that the US is clandestinely involved. Student protesters were shot today- and I do not believe that has happened since the Shah was in power, so the seriousness of the power struggle has increased. What happens next will depend a lot on the popularity of this rebellion- we paid for the street gangs in 1953, but 1979 happened with student support, and despite Carter's backing of the Shah (and w/ critic's insistence that he didn't do enough), so I think that when it comes to Iran, we have proven to be better at overthrows than we are at propping up, so let's wait and see."
Note: Obviously, I have no idea if the US is clandestinely involved. This is my friend's take on the situation. Honestly, I have no thoughts on that matter. Ask me about France! I would agree with him that the US needs to take a wait and see approach. Also that we're talking about a rebellion, not a revolution or a few protests.
"Khomeini usurped the 1979 revolution, which began as a popular rebellion, and many Iranians know this too well, but that still doesn't mean that they want us to overtly overthrow their democratic Islamic system- especially after what we did in 1953... The Mossadegh regime in the 50s was actually closer to European Social Democracy, but it made the mistakes of tolerating the Tudeh (Iranian Communist) party & including it in its governing coalition... So basically, the domino theory led to our fucking up their system & turning the Shah into a pro-capitalism dictator, who "dissappeared" political opponents, shot students, and whose secret service (SAVAK) tortured women, children and venerable old religious figures (many of whom have been, and are currently, on the Guardian Counsel). Most Iranians may very well still consider these men to be venerable religious figures, so we shouldn't expect a quick overthrow like what happened to the Shah- this will be much bloodier if it happens. Thousands of former revolutionaries were killed during the purges following the revolution- much like in France and Russia (in fact these three are the only "real" revolutions I can think of) - and the US has been training some of the leftist exiles (actually, leftist-Muslims) from that time- the Mojahideen-E-Khalq- since shortly after our invasion of Iraq in '03 & Iran has accused us repeatedly of using them clandestinely within its borders since about that time (which we most likely have been doing)."
Again, I don't know anything about the MEK or if they've been operating in Iran. But, again, there's not a Persian alive who doesn't know about 1953, which is why the US really needs to stay out of things now. I'm not sure that people get this, but if the US comes down strongly in support of the protesters, the protesters will be automatically de-legitimized.

Anyway, that's the only news for now. If anyone reading this has more first-hand information, feel free to share it here.


Monday, June 15, 2009

Title: "Now it's your turn Mary"

Painting by David Irvine, a.k.a. The Gnarled Branch, from the Super Happy Bacon gallery show in Hamilton.


Student Protesters in Tehran

"p.s., i don't think there will be another revolution." So writes a Persian friend of mine who I emailed to find out about the safety of her family in Tehran.

I don't think so either. I'd like to hope so. I don't think so though. As Saul Bellow once said, our blood will always run warm, but people who have lived a while know the wisdom of keeping some cold blood on reserve.

Watching what's happening in Tehran, my first thought wasn't actually of the 1979 Iranian revolution, but of 1968's Prague Spring. I didn't think of a government being toppled; I thought of a whole lot of students and young people pulling back the curtain and showing the world the fissures and cracks in their society, before being silenced by the state and its supporters. Communist Czechoslovakia lasted for two more decades before falling. Of course, it had support from the USSR.

I suppose, one could also make the comparison to China in 1989. Things have progressed quite differently there. I had a student this year, recently arrived from China, who asked me timidly what was it that happened in Tienanmen Square, which we had mentioned in class. If the regime in Iran is lucky, things could go that way in the future. I doubt it- not with their economy. But, we have no way of telling. Such is the weakness of historical analogies: history never repeats itself because the context is always different. Sometimes it does impressions.

This is something the commenting class, and their bloggy epigones might remember: the context is not our own. We know very little.

At least, I don't know much about Iran. I do know that there's a bit more impetus in Shia Islam to get rid of a lousy leader, even if he's a Muslim, than there is in Sunni Islam. This was part of the tradition that Khomeini drew upon in 1979. The reform movement is drawing strength from college students and young people in the cities, many of whom were too young to remember the revolution. I do- I remember it being a shock for Americans who were my parents' age. You have to remember that the northern part of Iran was like the French riviera back in the 70s. The jetsetters in Teheran's discos didn't quite suspect the strength of the opposition. Nor did the US. I suspect the sight of tens of thousands of "Westoxicated" protesters in the streets of Tehran will come as just as much of a shock now.

Incidentally, the best documentary I ever saw on the subject summed up the 1979 Revolution in one shot: an idiotic glamorous disco television program from the north of Iran being watched on a television set in a lean-to tent in the south of Iran. This was the home of the viewers. One could imagine their mindset.

I hope the protesters prevail. I suppose I am temperamentally biased in favor of students who are being brutalized by cops and thugs. Iran's regime might not be fascist, but they're currently doing a good impression. I also hope the US stays out of it. The business with the Shah would recommend against US intervention- most Americans don't remember that stolen election, but every single Persian does. Again, this is their context.

I don't know if this report is true:
"119 members of Tehran University faculty have resigned en-masse as a protest to the attack on Tehran University dorms last night. Among them is Dr Jabbedar-Maralani, who is known as the father of Iranian electronic engineering. They have asked for the resignation of Farhad Rahbari the appointed president of Tehran University, for his incompetence in defending the University's dignity and student lives."

If so, I am proud to share their profession. I really hope I'd do the same. I said recently that I believe academics should hang back from society and its political controversies, in order to prevent becoming a football of powerful interests. However, I think it goes without saying that, in the event that agents of the state are brutalizing your students, any lesser response would be a betrayal of those students. If we should be partisans of anyone, it's them.

The video is from the dormitories of the University of Tehran. It probably goes without saying that this chills me more than anything else I've seen from Iran today.


Festo Air Jelly


Saturday, June 13, 2009

Cultivating your Hatred

"Cultivating your hatred makes you competitive."

Pictured: 'Hatred' by Mark Byk, a local artist (and nice guy) whose website can be found here.


The Fiction of Isaac Babel

Is it possible that not being taken seriously can be fatal?

Such might have been the fate of Isaac Babel, one of the great Russian prose stylists and victim of the gulag. His work, which is swimming in irony and ambiguity, quite likely led to his arrest. But, was too much read into that ambiguity, or read against it? He was barely writing at all by the time of his arrest. With the coming of Stalin, Babel's output stalled. He called himself a master of silence, a formation Wittgenstein would have loved. No doubt, this was not taken seriously either. Under totalitarianism, even silence counts as political speech.

The first striking thing about Babel's stories is their remarkable brevity, as if this Jew in imperial Russia, and then ironist under Soviet Communism, is trying to make his points as quickly as possible, before the authorities catch up with him. Babel has a remarkable aptitute for consision- not only using few words, but finding le mot juste to place in his sentences like a fishhook waiting to snag the reader. Babel never babbles. For instance, check out this passage, from his story The Road to Brody:

"I felt sorry about the bees. The fighting armies treated them most brutally. There were no bees left in Volhynia.

"We defiled the hives. We destroyed them with sulfur and blew them up with gunpowder. The smell of singed rags reeked in the sacred republic of the bees. Dying, they flew around slowly, humming so that you could hardly hear. And we who had no bread extracted the honey with our swords... There were no bees left in Volhynia."
The passage points towards the next striking thing about Babel's writing: the irony. It's never quite clear how seriously we should take what Babel is saying. For example, the great final line of his short story After the Battle:
"Bent beneath the funereal garland, I continued on my way, imploring fate to grant me the simplest of proficiencies- the ability to kill my fellow men."
Again, those last few words really snag the reader, don't they? But note the irony there. For most of us, killing our fellow men would be nearly impossible. Babel's character is a Jew trying to earn the respect of the Cossacks in his cavalry unit during the Civil War that followed the toppling of the Czars. A Jew fighting with Cossacks is strange in itself, but he needs their trust. So, of course, he needed the ability to kill. Does he mean what he says here? Or, is he being ironic in retrospect? I think both answers are right.

The stories in Red Cavalry, and the stories about his childhood in Odessa, are infused with this sort of irony. The story Gedali, in which our soldier chats with a Rabbi, trying to convince him to pray to the Revolution, is perhaps the best statement I've ever read about the Russian Revolution and its ambiguities. Taken one way, it's a straightforward story about the stubborness of faith. Taken another, it's about the ridiculousness and bloodlust at the heart of post-revolutionary Russia. It's a bit incredible that it was published in Russia.

True believers, of all stripes, can't stand irony, because irony refuses to take a clear stand. It stands back, detached, from social reality, commenting on the futility of those clear stands. One suspects this is why Babel died in the gulag. But, irony does take a stand- it states that the individual is worth more than the sum of his allegiances. Irony asserts the sovereignty of the self.

And that suggests the most striking thing about Babel- his humanity. While he smirks at the abstract "struggles of history", which often hide ageless human violence, his heart never quite hardens towards the not-so-abstract people who suffer through history. His sense of the unfairness of life, which admittedly starts with himself, extends to nearly all the people he's ever known. He recognizes how easy it really is to kill another human being- it's harder to live with them- and his humanism is in his acceptance of the imperfection of all men. Recognizing the imperfection of the individual is, in itself, a strike against abstract theories of human society.

Perhaps the Soviets killed Babel because he didn't take them seriously either.


Friday, June 12, 2009

The Fierce Awesomeness of Now

On Wednesday evening, Claire and I went to a showing of Juliet of the Spirits at the Art Gallery of Hamilton. I've always enjoyed Fellini, although I prefer his early, grittier, rambling films like The Nights ofCabiria to his sprawling, carnivalesque epics like 8 1/2. When I saw Juliet of the Spirits at age 15, I remember being charmed by the costumes and colorful, Baroque look of the thing, but not really understanding or being too concerned about the plot. This time, I realized that Giulietta Masina's "spirits" were ones she had conjured up from her childhood and was now leaving behind as she separated from her husband. I definitely enjoyed the movie now on a different level, but I'm not sure you have to understand Fellini's movies to enjoy them.

Reactions to the movie were mixed, probably owing somewhat to the uncomfortable chairs in the AGH. The woman sitting next to us was particularly disappointed; she'd seen the movie when it was released in 1965 and now found it to be horribly "dated". A man in the audience asked the Italian scholar speaking after the showing if it wasn't too dated as well, citing some sort of recent critical dismissal of Fellini. It would be impolite to point out that both this man and the woman sitting next to us could be described as a bit dated themselves.

And isn't it a weak criticism of art to call it dated? Okay, nobody talks anymore like they do in Shakespeare, but so what? Isn't all art created at a certain time and place, and thus able to be dated? The alternative would be to only celebrate art that is "cutting edge", or "contemporary", or of this time. In other words, only art that flatters us about our current historical status quo without confronting us with any sort of difference. The fierce awesomeness of now!

I will admit that some art doesn't age well. I really can't sit through much of Brecht anymore. Of course, that's due to their politics and Fellini's work was apolitical. But, certainly there are styles that fail to move us. Nobody could possibly cry as much as a character in an 18th century sentimental novel, and there are some didactic neo-classical paintings that leave one could. Perhaps the 1960s pop surrealism of Fellini's films seems a bit corny to modern audiences.

And yet his theme: the inner life of a wife- can that possibly be dated? Have women ceased to have inner lives, psychological histories, or imaginations? Or is it the subconscious that's questioned? Fellini read his Jung and right thinking people have rejected psychoanalysis. It's
not that they've read any Freud- most have not- it's that they'd rather not hear about this subconscious when they could just as easily takemeds. This is progress: rejecting out of hand one of the most penetrating and influential thinkers of the 20th century and replacing his insights with the "method" of fucking around with psychoactive drugs until one works.

Of course, the woman was probably thinking none of this. Maybe she just found the movie to be slow and stagy in the 1960s style. Everyone's entitled to their opinion. My point is only that whatever critical consensus has rejected Fellini as outdated is wrong. Fellini is a guide to the dreamworld, which certainly still exists. That will not date. When it comes to art, the opinions of critics matter not a whit. What matters is the opinion of other artists. I came to Fellini through Woody Allen. And I suspect that there are artists now who will discover Fellini's films in the future and find that his dreamworld resonates with them.


Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Our Yard Work

A while ago, I mentioned that we were "redoing" the front yard, entirely removing the grass in front of our house and putting in a garden. We have finished with the bulk of the work, so I thought I'd share some pictures.
Okay, this is what our front yard looked like from the sidewalk as recently as a month or two ago. As you can see, it's not a big yard, so the mowing wasn't terrible. However, what you can't see is the enormous tree on the other edge of the sidewalk with roots and shade making it nearly impossible to keep the grass healthy. Also, I hate mowing grass.

Here we are digging up the tulips in order to replant them in the back yard- something I'm told you aren't supposed to do, but it worked out fine for us- as well as... I think the technical term here is "rototilling the shit out of the yard". This left a surprising amount of soil in the front yard. In fact, I spend several days hauling dirt to the back in order to level the plain. We now have a huge mound of dirt in the back yard, which will be a problem to solve another day.

After leveling out the soil, we planted some bushes and hostas towards the house. Then, we cut through the yard with a stone path. We found a nursery that would sell us rough stones from their pile for two bucks a piece. The finished path is a bit different from this picture- it's a bit tighter and doesn't veer so far to the right. But, you get the idea here. We were trying to prevent the whole thing from looking too regular and planned out.

Lola, our cat and ruler of our lives, here shown inspecting the work. She's taken the whole thing in stride, although we're not sure digging up the yard and bringing in all the plants did her allergies any good. And, yes, we discovered (after bringing her to the vet to see why she was coughing on a daily basis) that cats can indeed have allergies. Being a cat, she's now walked through the yard once and lost all interest in it- at least compared to her abiding interest in what's under the car.

Here's the edge of the yard closest to the house. You can see the path and various bushes and hostas and lots of cedar chips. This was what we had intended to be done with by year two, but we pretty much plowed through the plans in a month. It helps that I'm home nearly every day now. I have also added a small trench along the side for rain water and some moss in between the first few stones.

This is what it looks like currently. There's a bit more blooming and I'm going to add some more moss to the path, as well as digging a small trench in front, and growing some grass on the right side. But you get the idea. Given a few years, I think it will grow in quite nicely, and I will not have to mow any grass here.


Monday, June 08, 2009

Lingering online

The sky was overcast today, the clouds like a wet, gray cloth waiting to be wrung out on our heads. It was also cold and unnecessarily so; one can accept a certain amount of rain in early summer, and even welcome it. But the trade off should be that it's warm outside.

Nevertheless, I took a walk to the store and the Canada Post box, daring the rains to come. (Not everyone can be so courageous!) I was restless for most of the morning, making it difficult to stick to the travel narratives I'm reading. There comes a point in which everything you're studying feels like common knowledge because you're so familiar with it. Will I really need to tell the reader about the Elgin marbles? Unfortunately, you can't assume that anything is common knowledge anymore.

I was also restless, admittedly, because I avoided today my inveterate habit of logging on to see what was happening in the "world", or at least what's new in the online gossip network. I read the usual websites daily much like my grandfather read the morning paper. The only difference being that these daily papers update are replenished throughout the day, and there's no end to this paper.

This I think is the first problem I have with the Internet: it has no endpoint. Logging on to check email leads to visits to the usual sites and back and forth, trying to find some logical point to stop. Even if I only spend an hour online, it was more than I had planned.

The second problem I have is that I simply have to change a habit. This is doubly hard: first in that I have to learn to do something new, and secondly in that I have to remove the stability of the old habit from my life. A habit provides one with regularity and the sense that things are unchanging. Therefore, a habit is the performance of stability. Habits give the sense that time has stopped somehow, a relief for humans, who are stuck with an expiration date that is always approaching.

I don't believe logging on is the problem- it's the logging off. An alcoholic friend often jokes that her problem isn't with drinking; it's with stopping once she's drinking. I quite like the Internet for about thirty minutes per day. The problem- and I think this is quite common- is that I linger too long online. I'm now training myself to stick to the thirty minutes.

Also, having a finite lifespan, and currently reading Proust's classic novel of a life spent in idle pursuits, I'm a bit worried about spending my youth on Youtube. In an interesting article (online natch), Benjamin Kunkel writes: "I can't claim that my life is any richer since I got a high-speed internet connection" My neither. A bit more crowded, rushed, and therefore making me less patient; but no richer.

It's not poorer either. At least, I hope not. But, remembering my life before the net, I recall often being bored and coming up with creative ways to pass the time. I'd wander through places I'd never been, write stories, start conversations with strangers. Now, I log on. I think I might like to be bored again.


Sunday, June 07, 2009

Room to Grow

Picture: Computer generated image of the Plantagon greenhouse, designed to grow crops in urban environments, thus removing the cost of transportation and delivery. The Plantagon blog is located here.


Friday, June 05, 2009


I should make a correction to that post about men and women in higher education. If you look at the data provided by the Dept. of Education, the percentage of men relative to that of women in higher ed is dropping, like I said- using Professor Perry's chart. However, looking at the numbers here, what you see is that the numbers of men receiving degrees is still growing, albeit at a much slower rate, and not shrinking. Maybe we could honestly call it stagnating, but not "less men than ever", as I had said. So, it's not really a matter of young men abandoning university education as much as young women really taking to higher ed. The young men are just getting left behind.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Mark Penn actually calls them GLBs, or "Guys Left Behind". He cites a researcher who suggests that men are falling behind because of how they "evolved over thousands of years and now face "biological and societal" hazards that make them more vulnerable now." From the caves to WWII, "it worked for men to take big risks, have short attention spans and be driven by ego," and now it doesn't. He also cites employers who find that "guys" can't listen, are too fidgety, and are more likely to flake off than women.

I will refrain from picking this argument apart. But, I will say that this researcher, and Penn, demonstrate here an almost total lack of historical knowledge. In a society that has completely lost the historical sense, perhaps these sorts of evolutionary/biological explanations- However people are now is the way they've been for all of recorded time, by their very nature- will become very popular. Historians sometimes claim that people in the Middle Ages had so little knowledge of history that they most likely lived in an "eternal present". I think we've returned to that eternal present.


Thursday, June 04, 2009

Sarko la Pute!

When I got back to the states after half a year of research in France, my Virginia relatives marveled: "Yeah, I bet you heard a lot of French people complaining about Americans!" I resisted the urge to respond, "Well, they certainly do seem to hate one of them who they call Sarko...." Overhearing French people overheating about Nicolas Sarkozy was a daily occurrence last year. The graffiti outside my room in Gardanne read, "Sarko la pute", a nickname I heard often.
According to the Economist, not much has changed this year- hatred of Sarkozy is as strong as ever among the French, although the opposition to so divided that one imagines he'll get reelected anyway. It's worth noting that French hatred for the French President isn't exactly something that started with Nicolas Sarkozy- it's actually hard to remember any French President who wasn't hated by the French public while in office.

It should also be noted that Sarkozy's governing style is sort of a combination of the hyperactive let's-reform-everything-at-once aspect of the Obama administration with the self-righteous, patronizing, jackass arrogance of the Bush administration. So, it's not exactly a surprise that he's encountering resistance. I might be annoyed with his Napoleonic bluster if I lived there. One thing I could not understand, however, is the French embarrassment over their ultra-glamorous First Lady Carla Bruni, pictured here. That seems a complaint too far.


Why didn't I think of that?

Thomas Allen creates montage-like photos by cutting out the figures from the covers of old pulp novels and positioning them together in pop-up displays. Very clever. More here, and here.


Chinese Propaganda Posters, Part 2

... can be seen here. I'm particularly fond of the woodcuts, and impressed to learn that all Chinese people are burly with unreasonably excellent teeth.


Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Where the Girls Are

Are universities still "where the boys are"? Less so than ever it seems.

According to Professor Mark J. Perry, using data from the US Department of Education: "Women dominate men at every level of higher education, in terms of degrees conferred." The percentage level of males to females overall in universities seems to be about 60/40, and in general, the percentage of women entering universities seems to be increasing, while that of men entering universities seems to be decreasing. "Of the more than 3 million college degrees for the Class of 2009, women will earn close to 60% of those degrees (1,849,200), or almost 149 degrees for every 100 degrees earned by men."

I've now been working at a giant state university for five years, and I've seen basically the same student body composition. In general, there seem to be more girls coming in, and less of them dropping out. I'm not keen on speculating about why this is the case. I've heard a lot of people speculate about this and often their speculations are pretty fucking stupid, as you'll note reading through the comments on Perry's post. So, it seems to me that the subject might just work against intelligent commentary.

However... I would like to analyze the explanation I've heard most often: that schooling is now, institutionally, anti-male. The argument goes that boys are, by nature, more hyperactive, fidgety, disruptive, or even rude. Instead of letting them be themselves, schools try to "feminize" boys by forcing them to behave in specific ways: making them be quiet, not allowing them to talk out of turn, requiring them to be polite, and so forth, that are simply unnatural. And, by trying to force them to conform, they alienate these boys, who then drop out. This is all, incidentally, taken to be a new development, and is often tied to "therapeutic education" or "liberalism" in some sense.

It's actually a very Rousseaunean argument. If you read Rousseau's Emile, you'll find that he agreed that education should basically consist of allowing the student to follow his natural gifts and doing as little as possible to discipline him. He focused, incidentally, only on male education here. But, the liberal argument that discipline warps us instead of elevating us begins with Rousseau. Also the idea that it's better to be natural than unnatural.

So, indeed, by the time you get to the 1960s, you hear a sort of knee-jerk anti-authority argument in which teachers, judges, cops, doctors, et cetera are simply people who exercise power over others to maintain the establishment, and therefore all critiques of those figures are somehow valid. The kid who mouths off to their teacher is simply, "speaking truth to power". I'd suggest that this argument, which derives from Rousseau, is one that more of us would be familiar with.

While boys like Jerry Rubin or the beat writers did sometimes seem to see themselves as being akin to the Marx brothers hassling poor Margaret Dumont, I don't remember the argument being so gender-specific. The current argument seems to be that the system forces boys, and not girls, to conform to a standard that is uniquely "unnatural" for them. So, is the suggestion that young men should be allowed or encouraged to speak male truth to feminine power? Or that schools should back off when boys are behaving in whatever way feels natural to them? It implies a very 60s liberal sort of argument with a mildly conservative slant. We can save the males by rejecting authority.

I went to high school back in the 80s, so maybe this supposed feminization had already occurred; but it's hard for me to imagine the golden age in which young boys were allowed, or even encouraged to mouth off to their teachers or run around yelling. It seems to me that education has never been much like Rousseau's dream and has always been something of a "conformity factory", as Homer Simpson once put it. And, frankly, I've seen the level of discipline in educational settings drop off dramatically in the last two decades. (And one might ask if there are now more boys who are lacking any male adult role models in their lives than there were a few decades ago.)

I can see the argument that schooling might have once been more competitive than it is now; but it's still very competitive, and besides girls are both competing and coming out on top as it is now. So, I can't see how more competition would change that. Couldn't it also be the case that girls feel more comfortable competing with the boys than they used to?

Again, though, I don't know what's changed. I will say, however, that I don't remember ever in my life hearing as many people as I've heard in the last decade claiming that men are, by nature, less academic or cerebral, less given to thoughtfulness or quiet reflection, and less polite and civilized than women are. I don't just hear this in the "schools hate men" argument; I also hear it in movies and commercials, conversations, books and editorials; and usually said with a patronizing shrug, "Aw, you know how guys are!" (Loud & dumb.)

It's also bullshit. I know quite a few young men, and they constantly amaze me with how varied they are- they contain multitudes undreamed of in your philosophy. But, I have to say that a surprising number of them I know are unhappy, and it never seems to be because they're less kind or intelligent or quiet than society expects them to be; usually, quite the opposite. Moreover, none of them I know seem to be lacking in people telling them how "guys" are "naturally" supposed to behave, or not behave.

So, maybe it's not just the teachers that need to just let them be.

Update: What you'd expect, given that now more college graduates are women, would be for the pay gap to start closing. And, indeed, young women in their 20s seem now to be making more than their male counterparts in the major US cities.


The world is nothing like you've heard

My sister's email about gnoua music set me on a mission to learn more about this type of music, which is clearly very popular in Morocco, as well as Algeria. The weird thing is that I realized that I've actually listened to musicians playing this music in Nantes, at the foot of a 17th century church one weekend evening. If that's not a strange image, I'll also note that I was the only other one there.

Anyway, I also discovered Gnawa Diffusion, who play a more modern version of the music, and this very entertaining song. Why didn't I know about this stuff? And why is everything my sister tells me about Morocco so different from anything I've heard about Morocco before?

I know people who roll their eyes whenever the topic of "cultural diversity" comes up, and I think it's because there is something patronizing and compulsory about most "official" stabs at "diversity". One also gets the sense when hearing people rhapsodizing about "celebrating diversity" that they're really celebrating, or maybe consuming, that certain thrill of difference that can only continue to exist by maintaining a certain level of otherness, a certain distance. Observing cultural difference from behind a glass wall so as not to "spoil" another culture. It's somehow very chaste. The irony is that when you actually do engage with people from other cultures, before long they cease to be so diverse. "Celebrate diversity" could thus be taken to mean "keep to your own side of the sandbox".

On the other hand, why avoid cultural diversity? I mean, real cultural diversity, which is often stranger, more bracing, and much harder to pigeonhole than the corporte workshop version, is also a hell of a lot more interesting and fun than living in places where one culture dominates. I've lived in a few of those places and they were no fun, even when the culture was radically different from my own. The irony of the old time bigot's terror of cultural mixing and "decay" is that cultural systems collapse into intellectual entropy when they're closed, not open. Cultural purity is boring. If you don't think so, feel free to move to Amish country.*

The other thing is that the world is already much more diverse than it's usually portrayed in the supposedly diversity-centric media. I don't hate the mass media as much as other people do, but it needs to be said that you absolutely must visit a place in order to know what that place is like; the media is no help at all. Whenever I travel anywhere, I'm always struck by the same thought- "damn, this place is nothing like I've heard it is!" This isn't just the case with cultures that are underrepresented in the media, who rightfully complain about the lousy stereotypes; it's also the case when I visit the southern US, or the midwest, or even the major cities: they're never a damn bit like you've heard they are. Thus far, I'd actually say the portrayal of Southern American whites in the media is about the least accurate and most offensive of them all. But, nobody makes out well. The world is always different.

Even Canada has been this way for me. I mean, if you visited us, I could give you the "Canadian experience": take you to Niagara Falls and the Canadiana stage musical they have there, go watch a hockey game, listen to some Stompin' Tom, go to cottage country, and maybe even find a mountie, although I've never actually seen one. But, after a week, you'd figure out that Canada is nothing like you've heard it is. And it's nothing like I'd heard it is. In many ways, Canada reminds me of the US. But, then there are times when I think, "holy shit, is this place different".

I think it's because the media relies on a shorthand version of cultures. So, if they're showing the life of a fiesty Latina, or a stoic midwestern farmer, or an inner city B-boy, or whatever it is, they're always giving you the immediately recognizable, somehow dumbed-down, version of that culture. It's easy to absorb and entertaining because you're not challenged in any way. But, over time, people absorb those sterotypes. So, they see a television show in which there's, say, an aggressive macho Italian guy, and they think, "Ah, yes, that's very accurate." They end up like certain relatives of mine, who have never left rural Virginia, but who would tell me, "I think you're going to find that the French are very snobbish, and they hate all Americans!"

And then you end up with dueling stereotypes: the media (and that includes the Internet) stereotype versus the idealized "celebrate diversity" version. I think for me, honestly, I was just lucky enough to travel a lot at an age in which I was still young and horny; wanting to have sex with people from other cultures is a great incentive for cultural learning. Maybe this should be our model for cultural mixing: playing music together, drinking together, sleeping together, making lewd jokes- not being so hung up on maintaining our cultural purity or their cultural purity. It's more fun than the patronizing liberal pieties or the media's Amish villages.

And, again, the world is completely different from what you've heard it's like.

*I've only been to Amish country a few times, so I'm probably guilty here of just the sort of stereotyping that I'm making fun of. I have no excuse, although I am lucky that they don't have computers!


Monday, June 01, 2009

10eme Edition de Festival Gnaoua Essaouira 2007

My sister sent this in response to my question about what sort of music they have in Morocco. She says some of these people play in front of her house on a weekly basis and that she now avoids them!