Author Archive

Snail Email

In Communication on September 17, 2009 at 10:02 pm

cartoon-getting-a-letter-in-the-mailD. Hannah, Dubai

Gone are the days of eMail as we knew it. Where once the excitement of something new, now lies only the faded thrill of a letter. We may have hundreds of thousands rotting in our inbox every morning, waiting for our reply to be popped and sealed into the vacuum tube of the Internet internal messaging system (where it in turn waits to be fired back) but that one speck of gold – that one name we recognise immediately, being usually conspicuous by its absence, will send me into paroxysms of glee. Yes a veritable tin of glee is opened and poured liberally over open hand to be rubbed together, quiet contemplation echoed in a deep smile and shrill giggle, thoughts flashing ahead to home, wine (I’d recommend a good Kiwi red) and sitting down to peruse it at my leisure. Even a short missive if represented by the right name will banish thoughts of work – not that I usually get as far as the medium of the missive. No the name is enough to send me to sign out just in case I get a premature glimpse.

eMail is now to be savoured like the letters of sweethearts in war movies (minus the running of the scented envelope under nose of course – technology has and probably can go just so far). I mean it’s just so damn rare that we get ones that matter. When they first came out, the world was a bigger place, and phone calls being so expensive the new idea was jumped upon. Suddenly, it was cheap and fast to keep in touch. Then it became cheap but not fast enough. Text and instant messenging came into vogue, MSN to gmail chat to skype, available and on as soon as you booted your computer so everyone could see you were there and ready set waiting to be talked to. Then that too became too difficult – I mean actually responding to people? What were they thinking?

And so came the mass transit systems of communication. Now people don’t just see that you’re there, they see what you are thinking, doing and plin-plon-planning. A response without responding. Ingenious I must admit, but not for me. When – and more to the point why – did communication between friends become one to many? Wasn’t that sort of communication why books were invented? At least books contain stories – beginnings, middles and ends. Where’s the climax in Myspace, the face off in Face Book? When I talk to a friend, I want conversation – someone genuinely thinking about what I may want to hear – someone thinking of me and how I fit in their context.

As Sympathies is dedicated to the thought of picking up the quill and parchment (or flipping open the lid to keyboard as it were) I ask you this. When was the last time you sat down, and with malice aforethought tapped out a real eMail to an unsuspecting friend? Try it. The two I have received this month have made the long summer weeks go a little quicker (I live in the Middle East – this is a good thing).

So as the last Face Book holdout, I go back to the front and prepare to go over the top. eMail is the way forward. If you want to hear from me, you must be prepared to hear FROM me – not about me. And rest assured as I write I will be sitting and thinking to myself ‘remember that time…’ and may you catch a glimpse of that sentiment and find yourself in quiet contemplation echoed in a deep smile and a shrill giggle.

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Post-structuralism, a Desert Perspective

In Sociology on September 9, 2009 at 10:24 pm

OsmosisD. Hannah, Dubai

Well, me old puritan…in answer to your queries:

Perhaps I was hasty in saying that ‘ground up’ is the basis to post-structuralism, but it is certainly central to it.

Post-structuralism sees discourse as central to discussions of identity. Discourse ‘refers to thoughts, actions or writing that presents particular relationships and are taken as ‘self-evident’ (Paechter in Francis & Skelton 2001). A good example of this in Puritano’s context is the prevailing discourse in Japan that it is a nation of ‘homogenous ethnicity’. This is propagated by politicians, portrayed in Manga and goes without critical comment in most mainstream Japanese press. It is seen as obvious despite the equally obvious fact that other ethnicities exist in Japan. Critical comment must come from foreigners – those who exist outside the discourse, even if they are Japanese. Discourses define behaviour and thought that agrees with the discourse as normal, and that which doesn’t as abnormal, indicating the power relationships behind discourses (you must be a foreigner or traitor to think otherwise). ‘Homogenous ethnicity’ – discourse is grounded in and defined by language.

In this way, post-structuralism borrows from social construction theories in that it allows for discourse to be propagated socially via the institutions around us. It differs however, in that it allows for “human agency…the ability of people to take an active role in their own lives” (Mac Naughton in Yelland 1998). In other words, people will actively take up discourses; they aren’t just implanted by osmosis. In our example, Japan can be shown to be multi-ethnic, but despite this people say it isn’t. Faced with this people may choose to take up an identity that flies in the face of evidence. They must do so because they see value – capital – in doing so (think of how right-wingers are funded and feared). Other disagree with the prevailing discourse, despite the fact its to their detriment to do so (like being targeted by right-wingers and being called foreign apologists/traitors) – they must find capital in doing so too. Social-construction, however, says we automatically take up discourses that we are exposed to and hence can’t explain these anomalies.

This active take up is also my explanation to the idea that ‘ground up’ is central to post-structuralism. Puritano is a reductionist. He believes it all lies in the neurons and their incredible matrix that grows as people grow from day one. Post-structuralism also agrees that people make, break and reinvent their own connections as they grow, are exposed to and make sense in their own way of the prevailing discourses surrounding them. A discourse is thoughts and beliefs described through language. Language changes over time as it reflects thoughts and beliefs. Only people can invent language. Only people can change language. Language is born and carried in our neurons and reflects the connections made in those neurons.

Japan provides another example of this. There used to exist a highly hierarchical society defined by language (eg. Burakumin). As Japan embraced democracy, this idea had to change, and the language changed as well. The language changed to reflect the new egalitarianism, and instead Japan became a country of ‘homogenous ethnicity’. Over time, this too will change as ‘multi-cultural’ enters the Japanese lexicon.

Puritano asks us to answer the question: “If human meaning is not in the patterns of neuronal firing, where is it exactly?” I love it. Where else can it be?

Collected Rants

In Classicism, Ranting on May 14, 2009 at 9:21 pm


Editor’s Note: In the interest of post-consolidation, and as a means of putting off having to write something new, we are consolidating several shorter posts into a handful of longer ones.  This post collects three rants, and are arranged in the order in which they were posted.  Puritano’s was not originally labeled a rant, but we detected the seeds of hysteria therein, and so it was designated.

“On the Classics, a Rant”
Dean Williams, Kyoto

When science arrives it expels literature.

Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson

In science, read by preference, the newest works; in literature, the oldest.

Edward George Bulwer-Lytton

Note: The italicized unattributed quotations are from Shakespeare.


Take counsel of some wiser head.

I wish to speak to my brothers and sisters, my fellow seekers. The others, fortunate souls, may leave the hall. Don’t go far though, I’ll be wanting to speak to you soon. Thank you.

Now we’re alone and may talk candidly, with ruthless honesty, as only family members may with each other. Before I talk to them, I wanted to ask you a question of a private nature.

You, addict, reader. Why do you do it? You have spent oceans of time on an activity that has brought you…what? What great gift, what life advantage have your countless hours poring over books brought you? Economists speak of “opportunity costs”, the hidden price we pay for a transaction that takes resources away from some other possible investment that we could have engaged in had we not chosen the one we did. You have paid a price for your years bent over the page, depend upon it, fellow-sufferers. You could have learned a language or two, become proficient enough in computers to earn a living, saved thousands of dollars on books many of which you have not and will never read. I ask you again, what have you gained?

Knowledge? The others, the lucky ones I asked to leave…have they not profited enough from their more casual gleanings, are they not able to take part competently in discussions of literature, symposia on historical questions, all the myriad forms of financial, intellectual and personal communication? Do they not know things? This, even though they do not believe, are not committed, do not, when asked the simple question, “Is knowledge the most important thing of all to you”, respond gloomily, “Yes…” but cheerily retort, “No, living is the most important thing to me. I use knowledge to live better.” They sip the wine, they do not tilt the bottle up and drain it; they smoke a joint or two, they do not have track marks on their arms. They acquire knowledge to live better lives. Oh, how I despise them. The faithful parishioner, back bent and eyes rheumy, hands shaking as he lights the candle in the church which he has faithfully visited all these years, how does he feel when architectural enthusiasts come in for a few minutes to ooh and aah over the stained glass and the icons before trotting out to lunch. Does he smile when they drop a coin or two in the collection box? Does he pity them, the unbelievers, the casual enthusiasts? Or does he envy them?

One could go on, one could mention the considerable and historic disjuncture between knowledge and power or financial rewards or fame. Truman said, “The world is run by C students.” This has always been true, perhaps it will always be true. My purpose here is not to whine, it is simply to remind you before we go on the stage, before I call them back in, that this is a fight; no, it is a war, and one with real consequences.  Who and what should our young learn about? Should some forms of knowledge be privileged over others? And what should we as human beings know? Or,  Kant’s fundamental questions:

1) What can I know?

2) What ought I to do?

3) For what may I hope?

4) What is a human being?

In 2009 the educational professional or government official (may they burn, writhing in the flames of hell) would say the first two questions are ‘curricular  or educational policy issues’ and Kant’s questions are ‘abstract philosophy’ or ‘navel-gazing’ or something worse. I say they are mechanics, unimaginative, narrow-minded and short-sighted functionaries who are responsible for most of the ills of this world.

Of course you, in your messy and wonderful way, have been struggling with these…can I really call them..questions—for a long time. You didn’t always know why, you didn’t have even a semblance of a plan, but that’s what you have been doing. And you are not alone, oh no. You are not many, but there are others out there. On an even more personal note, may I tell you that my favorite family members are the ones still “in the closet.” That is, they think they are learning because they are in some formal academic program or “just like to read.” But you are as different from those others as “Firmament from Fin.” (Dickinson) The intellectual fashion of the times is uncomfortable with elitism, especially of the intellectual variety. And so I do not blame you for cringing a bit when I speak of this way, or even when you think to yourself, “He still thinks individuals call the shots, how quaint.” It is true,

I am no wiser than a daw.

But it is not about wisdom, it’s not about knowledge, it is about belief. Later I hope to bring in the big artillery and talk about how important knowledge is, and knowledge of certain realms, certain aspects of human life. But for now, let me leave you, the unvanquished if unrecognized inheritors, with the question I began with: what has your singular devotion brought you? Are you still parishioners? Do you still believe? Or are you here to check out the stained glass?
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Classicism in Arabia: On Classicism V

In Classicism on May 2, 2009 at 8:27 pm

byblosD. Hannah, Dubai

“Now is the winter of our discontent, made glorious summer by this 40 degree + heat.”

Having recently been exposed to a couple of very good examples of classics, I thought I might share some thoughts on the idea of classicism – if not what compels people to put pen to paper, then at least to offer some commonalities that may help decide why we tack the label “classic” to things. In no particular order (i.e. chronologically) I have wandered through the ruins of Richard III’s court and the Roman Empire, stopping briefly along the way to peek Saddam’s Iraq and have a quick look at Phoenician artefacts displayed in a crusader citadel.

On the 19th of March I was fortunate enough to see a performance commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company of Richard III subtitled “An Arab Tragedy”. I was pretty excited about the prospect – Richard III is one of my favourite plays, and it liberally encrusts the cultural landscape (my kingdom for an adjective). How though, did a play written circa 1591 by a man widely regarded as the greatest playwright of the English language come to the Jahili fort in Al Ain, UAE, to be performed in Arabic by a cast of mainly Lebanese actors under a Syrian director?

The performance took place in a reconstructed fort, and was entirely in Arabic, with an underscore performed by live Kuwaiti musicians under an English musical director. Subtitles were provided on a large TV screen situated next to the stage. Interestingly, these were less of a text, than a running commentary – god was mentioned as both “god” and “allah” on different occasions, and metaphors reworked so as to capture the local equivalent and preserve Shakespeare’s “radical attack on language which makes him so modern” (director courtesy of the notes accompanying the play).

Richard III is the story of Richard of Gloucester, and how he murders and sleeps his way into supreme executive power merely “determined to prove a villain”. As such, I wondered how it would fit into an Arabic context – how could the Arab world find common enough ground to allow for a reworking of a play from a medieval christian background. I needn’t have worried, for the play spanned a broad history of the Arab world, particularly the 20th century, from fighting over boundaries to self made dictators determined to wreak havoc on their own populations (sporting bushy moustaches and military uniforms – ring a bell anyone?). Along side said dictator was the modern looking suit, definitely Arabic but with a French accent and affectations, providing “advice” and demanding payment in kind. Embedded reporters provided up to date reports, while a subdued populace was rarely sighted. The air was so thick with regional symbolism you could cut it with a chain-saw.

And it was here that I first thought of one prerequisite for being a classic – endurance. That is to say, something is classic because it endures, it doesn’t endure because it is classic. Power corrupting and absolute power corrupting absolutely is a human theme, unconfined by region, religion or time. This is what makes Richard III a classic piece, the flexibility to be unbound and placed in any context. And it is the exploring of these enduring themes and characterisation of the people that inevitably inhabit these roles that make Shakespeare a classic.

Classic architecture was next on the menu. A trip to Beirut culminated in a trip to the world heritage site of Byblos (Jbeil) which has seen human habitation since the Neolithic period (5000 BC). A crusader citadel built with Roman columns stands on a Greek site built on a Phoenician city.  The remains of a town have been excavated, but the Roman ruins stand partially intact; the remains of a columned street (7 columns intact) and an amphitheatre amongst others. Again, endurance is the key here. The Romans departed Byblos in 395 AD yet their ruins stand where others did not. The lines and attention to detail stand the test of time, they endure and are now thought of as “classic” architecture – indeed are considered ‘architecture’  – design with some regard to aesthetic effect.

As Mr. Inch pointed out in an earlier post, “confronting my own lack of belonging” is at once a universal and I would argue enduring theme; indeed a classic theme – a question asked from earliest days, and increasingly re-asked in the modern dislocated world. Power, whether in the empirical Roman form – manifested today in its remains, or in the retelling of the history of a hundred different nation states is another.

Dive thoughts, down to my soul…

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