Een vreemdeling altijd midden ouden / Жат кишинин түбөлүккө байыркы элдердин арасында
I’m someone who always seems to half-learn a language. I can master the basics for negotiating costs and traveling, as well as the best snippets for intellectual conversation, but there’s a wide gulf of, let’s say “actual” or “useful” language in between. And although I typically turn out as a partial mute, paradoxically, I also typically end up with a pretty advanced reading comprehension (I’m most guilty about this with French: I can’t order a pizza but I can read Merleau-Ponty — not that I’d really want to, though).
I imagine that for all half-mutes like me, it’s a common experience every time we try our hand at another language, we inevitably have weird reactions inside our skulls. Sometimes my brain wants to reply in Dutch or Hebrew, even Spanish; other times, it can’t escape the grip of English, and the words of my conversation partner just seem to slam headlong against a blank concrete wall between my ears. Studying Kyrgyz has provoked yet another kind of reaction: fond recollections for Flemish, but also some regret about the language.
Continue reading “Een vreemdeling altijd midden ouden / Жат кишинин түбөлүккө байыркы элдердин арасында”
Protected: I have seen tomorrow, and it looks like Kazakhstan
Protected: Taking off the masks
The view from inside Mediastan
The Kyrgyz have a proverb which goes, “Balaluu üi bazar; balasyz üi mazar”: “When there are children, the house is a bazaar; When there are no children, the house is a cemetery.” Although intended as an admonition for people doubting whether they want to become parents, it’s equally fitting as a warning to governments about the dangers of limiting the freedom of the press.
However, what Julian Assange and Johannes Wahlström seem to have discovered in their new film Mediastan is that there are, and shall always, be limits to the press – the expected political, legal, and financial limits, but also cultural, cognitive, and ethical limits. And as they endeavor to argue in the American context, it’s also dreadfully easy to mistake a mazar for a bazaar.
I’ve been asked by WikiLeaks-Press.org whether I have any reactions to the film. They came to me because a little over two years ago, I published an academic essay about WikiLeaks’ complicated impact upon the region. I’ve decided to take this as an opportunity to update some of the things I said therein, as well as to articulate what I imagine will be the view on Mediastan from within Mediastan itself.
Today is Kurman Ait (Eid al-Adha), the Feast of the Sacrifice in the Muslim faith. It’s a universal holiday commemorating the necessity of sacrifice in the name of one’s beliefs and for the sake of the greater good. So, I suppose it’s an appropriate day on which to pen this review, since journalism should be, first and foremost, about such self-sacrifice.
In the spirit of sacrifice, then, I ask viewers to spend their hard-earned dollars, euros, rubles, tenge, etc. on Mediastan, rather than waste them on the Hollywood spectacle The Fifth Estate. In the least, reviews of the latter indicate that you will have a much more meaningful experience from the former. And even if you strongly disagree with Assange and his belief system, you should nonetheless trust the Kyrgyz proverb: ultimately, it’s definitely better to have those noisy children from WikiLeaks in the house than not.
But no matter which film you choose to see, keep the critical faculties of your cerebral cortex activated. For instance, Mediastan has been criticized as anti-American “agitprop” and biased by some, but this is an empty and facile criticism. The entire purpose of Mediastan is to raise questions – certain questions that arise from a certain perspective, yes, even a certain bias.
Big decisions have been made this week, ending my brief “landing” phase in Kyrgyzstan, and starting a new, experimental phase. I’ll be moving in with a very interesting group of students close to downtown Bishkek. Also, I have made the unorthodox choice to try my hand at Kyrgyz before Russian (I studied the latter almost two years ago, but can barely speak it at the moment).
Hopefully the move won’t entail more “student life”. Truth be told, although appearances probably suggest otherwise, I’ve never been a fan of the student’s existence. Yes, I enjoy the late evenings of conversations and being able to crash on a friend’s couch without worrying about annoying a spouse or being too loud after the children’s bedtime. However, I’ve never been keen about the material poverty and the mental tyrannies often inflicted by ideas, insecurities, and professors.
When I left Belgium, part of me finally hoped to return to living the young adult’s existence, of which I had much too brief a taste during my closing years in Philadelphia. An apartment full of upstarts, living in an upstart city, trying to do upstart things. Strange how those years still seem so near, and yet there is nearly half a decade between myself then and myself now. And strange how, in a way, I sort of had such an experience during my closing months in Leuven. Well, I will just have to see what transpires.
As for Kyrgyz, where do I start about that? The language issue, as I suppose it inevitably would be no matter what the context, is a real knot of issues. Like Belgium, Kyrgyzstan has a serious language crisis, so any decision a foreigner takes is bound to disappoint and consternate someone. I still remember how angrily some of my Flemish friends reacted when I decided to learn French, as well as how many of my expatriate friends rejected the utility of learning Flemish — “a farmer’s language” they called it.
I would like to ask my readers: if you were me, which would you choose to learn? Please answer this poll. And click “read more” to read the pros and cons as I understand them.
Protected: A Gagarin moment on the human frontier
Protected: The future civilization has already arisen; we are its agents here in the past
Protected: Peeping through the keyhole of the world
The coming Global War on Hacking?
I’ve got a suspicion that 2013 could very well go down as a fulcrum point in contemporary history, as well as in my own meager part in it. Julian Assange’s pinprick has now become Edward Snowden’s stab to the jugular vein, and meanwhile, I’ve had to provisionally decide how I’m going to steer the imminent deluge.
Here’s my thought process, and I’ll put it frankly to my audience: we should all be expecting in the near future the replacement of the GWOT (Global War on Terrorism) with the GWOH (Global War on Hacking). Consider: all it would take would be one massive power grid failure or some other similar immense infrastructural disruption, and then a logical but ultimately evidence-independent speculation (“we have reason to believe hackers were behind it”) to roll out new Patriot Act-like powers that effectively render criminal any technological attempt to maintain individual or collective privacy, much less to peer into the secrets of power.
The idea is not strictly-speaking mine. I heard it mumbled about in some quarters at the recent OHM2013 convention. However, other than an obscure comment to a 2011 editorial (copied in the post-script of this post), there’s nothing about in on the public web. So, let me spell it out a bit here, and then explain my own position, which I hope is moderate. And if not moderate, then at least independent…
Looking through a prism darkly: citizen-spy epistemology
So, this post is regarding the Prism program, and the phenomenon of mass-level metadata accumulation and pattern analysis that it represents. ProPublic has published an extremely useful timeline about how the United States intelligence community has developed to this point (such as we can know on the outside, given the high amount of top secret classification). Meanwhile, my colleague Joshua Foust (who has testified before Senate about over-classification and other problems in the intelligence industry — among other things, that it’s an industry), has published nine points about Prism that the public should think about. The most important are points #3, 7, and 8.
Joshua’s remarks border on the cynical, but nonetheless he is onto something. With respect to his last point, my job here is to explain about why this shouldn’t be a temporary outcry. And the explanatory methodology is simple (and I would say, spiritual). The consequences, however, are complex. (I) On the one hand, the citizen and the spy need to put themselves into each other’s shoes; and (II) on the other hand, the citizen needs to really understand what is being asked of him/her by the spy, but also why the spy shouldn’t be asking this of the citizen, either.
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Habermas @ Leuven: the EU as enormous labor union?
None other than Jürgen Habermas has come to speak at Leuven, and about nothing less than the future of the European Union – to be precise, “Solidarity, Democracy, and the European Union”. God bless him, Habermas is nigh unintelligible when he speaks (fortunately, the university distributed copies of his lecture), but no one can question that his heart is in the right place. The question is whether his heart possesses the best possible argument; that seems doubtful to me.
Arguably, Habermas is famous among philosophers, social scientists, and activists for making a Golden Age out of the Enlightenment era, and drawing abstract models therefrom. The best example is his famous description of how the public sphere and liberal democracy came to emerge. Historically, a crucial institution was the coffeehouse, which philosophically becomes liberal democracy in ideal form: a common, agreed-upon space wherein interlocutors agree to rationally and coolheadedly debate an issue to a consensus. Elections, in their best form, resemble such a debate; so, too, legislative discussions.
With respect to the European Union’s present troubles and its future solution, the historical model for Habermas, at least as I understand him, appears to be the late-nineteenth century labor union, which philosophically becomes supranational democracy in ideal form. This time, the idea is of forging a cohesive fraternity with a democratic (i.e., rational, deliberative) but still collective decision-making process with a wealth-sharing agenda. I presume that because everyone is acting and thinking in solidarity, and because the European Union’s various institutions are driven to work for the best interests of this collective, the notorious “democracy deficit” that besets the Union today would evaporate. So too would disappear the clash of national self-interests that are threatening, says Habermas (and we all sort of feel it), to rend asunder the northern and southern economies.
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Protected: The political-theological shadow of Maslow: “I have desired only what Thou didst desire”
Wait for the wheel (III): For my axel to become roots
The wheel has turned once more; the fasting is done, the samovars are heated, the tea is served. Naw-Rúz has quietly returned. Today is a holiday older than memory, signifying the cosmic cycle of seasons; the eternal struggle of light and dark; the lesson that must always be re-learned at ever-subtler hermeneutical depths, as we sift through the alluvium of meaning upon the banks of an enigmatic river.
This was the first cycle since becoming a Bahá’í that I performed the full fast: that is, getting up before sunrise to eat, abstaining from food and drink, etc. In previous cycles, I ate bread and water at set times; insomnia made arising so early an impossible challenge; and solitude, wrought by a lack of like-minded colleagues, was disheartening company for the journey. Understandably, I dreaded the coming of the fast this year — but this cycle around proved different. This cycle, I had company, as well as a determination, spurred on by close friends, to step beyond doubt and foreboding to try.
I was always perplexed by my fellow Bahá’ís, who every February would anticipate the fast with excitement, and then seemed so happy to be starving themselves. Now I see why. The air has been thick with providence, and every other day the earth shook with unforeseen encounters and conversations. New insights seemed to creep around every corner. A few of the things I’ve learned, some quotidian, some esoteric, some harsh, some I needed to be reminded about, some that should not have been so surprising. And in the end, I find myself writing this:
my edge scraping through the mud
damp soil clinging to my spokes
rolling and whirling and churning
never advancing, never regressing
digging and sinking and descending
seeking a telos, finding epicycles
the same lessons with new textures
grinding through sediments of meaning
the epochs of my life laid like old shores
traces of ancient continents re-discovered
down deeper to the planet’s burning core
where elements transmutate, matter reshapes
for my axel to become roots, my hub a seed
and hatching, finally, arising toward the sun
[Note: The image above is by the artist Alphadesigner. It concerns the myth of Ganymede, but I’m more interested in its imagery than its symbolism…]
Protected: Red threads and corkscrews
Protected: The view from bar-do’i srid-pa
Capitalist realism: homo capitalus / homo financus
Update 31 May, 2012: Some readers, even after braving through the many photos and philosophese, have asked me: “Just what exactly is the ideology or goal of ‘capitalist realism’?” I think what I’m trying to say is simply this: if socialist realism celebrated and promoted the mechanization of humanity, then capitalist realism celebrates and promotes the marketization of humanity. Moreover, both art forms have strong semiotics of the future and of power. However, where socialist realism was explicit in its totalitarian drive (at least, it’s obvious in retrospection), capitalist realism still purports to be liberalist (in the sense that people are allowed to be whoever they want to be “in private”, although what exactly that means, much less the boundaries of the private, is uncertain).
Although this is clearly a critical photo-essay, it’s also, perhaps paradoxically, supposed to be appreciative: contrary to opinions currently in vogue about the aesthetic “superficiality” and psychological “blandness” of either communist or capitalist architecture, the art form is actually quite intelligent, provocative, and in its own way, rather sublime. That’s not to say that it’s morally good; rather, that’s to say it shouldn’t be blithely dismissed or knee-jerkingly condemned.
This post could be alternatively entitled, “How I learned to stop grumbling and love corporate-capitalistic architecture.” As a young boy, I would sometimes visit my father’s stock brokerage firm in 650 Fifth Avenue. I couldn’t decide whether its granite modernist facade was drab, imposing, and soulless, or somehow futuristic, even graceful and attractive. I think in general that has characterized my feelings about most post-Sixties corporate/financial office architecture — until yesterday as I wandered Hammersmith and the City of London for a few hours. I found myself taken in by some kind of obscure metaphysical charm, even sublimity. And then I realized: this stuff’s not at all dissimilar Soviet socialist realism. In fact, I’d dare even call it capitalist realism.
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Protected: Aufheben in East Berlin
Абай, Штра́ус, и совет от моего отца.
The BBC has published my piece on Abai Kunanbaev, which I was working on while in the United States. It’s entitled, “Abai’s thoughts, Kazakh matters”, which is a play on what struck me as a very Abai-esque quote from a young Kazakh psychologist I just happened to bump into underneath Grand Central Station. The Kyrgyz version was released yesterday; still to come is the Uzbek version, and then the original English version, which I believe will come during the early summer. This is a big moment for me, as it’s not everyday one can get published on the BBC, much less in three languages and about philosophy, that perennially “un-newsy” of disciplines — alhamdulilah!
Like an excitied little boy, I shared the English copy with my close friends, colleagues, and family (I can’t distribute it publicly at the moment due to copyright). My father had the following remarks to make:
Congratulations, Chris! Heady stuff, although that’s nothing new. Reading your description of Abai as Kazakhstan’s first philosopher as a tie in to today’s independent journalists there, makes the whole piece all the more timely. Also, in my opinion, it is very well written, and I could follow it as I read it, not too obtuse although certainly intellectual. Key elements for your first direct BBC contribution. Love, Dad
Not only is this advice I will remember as I continue to seek one path of service as a public intellectual, finding a way to communicate complex and important ideas for a general audience, but it also resonates with the direction many of my thoughts have been turning in recent months.
Journalism as sacred dialogue
Today marks my third year as a member of the Baha’i Faith. To commemorate, I would like to explore something which I hope might be a positive theoretical contribution to my religious community: exploring and engaging in journalism as a fundamentally religious endeavor which, in its highest expression, constitutes a sacred dialogue. To develop this, I first need to take some time to explore the ways in which journalism, often rightly recognized as a scientific-like activity, nonetheless has, as it were, a religious soul.
The spiritual principle of detachment dictates that one give and then let go, so what follows herein is something that I am attempting to work out in such a spirit. It is also as much good spirituality as it is good academic etiquette to give credit where credit’s due: the phrase, “journalism as a sacred dialogue”, actually comes from one of my professors, Bart Pattyn, in response to my blog post, “Transcendental Journalism?”, wherein I describe my original intuition. The notion of “journalism with the soul of religion” is also inspired by recent work, as-yet unreleased, of my friend Ben Schewel into the notion of “religion with the soul of science”.
So, to get to the point: my essential thesis is that the journalist is a breed of philosopher as described by Edmund Husserl. As such, he or she can be understood as engaging in an activity that is quite surprisingly spiritual, to the point that it might even be described as in some sense mystical.
By claiming that the journalist is a Husserlian philosopher I mean that the journalist is a phenomenologist. Alternatively, my claim here can be understood that all critical intellectuals are phenomenologists when they are engaged in the study of experience, a definition that encompasses many of the “erudite” professions, from anthropologists to artists. In my view, the journalist and the philosopher are among those who are the most routinely engaged in such a study. Either way, the journalist and the philosopher are blood siblings, although it is hard to see this from outward appearances — ironically, we must be phenomenologists to understand the deep family resemblance between them.
Without intending to do injustice to the complexity of Husserl’s thought, as I understand him, a phenomenologist is a person who “takes a step back” (“epoché“) from experience by assuming the stance of a “transcendental subject” in order to examine and report upon the former. Husserl could just as well have been describing the journalist. Now, in my experience, many secular Western journalists would prefer terminology like “neutral observer” or “spectator”, but my Islamic colleagues would agree with a Husserlian description of their work. That is because in traditional Islamic thought, going back to al-Ghazzali (“occasionalism“), there really is no such thing as a “neutral observer”; rather, there is the divine subjectivity that holds everything together and that only appears as a neutral observer because it is the perspective that bedrocks all perspectives:
“No vision can grasp Him, but His grasp is over all vision. God is above all comprehension, yet is acquainted with all things” — Qur’an 6:103
I think it noteworthy that Husserl himself has described the “step back” with spiritual terminology: “resolved to understand the world out of the spirit”, “spiritual movement”, “religious conversion”, “fundamental transformation”, “ground experience”, “un-humanize”, and “meditation”. He probably means this in the Buddhistic sense of stilling the mind, but this terminology brings with it a contemplative connotation, namely, that the stance of spectator requires a stepping outside of one’s perspective so as to examine oneself and the world more surgically and meaningfully.
We may ask: “who” is the transcendental subject? Husserl probably has in mind the Cartesian cogito (“I think, therefore I am”), which isn’t necessarily either the “I” we individually associate with, opening the possibility that it is God. I don’t know whether Husserl himself intended this (and if one reads Descartes very closely, he’s actually quite fuzzy about the relationship between the cogito and the divine), but I think the Islamic tradition makes a good case that the transcendental subject is the divine, if not the divine essence, then that aspect of the divine which is the “grasp over all vision”.
What this means, then, is that the phenomenologist — and by extension, the journalist and the philosopher — has a hugely important element of the mystical in the Heschelian or Avempacean sense of them aspiring to unite with the transcendental and absolute, thereby achieving the divine perspective, a.k.a., “objectivity” and “neutrality”. Whether they are successful and how we could assess this is an entirely different matter; what interests me here is this fundamental religiosity at the core of journalistic and philosophical work (ironically, even if the specific journalist or philosopher is a staunch atheist and opponent of religion).