Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Looking at someone in a photograph

It's easier to really look at someone in a photograph than in real life - no discomfort at meeting the other person's eye, no fear of being caught staring.
A.M. Homes: The Mistress's Daughter

Monday, 29 December 2008

North American Exceptionalism (2)

"We still have the most creative, diverse, innovative culture and open society — in a world where the ability to imagine and generate new ideas with speed and to implement them through global collaboration is the most important competitive advantage" Thomas L. Friedman wrote in The New York Times of 25 December 2008 ("Time to reboot America"). Needless to say, Friedman must be a US citizen (he thinks in superlatives) and by "we" he does of course mean the US. Well, North Americans are known the world over for having a slightly distorted view of themselves. In fact, we all have but not all of us are spreading it all over the place. By the way, how would one measure "the most creative" I wonder?

Saturday, 27 December 2008

On Reading Photographs (2)

The photograph showed four women. "This one's Roberta" the lady from the hotel told me. I looked at the woman she had indicated. "And here, this one is her too." Again I looked but to my eyes Roberta in picture number one looked entirely different from Roberta in picture number two. I mentioned it. "No, no, this is the same person; look she is wearing the same clothes." Indeed but ... I now focussed on the three other ladies. Their facial expressions in photo number one and photo number two were totally different. Had they not worn the same clothes (hardly a reliable indicator!) I would probably have not believed that these were the same women. "The photos were taken on the same day, just minutes apart" I was informed.

Never had it been more obvious to me that one moment can be totally different from the next. This is one of the things that photography can teach us.

Thursday, 25 December 2008

Look to this day

Look to this day,
For it is life,
The very life of life.

In its brief course lie all
The realities and verities of existence,
The bliss of growth,
The splendour of action,
The glory of power

For yesterday is but a dream,
And tomorrow is only a vision,
But today, well lived,
Makes every yesterday a dream of happiness
And every tomorrow a vision of hope.

Look well, therefore, to this day.
Sanskrit Proverb

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Question of Travel

... must we dream our dreams
and have them, too?
Elizabeth Bishop: Question of Travel

Saturday, 20 December 2008

Reading Tom Clancy in Valparaíso

I guess it is human nature to have opinions about a lot of things one really knows nothing about. I, for instance, know - without ever having read one - that the books of Tom Clancy are trash. I'm not a hundred percent sure why I think that but I suppose it has mainly to do with the fact that these books sell well. In other words, I do not bother reading them. But then, while spending several weeks in Valparaíso, the Chilenian port city, one of my favourite places on this planet, I came across a copy of "The Teeth of the Tiger" in my B&B (which I highly recommend: http://www.bbvalparaiso.cl/elmirador.htm). I read it and - contrary to quite some excellent literature - I still remember the story. Here are some excerpts that I liked:

By this time, all of America was watching TV, with reporters in New York and Atlanta telling America what they knew, which was little, and trying to explain the events of the day, which they did with the accuracy of grammar school children. They endlessly repeated the hard facts they had managed to gather, and hauled in “experts” who knew little but said a lot. It was good for filling airtime, at least, if not to inform the public.

The trouble with thinking deep thoughts is that you still have to cut the grass, and put food on the table.

These (European) people were so self-destructively open, so afraid to offend those who would just as soon see them and their children dead and their entire culture destroyed.

Those who denied God could be every bit as dangerous as those worked in His Name.

The problem is that no matter what you do, there’s somebody who won’t like it much. Like a joke. No matter how funny it is, somebody will be offended by it.

There’s an old saying: “If you’re not confused, you’re misinformed.”

Thursday, 18 December 2008

On the road in Rio Grande do Sul

Cidreira, three hours by bus from Porto Alegre, is windy, very windy, and not my idea of a week at the beach. And so I decided to go to Torres instead.

On the spur of the moment I ask the taxi driver on the way to the bus station how much the trip to Tramandaí by taxi would be. I thought his fare reasonable but nevertheless asked for a ten percent discount. He agreed, and so we took off.

Sérgio was 58 and had not always been a taxi driver. Most of his life he had worked as a musician. He played contrabass, first classical ("There are too few people in Brazil interested in it; you can't really make a living") then more popular tunes, and finally gaúcho-music. His music took him all over Brazil, and also to Uruguay, Argentina, and Bolivia. "What about Paraguay? I thought every Brazilian here in the South has been to Paraguay ...". "Well, I do not count shopping trips as visiting a country" he said.

At the bus station in Tramandaí I learned that there was no bus to Torres for several hours. I decided to continue my trip with Sérgio (again ten percent discount on his regular fare). Just outside of Imbé we almost collided with two horses that ran across the highway (had I not shouted ... !?) - they had broken free from wherever they were strapped to (they still had their cords around their necks).

From time to time, Sérgio slowed down because of monitoring cameras or because of traffic police. For the latter he put his glasses on. I looked at him in bewilderment. "My driving licence says I need to wear glasses" he explained. "However, I need only glasses to read, this is why I do not put them on. Except for the police for, well, you know, they check my driver's licence and there it says that I need to wear glasses and so I do, for them." He added: "Um jeitinho brasileiro, tudo é um jeitinho no Brasil." A "jeitinho" stands for Brazil's creative way of dealing with life's various challenges and includes breaking the law and feel virtuous about it.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Identity

Identity is not only how we choose to see ourselves, it is also how others choose to see us.

Recently, while waiting for my bags at the bus station in Porto Alegre, I was, in the course of about ten minutes, three times approached by fellow passengers with questions regarding their bags. Why do they ask me? I wondered. How come they assume I work for the bus company? I mean, I do not even remotely look like a bus driver or a ticket controller. I know, I know, not all of them look the same. But still: I simply do not look like a bus driver. Brazilians seem to see this differently though. Some Brazilians that is. And so I thought about it. And suddenly I knew. It was because of my light-blue shirt and because of my dark-blue pants. Every bus driver in Southern Brazil wears this combination, and every ticket controller. And it is like that in Thailand (at least in Bangkok), and in Switzerland (at least in Zurich), and in ...

The combination black pants/white shirt can likewise be fatal. Not when travelling but when going to Italian restaurants. In a Pizzeria in Basel I tried to get the attention of the waiter who hurried once again past our table ("Hey, you, sorry, but could we please order !?" I shouted impatiently). "I'm a guest here", the guy retorted, not very pleased. I could easily see why: Contrary to the waiters who all sported some red flower bouquet around their neck he actually wore a black tie.

Sunday, 14 December 2008

O Tempo Brasileiro

Dura duas horas a viagem para Porto Alegre, verdade?
Eh, duas horas. Sai daqui as onze e vai chegar em Porto Alegre a uma e meia.

Friday, 12 December 2008

Having a ball in Santa Cruz do Sul

Two days ago, Reinaldo attended his last conversational English class in Santa Cruz do Sul. As usual, we talked about anything and everything, from corruption to the ways of perception, from travels to how best live your life. He enjoyed my classes a lot and thought them interesting, stimulating, and helpful, he said. He wasn't however too sure whether his English had improved, he laughed. Well, to be honest, it hasn't, I laughed back.

Reinaldo is in his fifties (I suppose - I've never asked him) and works in tourism. He's been around, from Bariloche to China, and often missed his private class with me. Whenever he managed to attend, we had a ball. Among other things, I learned what a truly special place Easter Island is and that I really need to visit this fabulous hotel in the jungle near Manaus.

One day, he told me of a trip to Ireland, Wales, and England, that he had organised. "How was it?" I inquired. "Very good" he said. "We (a group of Brazilian males) went to see the Guinness Brewery in Dublin." "Any other places that you visited?" "Yes, Wales was fantastic, beautiful mountains and snow". "Snowdonia?" "Yes, and Liverpool, the Cavern Club, where the Beatles played. Unfortunately, I do not remember much of the rest of the trip. We had a lot of beer at that brewery" he laughed.

Reinaldo likes dogs. When the labrador at the school gave birth ("dar a luz" is the wonderfully poetic Portuguese expression for "giving birth"), he inquired whether it was possible to have one of them. "I once had a labrador, you know. At least I thought so. And the one who sold it to me thought so too. Although I was repeatedly told over the years that this dog was by no means a labrador but some bastard I insisted that it was a labrador for I had payed 300 Reais. One day, however, the guy, who had sold the dog to me came to visit and asked after the labrador. When I proudly pointed to the dog sitting next to me, the guy said: "This is not a labrador". Well, I wasn't exactly happy about that."

"In what language do you dream?" I asked him one day. "Women", he laughed.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

North American Exceptionalism

From time to time, an email from Trevor, a PhD-candidate at La Trobe University in Melbourne, reaches me. In a recent one he wrote:
"A few books I will have to get are described here: http://memo.brucebawer.com/" which made me go to the Bruce Bawer site that quoted the American writer Anne Applebaum who, according to Bawer, "spells out an important point for British readers:"

"Here is something that may be hard for foreigners to understand: Americans desperately want to believe that their country stands for fairness, for equality, for democracy. They especially want to believe this at times like the present, when there is a good deal of evidence to the contrary. After the disasters and embarrassments of the past few years - the mistakes made in Iraq and Guantánamo, the terrible financial crisis, the embarrassment of Hurricane Katrina - a vote for Obama allowed Americans to believe, once again, that the United States is still a virtuous nation. It's not just about being liked abroad, though being liked is nice: it's about being certain that we still are, as we have often told ourselves, an example to other nations, a "city on a hill"."

I wrote to Trevor:
"This is exactly what I can't stand about Americans: their exceptionalism. Why should they be an example anyway? Terrible thinking."

Trevor's answer:
"Ha ha, yes, American exceptionalism is a key to understanding American identity. It also explains why they voted for Obama (one of many reasons). A man who promised, or made the best promises to repair and buff up their exceptionalism. Also merging it with the campaign, 'look how great we are, we voted for a black man'. You can feel the message of aren't we exceptional radiating from their blogs."

Monday, 8 December 2008

The Gaucho

On the floor under his feet
Fodor's Guide lay open.
THE GAUCHO ACQUIRED AN EXAGGERATED NOTION
OF MASTERY OVER
HIS OWN DESTINY FROM THE SIMPLE ACT OF RIDING ON HORSEBACK
WAY FAR ACROSS THE PLAIN.
Anne Carson: Autobiography of Red

Saturday, 6 December 2008

On Reading Photographs

When, some weeks ago, I came across (on http://www.vewd.org/) photographs of Kashmir by Daichi Koda, whose aesthetics I've found impressive, I let others know about my discovery. And I got responses. One pointed out that her impression was that quite some work on the light seemed to have been done by using "some virtual laboratory technique". Reading that (thank you, Elsa) made me have another look at the images. And I felt the same: that this light was somehow too good to be true, that it must have been tampered with. Elsa had made me see that. How come I hadn't realised it myself?

Yet a few days later, doubts started creeping in. And I wondered: Why would a young Japanese photographer embark on a journey to far away Kashmir and upon returning to Japan make quite substantial alterations to the photos he had taken there? Now I wanted to know how it had really been. And so I emailed Daichi who let me know that although these were digital pics, and although he did use photoshop, he didn't "change the light drastically."

I now look at these photos (http://www.daichikoda.com/) with different eyes and do wonder at times whether by using only natural light the effect could have been the same. Yet most of the time I do not ask myself this question for I've decided to trust the photographer to convey to me what he had found in the places he visited. What he had done afterwards was, in the words of Elsa, to add a bit of salt to the food but not to turn it into processed junk food. That sums it up very nicely, I find.

Thursday, 4 December 2008

The average distance between stars

Space, let me repeat, is enormous. The average distance between stars out there is over 30 million million kilometres. Even at speeds approaching those of light (300,000 kilometres per second), these are fantastically challenging distances for any travelling individual. Of course, it is possible that alien beings travel billions of miles to amuse themselves by planting crop circles in Wiltshire or frightening the daylights out of some poor guy in a pickup truck on a lonely road in Arizona (they must have teenagers, after all), but it does seem unlikely.
Bill Bryson: A Short History of Nearly Everything

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Coincidência?

De vez em quando, um legume, uma disposição de sementes silvestres ou o couro de uma vaca parece uma face humana. Houve uma famosa berinjela que se parecia muitíssimo com Richard Nixon.
Carl Sagan: O mundo assombrado pelos demônios

Sunday, 30 November 2008

The Politics of Repackaging

Yesterday, the Associated Press reported:

"It wasn't too long ago that Barack Obama and his advisers were tripping over one another to tear down Hillary Rodham Clinton's foreign policy credentials.

She was dismissed as a commander in chief wanna-be who did little more than sip tea and make small talk with foreign leaders during her days as first lady.

"What exactly is this foreign policy experience?" Obama said mockingly of the New York senator. "Was she negotiating treaties? Was she handling crises? The answer is no."

That was in March, when Clinton was Obama's sole remaining rival for the Democratic presidential nomination. Now, Clinton is on track to become Obama's secretary of state."

Politics as usual, I know. No, I do not want to complain about it. Not on a Sunday. However: I do get increasingly angry at myself for still following political news, for listening to what politicians deem fit saying, for giving such people part of my time.

Friday, 28 November 2008

The little contradiction

We have become a guilty nation. Somewhere in the moil of the national conscience is the knowledge that we are caught in the little contradiction of loving Jesus on Sunday while lusting the rest of the week for mega-money. How can we not be in need of someone to tell us that we are good and pure and he will seek to make us secure? For Bush-and-Rove, 9/11 was the jackpot.
Norman Mailer in The New York Review of Books, November 4, 2004

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Beruflich in Grossbritannien

Obwohl die deutsch-britischen Wirtschaftsbeziehungen auf eine lange Tradition zurück blicken, seien die kulturbedingten Unterschiede in der deutsch-britischen Wirtschaftszusammenarbeit ausgeprägt, schreiben Stefan Schmid und Alexander Thomas im Vorwort zu Beruflich in Grossbritannien. Man fragt sich da unwillkürlich, ob es vielleicht für die deutsch-britischen Beziehungen nicht besser wäre, wenn Deutsche und Briten nicht miteinander Handel trieben? Forschungsarbeiten würden zudem zeigen, „dass nicht zu erwarten ist, dass mit zunehmender Intensivierung der deutsch-britischen Zusammenarbeit in quantitativer und qualitativer Hinsicht durch Konvergenzprozesse diese Unterschiede nivelliert werden. Vielmehr ist zu beobachten, dass mit zunehmender internationaler Kooperation in gewissen Sektoren zwar Konvergenztendenzen auftreten, dafür aber in anderen Bereich divergierende Einflussfaktoren an Bedeutung zunehmen.“

Nun ja, wer dermassen hölzern schreibt, trägt seinen Teil dazu bei, dass eine Verständigung (sowohl zwischen Vertretern verschiedener Kulturen als auch unter Angehörigen ein und derselben Kultur) unnötig schwierig bleibt. Glücklicherweise geht es sprachlich nicht so weiter.
In der Einführung machen die Autoren Wesentliches klar: „Englisch zu sprechen heisst nicht, Briten zu verstehen.“ In der Tat, doch es gilt auch: Wer nicht wirklich gut Englisch spricht, hat wenig Chancen, Briten zu verstehen, denn diesen dient ihre Sprache häufig eher als Waffe denn als Mittel zu Verständigung. Zudem: Humor und Ironie sind den Briten ganz wichtige Elemente im Umgang miteinander und für diese braucht man ein gut entwickeltes Sprachverständnis. Wer das nicht hat, gilt in Britannien schnell einmal als hoffnungsloser Fall.

Wer sich interkulturell erfolgreich verständigen will, muss sowohl die eigene als auch die Zielkultur verstehen. Das kann man, bis zu einem gewissen Grad, trainieren. Schmid und Thomas bedienen sich der in den USA entwickelten Culture Assimilator-Trainingsmethode: „Es setzt sich aus einer Vielzahl von Situationen zusammen, die Missverständnisse zwischen Deutschen und Briten illustrieren … Dem Lernenden werden zu jeder der dargestellten Situation vier unterschiedlich zutreffende Erklärungsmöglichkeiten (Deutungen) angeboten. Er soll nun jede dieser Alternativen dahingehend einschätzen, ob sie die Situation treffend erklärt. Anschliessend erhält der Benutzer Rückmeldungen (Bedeutungen) zu den Erklärungen und kann feststellen, inwieweit seine Annahmen zutreffen.“

Gegliedert ist das Buch in sieben Themenbereiche: Selbstdisziplin, Indirektheit interpersonaler Kommunikation, Ritualisierung, Pragmatismus, Ritualisierte Regelverletzung, Interpersonale Distanzreduzierung und Deutschlandstereotyp – übrigens: die Lektüre lohnt nicht nur für Deutsche. Nehmen wir das Thema „Selbstdisziplin“: unterteilt ist er in fünf Beispiele: Nimm dir einen Keks; Geburtstagswünsche; Der Feueralarm; Royal Opera; Die Diskussion. Anschliessend folgt ein erläuternder Text zur „Selbstdisziplin“. Die anderen sechs Themenbereiche sind ebenso aufgebaut.

Ein solches Buch zu schreiben ist schwierig, weil man um Verallgemeinerungen nicht herumkommt und sich Erfahrungen, die notgedrungen individuell sind, manchmal nur schwer verallgemeinern lassen. Die Autoren wissen das und halten denn auch in ihrer Schlussbemerkung fest: „Die Bandbreite der Verhaltensweisen bei Briten ist ebenso wie bei Deutschen durch persönliche Erfahrungen, Schichtzugehörigkeit, Lebensraum, Alter und andere Merkmale geprägt. Den Rahmen dafür bilden allerdings die im jeweiligen Kulturraum gültigen Regeln und Normen, die in diesem Training in Form von Kulturstandards beschrieben sind.“

Das Buch hat ein paar Schwächen. Wenn man zum Beispiel liest, dass es „zur englischen Grundvorstellung von Höflichkeit“ gehöre, „dass man die eigenen Bedürfnisse und Wünsche zu kontrollieren und verbergen vermag“, kann man sich schon fragen, was daran so besonders Englisch sein soll. Das ist aus dem Zusammenhang gerissen? Also gut, hier der nächste Satz: „Dahinter steht die Idee, sich selbst nicht so wichtig zu nehmen und dadurch eventuell andere nicht unfairerweise zu benachteiligen“. Auch dies ist nichts so besonders Englisch, möchte man meinen. Zudem: Wollen die Autoren etwa suggerieren („eventuell andere nicht unfairerweise benachteiligen“), dass „faire“ Benachteiligungen (was immer das sein mag) in Ordnung wären?

Die Autoren betonen unter anderem, dass die Engländer sich sehr indirekt untereinander austauschen; sie nennen das „Indirektheit interpersonaler Kommunikation“. Man denke an Formulierungen wie „I am not quite sure, but…“ oder „I might be wrong, but …“. Diese seien, so die Autoren, „nicht Ausdruck einer grösseren Unsicherheit oder Unentschlossenheit auf Seiten der Briten. Sie dienen vielmehr dazu, dem (??) Gegenüber nicht vor den Kopf zu stossen und Achtung vor seiner Meinung zu signalisieren.“ Daraus auf „eine völlig andere Diskussionskultur als in Deutschland“ zu schliessen, ist sicher richtig, doch nicht im Sinne von Englisch = indirekt; Deutsch = direkt, sondern häufig gerade umgekehrt. Sieht man etwa die Presse als Teil der Diskussionskultur, so ist nämlich die englische viel direkter, viel angriffiger, viel persönlicher, und viel meinungsfreudiger als die deutsche.

Summa summarum: Ein differenziertes und kluges, ein gelungenes und anregendes Buch, das einen motiviert, mit und selber zu denken. Nicht nur über die fremde, auch über die eigene Kultur.

Stefan Schmid / Alexander Thomas
Beruflich in Grossbritannien
Trainingsprogramm für Manager, Fach– und Führungskräfte
Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen 2003

Monday, 24 November 2008

A photo essay on Kashmir

There's something magical that the photos of Daichi Koda radiate. It's to do with the composition, the black and white, and, above all, with how masterfully he makes use of the light.

This one here (only a part of it can be seen - for the full picture go to the link mentioned below) shows a school in the mountains of Kashmir. The students portrayed, who had to come a long way to school, are waiting for their friends to arrive.


Daichi Koda was born in 1983, and started to photograph in 2004. His photo essay on Kashmir can be found here: http://vewd.org/index.php/photo/essay/daichi_koda/
I especially warmed to photo number 12 - it brought up memories from the Swiss mountains, and from Greece. Why Greece? No idea really but it for sure is not the least of the beauties of photographs that they trigger lots of unexpected associations.

Saturday, 22 November 2008

Weltliteratur & Wirklichkeit

.... in den Fernsehserien nach Klassikern der Weltliteratur. Da lernt zum Beispiel eine Frau einen Mann kennen und hält nicht besonders viel von ihm, aber im Lauf der Zeit tut er dies und jenes, was sie erkennen lässt, dass er letztendlich doch ein ganz anständiger Kerl ist, und dann mag sie ihn. Sie wissen schon, Lieutenant Chadwick rettet Major Dingsbums vor Spielschulden oder dem möglichen Ruin oder aus einer gesellschaftlich oder finanziell peinlichen Lage, worauf des Majors Schwester, Miss Dingsbums, die von Lieutenant Chadwick seit dem ersten Tag seiner Versetzung in diese Gegend verehrt wurde, ohne dass er bei ihr landen konnte, plötzlich seine Tugenden erkennt und ihn mag. Ich frag mich, ob es das je gegeben hat oder ob das nur eine Phantasievorstellung des Autors ist. Meinen Sie nicht, dass es genau umgekehrt ist? Meiner bescheidenen Erfahrung nach lernt man nie jemanden kennen, erfährt dann dieses oder jenes über ihn und beschliesst daraufhin, dass man ihn mag. Im Gegenteil: Man mag jemanden und bemüht sich dann, dieses und jenes in Erfahrung zu bringen, um das Gefühl zu untermauern.
Julian Barnes: Liebe usw.

Thursday, 20 November 2008

Thai Lessons

"I understand", said our Thai teacher during class at AUA in Bangkok, "that in America they have a saying that goes 'Good God its Friday'. It seems to mean that work is no fun, and that only the weekend can be enjoyed. In Thailand", she smiled, "we don't know such a saying. In Thailand, we enjoy every day."

Some years ago, The Nation, an English-language newspaper from Bangkok, asked Thai women married to Americans what they thought their fellow Thai who were about to marry American men needed, above all, to know: "As amazing as this may sound but to Americans it is more important to get things done than to look good at work", they said.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

O virus dos intelectuais

Não sabia improvisar, estava infectado com o virus dos intelectuais: o formalismo.
Augusto Cury: O Vendedor de Sonhos

Monday, 17 November 2008

Raising a camera

Raising a camera to one's face has effects no one can calculate in advance.
Anne Carson: Autobiography of Red

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

La llegada de la fotografía a la América del Sur

El invento (del daguerrotipo, 1839, en Paris) habría demorado años en llegar a la América del Sur (el 29 de febrero de 1840 ... a escalos seis meses de la presentación oficial en Francia) si no se hubiera dado una experiencia insólita y fascinante. Todo se debió a una expedición marítima, un premio que también representaba un castigo que un grupo de comerciantes belgas y franceses decidió propinar a sus hijos díscolos y malos estudiantes. Les organizaron una vuelta al mundo como forma de aprender en forma prática cuestiones de comercio, navegación e ídiomas. Era una especie de colegio viajero a bordo de una hermosa fragata bautizada L'Orientale, acondicionada con los mejores instrumentos científicos de su tiempo, acreditados profesores y selecta biblioteca. Entre los tripulantes venía el abate francés Louis Compte, instruido personalmente por Daguerre en el manejo de la máquina y el procedimiento del daguerrotipo, quien aparte de sus funciones religiosas traía el encargo de tomar vistas de los lugares que visitaran.
Juan Antonio Varese: Historia de la fotografía en el Uruguay

Monday, 10 November 2008

Intercultural Coaching (3)

In a DHL-brochure called "Growing Accustomed to Customs", from 1991, the section on Brazil states such utter nonsense as: "Never make the mistake of speaking Spanish", and "Never refer to Brazilians as Latin Americans", and "Never bring up the subject of Argentina".

When for the first time in Brazil (in the Northeast), I did not speak a word of Portuguese. I however spoke Spanish. And so I addressed the people in Spanish. And got along just fine - there were even some who took my Spanish for Portuguese. Once I was conversing with a young woman on a bus for about twenty minutes before she, all of a sudden, asked what language I was speaking (I'm aware that you might now question my Spanish but I can assure you that it doesn't sound like Portuguese).

While most Brazilians do not consider themselves Latin Americans (in any case, they do not seem to give it much thought), they are far too relaxed to mind being labeled Latin Americans.

"Never bring up the subject of Argentina" is so stupid a statement that it does not merit to be addressed.

Saturday, 8 November 2008

Photos & Context (2)

On 30 October 2008, the website of The New York Times published this photo by Al Grillo from the Associated Press on its front page:
Copyright by Al Grillo / Associated Press

The accompanying text read: "After he was convicted on seven felony counts, Senator Ted Stevens returned to Alaska for a campaign sprint."

What do people think who select such a photo to illustrate the return of a convicted felon? I wonder.

Thursday, 6 November 2008

Documentary Photography (3)

Susan Meiselas’ Nicaragua was first published in 1981 and reprinted by Aperture in 2008. The book is divided into three parts: The Somoza Regime (June 1978); Insurrection (September 1978); The Final Offensive (June 1979 – July 1979) and introduced by the following declaration:

NICARAGUA.
A year or news,
as if nothing had happened before,
as if the roots were not there,
and the victory not earned.
This book was made,
so that we remember.

Already the first photo – some rural place, in the rain, a pig on (main?) street, strangely timeless – demonstrates impressively that this country, like any other country, has a past and a present, whether noticed by the rest of the world (who noticed this particular country only when a civil war was going on) or not.

The colour (that is rather unique for pictures from war) photos radiate something magic although I couldn’t say why that is. I don’t think it’s the subjects (labourers at work, groups of people in uniforms, burned out cars, political demonstrations, street fighting, dead bodies, barricades, tanks etc) but maybe also. There is a strange presence about these pictures, they made me feel like being there.

One photograph, at first glance, doesn’t seem to fit at all: a black limousine at the bottom of stairs that lead (one supposes) up to the entrance of some official building, a chauffeur in a white uniform with a white hat, who holds open the car door; men in white suits who climb up the stairs; in the background formations of soldiers, all in white uniforms. What is this? And, how come it is to be found in a book about a civil war? The caption (on the last pages of the book! No, I do not even want to know why the captions were put there …) informs that: „President Anastasio Somoza Debayle opening new session of the National Congress 1978“. A bit thin, I’d say.

A very famous photograph shows a young woman running on a road with a near-naked little boy hanging from one arm and a bag slung over her shoulder. The caption explains: “Fleeing the bombing to seek refuge outside of Estelí, Nicaragua, Sept. 20, 1978.” The caption says: „Fleeing the bombing to seek refuge outside of Estelí, Nicaragua, Sept. 20, 1978.”

Years later, in a documentary about her work in Nicaragua, Susan Meiselas comments: “That photograph is taken by at least five different photographers, at different points during her journey. She is literally vultured by us. No one is thinking to help her, including myself.”

That is indeed the question/problem, not only of war photography, but of journalism in general: It lives off the misery of others. As Janet Malcolm famously wrote in „The Journalist and the Murderer“: „The more pompous talk about freedom of speech and the ‘public’s right to now’; the least talented talk about Art; the seemliest murmur about earning a living.”

The war photographer and the ones who simply look at these pictures share the same dilemma: both know that these photos should not exist and both are glad that they do.

Susan Meiselas
Nicaragua, June 1978 – July 1979
Aperture, New York, 2008
http://www.aperture.org

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

He wanted the photograph to do ...

He wanted the photograph to do what the actual event had done to him. Men and dogs driving a flock to pasture was an ordinary occurrence here in the west of Ireland, and yet it had made DelCorso ache inside, filling him with the wonder of a time traveller who had been transported back to the age when all men were nomadic herdsmen, wandering over a wild earth.
Philip Caputo: DelCorso’s Gallery

Sunday, 2 November 2008

Photos & Context

One can hardly imagine a political debate without several "you've quoted me out of context". It is a real killer argument and implies that context is something fixed, and clear, and understood by all reasonable people in the same way. Well, it is not. Context is constructed, fabricated, made - and serves usually the ones who profit from it.

Likewise, the notion that for a photo to be understood it needs to be seen in context is widely accepted. And, it is also true. But who defines the proper context?

In real life, photos are usually displayed without contextual information. Because they only "function" without it. Take this picture here (thanks for sending it, Pieter) that, without any additional info, might be interpreted as two political leaders (whatever that is) trying hard to convey the impression that they possess a sense of direction, that they know which way to go. This is the kind of analysis that usually passes for critical journalism but only falls into the trap laid out by the political actors shown in the photograph (or their advisors - not shown in the photograph).

Photo: DPA

Needless to say, this picture could be interpreted very differently. Are Brown and Merkel birdwatching? Do they point at a passing airplane? Or did they perhaps spot an eagle about to land? The fact that the man in the background doesn't fall for the show might indicate that we shouldn't either and would be well advised to stick to what the photo shows: Brown and Merkel gesture for the cameras.

Friday, 31 October 2008

What you sow

Sow a thought, and you reap an act;
Sow an act, and you reap a habit;
Sow a habit, and you reap a character;
Sow a character, and you reap a destiny.
Samuel Smiles

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Games People Play

They are playing a game.
They are playing at not playing a game.
If I show them I see they are,
I shall break the rules and they will punish me.
I must play their game,
of not seeing I see the game.
R. D. Laing: Knots

Monday, 27 October 2008

Documentary Photography (2)

I felt attracted by the book title - Aftermath: War Is Only Half the Story - looked at a few pictures on the internet, and thought the project, and the pictures, interesting. I imagined it to be a work of documentary photography on the long-term fate of victims of conflict. And, in a way, it is but …

It starts with a text entitled “the journey is the destination” (I later found out that this wasn’t the title but the motto for the following text carried it too), the subtitle says: “Jim Goldberg was interviewed by Kirsten Rian”, there is however no interview to be found but a text that consists of two sentences that, when they end, immediately begin again and stretch over several pages: “Muzaffar ‘Alex’ Jafari writes about his journey on foot from Afghanistan to Greece via Iran. Now Alex is in school and supports himself by working in a call center’. These two endlessly repeated sentences are accompanied by a selection of photographs that, unfortunately, come without captions. Whatever the intention for this was, I’m not terribly interested to know. I liked however how most of the pictures were composed although I wasn't entirely sure how some of them were related to “the journey is the destination.”

Then comes a well-told and interesting story by Andrew Stanbridge about the hills with bomb craters in northern Laos. The craters are a legacy of intense bombing in the 1960s and 1970s. American forces dropped more than two million tons of bombs on Laos during the Vietnam War. The pictures, again without captions, that follow this text are however not of Laos but of Africans (?!).
Then once again comes the above mentioned text by Andrew Stanbridge. Then pictures of Laos, thankfully with captions, are displayed. One photo shows rebar. Why would anybody think a photo of rebar worth selecting for a book? Well, the caption says it all: "Rebar made from melted down bombs". A powerful message.
Then, for the third time, Andrew Stanbridge’s text, this time followed by pictures. I had no idea what they showed. No captions, no additional information, mostly scenes in black and white that seemed to show places inside, or nearby, buildings.

The book left me somehow at a loss. Then, on Google, I found a helpful text by Simon Winchester. Here it is:

“Founded by photographer and writer Sara Terry, the nonprofit Aftermath Project documents the long-term repercussions of conflict that are so often neglected by the popular media. Terry, whose work has been widely exhibited at such venues as the United Nations and the Museum of Photography in Antwerp, initiated this project after her extensive documentary work on postwar Bosnia. Through grant competitions and partnerships with other institutions, Aftermath disseminates reportage on postconflict rehabilitation and attempts to create new avenues for peace. War Is Only Half the Story presents the winners of the Aftermath Project’s first annual grant competition: Jim Goldberg, whose project The New Europeans records the struggles of asylum seekers and immigrants; Wolf Böwig, whose The Forgotten Island: Narratives of War in Sierra Leone (second place) is recounted through the eyes of five-year-old Morie, the sole survivor of an attack on Bonthe Island; and runners-up Andrew Stanbridge (postwar reconstruction in Laos), Asim Rafiqui (the hidden costs of war and peace-building efforts in Kashmir) and Paula Luttringer (a survey of sites in Argentina where women and their children were abducted between 1976 and 1983). The imagery in this volume represents some of today’s most challenging and diverse documentary work.”

Thanks for letting me know. It’s unlikely that I would have guessed that this is what my eyes showed me. I must however admit that the “attempts to create new avenues for peace” eluded me.

AFTERMATH
War Is Only Half the Story
Jim Goldberg, Wolf Böwig,
Paula Luttringer, Asim Rafiqui, Andrew Stanbridge
Aperture, New York, 2008
http://www.aperture.org

Saturday, 25 October 2008

Instantes

Si pudiera vivir nuevamente mi vida.
En la próxima trataría de cometer más errores.
No intentaría ser tan perfecto, me relajaría más.
Sería más tonto de lo que he sido,
de hecho tomaría muy pocas cosas con seriedad.

Sería menos higiénico.
Correría más riesgos,
haría más viajes,
contemplaría más atardeceres,
subiría más montañas,
nadaría más ríos.
Iría a más lugares adonde nunca he ido,
comería más helados y menos habas,
tendría más problemas reales y menos imaginarios.

Yo fui una de esas personas que vivió sensata
y prolíficamente cada minuto de su vida;
claro que tuve momentos de alegría
Pero si pudiera volver atrás
trataría de tener solamente buenos momentos.

Por si no lo saben, de eso está hecha la vida, sólo de momentos;
no te pierdas el ahora.
Yo era uno de esos que nunca iba a ninguna parte sin un termómetro,
una bolsa de agua caliente, un paraguas y un paracaídas
si pudiera volver a vivir, viajaría más liviano.

Si pudiera vivir nuevamente
comenzaría a andar descalzo a principios de la primavera
y seguiría descalzo hasta concluir el otoño.
Daría más vueltas en calesita,
contemplaría más amaneceres,
y jugaría con más niños, si tuviera otra vez vida por delante.
Pero ya ven, tengo 85 años y sé que me estoy muriendo.

Jorge Luis Borges: Instantes

Thursday, 23 October 2008

On Bureaucracy

The police post was manned by about fifteen gendarmes, all armed to the teeth. One was polishing a submachine-gun. The commandant turned out to be a big Southerner of about six foot five. He summoned me into his office and inspected my documents minutely. What was my reason for being here? I displayed my research permit, a most impressive document, covered with photographs and stamps. He was clearly very unhappy a I tried to expound the essential nature of the anthropological endeavour. 'But what's it for?' he asked. Choosing between giving an impromptu version of the 'Introduction to Anthropology' lecture course and something less full, I replied somewhat lamely, 'It's my job'. Subsequently, I came to realize what a highly satisfactory explanation this was to an official who spent most of his life in pointlessly enforcing rules that seemed an end in themselves.
Nigel Barley: The Innocent Anthropologist

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Money Democracy

Some time ago, I wrote a piece on Barack Obama and his intercultural competence:

http://www.kwintessential.co.uk/cultural-services/articles/barack-obama.html

Once it was published, I sent the link to the Obama-campaign. Ever since, I receive regular and informative emails from the campaign manager, David Plouffe, and from Barack, Michelle, and Joe, that never fail to encourage me to donate to the campaign.

Never was it so clear to me that democracy American-style is entirely about money. Democracy of the money, by the money, and for the money, Kinky Friedman (I think) once remarked.

As Horst Herold, the former head of the BKA, the German FBI, once said. I paraphrase: There is no democracy (where the people are supposed to rule) in capitalism, in capitalism it's the money that rules.

Sunday, 19 October 2008

Ich weiss nicht

Ich bin, ich weiss nicht wer
ich komme, ich weiss nicht woher
ich gehe, ich weiss nicht wohin
mich wundert, dass ich so fröhlich bin
Meister Martinus von Biberach
(Fassung Hanno Kühnert)

Fürwahr, ich weiss nicht, was mich traurig macht
William Shakespeare: Der Kaufmann von Venedig

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Cultural Otherness

From Cultural Otherness: Correspondence with Richard Rorty:

The West has been learning about its racism, its sexism and its imperialism not from philosophers, but from people who give us detailed accounts of what these social vices have done to individual human lives.

We pragmatists hope to dissolve traditional philosophical problems by viewing them as disguised forms of practical problems. Our slogan is that if it doesn’t make a difference to what we do, it makes no difference at all.

To my mind, the best and most hopeful element in the high culture of the West is the Romantic desire to acquire ever new identities – not to get stuck with the one you started with.The Romantic-historicist notion of spiritual progress is not centered around the idea of understanding better and better something which is waiting out here to be understood, but rather around the idea of creating a larger, freer, self.

… the emphasis falls less on knowing than on imagining, more on freeing oneself up than on getting something right.

… the modern West has created a culture of social hope, as opposed to a culture of endurance. By a culture of endurance, I mean one in which there is a consensus that the conditions of human life are and always will be frustrating and difficult, and the consequent assumption that either a religious affiliation with a non-human power, or a philosophical acceptance of the eternal order of things, is required to make life bearable. The high culture of a peaceful society which does not have a future utopia to work for will center around priests or stoical sages. By contrast, the high culture of a society permeated by utopian hope will center around suggestions for drastic change in the way things are done – it will be a culture of permanent revolution … it is a culture of experimentation, and nothing guarantees that the experiments will succeed.

Monday, 13 October 2008

Documentary Photography

In May 2008, there was an exhibition at the Zacheta National Gallery of Art in Warszaw entitled: "She-Documentalists - Polish Women Photographers of the 2oth Century". The works of over fifty largely forgotten or unacknowledged Polish women photographers were shown. "There are two principal reasons why this extremely interesting material requires discovery and evaluation. Firstly, the status of documentary photography, until recently ill defined, and secondly, the professional and artistic status of women", the catalogue text reads.

the author unknown, "Maria Chrząszczowa", luty 1933, privat owner

Since I hadn't known that "the status of documentary photography, until recently (was) ill defined" (who would define that anyway?), and since I'm not aware that this should nowadays be less so, I looked forward to get enlightened. And I did - by a convincing, insightful, and well written text by the curator, Karolina Lewandowska, who, after stating that there have been as many concepts of documentary as there are authors, defines documentary, in regards to the exhibition, as "those projects, albeit selected ones, that required the photographer to go outside, to leave the studio and confront herself with people, projects that focused on documenting a certain phenomenon, or that, once realised, had to function in contexts other than the safe gallery context."

Elgas-Markiewicz Irena, „No more war”, ok. 1954,
owner - National Museum in Wrocław, Poland

Here are some of the insights that I gained from Karolina Lewandowska's
An Unconventional Map of the 'Documentary' :

"Two main tropes, or strategies, of representation are present within documentary - on the one hand, descriptive photography, which tries to remain neutral, and, on the other, photograqphy that is strongly involved ideologically, even propaganda-orientied."

"Photojournalism satisfies the universal need of curiosity, peeping, the need for enchanting reality, for getting to the 'truth'. That is why it 'spies' on and describes fragments of reality that most people do not usually notice - work in factories, a small-town market, a courtyard. However, when fitted into the form of a visually attractive photo story, even a very good one, these aspects of human life can often be reduced to nothing but aesthetical motifs alienated from reality."

"The fact that photographs so different are shown together, and in the space of Zacheta National Gallery of Art with ist powerful context, does not mean they are all being elevated to the level of artistic objects - though the whole is taking place 'in the name of art'. Rather, the idea is to dissolve the radical division between artistic photography and non-artistic photography by demonstrating the fluidity of the qualifiying characteristics, which are dynamic and cannot be 'frozen' by the institutional context ...

The fundamental question is not whether the given photograph is art or not, but rather how it can influence the viewer and the reception of other photographs, whether it is an important element of culture, history, and the iconosphere, of our map of pictorial representation."
Rydet Zofia, "Heavy bread", 1958,
owner - Museum of Art in Łódź, Poland

Saturday, 11 October 2008

On Television

The makers of TV documentaries were the conmen and carpetbaggers of the late twentieth century, the snake-oil and fast-change salesmen purveying the notion that a raw nature packaged and homogenised by science was palatable and reassuring.

“Television doesn’t tell lies, it makes up a new truth. In fact, the only truth we have left. These sentimental wild-life-films you despise simply continue that domestication of nature which began when we cut down the first tree. They help people to remake nature into a form that reflects their real needs.” “And that justifies any intervention?” “No. It must chime with their secret hopes, their deep-held belief that the universe is a kindly place. Besides, everything is invented and then pondered upon …”
J.G. Ballard: The Day of Creation

Thursday, 9 October 2008

Cultural Insights

One of the books I'm using to learn Brazilian Portuguese is called: "Como dizer tudo em inglês nos negocios" (How to say all and everything in Business English). Since I assume that quite some sentences in it are probably never used in real life situations (in real life hardly anybody makes a grammatically correct sentence and most sentences are left incomplete anyway), I routinely ask native speakers if such and such sentence is used often. Needless to say, it depends on whom one asks - adolescents, for instance, have other ideas about proper language than adults. My source of reference is an educated man in his early thirties and his answers provide me with a lot of cultural insights. Expressions such as "Eu vou me certificar que as mudanças apropriadas sejam feitas" (I'll make sure that the proper changes are made) or "Eu vou dar o meu melhor para fazer as mudanças necessárias" (I will do my best to make the necessary improvements) are rarely used, I learn. What he however hears every day at work is: "Você está perguntando para a pessoa errada" (You're asking the wrong person).

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Money destroys all other values

Norman Mailer in a letter to Sal Cetrano on 28 March 1999.
Source: http://www.newyorker.com/, 6 October 2008

Dear Sal,
. . . While the Democrats, and Clinton first, disgust me with what I call their “boutique politics”—a little bit here, a little bit there, and served with loads of bullshit slathered over it—the Republicans are a psychotic monstrosity. On the one hand, they’re God, flag, and family—although few of them would know Jesus Christ if he were standing at the next urinal pissing along with them—and an astonishing number never served in the armed forces nor heard a bullet, and being politicians, they cheat like jackrabbits on their wives and families. But all right, what’s the use of being a politician if you can’t make a living at being a hypocrite? The point is: the Republican Party is schizophrenic: on the one hand, they are, as I say, for God, flag and family, but on the other, they are for the unbridled expansion of capitalism, and thereby leave out something that might still be important to you which is that Jesus, like Karl Marx, thought money leaches out all other values. Indeed, it does. If the whole country is going to pot, and it certainly is, I think you could graph the decline not only in morals, but in a sense of social éclat and social standards—I think you could plot the decline right next to the rise of the Dow Jones—the higher the Dow, the lower the standards. Money destroys all other values. I can even respect the right wing Republicans for holding to a few standards, as they do, but they never take on capitalism which, unbridled, is the worst scourge of human value that we have right now. There may have been a time when Communism was a worse scourge, but now we’re the leaders, and I suggest you consider living with the notion that the party of your choice is paralyzed in its moral centers. . . .
Cheers, old buddy,
Norman

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Photographing Cuba

A convincing photo book is often based on a convincing idea – and this is the case of The Idea of Cuba: When in May 1998, the photographer and writer Alex Harris was on his first trip to Cuba, he observed almost everything on the island “from the perspective of the backseat of 1950s-era American cars. I went to Cuba that spring with a specific plan. I wanted to use my camera to explore how people in the United States and Cuba see each other, and the view through the windshields of these aging American cars seemed to be an ideal approach.”

Indeed, and an intriguing, and a persuasive, idea at that: to look at a new country through the windshields of the cars of one’s childhood. Most visitors to Cuba do it the other way ‘round – they have their picture taken with these old North American cars. There is of course nothing wrong with that except that it may strike Cubans as a bit silly – I at least thought it rather strange when my Cuban ex-wife, on her first visit to my native Switzerland, insisted that I take her picture next to a number of totally unremarkable (but new) cars. Until I realised that this is precisely what visitors to Cuba normally do.

Photo books usually show pictures without words, they rarely come with an accompanying text, often however without captions, or with captions we could easily do without – such as Mexico 1934, or Dog (when the photo shows a dog), for instance. While such an approach – “I do not want to influence you, trust your eyes, judge for yourself”, the photographers seem to say – might be okay for art photography (whatever that is), it is inappropriate for documentary photography or for press photography that should come with words that are not limited to (hopefully) informative captions but include narratives that inform the reader about the coming into being of the pictures. Thankfully, this is the case of The Idea of Cuba in which the texts help one understand what one's eyes register.

Let me illustrate this with two excerpts:

“In my first days in Havana I wondered how Cubans felt as they drove through their daily lives inside these symbols of capitalist triumph. Whatever can be said about failed U.S. policies toward Cuba, surely the continued existence of these cars on Cuban roads was a testimony to the North American way, to the success and durability of our political system. Yet the more time I spent in Havana, the more I realized that every car I rode in had been completely rebuilt from the inside out. Many of the parts were borrowed from Russian or European models or manufactured by Cuban mechanics who could not legally import anything from the United States. These 1950s-era cars may have had North American shells, but the fact that they continued to run was proof of Cuban ingenuity, determination, and the kind of sacrifice that José Martí admired.

Under the May Havana sun, I might as well have been working in a sauna. Sweating inside these cars with my view camera, film holders, tripod, battery pack, and lights, I sometimes worried about my sanity. And as I saw the richness of life on Havana streets unfolding outside my window, it seemed crazy to limit myself to this narrow view of the city. But as a photographer I recognized that the greatest depth of field is achieved by setting the smallest aperture on a lens. After almost thirty years of making pictures in the American South, New Mexico, and Alaska, I knew another kind of depth could be achieved by narrowing the subject of my focus as well. For the time being, I would continue to photograph Cuba from inside cars.”

Alex Harris had never heard of José Martí when he first set foot on the island but soon became interested in him (("I traveled to Cuba to make landscapes, and discovered José Martí") for photographers sometimes travel with open eyes (and – in this case – with an open mind) and Martí is difficult to avoid in Cuba for his statues are everywhere. “Martí had a kind of nobility. He was stoic and wise. He seemed to know a secret I wanted to learn.”

By describing how he went about his work, what he experienced, where he went, and why, and what went through his mind, Alex Harris lets the reader participate in what he learns about Martí, and about Cuba.

“My larger problem was how to begin to encompass in a photograph something as complex and cerebral as Martí's idea of Cuba. Near the end of his life, in the early days of photography, Martí anticipated my dilemma in a question jotted in one of his notebooks: "Who could photograph thought, as a horse is photographed in full gallop or a bird in flight?"
As I made my first photographs of his memorials, I saw Martí's words at the base of many statues. These aphorisms had been extracted by Cubans themselves as the essence of Martí's idea of Cuba, then chiseled into stone or stamped onto copper plaques. In one of the first I read, Martí seemed to predict his own future role. A nation that honors its heroes strengthens itself. I began to copy every Martí adage I saw. These words of wisdom read like agnostic Cuban cousins of Solomon's proverbs. With all and for the good of all; To be cultured is to be free.
Of all Martí's writings, these brief sayings became a kind of compass I used to find my way around the island. If I couldn't photograph Martí's thoughts, at least I'd have his most important ideas in mind when I decided to snap the shutter. This seemed a way for me to look at contemporary Cuba through the lens of history, to see the present in relation to Martí's imagined future.”

Documentary photography, the way I understand and like it, is about making discoveries. And this is what Alex Harris’ Idea of Cuba is: the document of a personal discovery that transcends the personal - for the more personal an approach, the more universal the result often becomes.

“I know much more about Cuba now than I did when I made these photographs. But I do not believe that I could now make better pictures. This book is an act of faith in myself as a photographer to discover something in my pictures I didn't already know or feel, something I wasn't already looking for.”

Friday, 3 October 2008

Bridging cultural differences

When considering ways of how cultural differences may be bridged, one needs to bear in mind that not all difficulties that may arise when individuals from different cultures interact have to be “cultural.” As Michael Agar in Language Shock pointed out: “Sometimes, the reason they do things differently has to do with who owns the store and who has the guns, not with what languaculture they grew up with”.

Or, as the two Californians in Bali after pondering at length the question why the Balinese prepared their food always using chilli (does it have to do with tradition, mythology, health?) – eventually concluded: “It might well be because chillies grow here.”

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Two Lives

He had two lives: one, open, seen and known by all who cared to know, full of relative truth and of relative falsehood, exactly like the lives of his friends and acquaintances; and another life running its course in secret. And through some strange, perhaps accidental, conjunction of circumstances, everything that was essential, of interest and of value to him, everything in which he was sincere and did not deceive himself, everything that made the kernel of his life, was hidden from other people; and all that was false in him, the sheath in which he hid himself to conceal the truth -- such, for instance, as his work in the bank, his discussions at the club, his "lower race," his presence with his wife at anniversary festivities -- all that was open. And he judged of others by himself, not believing in what he saw, and always believing that every man had his real, most interesting life under the cover of secrecy and under the cover of night. All personal life rested on secrecy, and possibly it was partly on that account that civilised man was so nervously anxious that personal privacy should be respected.
Anton Chekov: Lady with Lapdog

Monday, 29 September 2008

Being Smart

Robert Redford and Paul Newman discussing their formidable opponents at the New York train station in The Sting: 'They're not as smart as they think they are,' says Redford. 'Neither are we,' Newman replies.

Saturday, 27 September 2008

On History, Distractions, and Truth

A Small Death in Lisbon by Robert Wilson is an excellent thriller for its plot, for its story telling, and for its insights - here are some that will hopefully stay with me:

"It’s easily forgotten, Inspector, that history is not what you read in books. It’s a personal thing, and people are vengeful creatures, which is why history will never teach us anything."

“We are all mad, Inspector, for the simple reason that we don’t know why we exist and this …” he waved his hand at the tissue of existence before him, “this life is how we distract ourselves so that we don’t have to think about things too difficult for us to comprehend.”

"You think you know yourself until things start happening, until you lose the insulation of normality. I would have called myself “aware” before I lost my wife. People would look at me, Narciso for instance, and think there goes Zé Coelho, a man who knows himself. But I’m like anybody else. I hide. My wife was right. I’m inquisitive for the truth but hide from my own. The stuff I’ve carried with me and ignored."

Thursday, 25 September 2008

Western Values (2)

Western values are based on Christian convictions, regardless whether God is worshipped in churches or not. As Jack Miles wrote in God: A Biography:

"Many in the West no longer believe in God, but lost belief, like a lost fortune, has effects that linger. A young man raised in wealth may, when he comes of age, give his fortune away and live in poverty. His character, however, will remain that of a man raised in wealth, for he cannot give his history away. In a similar way, centuries of rigorous, godly character-building have created an ideal of human character that stands fast even though, for many, its foundation has been removed. When Westerners encounter a culture with a different ideal, when we find ourselves saying, for example, “The Japanese are different,” we discover, indirectly, the strangeness and durability of our own ideal, our inherited sense of what a human being should be."

And strange, when looked at from a distance (or through the eyes of another culture), one’s own cultural heritage might indeed appear to be. Again Jack Miles, this time from Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God:

"All mankind is forgiven, but the Lord must die. This is the revolutionary import of the epilogue that, two thousand years ago, a group of radical Jews appended to the sacred scripture of their religion. Because they did so, millions in the West today worship before the image of a deity executed as a criminal, and – no less important – other millions who never worship at all carry within their cultural DNA a religiously derived suspicion that somehow, someday, “the last will be first, and the first last” (Matt. 20: 16).The Crucifixion, the primal scene of Western religion and western art, has lost much of its power to shock. At this late date, perhaps only a non-Western eye can truly see it. A Japanese artist now living in Los Angeles once recalled the horror most Japanese feel at seeing a corpse displayed as a religious icon, and of their further revulsion when the icon is explained to them. They ask, she said: “If he was so good, why did he die like that?” In Japanese culture “good people end their lives with a good death, even a beautiful death, like the Buddha. Someone dying in such a hideous way – for us, he could only be a criminal.”

Needless to say, this is not how Westerners see it – if they see it at all. The message for them is that by losing everything (one’s life), one wins everything (a place in heaven). In other words, redemptive fulfilment lies at the core of popular Western belief (only the Christian faith recognises original sin and corresponding redemption). For a Chinese this seems hard to grasp, at least for Lin Yutang, who, in 1938, wrote in The Importance of Living:

"All in all, here is still a belief in total depravity, that enjoyment of this life is sin and wickedness, that to be uncomfortable is to be virtuous, and that on the whole man cannot save himself except by a greater power outside. The doctrine of sin is still the basic assumption of Christianity as generally practised today, and Christian missionaries trying to make converts start out by impressing upon the party to be converted a consciousness of sin and of wickedness of human nature (which is, of course, the sine qua non for the ready-made remedy which the missionary has up his sleeve). All in all, you can’t make a man a Christian unless you first make him believe he is a sinner."

It goes without saying that quite some Westerners find this also rather difficult to understand.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

A Photographic Journey through Turkey

The photographer Attila Durak was born in 1967 in Gümüşhane, Anatolia. Since early 2000, he has been busy with portraying the different ethnicities and sects that populate Turkey - his pictures captured them eating, praying, dancing, playing music, laughing, reflecting, and
wondering, indoors as well as outdoors, alone and in groups.
© copyright 2001, Attila Durak

In "The Project Ebru: The Story of a Journey", Durak not only gives an informative account of how the project came into being but also describes how he became interested in photography. By accident, really. When at university, he took a course in photography because it looked like the easiest way to increase his grade point average but he then found that "for that year I did nothing but take photographs, and I had no desire to do anything else. By the end of the academic year, a life without photography was simply unfathomable to me. During that same period, I took the overland route to Egypt and stayed there for about a month. That particular journey led me to discover something about myself: I liked, and actually preferred, going to different countries and photographing people that I found to be different."
© copyright 2003, Attila Durak

In 1996, Durak immigrated to New York, "a city of eight million people from different lands and cultures, speaking more than 100 different languages and believing—or not believing—in hundreds of different religions and denominations, and all living together. One third of this population is comprised of first-generation immigrants from approximately 200 countries. In the City’s restaurants you can taste the cuisines of every country of the world, and in its arts centers, parks, subway stations, and streets, you can listen to the music and watch the dances of the most unexpected regions and peoples. As Henry David Thoreau said, everyone “hears a different drummer” in New York. Yet it can hardly be said that they remain indifferent to the beats of other drums in the process. It is also common to find that different beats have mixed together to create entirely new sounds. While Americans often employ the “melting pot” metaphor in describing the cultural diversity in the United States, this “melting” aspiration hasn’t had much of an impact upon New Yorkers. There, if it’s meant to be, time gets the job done; and if it doesn’t, nobody could care less. That’s why New Yorkers prefer the “mosaic” metaphor to describe the culturally diverse fabric of their city. This particular metaphor is their way of explaining that the many and varied peoples who co-exist here may, if they like, maintain their own constant, invariable colors without having to mix and mingle their hues with those of others."

© copyright 2002, Attila Durak

What one observes and experiences in places far from home often makes one become curious of home. And this is precisely what happened to Attila Durak - "the multitude of colors and voices in New York ignited my desire to explain the cultural diversity of Turkey via photographs".

When working briefly in Istanbul (in 2005), I felt deeply impressed by the cultural variety of the city, and of the places nearby. I howewer wasn't aware that the variety was that vast - the Ebru Project was an eye-opener. Actually, it was more than that: it was a heart-opener - it made me look with sympathy at the people portrayed, it made me like them.

© copyright 2001, Attila Durak

By the way: "The English translation of “ebru” is “marbled paper,” which refers to the fluidity of paint and water on paper. With its creative combination of water and paper, “ebru” inspires the possibility of conceptualizing historical flow and “passing solidity” at the same time. As such, it is a metaphor that offers a promising alternative to others like “the mosaic” or “the quilt” for thinking through the new and old dilemmas of cultural politics at the turn of the century."

http://www.ebruproject.com/

Sunday, 21 September 2008

Interkulturelle Kompetenz

Interkulturelle Kompetenz kann ganz Unterschiedliches bedeuten. Nicht den Kopf verlieren, wenn es in einem fremden Land plötzlich unverhofft schwierig wird, zum Beispiel. Oder: Nicht an einem einmal gefassten Plan unbedingt fest halten, denn die Dinge haben es ja so an sich, dass sie sich ändern. Oder: Auf seinen Instinkt vertrauen. Nein, nicht so wie George W. Bush, aber so wie Helge Timmerberg in Timmerbergs Reise-ABC:

"Neulich in Bombay: Ich war auf dem Weg zum Flughafen. Frühmaschine, Morgendämmerung, der Tag brach gerade erst an. Als das Taxi an einer Ampel hielt, klopfte eine kleine Hand ans Fenster. Ein Mädchen, ich schätze so zwölf, sah mich mit grossen Augen an. Mir schien, dass es noch nicht gefrühstückt hatte. O.k.. ich verliess das Land. Und hatte noch jede Menge der Landeswährung bei mir. Aber leider nur in grossen Scheinen. Die Ampel sprang um, Angst flackerte in den Augen der Kleinen. Soll ich sie fragen, ob sie wechseln kann? Scheiss drauf, ich gab ihr einen der Scheine, und ich werde nie vergessen, was mit ihrem Gesicht geschah. Ich duschte praktisch in ihrem Lachen. Sie hüpfte über die Strasse zu ihrer Mutter zurück, drehte sich wieder um, hüpfte und lachte und winkte, und ich winkte zurück, bis ich sie nicht mehr sah. Ein selten schöner Moment der Widersprüchlichkeit. Es war viel zu viel, und es war ein Kind. Ich hatte alles falsch gemacht, und doch hat es gestimmt. Regeln sind nur wichtig, wenn sich das Herz nicht sicher ist."

Friday, 19 September 2008

Photographs of the South Bronx

The first few sentences, sometimes the first few paragraphs, usually do it for me – or they don’t. In any book, and that includes photo-books.

Lisa Kahane’s “Do Not Give Way to Evil” starts like this: “The past is never over. Image outlives fact.” It hit me, immediately: Yes, exactly, this is it, so true, that is precisely why pictures are more telling than words.

Images carry feelings, and these we remember – this is why images are so powerful.

The book shows photos of the South Bronx between 1979 and 1987, “not just another neighbourhood but another realm, visible but incomprehensible, an urban wilderness actively populated by ghosts.”

What is true for the first few sentences is likewise true for the first few photographs. In “Do Not Give Way to Evil” it was the first one – the abandoned Bronx Borough Courthouse – that did it for me. When contemplating it, I instinctively knew that I would like Lisa Kahane’s other pictures – and I did. All of them. For they not only showed me the South Bronx, they told me about life.

Moreover, I loved her helpful introductory text. For its humaneness, its unpretentiousness, and its insights. Here are some excerpts:

“Change is a constant in New York City and it’s usually considered progress. In the Bronx, it was extraordinarily brutal. Portrayed either as a garden spot or a wretched failure of civic life, the ruin of the Bronx, part natural progression of the American Dream, part intentional destruction, was a long time in the making. Fewer things than one imagines are coincidences. What is made to seem the inevitable process of history is often the interplay of money and power.

Withdrawal of federal funds, diminishing city services, and dependence on welfare turned the American Dream into an American Nightmare. Anger and frustration turned to cruelty, and boredom to loss of hope. Drugs were easy to get. Widespread fires, unknown since the early nineteenth century, made a comeback. Counterproductive government response made arson profitable for landlord and tenant. In the 70’s the borough averaged 12,000 arson fires a year, over thirty a day.

There are books now that explain it all and yet explain nothing. The devil’s best game, the poet Charles Baudelaire wrote, is to convince us that he doesn’t exist. Even though it’s always the present tense in a photograph, the spirit of the time can only be represented, not recalled or recreated. The best thing about these pictures of devastation is that they can’t be taken in the Bronx anymore.”

Lisa Kahane's "Do Not Give Way to Evil” was published in 2008 by PowerHouse Books, Miss Rosen Editions, Brooklyn, New York.
http://www.powerhousebooks.com

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

The Condition of Man

The condition of man imposes its own limitations: to an estimate of his significance and of the implications of his existence he can bring no more than the fallible and subjective processes of his capacity for conjecture. Isolated, wedged transiently at a point in infinity, careless of what has preceded his life, preoccupied and obsessed by the thoughts of what may succeed it, shackled and blinded by the problems and prejudices arising from it, his readiness to dogmatize will be proportionate to the intensity of his fears and the deficiency of his imagination.
An appetite for faith may be to some extent its justification: it is certainly not its proof – we do not build a fire to prove or disprove the existence of cold, but to keep ourselves warm. A traveller on a perilous journey may draw comfort from the knowledge that he has a pistol in his pocket, though, unknown to himself, his servant has neglected to load it. Like the traveller, we shall only learn whether or not our pistols were loaded when the issue will have transcended speculation; till then we must draw our comfort from whatever we care to believe or disbelieve. Truth, if it exists, will remain unaffected. A starving animal will suck the dug of its dead parent and a man in extremity can condition himself to believe what he calculates will bring him most consolation.
A.E. Ellis: The Rack

Monday, 15 September 2008

Elections & Experience

On 12 September 2008, Bob Herbert of the New York Times (under the title "She’s Not Ready") opined:

"While watching the Sarah Palin interview with Charlie Gibson Thursday night, and the coverage of the Palin phenomenon in general, I’ve gotten the scary feeling, for the first time in my life, that dimwittedness is not just on the march in the U.S., but that it might actually prevail.

How is it that this woman could have been selected to be the vice presidential candidate on a major party ticket? How is it that so much of the mainstream media has dropped all pretense of seriousness to hop aboard the bandwagon and go along for the giddy ride?

For those who haven’t noticed, we’re electing a president and vice president, not selecting a winner on “American Idol.”

Ms. Palin may be a perfectly competent and reasonably intelligent woman (however troubling her views on evolution and global warming may be), but she is not ready to be vice president.

With most candidates for high public office, the question is whether one agrees with them on the major issues of the day.

With Ms. Palin, it’s not about agreeing or disagreeing. She doesn’t appear to understand some of the most important issues."

Since when have an understanding of issues, competence, or knowing what is going on, been a prerequisite for public office, I wonder? Actually, it more often looks like the other way 'round.

As Winston Churchill said: the best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with an average voters (he however also said that democracy is still the best of all the bad systems available).

Okay, fine, but what should we do now? Listen to another Brit, John Lennon, who said: Don't follow leaders.

By the way: experience is consistently overrated. When the US supreme court (with members appointed by Bush Senior) bestowed the presidency on Bush Junior, some media, troubled by Junior's lack of foreign exposure, pointed out how reassuring it was that vice president Cheney was such an experienced politician. Well ... ?!

We should keep in mind what the German writer Kurt Tucholsky once said: that a man with ten years of experience may have been ten years completely mistaken.

Saturday, 13 September 2008

Adapting to a Foreign Culture

When adapting to a foreign culture, writes Jan Morris in Hong Kong, there are "four stages of reaction that foreigners may expect. First they feel a fine euphoria, so exciting and interesting is the spectacle of Hong Kong, so reassuringly familiar many of its aspects. Next they become tense and bewildered, as they realize how vastly foreign the territory really is, and experience a growing feeling of isolation. Then, sensing their own ethnic identities challenged, they endure a period of irritability, grumbling a lot and being hostile to the Chinese. And if all goes well, finally they relax into the environment, accepting its essentially alien nature, developing new tolerance, greater objectivity and, says Dr. Mildred McCoy, a psychologist at the University of Hong Kong, “appropriate coping skills". "

Thursday, 11 September 2008

In Thailand

In Chiang Mai, I saw a billboard that said: "Fruit Juice, 100 percent artificial, guaranteed no natural ingredients added."

"Are they handmade?" I asked the street vendor who had traditional garments on display. "No, no, machine, very better", she replied. It took me a while to understand what she meant: that the machine had made her work easier.

There was no taxi at the airport in Pitsanoluk. "How can I get to town?" I asked the young lady at the information booth. "My master will drive you", she said. The master turned out to be the director of the airport. "And how do you plan to go to Mae Hong Son?" he inquired. "I guess by bus" I said. "Bus no good" he replied. "You should do it like the Thais do it". "Aha, and how do they do it?" "Take it easy, fly." I flew.

Prachuap Khiri Khan. I explored this small town and the beaches on the back of a motorbyke. "Here eat drink", my driver said while pointing to a restaurant. "Here sing a song" - that was a disco. After a while, I felt I should also make a contribution. "Look at this beautiful bird", I shouted. "Bird", he shouted back. Thais have quite a remarkable ability to state the obvious.

In Bangkok, I bought a wallet. It was a Gucci imitation, plastic, and very cheap. A week later it broke apart. When I passed by the same shop, I decided to stop for a chat. "Look at this", I said to the salesgirls. "This wallet I bought here only a week ago and already it falls apart." "How much you pay?" the girls asked. "60 Baht", I smiled. They smiled back: "60 Baht one week, 80 Baht two weeks."

During a Thai class, somebody mentioned corruption. Our teacher, a gifted entertainer, the most important qualification for teaching in Thailand, said: Corruption? We don't have that here. And then, with a big smile, added: Well, come to think of it, that is our system.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Fraudulent Necessità

The world is ruled by necessity, says the man in the street, not by some abstract moral code. We have to do what we have to do. If you wish to counter the man in the street, it cannot be by appeal to moral principles, much less by demanding that people should run their lives in such a way that there are no contradictions between what they say and what they do. Ordinary life is full of contradictions; ordinary people are used to accommodating them. Rather, you must attack the metaphysical, supra-empirical status of necessità and show that to be fraudulent.

J.M. Coetzee: Diary of a Bad Year

Sunday, 7 September 2008

Western Values

Western values share the classical legacy of the Greek and Roman civilizations, are based on Christianity and mainly characterised by the prominence given to the individual – that we are all, each and everyone, children of God, this Christian belief stands at the core of Western culture. Democracy, the rule of law, personal freedom, the separation of church and state as well as the conviction that the world can be explained rationally denote Western idea(l)s.

The expressions that these values find in Europe and in North America differ however not inconsiderably – the American readiness to, for instance, exercise power (be it the death penalty or the invasion of another country) seems to indicate a mentality rather different from the ever so reluctant European attitude.

The culture we grow up in shapes the way we see the world. If this culture is one of strength, our view of the world will be one from a position of strength. In the case of America this includes a propensity to use that strength.

Cultures do not clash, humans sometimes do – not so much because of different values (after all: quite some of the behaviour of American soldiers in Iraq would be as offensive back in America) but because of, perhaps, a mix of fear, xenophobia, military training, lack of manners, and youth, a mix that can be found wherever an army (from East or West, North or South) is found fighting.

The debate about a possible clash of civilizations gives a prominence to cultural values that is not deserved – for any closer look will result in realising that what humans have in common by far outweighs their differing opinions – and obscures that the problems between Europe and America, as well as between the West and the rest of the world, is one of power (competing greed, egotism etc. – the character traits that we all share) and not of incompatible values.

Friday, 5 September 2008

Intercultural Coaching (2)

"Don't tell jokes to an audience you don't know" is certainly good advice yet, contrary to what many intercultural experts seem to believe, it has nothing to do with things intercultural. But don't, for instance, the English and the Swiss laugh about different things? Sure, some Brits and some Swiss have a different sense of humour, to however believe that all Swiss (or all Brits) are fond of the same jokes seems a bit unrealistic. I, for instance, like some English humour. And I also happen to know some fellow Swiss, Germans, Thais, Brazilians and Californians who share this fondness of mine. One of my all-time favourite journalism fun-pieces in regards to things intercultural is Rosemary Behan's "Praising Allah is a full-time job in Tunis" in the Daily Telegraph of 1 August 2007. Here are some excerpts:

In conversation, the first thing you notice is the amount of time even the most secular Arabic speaker spends thanking God. They praise Allah so often it's a wonder there's time to do anything else. After almost every single task, whether it's finishing a meal, having a drink of water, completing a project at work, running an errand, talking about the future or simply exchanging pleasantries, it's alhamdulilah, inshallah or bismillah. People never seem to get tired of it.

Confusion between dialects adds to the fun. Here, a tabuna is a small bread roll; in Morocco, it's a discreet part of the female body. In Tunisia, a maarass is a married man, while in Egypt it means homosexual - an unfortunate or convenient discrepancy.

Far more challenging than any language barrier is a disappointingly widespread lack of understanding and respect for women - Western women in particular. Foreigners are targets for the unsavoury attention of men who have made preying on the isolation of female travellers a national sport. I've learnt to tune out the barrage of sexual references that come at me in English, French, German and Italian. I am frequently referred to as "gazelle" and have been followed on the street for hours by boys as young as 12. Even when swimming in the sea, we were chased by a crowd of horny windsurfers.

This harassment is enough to turn ordinary women into raging feminists. Tunisian women can strut around in jeans and tight T-shirts and not attract a single word of attention, while Western women dressed in long sleeves, baggy trousers and sunglasses are seen as fair game. I look like a walking Bedouin encampment - and I have still had 20 offers of marriage.

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

A Fervent Prayer

A female CNN journalist heard about a very old Jewish man who had been going to the Western Wall to pray, twice a day, every day, for a long, long time. So she went to check it out and as she arrived at the Western Wall, there he was, walking slowly up to the holy site. She watched him pray and after about 45 minutes, when he turned to leave, using a cane and moving very slowly, she approached him for an interview.
'Pardon me, sir, I'm Rebecca Smith from CNN. What is your name?'
'Morris Fishbien,' he replied.
'Sir, how long have you been coming to the Western Wall and praying?'
'For about 60 years.'
'60 years! That's amazing! What do you pray for?'
'I pray for peace between the Christians, Jews and the Muslims. I pray for all the wars and all the hatred to stop. I pray for all our children to grow up safely as responsible adults, and to love their fellow man.'
'How do you feel after doing this for 60 years?'
'Like I'm talking to a fuckin' wall.'

Monday, 1 September 2008

On Journalism

On 28 August 2008, Sanitsuda Ekachai blogged in the Bangkok Post on "Media and Demagogues" and had things to say that we (that includes journalists) are well advised to consider when consuming our daily diet of news. Although she writes in regards to the present political turmoil in Thailand, the media elsewhere are not different. It is rare that one comes across such readable and succinct analysis. Here's my favourite excerpt:

One privilege of my having grey hair has been the chance to watch changes in journalism over the years.

The early generation of journalists were primarily intellectuals and free-spirited fighters against military dictatorship.

Despite the poor income and unstable career, journalists enjoyed public respect because their dream for justice and democracy struck a chord with the populace.

As politics and the economy opened up, the mass media grew to become big business. Ironically, the more stable journalism became as a profession, the more was the media's tendency to play safe to protect business interests at the cost of the ideology of old.

Reporting anger from the ground against state and business power, for example, is seen as one-sided. Giving meaning to the news is seen as losing neutrality.

Most newsrooms are happy with ping-pong journalism, unable to tell readers what is really going on. Media neutrality is reduced to mean merely quoting both supporters and opponents.

Sunday, 31 August 2008

Mein Glaube

Der Glaube, den ich meine, ist nicht leicht in Worte zu bringen. Man könnte ihn etwa so ausdrücken: Ich glaube, dass trotz des offensichtlichen Unsinns das Leben dennoch einen Sinn hat, ich ergebe mich darein, diesen letzten Sinn mit dem Verstand nicht erfassen zu können, bin aber bereit, ihm zu dienen, auch wenn ich mich dabei opfern muss. Die Stimme dieses Sinnes höre ich in mir selbst, in den Augenblicken, wo ich wirklich ganz lebendig und wach bin. Was in diesen Augenblicken das Leben von mir verlangt, will ich versuchen zu verwirklichen, auch wenn es gegen die üblichen Moden und Gesetze geht. Diesen Glauben kann man nicht befehlen und sich nicht zu ihm zwingen. Man kann ihn nur erleben.
Hermann Hesse

Saturday, 30 August 2008

Doing Photo Portraits

Yann Arthus-Bertrand, famous for 'The Earth From Above', an aerial portrait of our planet, in an interview on televison:

A good photographer is one who has ideas.

I photographed the farmer together with the cow because I wanted him to feel at ease. And to be together with the cow made him indeed feel at ease - because he is proud of her.

First I take a photograph for myself, then one for the portrayed.

Thursday, 28 August 2008

Civilization & Garbage

Civilization did not rise and flourish as men hammered out hunting scenes on bronze gates and whispered philosophy under the stars, with garbage as a noisome offshoot, swept away and forgotten. No, garbage rose first, inciting people to build a civilization in response, in self-defense. We had to find ways to discard our waste, to use what we couldn't discard, to reprocess what we couldn't use. Garbage pushed back. It mounted and spread. And it forced us to develop the logic and rigor that would lead to systematic investigations of reality, to science, art, music, mathematics.
Don DeLillo: Underworld

Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Environmental Photography

Recently I happened to come across a link in The Guardian that said "Environmental photographer of the year 2008". I didn't know that there was such a category, and I'm still not too sure what to think about yet another category. Anyway, I'm glad I clicked on the link for the photographs displayed are real eye-openers. My favourite is picture number one that, together with the caption, made me immediately emotionally connect - and that is, as far as I'm concerned, the very best a picture can do. Here's the link: environmentalphotography

The photos (probably because they were labelled "environmental photography"!) also made me think of an article in The Independent about "the world's largest rubbish dump". Would you have guessed that it is in the Pacific Ocean and "stretches from about 500 nautical miles off the Californian coast, across the northern Pacific, past Hawaii and almost as far as Japan"? Here's more: garbagedump

Sunday, 24 August 2008

Schweizer Eigenarten

In der Schule wird über's Kinderkriegen gesprochen.
Ein kleiner Italiener, ein deutsches und ein Schweizer Kind sollen erklären, woher die Kinder kommen.
Der Italiener sagt: Bei uns in Italien bringt der Storch die Babies.
Der Deutsche meint: In Deutschland gehen die Mama und der Papa miteinander ins Bett und dann machen sie ein Kind.
Der kleine Schweizer meint: Bei uns ist das von Kanton zu Kanton verschieden.

Friday, 22 August 2008

Not Pictures, Words Make One See

It is not pictures, it is words that make one see.
Consider this (from Steven Pinker: 'The Language Instinct'):

"When a male octopus spots a female, his normally grayish body suddenly becomes striped. He swims above the female and begins caressing her with seven of his arms. If she allows this, he will quickly reach toward her and slip his eight arm into her breathing tube. A series of sperm packets moves slowly through a groove in his arm, finally to slip into the mantle cavity of the female."

These words have created images in your mind. They have made you see. What exactly you have seen I’m not able to tell yet that there were images in your mind that had something to do with the words that told you about the male and the female octopus … of this I’m quite sure.

Now picture this (again from 'The Language Instinct'):
"Cherries jubilee on a white suit? Wine on an altar cloth? Apply club soda immediately. It works beautifully to remove the stains from fabrics."

I’m pretty sure you have just seen cherries jubilee on a white suit and (presumably red) wine stains on a (presumably white) altar cloth. I can’t of course know what suit you had in mind or what altar cloth or what kind of stains (big, small, round …?), so in order to make you see the same suit, the same altar cloth and stains that I imagine, I need to show you an illustration, a photograph for instance. Only now can your eyes see what my eyes see.

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Helpful Approach (2)

A Sunday afternoon, some years ago, at the headquarters of the World Fellowship of Buddhists in Bangkok. Ajahn Sumedho, an American Buddhist monk, lectures on mediation and concludes by saying:

Ladies and Gentlemen, should you have come to the conclusion that what I've been telling you sounds interesting to you, then you most probably have got me completely wrong. For a lot of things are interesting. From the love life of the bees to studying physics. But that is not the point. The point is that you need to ask yourself whether what I've been telling you was helpful. If it was, fine. If not, then look for something that is helpful.

Monday, 18 August 2008

The Project of the West

Hanif Kureishi, "a writer that appreciates irony and can look at such a serious debate with humour" as Trevor Wilson, who is presently working on "Jihadist Islam to Islamic Revivalism", wrote to me from Melbourne, was recently (on 8 August 2008) portrayed in the New York Times. Trevor is right, here are two examples:

"The project of the West, the Nietzschean project, has been to drive out religion and to produce a secular society in which men and women make their own values because morality is gone. Then suddenly radical religion returns from the Third World. How can you not laugh at that? How can you not find that a deep historical irony?”

“The antidote to Puritanism isn’t licentiousness, but the recognition of what goes on inside human beings.”

Saturday, 16 August 2008

Helpful Approach

She said matter-of-factly: "I've made a million errors. When I came here everyone said you can't touch people on the head, you can't talk to a man, you can't do this, you can't do that, and I finally said, this is crazy! I can't be restricted like that! So I just threw it all out. Now I have only one rule. Before I do anything I ask, Is it okay? Because I'm an American woman and they don't expect me to act like a Hmong anyway, they usually give me plenty of leeway."
Anne Fadiman: The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

Thursday, 14 August 2008

Space for Propaganda

"Aid group suspends Afghan operation after three women are killed in Taliban ambush" titled the online edition of The Guardian today a report by Jason Burke from Kabul. Here's an excerpt:

"Three western women working for an American aid organisation have been shot dead in a Taliban ambush in Afghanistan. The women - a British-Canadian, a Canadian and a Trinidadian - were travelling by car in the eastern Logar province when they were attacked yesterday morning. One Afghan driver was also killed and another seriously injured.

The women worked for the New York-based International Rescue Committee, which has now suspended all its humanitarian aid programmes in Afghanistan.

A Taliban spokesman, Zahibullah Mujahed, claimed responsibility, telling the Associated Press news agency that the insurgents had targeted "the foreign invader forces".

The Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, described the attack as unforgivable. "It is not in our culture to kill women," he said in a statement. "This unforgivable incident without doubt was carried out by enemies of Afghanistan, by non-Afghans.""

Should Mr Karzai's choice of words imply that other cultures find killing women acceptable? Moreover, why distinguish, when it comes to killing, between men and women at all? Or between civilians and soldiers, children and the elderly? Victims are victims, whether they are wearing uniform or civilian clothes, whether they are men or women, young or old. Whenever I hear that an attack claimed "innocent victims" I can't help wondering whether there is such a thing as a "guilty victim" and if so, whether the killing would be then okay ...

Likewise unhelpful (if the goal is to avoid killing) is to say that the killers were "without doubt ... non-Afghans" since the Taliban (aren't they mostly Afghans?) claimed responsibilty. I know, I know, one shouldn't take the words of politicians too seriously ... but publishing such statements without questioning them is not journalism, it is offering space for propaganda.