Saturday, 28 February 2009

On Context

When, a few days ago, I climbed the stairs to Mike's Shopping Mall in Pattaya, Thailand, a woman in her forties who was selling clothes next to the main entrance stormed towards me and exclaimed: "You name Hans? You name Hans?" I said yes and assumed she mistook me for somebody else for I was certain I had never seen her. "My name Kung, Soi four", she said, "Soi four, in Bangkok." I didn't know anybody in Soi four. And, I didn't know anybody by the name of Kung (the Thai word for shrimp) either. "Sell clothes", she said, "You come see Sai." She pointed to a young and pretty woman of about twenty. All of a sudden I remembered.

Many years ago, I spent much time in the Thai capital where my regular walks also took me to Asia Books in the Landmark Hotel. Kung had a stall near the Landmark on Sukhumvit Soi four. Sai, who was around eight at that time, sometimes followed me into the Landmark. I started to buy her ice cream, sometimes I just sat and talked with her for a few minutes (my Thai is virtually non-existent but I distinctly remember telling her one day that I soon would go the airport whereupon she insisted on coming along). Unsurprisingly, Sai has no such recollection.

The three of us sat for a while, smiled, and chatted. "Where is your husband?" I asked Kung. "He die", she said, "he drink too much". It is one of the explanations for a variety of mishaps (the other one is "have accident") in the land of smiles. "You have email?" Kung wanted to know. When I wrote it down for her she said "I have no email." I didn't ask her why she wanted mine if she didn't have one herself. "When you come back?" she asked. "I don't know" I smiled. It all felt supremely casual, and it all felt good.

I doubt that I would have recognised Kung outside her (for me) typical environment. She however seems to need less context than I do.

Thursday, 26 February 2009

On John Updike

Most of the literary readers I know personally are under forty, and a fair number are female, and none of them are big admirers of the postwar GMNs (Great Male Narcissists - Mailer, Updike, Roth). But it's John Updike in particular that a lot of them seem to hate ... "Has the son of a bitch ever had one unpublished thought?" ...
David Foster Wallace: Consider the Lobster

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Modern Leadership

There was a time ... when princes taking their countries to war were supposed to risk their lives in battle - you know, lead by example. Now they travel around in bomb-proof cars with armed bodyguards and make fortunes three thousand miles away, while the rest of us are stuck with the consequences of their actions.
Robert Harris: The Ghost

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Pattaya, Thailand

In my hotel room in Central Pattaya, Thailand, there are two lists on the table: one is called "menu room service", the other "price list of lost and broken". The latter lists 25 items, among them: glass 50 Baht, mirror 1'500 Baht, wardrobe 5'000 Baht, burnt 200 - 1'500 Baht, T.V. 10'000 - 7'000 Baht, sheets dirty (can remove) 200 Baht, and sheets dirty (can't remove) 500 Baht. Since I could not make much sense of the latter two - why shouldn't one be able to remove a dirty sheet? I wondered - I asked at the reception and learned that the "can remove" and "can't remove" did not refer to the sheets but to stains left on them.

Sunday, 22 February 2009

A White Bushman

I think, in a way, one of the links I had with Zen-Buddhists in Japan was the shared sense that you do what is necessary at a given moment with all your heart and all your soul. You do not wait and say, well, there will be something better tomorrow. You do it, you accept it.
Laurens van der Post: A Walk with a White Bushman

Friday, 20 February 2009

The eyes of the artist

Business likes to finance competitions in the arts, as it is even readier to pour money into competitive sport. But, unlike sportspeople, artists know that the competition is not the real thing, is only a publicity show. The eyes of the artist are, finally, not on the competition but on the true, the good, and the beautiful.
J.M. Coetzee: Diary of a Bad Year

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Photography & Recovery

When Emma Westerlund’s father was diagnosed with cancer, he was hospitalised in Jakobstad, a town of about 25'000, in Western Finland. On her visits to the hospital, Emma, a lecturer at the Department of Fine Art Photography at Novia University of Applied Sciences in nearby Nykarleby, thought that the greyish painted corridors through which she accompanied her father were certainly not conducive to uplift the patients' mood. At the same time she felt that her father, given the state he was in, wasn’t much concerned with questions of interior design.

In any case, Emma, interested in questions of photography and aesthetics, decided to do some internet searching on how the environment influences patients' recovery and came across the research of Britt-Maj Wikström, a senior lecturer at Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, that revealed the beneficiary effects of art and art-related discussions on both the physical and mental functions of patients.

Copyright @ Charlotta Öjersson

Apart from the occasional painting on the wall, hospitals rarely seem to invest in their aesthetic environment. As Emma states: „Often there is a visible lack of careful planning, holistic thinking and a pedagogical structure that would create an atmosphere that could make us feel better. Professor Wikström has researched the beneficiary effects of art on health for over 20 years, but according to her the research results are seldom put into practice. Both the health care and media industry have expressed a large interest, but so far no concrete projects exist.“

When Emma learned of renovation plans for the hospital in Jakobstad, she managed to convince the representatives of the health care unit to create, together with the Department of Fine Art Photography at Novia University of Applied Sciences, a hospital environment where aesthetics and art would figure prominently and thus allow for art to have the beneficiary effect that Britt-Maj Wikström had documented in her research.

Actually, one doesn’t really need research to prove that, common sense would do. However, since common sense isn’t all that common, and since authorities are usually unduly impressed by representatives of science (the application of methodology, that is), Professor Wikström’s credentials surely helped to convince the people in charge at the hospital to go along with the project.

Let’s get practical, here’s an example: people who visit patients in hospitals often do not know what to talk about, and neither do the patients. Now think of a well-selected picture on the wall. It seems rather obvious that such a picture could inspire a conversation. In fact, when Emma showed me around the hospital, what happened was just that: an elderly couple wandering through the corridors stopped in front of a photograph that showed a horse and the woman said: „Remember the stubborn horse we once had?“

Copyright @ Max Nyberg

However, the aim of the project was not simply to inspire art-related discussions, it was much more. In the words, of Emma:
„1. Use art to create a better working environment for hospital personnel. This environment would stimulate positive thinking among patients and their relatives and visitors.
2. Visualise the role of the artist in similar projects. Professional artists, employees within health service and decision-makers need to be better informed about the potentially beneficial effects art has on our health condition.
3. Reach a broader intersectional understanding between culture and health care as a result of collaboration.
4. In the long-term, strive for preparing and forming a model regarding the undertaking of similar projects, which would be important for the region. The purpose of this project is/was the provision of information on the positive aspects of aesthetics and art in hospitals in general. This project is not just targeting one specific hospital, but we rather hope that it will motivate similar undertakings in other hospitals in the Nordic countries. A Nordic network on the topic is already forming as we speak.
5. Initiate a discussion on how we can help art students to see and take the opportunity to create a working situation for themselves. Artists can not expect full-time employment, but rather have to learn to realize their own potentials in combination with the needs of their surroundings.“

Needless to say, quite some planning was needed to carry out this project. Again in the words of Emma:
„Choosing a suitable art form was the difficult part since taste varies greatly in art contexts depending on the on-lookers’ experience with art. One of Maj-Britt Wikströms research results testifies that the individual’s personal choice of art is important for the positive impact art has on health. However, this was a practical problem. Our solution was a turning device that had double-sided pictures on it, and by presenting a number of different photographs on it we provided each patient the opportunity to somewhat choose the art presented in the room. The turning device was easily manageable in order to avoid putting an unreasonable work load on the nursing staff.
During the month prior to the closing of the ward for renovation, the staff distributed a picture questionnaire to about 100 patients and their relatives. The purpose of this poll was to give the people in the ward the opportunity to express what kind of art they would appreciate in the hospital environment. The questionnaire included 11 pictures representing different styles of photography. The respondents only filled out their age and their picture of preference.“

The project was eventually carried out in autumn 2008. One of my personal highlights, when I visited the ward in February 2009, together with Emma, were three photos in blue that showed (I didn’t see it until I was told) the sea and some trees. When one approached the photo, its shapes and forms started to take on different forms and shapes – and the nurses in the hospital were not only aware of it but enjoyed it. I asked the photographer if he had done it on purpose. No, he said, because most of the work was done in the computer, he only realised this effect later on, when the photos were hung. It goes without saying that this is one of the nicer things that a photograph can do: to show the photographer what he had not seen.

Copyright @ Timo Annanpalo

PS: As much as Emma Westerlund was the initiator and driving force, together with Britt-Maj Wikström, of all this, she sees it as the students´ project: „They took a lot of responsibility, I just assisted them a little... Through the process I wanted to keep my personal involvement of subordinate importance. Of course I told the students and sometimes also the media where the idea first came from, but at some point the idea of what art can do and how important it is that artists realize their own potentials grew larger than my first, entirely personal, feelings when my dad was ill.“

Monday, 16 February 2009

What Matters

It rarely happens that I can’t put down a book. And, this especially goes for photo books. That, however, was very different with this tome. Even my default mechanism – I tend to scoff at claims such as „the world’s preeminent photojournalists and thinkers“, how would one measure that anyway? – I for once managed to control. How come?

In general terms, because the book does what it intends to do: it teaches stuff that indeed matters: global warming, environmental degradation, AIDS, malaria, the global jihad, genocide in Darfur, the inequitabel distribution of global wealth and other issues. And, it does so in generally well-written, well-argued texts (by, among others, Bill McKibben, Jeffrey D. Sachs or Samantha Power) that come with mostly impressive photographs (quite some of these were already published in other books) by such well-known photographers as Sebastião Salgado, James Nachtwey, Gilles Peress or Stephanie Sinclair.

The reason, however, that I consider this book one of the best photojournalism tomes that I’ve ever come across is that it is, for the most part, real photojournalism, which means that pictures and words are actually related to each other. And, that is rare for most photo books (and that includes the ones that sail under the photojournalism-label) that come with texts give the impression that either an author needed some pics to make the page not look too boring, or a photographer thought, well, why not add some captions, and, while we’re at it, maybe also an introduction. The introduction of „What Matters“ (by David Elliot Cohen) is different, and exceptional in the sense that it is an instructive text that addresses issues in photojournalism that are seldom written about:

„In an undertaking this ambitious, it is important to understand what the medium does best, and what it doesn’t do very well at all. For some very important issues, photojournalism is not the best way to tell a story. Despite our best efforts, and excellent guidance from a dozen top photo editors from major publications, we could not find a great photo-essay about the institutionalized corruption of America’s campaign finance system. It is a crucial meta-issue that affects many other issues, but it doesn’t lend itself to pictorial exposition. Then there are other big stories – such as the digital divide between information „haves“ and „have-nots“ – about which we felt sure we’d find great pictures. But we couldn’t identify ten or twelve strong images to convey the story. The point is, we believe that all the stories in this book are essential, but we also realize there are other stories, just as important, that are best told in other media. Basically, photojournalism works best when it is personal and specific but still conveys a universal concept.“

Indeed. Let me illustrate this with the text of the first photo-essay of this work, „Meltdown, A Global Warming Travelogue“ by Bill McKibben. Here is how it begins:

„For a long time – the first fifteen years that we knew about global warming and did nothing – there were no pictures. That was one of the reasons for inaction. Climate change was still „theoretical,“ the word that people in power use to dismiss anything for which pictures do not exist.

It is the reason we don’t see shots of coffins coming back from Iraq; it’s the reason the only prison abuse we really know about was at Abu Ghraib. Without pictures, no uproar; not in a visual age.

But now the pictures have started to come, and they will not cease. Some show people: airlifted off the roofs of their houses in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward in the mad wake of Katrina, staring at their houses crumbling into the sea on the Alaskan coast, watching their graveyards flood on South Sea islands …“

Powerful, isn’t it? And so are the accompanying photographs by Gary Braasch.

Photojournalism stands for pictures with words (or for words with pictures), and never is this more apparent than when one is looking at a photo and cannot really understand (only guess) what one sees. Brent Stirton’s shot of a young African filling water, taken from a swamp, into a jerry can held by a woman while a man standing next to her is balancing a bucket of (presumably) water on his head, for instance. I examined the photo for quite a while before I read the caption: „An eleven-year-old girl in Ghana helps her blind mother and brother fetch water from a swamp. She has cared for them for six years, since they both lost their sight to trachoma, a bacterial infection of the eyelids linked to dirty water.“ This information made me see what a picture alone cannot show me – blindness. But this information did more: it triggered lots of other pictures in my head for these words made me see more than a thousand pictures. It goes without saying that I now look at the same picture with very different eyes.

Another very powerful essay is by Gary Kamiya with moving photographs by Paul Fusco. „Bitter Fruit. Behind the Scenes, America buries its Iraq War Dead“:

„War is nothing until you see it. Iraq is barely real, just something that keeps happening to other people very far away. Only stark, clear, undeniable images can make us realize what’s happening.But there are only a few images out there. Photographs of the war’s horrible reality – the corpses, the mangled bodies, the dreadfully wounded victims – rarely appear in the US media. The war is largely invisible.“

Despite the fact that this wasn’t really new to me, I followed this text and the pictures with great interest, and felt deeply moved.

„These faces make us weep. But they should also make us think. One thing they should make us think about ist he Iraqis. Take all the heartbreak in Fusco’s photographs and multiply it exponentially, and you wouldn’t tuch what the war has done to the Iraqi people. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have died; hundreds of thousands more have been wounded; and millions have been forced into exile.“

And then there are the „Images of Genocide“ by Magnum Photos, accompanied by reflections of Omer Bartov about (among other things) what photography can do and what not.

„Photographs of horror can mobilize political and social action, especially when they evoke other, already familiar contexts that remind of the consequences of inaction and the horror lurking behind still images. During the war in Bosnia a single shot of emaciated men behind the barbed wire of a makeshift camp evoked world-wide recollections of Nazi concentration camps and triggered an outpouring of public outrage. Action did not follow right away, but public opinion began to build, putting pressure on governments. Yet photographs can have precisely the opposite effect …“

But let me stop here, I do not want to copy the full text of this impressive tome in which, without exception, all of the essays and photos are worth spending time with. Read and see for yourself, you will very likely come away like I did: enriched and troubled.

The world’s preeminent photojournalists and thinkers
depict essential issues of our time
Created by David Elliot Cohen
Sterling Publishing New York / London 2008

Sunday, 15 February 2009

Südafrikas Küste

Man kann Fotobücher auf ganz verschiedene Arten angehen. Man kann, zum Beispiel, mit dem Vorwort anfangen, oder man kann das Buch einfach irgendwo öffnen, blättern, und sich dann den Bildern überlassen, oder man kann sich von den Kapitelüberschriften leiten lassen, oder …. Wer Letzteres tut und mit Kwazulu-Natal beginnt, weil er (Frauen sind mitgemeint) schon mal vor Ort war, wird sich vielleicht wundern, dass er „sein Kwazulu-Natal“ nur selten wieder findet, wenn er sich dann aber ganz einfach diesen eindrücklichen Aufnahmen von Jörn Vanhöfen, die mehr an Gemälde als an Fotografien erinnern, überlässt, wird er eine ganz wunderbare Horizonterweiterung erfahren, in Herz und Hirn.

Copyright @ Jörn Vanhöfen

Es ist ein sehr schön gestalteter, ja edler und eleganter Band, den der Mare Verlag hier vorlegt: Aufnahmen, Bildqualität, Layout, der differenzierte, kluge, und informative Text von Zora del Buono, alles stimmt, nur das Vorwort des Herausgebers fällt etwas ab. Zugegeben, man erfährt Interessantes (etwa, dass es seine Idee war „Eine Reise entlang den Küsten Südafrikas – 2500 Kilometer Wüste, Felsen, Städte und Urwälder am Meer“ ins Bild zu setzen), doch Sätze wie „Besonders Kapstadt und die Badestrände ziehen jedes Jahr Hunderttausende an. Aber die hohe Kriminalität und die himmelschreienden Unterschiede zwischen schwarzer und weisser Bevölkerung begleiten die grandiosen Kulissen“ sind dann doch etwas arg platt: es gibt mittlerweile nämlich auch sehr reiche Schwarze und recht arme Weisse (die gab es übrigens immer schon in diesem Land, verhältnismässig wenige, sicher, aber trotzdem). Zora del Buonos Text ist da näher an der Realität: „Seit 1707 nennen sie sich selbst Afrikaaner, ihre Sprache, das Afrikaans, ist eine Art ältliches Niederländisch, kehlig und dunkel. Was einst die Sprache der Mächtigen war, ist heute auch die Sprache der Abhängigen, die sich aus ihrer wirtschaftlichen Bedrängnis herauszulösen bemühen, ein Versuch, der oft auf Widerstand stösst, aber immer häufiger auch glückt.“

In einem Interview mit Spiegel Online erläuterte Jörn Vanhöfen sein fotografisches Selbstverständnis wie folgt: Spiegel Online: In Ihrem Bildband "Südafrikas Küsten" ist nicht das Südafrika der sattsam bekannten Klischees, sondern stille Landschaften und öde Städte zu sehen. Vanhöfen: Ich bin ein politischer Landschaftsfotograf, und mein Verleger Nikolaus Gelpke wollte das politische, kulturelle, gesellschaftliche Leben nach der Apartheid zeigen. Er wusste, dass ich immer versuche, mehrdeutige Bilder zu schaffen. Ich will den Betrachter damit zwingen, die Bilder nicht nur zu konsumieren, sondern wirklich zu lesen.

Sind denn Bilder nicht sowieso mehrdeutig? fragt man sich da, eingedenk des russischen Sprichworts „Er lügt wie eine Augenzeuge“ unwillkürlich. Zudem: was der Fotograf will, ist das Eine, ob jedoch die Bilder dann auch tun, was er will, dass sie tun sollen, ist hingegen … na ja, wer will das schon wissen?

Copyright @ Jörn Vanhöfen

Wer den Band einige Male durchgeht und den Versuch macht, die Bilder, wie das der Fotograf will, wirklich zu lesen (und dies meint: genau hingucken, was das Bild zeigt; sich überlegen, was man ins Bild hineinliest; das Bild zu spüren versuchen etc), der wird zweifellos emotional bereichert werden. Und er wird weiter denken, und weiter empfinden, über diese inspirierenden Fotos hinaus. Ob der Band es jedoch schafft, „das politische, kulturelle, gesellschaftliche Leben nach der Apartheid“ zu zeigen, ist schwer zu sagen – können Fotos das überhaupt? Gehört es denn nicht zum Wesen der Fotografie, dass sie Abstraktes (Politisches, Kulturelles, Gesellschaftliches) gar nicht abbilden (höchstens zuschreiben) kann? Zudem: Was soll das eigentlich sein, politische Landschaftsfotografie, ausser einer weiteren, für den Betrachter wenig hilfreichen Abgrenzung? Möge uns die politische Weltraumfotografie erspart bleiben!

Jörn Vanhöfen
Südafrikas Küste
Mare, Hamburg 2008

Friday, 13 February 2009

Pictures that I like (3)

When I came across this photo by the Finnish photographer Catrin Svenfors, what caught my attention first was the text "Today I washed away his scent in 90°", not least, I guess, for the reason that it can as easily be read as: "Today I washed his scent in 90° - away". I automatically associated what my eyes showed me with incidences that I had wanted to rub off my own skin.

Why do I like it? Because it radiates at the same time a very personal and a universal message: we all would prefer some things to not have happened. And, we all (sometimes) wish we could undo things.

By the way, the text was written on the shower curtains before the photo was taken (and not written on the photo).

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Intercultural Communication

„A well-dressed Mexican pulled up in a taxi to the Palacio de Justicia in Lima, Peru. Armed guards were standing on the steps ascending to the building. The passenger paid and thanked the driver and opened the door of the cab, intent on the information he had come to get. As he leaned forward and put one foot on the pavement, a cold rifle muzzle jabbed him in the temple and jerked his attention to matters at hand. The Peruvian guard holding the rifle shot two harsh words at him. The Mexican reddened, emerged from the taxi, and drew himself erect. With a sweep at his arm, he retorted three words: „Qué! Nos conocemos?“ (What! Do we know each other?) With a half bow the guard lowered the rifle and courteously gestured the man up the steps, speaking in deferential tones. What happened here? What did the guard with the gun say that triggered this reaction from the Mexican? And what in the Mexican visitor’s behavior and those three Spanish words instantly changed the Peruvian guard's attitude and demeanor?“

This his how Tracy Novinger begins her „Intercultural Communication: A Practical Guide“ (University of Texas Press, Austin). Difficult to think of a more compelling way (I was reminded of a thriller) to introduce a tome on intercultural communication and, needless to say, she had my full attention:

„The Mexican visitor and the Peruvian guard participated in a communication exchange that was deeply embedded in the hierarchy and formality inherent in Mediterranean-based cultures. With the interrogation, „Qué quieres?“ (What do you want?), the guard had addressed the visitor with the familiar verb form in Spanish. The familiar form of address in most Spanish-speaking countries is used only with family members, close friends, former classmates, or children. The reflexive reaction of the man arriving was indignation, even though the circumstances were dangerous. His retort „Do we know each other?“ was a powerful cultural rebuke. The automatic response of the guard was to amend his discourtesy and reply in the formal style of address for the visitor to please go about his business. Fortunately for the Mexican visitor, this incident turned out well. He would have not responded in such a manner if he had stopped to think about the logic of challenging a gun with indignation and three Spanish words – but the point is that he did not think. Cultural conditioning controlled the behavior of both men, including he who held the gun and the apparent power. Neither men went through a conscious thought process.“

Think! is always good advice, and especially when dealing with members of other cultures. Yet it is hardly enough. „You are American soldiers! Think about it!“ Joseph Heller lets (in „Catch 22“) an officer address his subordinates and then comments: „They thought about it.“

Don’t get me wrong: Tracy Novinger does not argue that going „through a conscious thought process“ is enough in order to deal successfully with members of foreign cultures. I mainly quoted Joseph Heller because I love this quote. What Novinger does argue for is that „we must learn to speak a foreign culture in the same way we must learn to speak a foreign language.“ In other words, we must learn the art of nonverbal communication which is said to make up „two-thirds to three-fourths of our communication.“ And, how does one do that? By spending time with Tracy Novinger’s helpful book, for example.

Tracy Novinger
Intercultural Communication: A Practical Guide
University of Texas Press, Austin

Monday, 9 February 2009

Pictures that I like (2)

While conducting a workshop on "thinking photography" in Nykarleby, Finland, this picture by the Finnish photographer Lisen Julin-Qvarnström caught my attention.

I was fascinated by the colours, thought the composition convincing, and then started to wonder what my eyes showed me. Instead of guessing, I asked Lisen for the story behind the picture. Here it is:

"I had planned to shoot some panorama pictures of Helsinki for a hospital project and so I went to a hotel with a high tower, climbed up to the top of that tower, early in the morning, to get pictures of the city in this beautiful morning light. I took my pictures, but they didn't come out the way I wanted. I packed my belongings and was about to leave when I saw the beautiful lights surrounding the stairs. So I decided to take some pictures of them, trying to catch this light and the colours it produced."

Saturday, 7 February 2009

Moments are fleeting?

I shook the podium one last time, and, before dismissing class early, admonished them: "All life offers us is the moment. There is only the ravishing spontaneity of being, then nothing more. Moments, people - enhearten them, for they are fleeting." (…) Moments are fleeting? I sounded as dramatic and fake as the romantic poetry glued to English teachers' in-boxes. Was "enhearten" even a word?

Adam Johnson: Parasites Like Us

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Pictures that I like

Recently, I came across this photo by the Swedish photographer Joakim Hansson. It was taken in 2004 at the central train station in Copenhagen and is called "väntan" (Swedish for "waiting"). I immediately liked it, it reminded me of the paintings by Edward Hopper. What had first attracted me were the colours, and the composition, and the fact that the woman (I had looked at her first) and the man were reading. Only later did I realise that there was a map behind the woman, and that the wall behind the man made me think of a Mondrian painting ... and then I found myself at the Copenhagen train station, 35 years ago, while inter-railing through Europe, and then Judith came to mind, a scene in a house outside Odense, 30 years ago ... This photo triggered many pictures and each of them triggered another story ... which then led to still more stories.

More photos of Joakim can be found here: Joakim's Photos

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

The narrative known as science

In October 2008, Scientific American published Five Fallacies of Grief: Debunking Psychological Stages by Michael Shermer. A truly helpful piece, I find. Here it is:

"Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. So annealed into pop culture are the five stages of grief—introduced in the 1960s by Swiss-born psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross based on her studies of the emotional state of dying patients—that they are regularly referenced without explication.

There appears to be no evidence, however, that most people most of the time go through most of the stages in this or any other order. According to Russell P. Friedman, executive director of the Grief Recovery Institute in Sherman Oaks, Calif., and co-author, with John W. James, of The Grief Recovery Handbook (HarperCollins, 1998), “no study has ever established that stages of grief actually exist, and what are defined as such can’t be called stages. Grief is the normal and natural emotional response to loss.... No matter how much people want to create simple, bullet-point guidelines for the human emotions of grief, there are no stages of grief that fit any two people or relationships.”

Friedman’s assessment comes from daily encounters with people experiencing grief in his practice. University of Memphis psychologist Robert A. Neimeyer confirms this analysis. He concluded in his scholarly book Meaning Reconstruction and the Experience of Loss (American Psychological Association, 2001): “At the most obvious level, scientific studies have failed to support any discernible sequence of emotional phases of adaptation to loss or to identify any clear end point to grieving that would designate a state of ‘recovery.’

”Nevertheless, the urge to compress the complexities of life into neat and tidy stages is irresistible. Psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud insisted that we moved through five stages of psychosexual development: oral, anal, phallic, latency and genital. Developmental psychologist Erik H. Erikson countered with eight stages: trust vs. mistrust (infant); autonomy vs. doubt (toddler); initiative vs. guilt (preschooler); industry vs. inferiority (school-age period); identity vs. role confusion (adolescent); intimacy vs. isolation (young adult); generativity vs. stagnation (middle age); and integrity vs. despair (older adult). Harvard University psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg postulated that our moral development progresses through six stages: parental punishment, selfish hedonism, peer pressure, law and order, social contract and principled conscience

Why stages? We are pattern-seeking, storytelling primates trying to make sense of an often chaotic and unpredictable world. A stage theory works in a manner similar to a species-classification heuristic or an evolutionary-sequence schema. Stages also fit well into a chronological sequence where stories have set narrative patterns. Stage theories “impose order on chaos, offer predictability over uncertainty, and optimism over despair,” explained social psychologist Carol Tavris, author of The Mismeasure of Woman (Touchstone, 1993) and co-author, with Elliot Aronson, of Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) (Harcourt, 2007), in an interview with me.

“One appeal of stage theories is that they tell a story—they give us a narrative to live by (‘you feel this now, but soon ...’). In cognitive psychology and also in ‘narrative psychotherapy,’ there has been a lot of work on the importance of storytelling. Some therapists now make this idea explicit, helping clients change a negative, self-defeating narrative (‘look at all I suffered’) into a positive one (‘I not only survived but triumphed’)."

What’s wrong with stages? First, Tavris noted, “in developmental psychology, the notion of predictable life stages is toast. Those stage theories reflected a time when most people marched through life predictably: marrying at an early age; then having children when young; then work, work, work; then maybe a midlife crisis; then retirement; then death. Those ‘passages’ theories evaporated with changing social and economic conditions that blew the predictability of our lives to hell. Second, Tavris continued, “is the guilt and pressure the theories impose on people who are not feeling what they think they should. This is why consumers of any kind of psychotherapy or posttraumatic intervention that promulgates the notion of ‘inevitable’ stages should be skeptical and cautious.”

Stages are stories that may be true for the storyteller, but that does not make them valid for the narrative known as science."

Sunday, 1 February 2009

La ficción

Para eso inventaron la ficción: para que uno al menos crea que hay un orden, que existen ciclos.
Alberto Fuguet: Tinta Roja