Monday, 31 August 2009

French fields! A French tree!

I expect journalism to make me think, to tell me something I did not already know (and by this I do not mean gossip). Needless to say it mostly doesn't. One of the exceptions is a recent piece on Sebastian Faulks in the Daily Telegraph that I've found inspiring. Here's an excerpt:

Faulks suddenly had his subject. The financial fantasy world, tilting giddily on its axis, and other alarming disconnections of contemporary life. Screens that have supplanted human communication, the alternative life of chat-rooms, internet information that saps the quest for real knowledge, reality television undermining reality. “We are living in a fractured society,” he says. “Everyone is doing their own thing. I do think this atomisation, to use a vogue word, is a threat.”

Starting in 2005, the best-selling author of Birdsong, Human Traces and Engleby wrote 50,000 words of his novel set in present-day London and then paused to dash off Devil May Care, an authorised sequel to Ian Fleming’s James Bond books. When he returned to the present, three months later, “the world had really changed”. The banking system was about to implode.“The game was up. The writing was on the wall.” He quickly decided to anchor his book, A Week in December, in December 2007, “the last time people really believed they could go on with the boom for ever” — and to get it out as fast as possible.

Although the bloodless machinations of a hedge fund manager, John Veals, are at the cold centre of it, Faulks’s wider concerns about dehumanisation are explored through almost every other character, including a footballer and a student drawn to the ‘true message’ of Islam. “The sense of unreality in the financial world began to feed into other unrealities,” he explains. “What disturbs me is how increasingly reliant we are on this and this [he jabs at his computer screen and mobile phone]. When I went to France for the first time, aged nine, it was exciting. French fields! A French tree! But when my children go on holiday they don’t really notice the drive because they are texting or tapping. I’m not critical of them, but now everywhere is pretty much the same.”

For the full text go here

Saturday, 29 August 2009

Robert Capa's Falling Soldier

On 18 August 2009, the International Herald Tribune published an article by Larry Rohter entitled „Research raises questions anew about iconic Capa photograph“. Oh no, I thought, please not yet another piece on Robert Capa's „Falling Soldier“, probably one of the most over-scrutinised, over-discussed, and over-valued photographs ever. Nevertheless, I started to read:

„After nearly three-quarters of a century, Robert Capa's „Falling Soldier“ picture from the Spanish Civil War remains one of the most famous images of combat ever. It is also one of the most debated, with a long string of critics claiming that the photo, of a soldier seemingly at the moment of death, was faked.
Now, a new book by a Spanish researcher argues that the picture could not have been made where, when or how Capa's admirers and heirs have claimed.“

The reason? The photo, according to José Manuel Superregui, wasn't taken at Cerro Muriano, just north of Córdoba, but about 55 kilometers away, near another town, and since „that location was far from the battle lines when Capa was there, Mr. Superregui says, it means that „'the Falling Soldier' photo is staged, as are all the others in the series taken on that front.“

Willis Hartshorn, the director of the International Center of Photography in New York, where Capa's archive is stored, said: „Part of what is difficult about this is that people are saying 'Well if it is not here, but there, then good God, it's fabricated' ... That's a leap that I think needs a lot more research and a lot more study.“

I'm not too sure that a lot more research and study is needed when it comes to this photograph. Besides, I had thought the question of how this pic came about solved when John Mraz some years ago wrote in Zone Zero that „Republican militiamen were pretending to be in combat for Capa’s camera, when a fascist machine gun killed this soldier just as he was posing. It is the coincidence between the fact that the photojournalist had focused on this individual at precisely the second before he was shot that makes this the most famous of war photographs.“ Moreover, „Capa’s involvement left him feeling that he had somehow been responsible for the man’s death. Hence, his reticence to discuss the photo, as well as a certain confusion in recounting the events surrounding the photograph’s taking, decisions that are seen in a very different light if we assume that he staged the image. What this case establishes is that our interpretation of a picture is based on the presumptions we bring to the act of seeing it, but that research and reason can enable us to perceive it differently.“

So if research shows that this photograph was taken at another place than previously thought, what does that then mean? That it was taken at another place than previously thought, nothing but that. Was it staged or wasn't it? Are Capa's statements in the interviews he gave true or not? Is the account of John Mraz the real story (if there is such a thing at all)? Well, who knows? But one thing is for certain: the photograph cannot show what happened, it can only show what was right in front of the camera at a given moment. In this case: a man in a soldier's uniform falling.

So why then has this photograph become such an iconic picture? Not because of the composition, or the light, or the framing but solely because we want to believe the famous story that accompanies this shot – for we want photos to be authentic, and true, and we want them to capture moments and scenes that our eyes often only register but do not see.

The story that accompanies this picture – a soldier photographed at the moment of his death – is simply too compelling to not be believed. Whatever research will unearth, whatever reason will lead us to consider, our view of this photo will probably not change for we have been brainwashed into believing that in this picture we see a man dying. It might of course well be that this is indeed the case but it is not what the photograph can show. Still most of us continue to believe that it does. How come?

Remember the story of some years ago about the Eskimo/Inuit, who were reported (in the New York Times) to have a hundred words for snow? In fact, there is no evidence that they possess more words for snow than, say, carpenters have for wood; the famous Eskimo case for snow is a myth, pure and simple, yet, as Geoffrey K. Pullum states in his The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax and Other Irreverent Essays on the Study of Language, „Once the public has decided to accept something as an interesting fact, it becomes almost impossible to get the acceptance rescinded. The persistent interestingness and symbolic usefulness overrides any lack of factuality.“

The same goes for the „Falling Soldier“ - we continue to see in this photo what is simply not there. What is there is a man in a soldier's uniform falling on a slope, that's it, and that is a fact. By the way: 'fact' comes from the Latin 'facere' and that means 'to make'.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

On reference points

He didn't answer. He rather said: "It is possible to think this: without a reference point there is meaninglessness. But I wish you'd understand that without a reference point you're in the real."
Sharon Cameron: Beautiful Work: A Meditation On Pain

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Wie eine Woge im Meer

Wenn jemand mit dem Trinken aufgehört hat, besteht die Gefahr, dass er rückfällig wird, klar. Im Entzug lernt man, mit dieser Gefahr umzugehen. Sie ist im ersten Jahr nach der Entwöhnung am höchsten, aber auch danach keineswegs aus der Welt. Die Leute in der Klinik haben uns von früh bis spät eingebläut. Es wird Krisen geben, Momente, in denen ihr traurig seid, euch nach der Vergangenheit zurücksehnt und Angst vor der Zukunft habt. In diesen Momenten werdet ihr Lust haben zu trinken, und diese Lust wird euch unwiderstehlich erscheinen, sie wird euch überrollen wie eine Woge. Aber sie ist nicht unwiderstehlich, das kommt euch nur so vor, weil ihr euch schwach fühlt. In Wirklichkeit kommt und geht sie, genau wie eine Woge im Meer. Ihr kennt das doch: Wenn euch beim Baden eine Welle überspült, taucht ihr für ein paar Sekunden unter, aber ihr seid gleich wieder oben, auch wenn es euch wie eine Ewigkeit vorkommt - vorausgesetzt, ihr bleibt ruhig und geratet nicht in Panik. Und genau das müsst ihr auch in diesen kritischen Momenten tun: Ruhe bewahren und nicht in Panik beraten. Denkt daran, dass die Welle vorübergeht und ihr den Kopf gleich wieder über Wasser habt. Wenn ihr den unwiderstehlichen Drang verspürt, zu trinken, tut etwas, um die Sekunden oder Minuten zu überbrücken, die dieser Drang andauert. Macht Kniebeugen, lauft zwei Kilometer querfeldein, esst einen Apfel, ruft einen Freund an. Irgendetwas, das euch hilft, an nichts zu denken.
Gianrico Carofiglio: Reise in die Nacht

Sunday, 23 August 2009

In Brazil

When, a few days ago, I arrived at São Paulo's Guarulhos Airport, I had about 90 minutes to go through passport control, clear customs, and catch my flight to Porto Alegre. I looked at the long queues and thought: no way. Yet when an hour later I had passed through passport control and been waved through customs I became hopeful again. This hope however vanished a few minutes later when I realised that there was another queue at the transit check-in counter. I'm Swiss and so I usually do not jump the queue but this time I did. I went directly to the counter, waved my ticket, said Porto Alegre and sort of expected (by this time I had only physically but not mentally arrived in Brazil) to be told to go and stand in line. But no, the lady at the counter (who was busy putting tags on what looked like the entire household of a very large family) smiled, looked at the ticket and said I should get my luggage and come right here. Five minutes later I was on my way to my Porto Alegre flight.

Friday, 21 August 2009

Rising Sun

Michael Crichton's books come with a bibliography, and I love that - I find it an excellent way to make it easy for the reader to become more knowledgeable. The bibliography of Rising Sun (1992, Ballantine Books, New York) is introduced with these words:

“This novel questions the conventional premise that direct foreign investment in American high technology is by definition good, and therefore should be allowed to continue without restraint or limitation. I suggest things are not so simple.
Although this book is fiction, my approach to Japan’s economic behavior, and America’s inadequate response to it, follows a well-established body of expert opinion, much of it listed in the bibliography. Indeed, in preparing this novel, I have drawn heavily from a number of the sources below.
I hope readers will be provoked to read farther from more knowledgeable authors. I have listed the principal texts in rough order of readability and pertinence to the issues raised in the novel.”

I enjoyed Rising Sun immensely for it not only entertained but taught me quite a bit – which is precisely why I read: to be entertained and to be taught. Here are some quotes:

“In Japan”, Connor said, “if a company is doing poorly, the first thing that happens is the executives cut their own salaries. They feel responsible for the success of the company, and they expect their own fortunes to rise and fall as the company succeeds or fails.”Connor sighed “It took me a long time to understand,” he said, “that Japanese behaviour is based on the values of a farm village. You hear a lot about samurai and feudalism, but deep down, the Japanese are farmers. And if you lived in a farm village and you displeased the other villagers, you were banished. And that meant you died, because no other village would take in a troublemaker. So. Displease the group and you die. That’s the way they see it. It means the Japanese are exquisitely sensitive to the group. More than anything, they are attuned to getting along with the group. It means not standing out, not taking a chance, not being too individualistic. It also means not necessarily insisting on the truth. The Japanese have very little faith in truth. It strikes them as cold and abstract. It’s like a mother who’s son is accused of a crime. She doesn’t care much about the truth. She cares more about her son. The same with the Japanese. To the Japanese, the important thing is relationships between people. That’s the real truth. The factual truth is unimportant.”

This is the twentieth century. Leadership is the quality of telling people what they want to hear.

I found myself thinking of Lauren. When I knew her, she was bright and ambitious, but she really didn’t understand very much. She had grown up privileged, she had gone to Ivy League schools, and had the privileged person’s deep belief that whatever she happened to think was probably true. Certainly good enough to live by. Nothing needed to be checked against reality.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Cell phones

What surprised me most my first few days walking around the city? The most obvious thing - the cell phones. We had no reception as yet up on my mountain, and down in Athena, where they do have it, I'd rarely see people striding the streets talking uninhibitedly into their phones. I remembered a New York when the only people walking up Broadway seemingly talking to themselves were crazy. What had happened in these ten years for there suddenly to be so much to say - so much so pressing that it couldn't wait to be said? Everywhere I walked, somebody was approaching me talking on a phone and someone was behind me talking on a phone. Inside the cars, the drivers were on the phone. When I took a taxi, the cabbie was on the phone. For one who frequently went without talking to anyone for days at a time, I had to wonder what that had previously held them up had collapsed in people to make incessant talking into a telephone preferable to walking about under no one's surveillance, momentarily solitary, assimilating the streets through one's animal senses and thinking the myriad thoughts that the activities of the city inspire. For me it made the streets appear comic and the people ridiculous. And yet it seemed like a real tragedy, too. To eradicate the experience of separation must inevitably have a dramatic effect. What will the consequence be? You know you can reach the other person anytime, and if you can't, you get impatient - impatient and angry like a stupid little god. I understood that background silence had long been abolished from restaurants, elevators, and ballparks, but that the immense loneliness of human beings should produce this boundless longing to be heard, and the accompanying disregard for being overheard - well, having lived largely in the era of the telephone booth whose substantial folding doors could be tightly pulled shut, I was impressed by the conspicuousness of it all and found myself entertaining the idea for a story in which Manhattan has turned into a sinister collectivity where everyone is spying on everyone else, everyone being tracked by the person at the other end of his or her phone, even though, incessantly dialing one another from wherever they like in the great out of doors, the telephoners believe themselves to be experiencing the maximum freedom. I knew that merely by thinking up such a scenario I was at one with all the cranks who imagined, from the beginnings of industrialization, that the machine was the enemy of life. Still, I could not help it: I did not see how anyone could believe he was continuing to live a human existence by walking about talking into a phone for half his waking life. No, those gadgets did not promise to be a boon to promoting reflection among the general public.
Philip Roth: Exit Ghost

Monday, 17 August 2009

The stories that pictures do not tell

A few days ago, Soundscapes, the Online Journal on Media Culture from Groningen, The Netherlands, published my piece on "The stories that pictures do not tell" in which I argued that:

There is no such thing as a right or a wrong reading of a photograph, there is however a more or less informed, and a more or less biased one. A photograph cannot show what was going on at the moment it was taken, it can only depict what the camera was then able to capture and record — everthing else is simply not there, it is brought to, and read into, the picture.

And, ... contrary to widely held convictions, the photograph cannot tell the story of what happened. It is the words that accompany the photo that tell the story, or the stories (usually there are more than one) — and occasionally the wrong ones for what we are reading into pictures often can't be found there, it exists only in our imaginative minds.

For the full text, go here

Saturday, 15 August 2009

Bill Maher

A few days ago, I came across a refreshingly unorthodox piece by Bill Maher that reminded me of Churchill's remark that the best argument against democracy is a ten minute conversation with an average voter. Here's an excerpt:

... did you know only about half of Americans are aware that Judaism is an older religion than Christianity? That's right, half of America looks at books called the Old Testament and the New Testament and cannot figure out which one came first.

And these are the idiots we want to weigh in on the minutia of health care policy? Please, this country is like a college chick after two Long Island Iced Teas: we can be talked into anything, like wars, and we can be talked out of anything, like health care. We should forget town halls, and replace them with study halls. There's a lot of populist anger directed towards Washington, but you know who concerned citizens should be most angry at? Their fellow citizens. "Inside the beltway" thinking may be wrong, but at least it's thinking, which is more than you can say for what's going on outside the beltway.

And if you want to call me an elitist for this, I say thank you. Yes, I want decisions made by an elite group of people who know what they're talking about. That means Obama budget director Peter Orszag, not Sarah Palin.

The full text you'll find here

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Lisbeth Salander

Ich bewundere Lisbeth Salander. Sie ist tougher als ich. Hätte mich jemand als 13-Jährige ein Jahr lang an ein Bett gefesselt, wäre ich völlig zusammengebrochen. Sie hat jedoch mit der einzigen Waffe zurückgeschlagen, die sie hatte. Nämlich ihrer Verachtung für Sie. Sie weigert sich, mit Ihnen zu sprechen.
Stieg Larsson: Vergebung

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Saeed in America

Saeed's first job in America had been at the Ninety-sixth Street mosque, where the imam hired him to do the dawn call to prayer, since he did a fine rooster crow, but before he arrived at work, he took to stopping at the nightclubs along the way, it seeming a natural enough progression timewise. Disposable camera in his pocket, he stood at the door waiting to have snapshots of himself taken with the rich and famous: Mike Tyson, yes! He's my brother. Naomi Campbell, she's my girl. Hey, Bruce (Springsteen)! I am Saeed Saeed from Africa. But don't worry, man, we don't eat white people anymore.
There came a time when they began to let him inside.
He had an endless talent with doors, even though, two years ago during an INS raid, he had been unearthed and deported despite having been cheek-to-cheek, Kodak-proof, with the best of America. He went back to Zanzibar, where he was hailed as an American, ate kingfish cooked in coconut milk in the stripy shade of the palm trees, lazed on the sand sieved fine as semolina, and in the evening when the moon went gold and the night shone as if it were wet, he romanced the girls in Stone Town. Their fathers encouraged them to climb out of the windows at night; the girls climbed down the trees and onto Saeed's lap, and the fathers spied, hoping to catch the lovers in a compromising position. This boy who once had so long dawdled on the street corner - no work, all trouble, so much so that the neighbors had all contributed to his ticket out - now this boy was miraculously worth something. They prayed he would be forced to marry Fatma who was fat or Salma who was beautiful or Khadija with the gauzy gray eyes and the voice of a cat. The fathers tried and the girls tried, but Saeed escaped. They gave him kangas to remember them by, with slogans, "Memories are like diamonds," and "Your pleasant scent soothes my heart," so that when he was relaxing in NYC, he might throw off his clothes, wrap his kanga about him, air his balls, and think of the girls at home. In two months time, back he was - new passport, new name typed with the help of a few greenbacks given to a clerk outside the government office. When he arrived at JFK as Rasheed Zulfickar, he saw the very same officer who had deported him waiting at his desk. His heart had beat like a fan in his ears, but the man had not remembered him: "Thank God, to them we all of us look the same!"
Kiran Desai: The Inheritance of Loss

Sunday, 9 August 2009

The mysticism of ordinary experience

Many of the books that mean a lot to me I came across by accident and not because I read reviews about them. In fact, books that are hailed by professional reviewers often disappoint me - I seem to inhabit another world than people who are paid to read and (and sometimes reflect on) books.

Breakfast at the Victory. The Mysticism of Ordinary Experience by James P. Carse I bought in October 1995 in San Francisco (I noted it on the first page of my copy); I remember that I found it in a box of books that were for sale. That Pico Iyer, Robert Pirsig and Dan Wakefield recommended it - as the book jacket states - surely contributed to my having a favourable look at it but the subtitle probably intrigued me even more because I've always felt that there was something special about ordinary experience.

Okay then, let me quote from this extraordinary book on the magic of ordinary experience:

The wild geese do not know where they are but they are not lost. Knowledge can lift the veil. It can also become the veil. "In the pursuit of knowledge, every day something is added," Lao Tsu declared. "In the practice of the Tao, every day something is dropped." This is not mere anti-intellectualism; it is a recognition of both the importance and the limitations of knowledge. Learn what you can, then learn how to leave your learning behind you for it can hide you from the ceaseless change in and around you. The great Tao "nourishes infinite worlds, yet it doesn't hold on to them." Only by releasing our attachment, can we, in Rumi's phrase, "find our place in placelessness."

As the Buddhists put it, we are all unaware Buddhas whose efforts to lift ourselves out of the ordinary hide our true nature from ourselves. The Buddhists echo Eckhart's point in the declaration that nirvana is samsara - the highest achievement of the spiritual life is within the full embrace of the ordinary. Like our striving elsewhere, attachment to a discipline is but our desire of the extraordinary. Our appetite for the big experience - sudden insight, dazzling vision, heart-stopping ecstasy - is what hides the true way from us. Therefore, we need a discipline that undoes our attachment to a discipline. Thus the meaning of the famous sutra, "If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him."
But, of course, we first need the Buddha to teach us this, to teach us that we are already there, on a road of our own.

Friday, 7 August 2009

Triad types

If there is such a thing as a triad type, it is certainly not self-evident, for of those brought before the High Court with Heung Wah Yim, one was a butcher, another a hardware-store owner and a third a Buddhist temple director.
Lynn Pan: Sons of the Yellow Emperor

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

It's people who corrupt power

“Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
We have heard this so often, and we have repeated it so often – but have we ever thought about it?
Well, I hadn’t. Until I read Richard Flanagan’s “The Unknown Terrorist” (Grove Press, New York, 2006) where I came across this:

One night early in their friendship Wilder, given to discovering revelation in cliché, told the Doll that power corrupts people, and then paused, as if this were some profound new insight, before saying.
“I believe that, you know, I really do.”
But at the Chairman’s lounge, where she had been working for a short time by then, the Doll had already seen how people would do most anything for power and money. The Doll saw it was people who made these things, who thought these things mattered, who made these things important. And so she said:
“I dunno. Maybe it’s people who corrupt power.”

I agree. Absolutely. And I wonder: How come I had never thought about it?

Monday, 3 August 2009

Swiss travels

Some weeks ago, I watched a report on Swiss television that elaborated on how Unterterzen, a village on the Lake of Walenstadt (close from where I live), had developed into a tourist destination for Dutch families. What caught my attention was the mentioning of a newly created small beach. I went to have a look. Well, there wasn't really any beach to speak of - just a few pebbles on the shore. The lesson, as always: Don't trust TV-reports!

Then I visited the Safien Valley, the bus climb from the train station up to the village of Versam offered a spectacular view. After about half an hour, the young bus driver all of a sudden stopped and informed us that we all had to get off and walk until we would reach the next post bus. Why, what is going on? I asked her. The road is under repair, she said. Many of the passengers (most were retired and some not so good on foot) reacted in the typical Swiss fashion: What? I do not believe this. Why is it that we were not informed about this beforehand? About fifteen minutes later, we reached the waiting post bus. After another twenty minutes on the bus, it was the same procedure all over again but this time we had only a couple of minutes to walk. It was no big thing, really, it is just that if something of that sort had happened to me in, say, Africa, I would very likely have thought to myself that this surely could never happen in Switzerland.

Some other day in this summer of 2009, I met an elderly lady on the train who told me that, since she retired twenty years ago, she was doing bus and train trips all over Switzerland almost daily. What was her favourite destination?, I inquired. Chiavenna, she said. Isn't that in Italy?, I asked. Yes, she said, but very close to Switzerland.

So I went to Chiavenna. By train to Chur, then by post bus to Splügen, and then on a blue Italian pullman over the Splügen Pass to Chiavenna, that an art historian had described to me as a "little Firenze" - and it indeed looked the part. I then returned to Sargans via the Bergell and St. Moritz.

In retrospect what comes to mind is this: how wonderfully wild the Italian side looked, and how proper and over-civilised, almost like a gated community (especially around St. Moritz), the Swiss side appeared.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Faulheit & Feigheit

Faulheit und Feigheit sind die Ursachen, warum ein so grosser Teil der Menschen, nachdem sie die Natur längst von fremder Leitung freigesprochen (naturaliter maiorennes), dennoch gerne zeitlebens unmündig bleiben; und warum es anderen so leicht wird, sich zu deren Vormündern aufzuwerfen. Es ist so bequem, unmündig zu sein. Habe ich ein Buch, das für mich Verstand hat, einen Seelsorger, der für mich Gewissen hat, einen Arzt, der für mich die Diät beurteilt usw., so brauche ich mich ja nicht selbst zu bemühen. Ich habe nicht nötig zu denken, wenn ich nur bezahlen kann; andere werden das verdriessliche Geschäft schon für mich übernehmen. Dass der bei weitem grösste Teil der Menschen (darunter das ganze schöne Geschlecht) den Schritt zur Mündigkeit ausser dem, dass er beschwerlich ist, auch für sehr gefährlich halte: dafür sorgen schon jene Vormünder, die die Oberaufsicht über sie gütigst auf sich genommen haben ... Es ist also für jeden einzelnen Menschen schwer, sich aus der ihm beinahe zur Natur gewordenen Unmündigkeit herauszuarbeiten. Er hat sie sogar liebgewonnen ...
Immanuel Kant: Beantwortung der Frage: Was ist Aufklärung?