Sunday, February 17, 2008


I am going on vacation. Will be back in a few weeks.

Dumb Americans?

Some hand-wringing over the state of American culture in new york times book review. Don't miss the accompanying youtube video in which the quiz contestant says, "Hungry? Is that a country? Have heard of Turkey, but never heard of it"

Youtube also threw another related video. The best part was where one man says, "I'm a little mixed up between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Which is the one throwing rocks?" It would be LOL, if it were not so sad and frightening.

The idea of Dumb American is of course a stereotype. Stupidity and ignorance are, I think, rational response to the growing complexity of the world affairs. It is true everywhere. On top of that there is this growing pressure of narrow specialization, resulting in a whole society of high IQ morons.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Psychiartry or Quackery?

This long essay from The New Republic put me to sleep before I was half way through but it looks very informative. It also namechecks one of my favourite books:

In emphasizing the "caused" versus "non-caused" aspect of depression, Horwitz and Wakefield seek to revive a once-vital concept. As they document in rewarding detail, the importance of context as a key to whether a condition is abnormal was appreciated throughout the ages. Hippocrates and Aristotle distinguished melancholic states -- considered a surfeit of black bile in those days -- according to whether they arose with or without cause, associating only the latter with disease. Roman physicians also assented to this distinction. In the Renaissance, even greater emphasis was placed on cause. In 1621, Robert Burton, the author of the great Anatomy of Melancholy, identified today's equivalent of depressive sickness as "sorrow...without any evident cause grieving still, but why they cannot tell."

Ruth Kluger

"Wars, and hence the memories of wars, are owned by the male of the species. And fascism is a decidedly male property, whether you were for or against it. Besides, women have no past, or aren't supposed to have one. A man can have an interesting past, a womwn only an indecent one."

- Ruth Kluger, Still Alive (excerpts are available on google books.)

Just another chance to plug a personal favourite. Madhuri writes about it on her blog. I had also written about it here and on my end of the year book list here.

This book in my opinion is very unjustly obscure. It is not just a great example of Holocaust literature but also one of the best literary memoirs. In fact second only to Nabokov's Speak, Memory as far as I am concerned. (I haven't read many actually and it is not a particularly favourite genre either). There is not one decent review or essay available on the internet. Although the two are not comparable (even though both fall into the holocaust literature by women category), I don't see why Irene Nemirovsky's Suite Francaise got such critical acclaim and bestseller status. I understand that asking for a critical self-awareness is a little too much when you are witnessing the events first hand and then tranforming it into fiction but to me it made the book somewhat uninteresting as an autonomous work of literature. It is still a significant cultural-historical document though, quite well-written at that. By the way, there was a scathing essay by Ruth Franklin in The New Republic on her newly translated books.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Manorama Six Feet Under

Anurag has been pestering me to watch last year's critical Bollywood hit Manorama Six Feet Under for quite some time. I finally managed to see it a couple of days ago. It is indeed an excellent work which really makes you interested in the director Navdeep Singh's career, specially after you realize it is his debut work. I don't want to add to anything Anurag has already talked about on his blog (see also Jabberwock's review), just a few disjointed comments.

First many people, specially fans of Roman Polanski's Chinatown from which it derives its basic template, were let down by the ending. They felt that it was a cop-out, in the way it condescended to the audience's need of closure and happy ending. I didn't feel the same. It made me think about something which I keep coming to in many discussions and readings. It is a general point but not entirely unrelated to the film. The despair and nihilism which is staple of so much of modern western art is a result of something that is intrinsic to western civilization at a particular point in time. The crisis of faith and the loss of meaning which marks so much of modern art was the final step in the historical process which started with enlightenment. We in India never had any enlightenment. Our modernity is borrowed second-hand from the west. Deep down the basic assumption - the faith in the order of the nature, the belief that everything makes sense however the facts may contradict this belief - remains intact and continues to guide everbody's response to the world. The hero of Manorama is product of this very culture. If he summons God to his rescue and spouts some cliches about fate in the end, that shows he really belongs to this way of life.

Another thing about the film which I liked very much was its portrait of small-town India. The sights, sounds and the landscapes felt all real and authentic and never condescended to. It wasn't used just to create an "exotic" background to the story, it was an essential part of the story in the sense that one can't see those characters and the story outside that particular context, which is something very rare in Bollywood. Often you have a generic and cliched background which admirers of Bhansali and his ilk call "beautiful." It was also not another generic Bombay or generic New York or generic Switzerland. I also loved the way Singh used mostly extended takes rather than rapid cuts to artifically speed-up the action. The camera then becomes a tool of discovery and despite slow pace results in many surprises. I specially loved the long tracking shot from the crane which opens the film.

Hmm. What else. I also totally agree with Anurag's description of Raima Sen ("poor man's femme fatale"). I know it is very insulting and harsh but you just have to see one scene towards the end. It was supposed to be repuslive and horrifying but it only made me giggle. This brings me to another point. Can we ever have a truly Indian femme fatale? Please don't tell me Mallika Sherawat and the whole sisterhood. I mean someone like Barbara Stanwyck, Louise Brooks? Okay that's impossible but you know... in the same ballpark? May be it is again Indian culture thing. Is femme fatale also an essentially western category?

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Stranger Song

He is so gloriously depressed...

The Tyranny of Experience

One of the most annoying things about discussions of books and movies is how often the complaint - "I couldn't relate to it" (or its affirmative version, if it is a praise) - comes up. I once got involved into a heated discussion with a friend over Michael Haneke's The Piano Teacher (a film I love very much) because he was so intent on dismissing it by saying that I have never known any woman like that and I don't understand why anyone would behave like that or that it doesn't make sense or worse, it is not logical. Lars Von Trier's Breaking the Waves engendered a similar discussion but in this case I was able to convince him of its worth (even though it is a film I love to hate).These responses are symptomatic of a much deeper and a more serious malaise which is the fear of venturing outside one's own domain of familiar experiences. Even when one comes across something genuinely new and unfamiliar, one is quick to mould it to fit into some preconceived and familiar notion. The whole idea of life for them is just an endless cycle of repetition. How boring can this get? It gets even worse when you realize that people like my friend (and indeed people like myself) have led such a sheltered, insulated, privileged and trauma-less life so far that it becomes absolutely ridiculous to judge other people's experiences and dismiss them as illogical or nonsensical solely based on the yardstick of one's own experience.

Now comes the other part. Let's assume there really is someone who is aware of the essential zombie-ness of his own life and is very eager to learn and understand what it must be to really live through such deep and stirring experiences (painful or joyous doesn't matter) and then in the process of learning invites censure from people who feel privileged to have experienced suffering. This is actually a common theme in Holocaust literature and memoirs for example. The argument goes that you really can't hope to understand or even imagine what it was like to live in Auschwitz. In fact the very interest one has in it makes one suspicious of some deep moral rot within. So finally we get experience-snobs on one hand and experience-vultures on the other. And yet I don't understand why the notion of second-hand experience should invite such contempt. Isn't the whole notion of art (at least the representational art) is that private, subjective and unique experiences can be represented in a communicable form, in other words to achieve a degree of intersubjectivity? Even if the aim is pure self-communion, there can be no detached reflection without representation, even if it is purely an internal representation.

I know, it all sounds a little naive in philosophical terms even a bit gobbeldygook but the final point is that one should be willing to venture out into the world beyond the familiar, be open and curious towards the new and the unknown. End of lesson.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Problem of Consent

I randomly picked up this book by author Alan Wertheimer about legal issues with consent in sexual relations in a book sale sometime back. I have read only a couple of chapters so far and it is really a fascinating subject. I realize it must be old hat for people who are into legal studies because consent is really one of the key concepts in any contractual law but I had myself never given it much thought, specially not in the context of sexual relations. I think this has really become a very important issue because of growing cases of "date rapes" and the mainstreaming of "hookup culture" and reading this book only made me realize why legal brains are having such a tough time formulating appropriate laws.

In the introductory chapter of the book Wertheimer explains the main issue. It is not whether no means no but whether yes means yes i.e. what is the basis of a valid consent so that it is legally and morally permissible for the other party to have sex. He says that the basic philosophical problem is whether one defines consent as a state of being, that is state of an inner consciousness or something that one does. He believes it is the latter because the former wouldn't make any legal sense and this is where the problem of whether yes really means yes comes in. He takes up many different situations and shows how hard this problem really is. For example we all agree that physical coercion will deem any consent invalid but what if coercion is implicit. Like when the man threatens to terminate the relationship if the woman refuses? Or worse, what if this threat is implicitly conveyed, as is actually quite common? Another quite common situation is intoxication. How drunken must one be so that one can give a valid consent? What about mentally retarded people? If they can't give consent do they not have the right to intimacy and sexual pleasure either? Then there also is a possibility of fraud. What if one persuades the other party by reciting poetry or promising marriage without really meaning it? Just thinking about these things makes one realize why lawyers and lawmakers are having such a tough time framing laws for these crimes and at the same time preventing their misuse. In most cases it ultimately comes down to "rape without the rapist" that is, you can morally hold a person culpable and yet can make no legal case against him (or her?). Catherine Breillat Fat Girl brilliantly explores some of these issues too. I would make it mandatory for every teenage boy and girl only if it were not so nasty and explicit.

The central model for the argument that Wertheimer follows was first formulated by Immanuel Kant. To put it in simple terms Kant wasn't too keen about sexual desire. He saw it as inherently objectifying, one person using other as a means to an end - his or her sexual gratification - which violated one of his most famous categorical imperatives, which is that every person should be treated as an end rather than means to some end. He thought that only through the institution of marriage that people can be given rights to mutually use each other's bodies for their own selfish purposes. When one marries he is willingly entering into a contract in which he is giving the other person the right to use of his body in return of a reciprocal right.

Only when one sees a sexual relationship as a contract, one realizes the importance of consent. I know this sounds terribly unromantic on surface but at the implicit level this is what it ultimately boils down to. Thinking in these terms also made me clarify some of the ideas behind the moral and legal status of prostitution. Two people who enter into a sexual contract need not have exact same symmetrical aims. A woman may just want to please her lover without feeling the least bit horny herself or a wife may be looking for some expensive gift from her husband for the anniversary next week. Similarly a prostitute may enter the contract with the sole intention of earning money. In moral or legal terms it is no different. Now I am the last person who would cheer any such objectification but the fact is that it is in the nature of capitalism itself - the process of commodification (or reification as I had mentioned in the last post.) The fact that a prostitute has willingly allowed herself to be objectified doesn't diminish her status as an autonomous human being and in no way justifies moral censure let alone physical violence. (Of course I am talking about only those prostitutes who are able to give a valid consent, which now that I have written it sounds like a circular argument because it was exactly this problem of determining when a consent is valid that initially led us into this territory.)

There are lots of other fascinating things to say on the topic. More when I finish reading the book. For now here is a long review which discusses these ideas in more detail. This is another nice article about a Kantian defence of Prostitution.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Jia Zhang Ke's The World and Some Thoughts on Tourism

Seeing Jia Zhang ke's The World last week made me realize once more why I feel so ambivalent about tourism. First a few words about the film. The film is set in a real-life theme park at the outskirts of Beijing which houses scaled replicas of famous monuments of the world - Eiffel Tower, Leaning tower of Pisa, Taj Mahal etc. The loose narrative follows a bunch of characters as they go on with their daily job of creating and sustaining the required effect of hyperreality, simulacra and spectacle. Girls for example wear traditional Indian skirt and blouse and dance in front of Taj Mahal to the tunes of popular music. (Pretty weird, it actually made my head spin. Jia uses a tune from the classic movie Disco Dancer. I believe it was this song.) There are very few dramatic moments but even in its quiet and understated way it makes its point about slow erosion of identity and authenticity and the toll it takes on interpersonal relationships very emphatically. "The World" becomes a living metaphor for the thriving capitalist society itself. Matter of fact dialogues acquire ironic meanings. For example when they tell each other that "I am going to India" while knowing that they are not free to go anywhere. All they have is the illusion of the real.

It also made me think about the nature of tourism, at least the kind which is sold over the counter in ready-made packages. (Paris in seven days, India in two weeks!) Entire places and entire culture is reduced to a few symbols and monuments completely decontextualized and turned into products so that they can be marketed and sold to the consumers. Paris for example becomes synonymous with Eiffel Tower and a bunch of other things. There is a specific term in Marxist theory for this called Reification. Tourism is a major driving force behind this cultural reification, which is actually one of the hallmarks of advanced capitalist societies. The most extreme manifestations of this reification phenomena are the so-called theme parks, the very idea of which I find insulting. It is not that I have never indulged in vicarious pleasures myself and taken delight in things I know are simulated and false, but this is of an entirely different magnitude.

I don't want to give rationalized justifications for my own apartment-bound existence. There is also a different kind of tourism which is motivated by curiosity and eagerness to learn about the culture and discover new things, a tourism which is more authentic and less superficial, which is not just a series of tick marks on the discovery channel travel guide (saw this, done that kind).

A nice review from Village Voice and the trailer of the film:

Monday, February 11, 2008

from Wittgenstein

Continuing from the previous post and discussion about science and ethics, a few paragraphs from Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (link goes to the hypertext version of the book)

All propositions are of equal value.

The sense of the world must lie outside the world. In the world everything is as it is and happens as it does happen. In it there is no value -- and if there were, it would be of no value.

If there is a value which is of value, it must lie outside all happening and being-so. For all happening and being-so is accidental.

What makes it non-accidental cannot lie in the world, for otherwise this would again be accidental.

It must lie outside the world.

Hence also there can be no ethical propositions.

Propositions cannot express anything higher.

If good or bad willing changes the world, it can only change the limits of the world, not the facts; not the things that can be expressed in language.

In brief, the world must thereby become quite another, it must so to speak wax or wane as a whole.

The world of the happy is quite another than that of the unhappy.

Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is.

The contemplation of the world sub specie aeterni* is its contemplation as a limited whole.

The feeling that the world is a limited whole is the mystical feeling.

{* from the point of view of eternity}

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Nothing happens in life

One of my favourite scenes from the movie Adaptation. Also, eagerly waiting for Synecdoche, New York, the latest by Charlie Kaufmann.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Reactionary (Pseudo-)Science

Okay, I am still wandering the life & style section of newspapers and found another disgraceful and infuriating article. Apparently some "research" somewhere has shown that women prefer breeding and rearing babies more than climbing corporate ladder. I have absolutely no interest in getting into the details of this so-called research but this has become part of a very annoying trend so I thought I will vent some of my irritation here.

First of all the abuse of scientific method and the dishonest way the researchers in humanities try to piggyback on the prestige and the certainties associated with "hard sciences". To be fair, the original research paper generally would make (it has to, actually) the methodological assumptions very clear before stating any conclusions but the same can't be said of journalists who report it in the popular media or the scientists themselves who write popular books for mainstream consumption. Now, I am not denying the possibility of the use of scientific method in these subjects even though they most certainly fall far short of standard criteria of verifiability, falsifiability, repeatable experiments etc which are the hallmarks of scientific method. After all, there are many different levels of certainties. It may not ever reach the certainty of laws of physics but still there are different gradations of truth. But still you just have to think about the good old problem of induction to see the essential ridiculousness of any such research which observes a sample size of few thousands and concludes for the entire human race. I wonder what would Hume have made of it? He even doubted common-sensical causation as logical invalid. (The fact that causation can never be concluded just from spatio-temporal adjacency and succession of two events!) And not to mention the irony of the whole thing! The same arts and humanities people never miss a chance to belittle claims of objectivity and superiority of scientific method by using fanciful theories (Thomas Kuhn

As I said I am not arguing against the use of scientific method in these subjects but the essential limitations and assumptions should be properly stated when one is advertising the results. That brings me to second and even more important point. The way science is being used more and more to make normative judgments about social policies. The job of science is to explain phenomena, and not to tell us what we should do. If we confuse facts with values we will be prone to both factual error and also doubtful ethical judgments. Doing otherwise would be to commit what is called naturalistic fallacy - that is, what should be doesn't imply from what is. They are both two very different things. So even though by some truly remarkable and groundbreaking research one "proves" that women indeed prefer breeding and lack the will to succeed in a career, it still doesn't justify the wage differentials between the two genders. Again, it is generally not the scientists but the journalists and popular science writers who abuse science in this manner to set their own personal political agenda.

There is standard problem in philosophy of science called the demarcation problem, that is, finding the principles on the basis of which we can differentiate science from non-science and pseudo-science. Science and Philosophy are two very different things. If you mix both of them together it will create confusion in both camps. Just to take the example of gender, science can explain how male and female sexual organs work but it can't say anything to the ontological questions about the existence of gender as a category. Science can't help us in finding the meaning of what we mean when we say "X is a Man." Science can't help us decide which of the two is better, whether we should see ourselves as "men" and "women" or simply as "persons" - simply because it is a normative question which should be decided based on normative goals of individuals and society as a whole. There can be both conservative and progressive arguments which require persuasion and sustained thought and that's what these journalists and pop-science writers should focus on rather than crying eureka every second day.

Mr Good Enough?

Is it some zeitgeist thing or am I reading too much relationship crap these days? There is a truly disgraceful article in The Atlantic advising single women in their thirties to settle down with the next idiot who shows an interest in them. Okay, a bit unfair but not much.

Just to balance, another article which indulges in some male-bashing. It covers the same Knocked Up territory - "Postfeminism and crisis in masculinity" (that sounds like an essay topic) but is pretty comprehensive. What I don't understand is why is shopping considered more edifying than playing video games?

Friday, February 08, 2008

Philip Glass

This is one of my favourite film scores. There is also a piano solo version on youtube which is also very good. Glass composed the music for Woody Allen's latest film Cassandra's Dream too. It is characteristically heavy and ominous, though ultimately wasted on a mediocre film. The best part of the film was the credit sequence in the end.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Finding Mr Right

Nice amusing article in The Times about how hard it is for women to find Mr. Rights these days. Don't miss the comments of the male readers at the end, filled with frothing-at-the-mouth schadenfreude.

My own two cents. First, I think the whole sexual liberation thing has probably increased the net suffering of people in the west, and by people I mean both men and women. You really don't need to be au fait with the Frankfurt School philosophers to realize that the issue of "freedom" becomes very tricky in the context of life in advanced capitalist societies. More than freedom from taboos, it is the freedom from responsibility that people now long for. The only people whose lives have become easier and happier are the advertising guys, who found the laziest short cut to sell everything on the planet by appealing to and exploiting the basest and the most dehumanizing instincts in both men and women. Michel Houellebecq's The Elementary Particles (also translated as Atomised, link to reviews here) is probably the most powerful and certainly the darkest denunciation of this aspect of sexual liberation.

Recently I also caught up with last year's hit comedy Knocked Up. Despite my extreme prejudice against (contemporary) romantic comedies, I actually found it rather interesting and revealing, though not as funny as I had expected it to be. It brings me to the second point. Feminist movement has succeeded in raising the consciousness of women but men really haven't changed much. I am not saying all men are insensitive and chauvinists or a bunch of idiots like in the film but most of them really do find it extremely difficult to live up to the high-expectations of their female partners. The film provides a very interesting commentary about the fears, anxieties and insecurities of men living in the "post-feminist" age and also shows why they are so wary and fearful of domesticity and long-term commitment.

Lastly, I don't know, may be I move in extremely conservative circles because even though all these theories sound very plausible and logical to me, I don't see any of these in my immediate circle. Most of my friends and acquaintances (including a few women) who got married in the last couple of years or so, have never been happier. I know they are not pretending. They are really happy. May be things will change a few years down the line (though I really hope it doesn't, despite my obvious envy) or probably it won't.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Anatomy of Melancholy

It's been long since I posted an extract from The Melancholy Book. ("spleen weak by nature, and not able to discharge his office" LOL!)


As before, the cause of this kind of melancholy is inward or outward. Inward, [2449]when the liver is apt to engender such a humour, or the spleen weak by nature, and not able to discharge his office. A melancholy temperature, retention of haemorrhoids, monthly issues, bleeding at nose, long diseases, agues, and all those six non-natural things increase it. But especially [2450]bad diet, as Piso thinks, pulse, salt meat, shellfish, cheese, black wine, &c. Mercurialis out of Averroes and Avicenna condemns all herbs: Galen, lib. 3, de loc. affect. cap. 7, especially cabbage. So likewise fear, sorrow, discontents, &c., but of these before. And thus in brief you have had the general and particular causes of melancholy.

Now go and brag of thy present happiness, whosoever thou art, brag of thy temperature, of thy good parts, insult, triumph, and boast; thou seest in what a brittle state thou art, how soon thou mayst be dejected, how many several ways, by bad diet, bad air, a small loss, a little sorrow or discontent, an ague, &c.; how many sudden accidents may procure thy ruin, what a small tenure of happiness thou hast in this life, how weak and silly a creature thou art. Humble thyself, therefore, under the mighty hand of God, 1 Peter, v. 6, know thyself, acknowledge thy present misery, and make right use of it. Qui stat videat ne cadat. Thou dost now flourish, and hast bona animi, corporis, et fortunae, goods of body, mind, and fortune, nescis quid serus secum vesper ferat, thou knowest not what storms and tempests the late evening may bring with it. Be not secure then, be sober and watch, [2451]fortunam reverenter habe, if fortunate and rich; if sick and poor, moderate thyself. I have said.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Louise Dombrowski

Louise Dombrowski dancing with a flash light. From Twin Peaks. The girl playing her is Emily Fincher, the sister of the now-famous director. The imdb says it is only role to date, so it is unlikely one would ever know what she looks like! She was actually director's assistant. This scene was not originally in the script but they just made it up and shot it on the set. I love how Jerry speaks, "Lord, What's become of us!" One scene out of nowhere and a couple of rogues, villains and idiots are humanized, even made to look tragic.

Vienna Blogs

Lots of interesting discussions about Hofmannsthal and Musil over at the Vienna 1900 blog.

I wish more academic departments would follow the same model.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

The Man Without Qualities Confusion

Totally inconsequential article. Needless to say, I don't share his disinclination towards literature in translation. I think the art and craft of translation is seriously undervalued and under-appreciated and on the other hand authorial intention (whatever that means) is often unjustifiably treated as sacrosanct and final but what really got my goat was the way he so completely misunderstands the meaning of the title of Musil's novel:

"At the moment I'm reading Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities. I've been meaning to read it for ages, mainly because of the title, which I've always thought a fabulous slap in the face for all those Amazon commentators who complain about disliking novels because the central characters are not exciting, or nice, or interesting enough."

This is such a complete misreading of the title (to his credit he seems to have just begun reading the book but still). Being a man without qualities is actually an admirable thing because it implies freedom and independence of spirit. It means living not by a sense of the real but a sense of the possible. In other words, it is not what you are that is important but what you can be because what you are is defined and imposed from the outside by the society and the institutions and they are almost always arbitrary, without any real foundation. A man with qualities is not a man at all, because by agreeing to define himself by an identity he has also allowed himself to be dehumanised. A character like Ulrich becomes even more admirable in our time when it has become so hard to transcend and live outside our given identities, whether they be of culture, nationality, gender, language or anything else. And even if all this strikes a mumbo-jumbo to some amazon reader, Ulrich is still a hero easy to feel jealous for. All the female characters (all impossibly beautiful, totally hypersexed and a few forbiddingly intellectual too) in the book are crazy about him and are dying to sleep with him!! (Ulrich is actually a satirical self-portrait with elements of wish-fulfillment too, even though Musil was himself quite a ladies' man in his youth.) Ulrich is one of my favourite heroes in all literature, in fact somewhat of a personal role-model.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Clarice Lispector

Like The Complete Review, I have been meaning to get to the works of Clarice Lispector too. There is a nice article on Nextbook full of fanboyish enthusiasm. There is not much about her books but surely these two lines are enough:

"eerie, existential vignettes, savant-like parables and prophesies of modern angst seared by the Brazilian sun. Her work called to mind a tropical, female Kafka with sensory overload."

Don't miss the first comment at the end of the article. It seems one can't even praise a writer's good looks without being called a sexist!

Meanwhile Kubla writes about another writer who has been on my to-read list for long : Marguerite Duras. I haven't been able to read much lately. Been a little busy. Actually more than time, you need peace of mind which is in short supply too.