January 31, 2003

So Little Time

So I started yet another blog: So Little Time. This one is a place for me to record books that I've run across that are relevant to my life or my research or something like that, but that I won't have the time to read in the next six months or (most likely) that I'll never read.

I can't imagine anyone would find this that interesting, but I thought I'd mention it in case you were burning to know that latest publishing news in the exciting realm of Melanesian studies.

Posted by Alex at 01:43 PM | Comments (0)

January 30, 2003

Rufus Lowie Huberman

(I know this is technically double-dipping, since it's an excerpt from may latest post to Small Ensembles, but people who've read the book said they thought it was pretty funny, and I'm really busy at the moment, so there you are)

Rufus Lowie Huberman, the Hans M. and Clavdia E. Castorp Professor of Anthropology and Cultural Studies at the University of Chicago, was a man who by all accounts had accrued more honors and accolades in the brief thirty two years of his existence than most people accumulate in a lifetime. In addition to being a regular columnist in the New Yorker, he was the author of Bartending in Bali, a popular account of the two years he spent studying tourism in Bali by doing fieldwork as a bartender at an upscale hotel bar in Kuta. Part novella, part gossip column, and part theoretical meditation on the nature of fulfillment in human life, its witty style and intentionally anachronistic philosophical musings provided a fascinating glance at the service industry of international tourism and had instantly catapulted him into the limelight.

His confirmation as one of America's star public intellectuals had come two years later when he had won a MacArthur 'genius' award of 2.5 million dollars, doled out in annual 500,000 dollar payments. Although the award brought him national prominence, it was his public declaration that he would spend the money entirely on hard liquor and mixers that made him a darling of the media. Even his later modification of this public vow to include party decorations and finger food was seen not as a recantation, but rather the work of an unbelievably subtle mind pursuing the delicate dialectics of some of the most pressing matters in contemporary American culture.

On the other hand, his academic credentials were impeccable. He was the grandson of Robert Huberman, one of Franz Boas' first students and one of the two scholars to independently uncover the underlying structure of Crow-Omaha kinship terminology. His own father Felix had followed in Robert's footsteps, founding the anthropology department at the University of California at San Diego after a meteoric rise through the OSS as a consultant during World War Two's Pacific campaign that guaranteed him success later on in life. Rufus' own career, at once innovative and anti-modern (and hence itself destined to appear the ne plus ultra of cool because of how often, like Caesar, it refused the crown) mirrored the duality of a man who could only escape his destiny by fulfilling it. Like his father and his father before him, he became an anthropologist.

Not that his hipness was contrived. On the contrary, a childhood growing up the scion of one of America's most distinguished Jewish intellectual families amidst the trendy hedonism of La Jolla had produced a sort of permanent crumpled informality that followed Rufus wherever he went. At six foot three, he could have been imposing, but in fact his height exaggerated the permanent gangliness given off by his disheveled curly blond hair, hawkish nose and bobbing Adam's apple. His unquenchable desire to go about always in fancy dress was undercut constantly by the fact that he was most comfortable in a t-shirt and shorts. This in itself was excusable - when he was in full swing, Rufus could mesmerize an audience of even the most staid, leaving them gasping in amazement at his analysis as he shot straight into the theoretical stratosphere, thinker after thinker falling away from his argument like booster rockets to the earth as he sucked them dry of their theoretical fuel and sent the empty shells, devoid of insight, spiraling down to earth as something that would only burden his ascent into the philosophic heavens. On occasions such as this, he could have been wearing a dog suit and no-one would have blinked an eye. What sat less well was his penchant, often unconscious, to break down into the loose SoCal patois that was his default idiom right in the middle of an exegesis. Even worse, his own rapacious erudition and near-perfect memory extended not only to recondite treatises on the phenomenology of postcolonial subjectivity, but to an intricate knowledge of the recording history of practically every west coast gangster rappers as well. A dog suit the academy could have forgiven, but resorting to the minor works of 2 Short as proof texts upon which your analysis of historically effected consciousness was something that would not pass at the high table at All Souls.

All of which was fine with Rufus. Although the line between celebrity and infamy was narrow in the academy, he had an almost unerring ability to walk it. Like everything else about him it was instinctual, something he just did spontaneously. His publishing success had made him independently wealthy, he was unusually popular with University donors (he had talked Mr. and Mrs. Castorp into endowing his chair almost single-handedly), and didn't show signs of slowing down any time soon. He knew that a real intellectual lived on the margins of the academy, never loosing touch with the artists and musicians producing the vitality and life that the academy lived parasitically upon. There was no concert Rufus could not get tickets to, no restaurant in which there was not a table for him, no columnist he could not tap on the shoulder at the request of a friend. He had gotten Jim this gig after all, hadn't he?

More could (and will) be said about Rufus. What mattered to Jim was that he was his loftmate, his confidant, and his best friend. How and why exactly this curious juxtaposition came to pass is something we'll come to consider eventually.

Posted by Alex at 12:03 AM | Comments (0)

January 28, 2003

Mars and Mansions

Now, I'll be honest with you: I read the book years ago. But still I bet I remember it right when I say it went like this:

In The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K. Dick, a lot of wierd shit happens. Including like, this guy Palmer Eldritch and like, three stigmata that are like, on him and shit. But that's neither here nor there. The thing that ought to concern us here is that the sun is going supernova or something and Earth is getting hotter and hotter. People are getting drafted to go to Mars so they can terraform it and create a new home for the human race. Except that Mars really sucks - endless dust storms and no water or real food, and a lot of people stuck in very small cramped underground bunkers most of the time. No one wants to go to Mars. Three hours a day they're topside terraforming. The rest of the time they're stuck in the fucking bunker.

But it turns out that Mars colonists have these huge and elaborate doll mansions. Ken and Barbie with miniature estates complete with grands chateaux and swimming pools, ports cochere, meticulous ariculated lawns. Why do they have these scrupulously accurate scale models of The Good Life hidden away in their squalor-filled bunkers? Because they can take Wonderful Magic Mushrooms and project themselves inside of the dolls. That's right: people stuck on Mars can live in mansions provided they are willing to pay the price. Colonists stuck in a Kafka-esque reality full of sand and terraforming can take psychedlic drugs that magically transport themselves into a life of perfect luxury and affluence, escaping the monotony of an unwilling life of making a planet pleasant for someone else in the future to live on.

The wierd thing is, the way PKD tells it, that this drug (although illegal) is so incredibly popular that the Earth's main export - indeed, the main thing produced on the planet - are scale-model clohing, cars, furniture, consumer electronics. Mars colonists are doing nothing but tuning in, turning on, and dropping out, and earth - theoretically the center of the solar system - has an economy fueled by exporting their dreams to them. Advertising execs and future-predictive people spend all their time attempting to guess the latest trends in miniature fashion etc. etc. etc. And before I continue, I'd just like to point out that Philip K. Dick wrote this in 1965.

You see where I'm going with this, right?

Almost every Massively Multiplayer Online Game (MMOG) from Ultima to There to The Sims to The Game Neverending features a huge and realistic, immersive environment in which you can roam. As I've said in another forum, the kinds of worlds and environments these games create are not merely another way for gamers who share this world to communicate, they create new worlds which people can share and within which they can communicate.

I have avoided MMOGs for a long time, since they had 'never finish your dissertation' written all over them. But finally I gave in. I chose a relatively safe one - the Game Neverending. To make a long story short - and to not tell a lot of other stories that I could - I got to be third level, at which point the easiest way for me to make money (and hence buy a house, become famous and happy etc. etc.) in the game was to bake pies. I'd go to the grocery store, buy some flour and butter and apples, and make an apple pie. Then I'd sell it to the local cafe, and make a profit from the sale.

I played the game pretty intensely (and I promise you, I am All About Intense when it comes to geeking out about this kind of stuff) for a week and then stopped. I've never been back. Jesus fucking christ - pies?! I've got a roundtable to organize, grant apps to get in, an RPG to write, a dissertation chapter to finish, a concert coming up, the Levinas reading group, reading Talmud with the Rabbi, reading Levinas with von Aschenbach, fucking putting up with Ali in rehearsal.... aggh! My own life is busy enough! Now I've got to make pies?! Click the 'buy ingredients' button fifty times and hour and then the 'make pies' button fifty times? Just to raise money to buy a house? No way, man - I've got rent and a dissertation in this world to worry about.

Why on earth would I play a game with a whole set of ends, an entire other career, richly detailed goals and background? I'm busy enough as it is!

But then again - and I don't mean to sound snotty here - I don't live on Mars.

(Ok J&DvA, wipe that smirk off your face - I mean this in a different metaphorical sense)

Remember the colonists and their dolls?

Well check this: I have many friends who do play MMOGS and love them. Can't get enough. And the latest data, such as it is, indicates that spending four or five hours a day in a virtual world is less an aberrant pathology than a lifestyle choice - all kinds of people are doing it.

Are MMOGs for kids? Are they evil? Are they 'heroinware'? I think any serious comparison beween addictive drugs and videogames is riddled with flaws before it began, but let's consider the following:

1. You are an intelligent, educated person.

2. You grew up being told you could be whatever you wanted to be.

(2a. duh - you're an upper middle class white american and hence a privileged member of the most affluent society in world history)

3. You got that degree in $BA because you loved what $BA studies was all about, but when you graduated you had to make a living, right?

4. Now you work 40 or 50 (or 60) hours a week. Sometimes you work on weekends. You have little to no free time. You are so used to working late when a deadline looms that you know exactly when to intake caffeine and chinese food such that you can be productive for up to 18 hours a day, working on a problem that is Very Important to Someone Who Isn't You.

5. You are bored stupid by your job, and hate the people. Or love the people and think the job is boring. Or love the job and think the people are boring.

6. The point is: you are doing something you don't love. But doing it makes you enough money to do the things that you love. In your spare time. Which you may or may not have, given the way they've been running you down at work lately with all these deadlines. But when you do, you've got plenty of money to blow on it. That's why you're working in the first place, right - to get the money you need to do what you love. Men made cogs, women made pistons. A weary toil at work. Eating food you didn't grow turned into meals you didn't cook. A biography whose forward motion has fallen to a standstill, or else transmongrified into abstract ambitions for 'increased personal wealth'. Exhausted. Drained. No time or energy to dance or sing or think. Given all of this, is it so surprising you'd be looking for a way to live in the mansion you'd always dreamed of?

On Mars, the environment is too harsh for lasting fulfillment. The sandstorms are too fierce, water too scarce. Terraforming is a hopeless dream that may appease your descendants, but merely makes your bones and muscles ache with exhaustion.

Easier to find solace in the miniatures you have constructed.

I love video games, and I think MMOGs are one of the most exciting and important things people have come up with sense the alphabet or widely adopted standards for thread width on screws. But I am worried that the endless creativity attendant on the birth of new worlds is being squandered.

I am in debt to the US government several tens of thousands of dollars for tuition. My idea of a nice night out is a meal that includes meat. But I am doing what I really, really love. I've chosen to be happy and poor. Or rather - because let's face it, when you're 21 years old and applying for graduate school, how well do you understand what becoming a professor really involves? - I got suckered into something that it turns out I enjoy.

But how noble are MMOGs when they become the relief people stuck Real Jobs seek? What does it mean when MMOGs become - as they have become and are becoming - the world within which people seek fulfillment and personal enrichment? How healthy is it that the only time you feel you're really becoming the person you want to is when you login to a NWN server as a 20th level Elf Illusionist?

Most people consider this 'escapism', and think MMOGs are 'bad'. They have this silly idea that Grown Ups don't need this imaginary space any more - that only kids play games. This is utterly ridiculous. Kids don't get recrutied to live on Mars, adults do. Kids fantasize because they're kids. Adults fantasize because they're stuck in that bunker. And they need the way out more than anyone. Video games are for adults. Is on-line gaming evil and addictive and anti-social? Fuck all that noise - the problem isn't with the game, it's with the societal conditions which make playing it the only way to get any satisfaction in your life. The problem is not that these games are 'addictive' so much as the real world's unbeliveably unfulfilling. The games aren't addictive. The 'real world' is boring. We are making our lives on line because the way the suits are running things in the meatworld makes pretty much any alternative attractive.

What does it mean that the richest and most privileged members of the richest and most priveleged country in the world can find happiness in their lives only by living in a fantasy world?

I wouldn't know - I'm not on Mars. At least - I don't think so. And this is probably not true about most people. Although it may be in the future. But the point is the same, irregardless. Those of you unwilling to trade off financial security and a dental plan for an lively intellectual environment, perhaps you see what I'm getting at:

How fucked up is it that people are so unfulfilled by their meatworld lives that they work for a living to earn enough money to earn the broadband that's necessary to let them immerse themselves in a world that they actually care about?

Again, the point is not that these games are bad. The point is that we've made a world which is not worth living in. And not just the obviously bad, sex- and race-discrimination, subsistence wages world. First world countries are ravaging the hell out of third and fourth world peoples. We all know that. The troubling thing is that people living in first world countries don't like being there anymore - they'd rather be in Norrath. And it's not because Norrath is so seductive so much as it is because the rat race of the first world is not all its cracked up to be.

People who criticize video games do so without criticizing the world that made video games possible. And by this I don't mean a culture of violence or the pervalence of guns (although both suck). What I mean is a world which is itself so suck there's nowhere else to go but online.

Mars is a place of alienation, where indulgence in a fantastic world is the only thing that makes life bearable. People who criticize the increasing immersive nature of videogames have got it all wrong. In a world full of homogenity and dullness, the virtual realities may well be our most redemptive possibility. It may be that the digital genres within which we live with one another are the true sights of normalcy in our lives. Purged of the pathology of paranoic war mongering and financial scare tactics, in a realm where the world is as we have created it, the world online may prove to be an opening to utopia whose space we ought eagerly to explore. And the hallucinogenic other-world where our fantasies of sex and violence are put on display may be this one. It is true that one world is made of meat, and the other of numbers. But incarnation is not unproblematically more authentic than zeros and ones.

There are dreams and there are realities. There is Mars, and there are mansions. But who is to say at this early juncture in which location the most real of our hopes and dreams express themselves? Who is to say where we as people, a family, a species, might live best together?If we believe that human beings can change the world by thinking it and living that though through action, than the zeros and ones of our lives may prove to be the truest proof of our integrity as a species. And the incarnations of the meatworld may prove to be illusions of our true selves.

Posted by Alex at 03:00 AM | Comments (5)

January 23, 2003

The Peace of Chen Be With You

(Bonus audio track! - check out Chen & Crew rawking out on the hardcore Spanish Countereformation tip)

I would like to tell you about something that happened in church the other day that filled me with the Peace of Chen.

Chen, my once Padawan, fellow tenor, and occaisional dinner partner used to sing with me in the Chapel Choir before I left for Papua New Guinea and he completed his training as a Jedi. It is almost impossible to describe the Chen Original Lifestyles Brand™ of being-in-the-world. It's a curious mix of arrogance, charm, and insouciance balanced off by a dashing physical appearence, a genius-sized brain, and 'sweet and gentle guy when you get him alone'ness. He owns a very fast Japanese plastic motorcycle. He passed every class in medical school with straight As. The exception was Ethics, a subject he had to repeat after suggesting that his fellow students who opined that 'health care ought to be available even to the very poor' ought to 'work for free'. One of Chen's epithets is 'Chen the Healer'. Although it is also true that this is a title he gave himself, and refers more to his relationship with certain members of the soprano section than any medical knowledge he posseses. Generous to his friends, merciless to his enemies, and always impeccably dressed, I have seen Chen so antagonize waitstaff that they refuse to serve him. He has treated me to dinner at Chez Panisse, and rescued me from the top of the Chicago Board of Trade Building after it was overrun by vampires. He is a sweet guy, deep down inside.

That stretch of time now commonly referred to by senior choristers as 'The Chen Period' was marked by a sort of sybaritic technical excellence. Other than the small group of Actual Christians in the choir, it was clear to all that the purpose of choir was to create an antagonistic arena in which we could each compete to outperform the others. The audience - as Chen typically reffered to the congregation - was lucky to be there at all. Soon competition became both vocally and sartorially widespread. A fashion arms race of almost cold-war proportions broke out among the men of the choir as each attempted to out-dress the others. Well tailored suits and silk ties with windsor knots quickly became the norm. Soon vests began to appear, then pocket watches, then watch fobs, monocles, and canes. One Sunday in 1998 every male member of the choir arrived in a full morning suit. It was in this period that Chen began only to wear the Armani tuxedos which later became his trademark.

I will pass over in silence here the complex rules that governed oggling the congregation.

And so the age of The Chen passed and the Age of Man began. Chen's departure changed the complexion of the choir. We became a better ensemble, grew closer and more trusting as a group, and generally settled down to a less hectic pace. I missed the loose-cannon, reckless virtuosity that Chen so infectiously gave off, but was also glad that I no longer had to wear that morning suit all the fucking time. The dry cleaning was killing me.

As many of you may know, the choir will be traveling to New York soon to perform at Lincoln Center - a prestigious concert that will probably be the most important of my life. Because we were late booking hotel rooms, we are gong to be put up in the Hilton & Towers on 53rd and 6th. This is OK With Me.

Because the chapel has a phat endowment, the offering from each Sunday goes to helping charitable causes in the neighborhood or abroad - often in Latin America, since many of the pastors at the chapel have a close relationship with that area of the world. At first I was horrified by the practice of asking for an offering - even though I was not in a synagogue the idea of bringing money right up to the altar and putting it right next to holy food and holy water was incredibly repugnant. But having worked with Christian charities before, and knowing all the good work that the chapel does, and understanding how different notions of charity and giving are in the Christian tradition, I have really come to appreciate the good work that the chapel does. (it still freaks me out, however, when in rehearsal the choir puts hymnals on the ground while working with sheet music. One just shouldn't do that to holy books! Even if they're not holy to me.) Anyway, they typically they preface the offering by a remark of something of this sort:

We are thankful here at the chapel to have a generous endowment which supports our activities. Offerings at the chapel are used to help good causes in the neighborhood and around the world. Please give as freely as you are able

If there is a specific charity they are helping, they will often add a small line like this:

Our offerings this week are particularly dedicated to helping the Shiloh Baptist Food Closet on 48th and Blackstone. Shiloh Baptist has been helping the hungry with food for over thirty years, and we at the chapel are proud to be able to help them in their excellent and important work. Please give as freely as you are able

Sometimes they will merely add something in general about how life is going at the moment and how important charity and good works are at this particular junction. Today, for instance, it was -11 farenheit in Chicago. And so they might say something like:

In this season of ice and snow, when it grows so cold and so many people do not have shelter or warming food, it is especially important that those of us who have been blessed with warm houses and abundant food to help our brothers and sisters who have nowhere to go in these difficult winter months. Please give as freely as you are able.

So you can imagine my shock and surprise when a few Sundays ago I was sitting in the choir (yes, that's part of the chancel) and heard one of the pastors say:

Our offerings today and for this entire month go towards assisting the music ministry of our wonderful choir, who will soon be going to New York to sing as part of the prestigious American Choral Directors Association annual meeting. We feel blessed each and every Sunday to have such a wonderful choir, and are glad to be able to support them as they take their ministry of music beyond the walls of this chapel and out into the world. Please give as freely as you are able

My mind reeled. Could this be true? The chapel was passing over Shiloh Baptist and giving a month's worth of offerings to put us up at the Hilton & Towers on 53rd & 6th?!

But at once I felt a great peace come over me, a peace both comforting and self-confident. For at that moment I knew that however far away he may be, the spirit of Chen was with me, and also with all the members of the congregation. For this offering was pleasing unto his sight and meet and fitting with his own sense of priorities. Although he could not be there that day, I knew that hist spirit suffused the chapel, and that the decision made there that day met his approval.

Posted by Alex at 01:29 AM | Comments (0)

January 20, 2003

More Small Ensembles

The next installation of Small Ensembles is now up. Be gentle with me. This is the "Boy, sure is cold in Denmark" "Yeah - too bad about the king" "I wonder what Hamlet'll do" section of the novel.

Posted by Alex at 12:12 AM | Comments (0)

January 19, 2003

Valeri and Levinas on the Body

(with mad shouts out to DvA)

Our bodies: can't live with them, can't live without them. They let us enjoy life (eating, sex, reading, and other such elemental pleasures), but, by being corporeal and hence hurt-able, are a potential source of all sorts of Bad Things including (to name just one thing) death. As Levinas says in Totality and Infinity,

"What is distinctive about the sovreignty of the I that vibrates in enjoyment is that it is steeped in a medium and consequently undergoes influences. The originality of influence lies in that the autonomous being of enjoyment can be discovered, in this very enjoyment to which it cleaves, to be determined by what it is not."

Levinas is concerned with giving the western philosophical tradition a root-canal, and so it is striking that he should agree so fundamentally with Valerio Valeri, whose goal in Forest of Taboo is to elucidate the nature of taboos on an Eastern Indonesian island:

"The culturally articulated subject fears its loss in the inarticulated that haunts it, precisely because it constitutes itself by standing against the inarticulated. Of this resisting inarticulate, the body, particularly the constantly moving and transforming body which we experience in its processes of ingestion, excretion, reproduction, transformation, and decay, is the strongest expression. The body is not only a substance to be legislated upon, to be turned into grist for the symbolic mill, but also a constant source of nonsense undermining the affirmation of sense."

Levinas agrees that "what has influence over life seeps into it like a sweet poison", he insists that "this ever possible inversion of life cannot be states in terms of limited or finite freedoms". He claims that

"Freedom is as it were the by-product of life. Its adhesion to the world in which it risks being lost is precisely, and at the same time, that by which it defends itself and is at home with itself. This body, a secotr of an elemental reality, is also what permits taking hold of the world, laboring. To be free is to build a world in which one could be free."

Here Valeri and Levinas diverge. While Levinas celebrates the way that humanity's embodied nature is an enabling condition of its freedom, Valeri sees it as a source of anxiety so great as to motivate a set of concerns that are truly universal.

"A subject symbolically constituted but necessarily located in the body, must be haunted by fear of its disintegration through the body, since it constantly experiences the body's resistance to the subject's symbolic ordering of itself. The embodied subject's fear of disintegration through the body and by the body is the ultimate basis for the notion of pollution."

This probably explains there very different views about dating, but that is another matter altogether.

Posted by Alex at 08:27 PM | Comments (0)

January 16, 2003

Daily Routine

I had a very good and fulfilling day today, despite the Eldred case. This is a good idea of how my schedule has been working this quarter:

09:00 Arise.

09:00-10:30 Lightsaber practice - felt lazy and set battle droid on low.

10:30-11:00 Holy shit! Lessig lost 7-2. Poor guy. Wonder what the opinion will say. Ginsburg wrote it? And after I made her a star in my novel! No alien rejuvenation process for her in the rewrite, dammit.

11:00-13:00 Levinas reading group with David von Aschenbach. Excellent discussion of Levinas' concept of dwelling and his critique of Heidegger's account of geworfenheit. Ate club sandwhich (no bacon). Also good side discussion of Goethe's early work and influences - I had completely forgotten about how Werther went on and on about Klopstock. Von Aschenbach is a fascinating discussion partner, but will he ever shut up about that Polish kid?

13:00-17:00 "Web Design". Rewrite style sheets for web site while listening to new Caldara CD and reading Eldred decision. Fucking Ginsburg.

17:00-18:00 Talmud study with Rabbi. Bava Metzia 21B. Ta shma, yo.

18:00-19:30 Nap. Use Jedi powers to listen to All Things Considered while asleep, filtering out gratuitous middle-brow product placement and annoying, fat sounding political commentator Daniel Whatshisname.

19:30-20:30 Exercise: three reps of a hundred crunches and pushups. Three reps of lifting ten kilogram weights using only the force.

20:30-21:00 Dinner. Liver, fava beans, and a nice Chianti.

21:00-22:00 Read Seven Lively Arts by Seldes and a chapter of his biography by Kammen. This guy is so right up my alley its not even funny. Why did it take me so long to find out about him?

22:00-24:00 Work on dissertation, linking 1963 topographic survey of Porgera to wider national mapping projects. Deny simplistic panoptic power/knowledge reading and focus on the poetics of the lifeworld by demonstrating the relevance or lack of it these mapping project have to practice on the ground and local politics.

24:00-02:00Watch Donnie Darko while snacking on Pappadom dipped in tamarind sauce (courtesy of the J-Dawg. Damn, J-Dawg! You rawk). Holy shit - that's the scariest fucking rabbit I've ever seen. This entire thing is like Last Temptation of Christ crossed with Harvey and a bad Depeche Mode album. This is the scariest thing I've seen since those two little girls in the Shining. {sighs} Christians. How often do you see Jews producing thinly-veiled biographies of Moses or the Gaon of Vilna which feature such frightening rabbits? Aw man, how am I going to get to sleep now?

02:00-02:30 Contemplate starting Lessig fan fiction. Waffle. Decide to hold on to it 'till the weekend and just do a quick blog instead.

02:30-02:35 Enter Sleep Mode. Pray that fucking rabbit doesn't come after me. Man.

Posted by Alex at 02:49 AM | Comments (2)

January 15, 2003

Lessig Looses Eldred 7-2

Fuck. Not unexpected. But... Fuck.

The real question was not whether he'd win or loose but what the decision will say. Still waiting on that.

Fuck.

Posted by Alex at 10:28 AM | Comments (0)

January 13, 2003

Small Ensembles

I decided to put my novel on line on a blog that will run parallel to this one. I hope you like it. Every week or so I'll slap up another chapter-sized chunk. Please remember that I wrote it in a month.

The novel is called Small Ensembles.

Posted by Alex at 02:06 PM | Comments (0)

January 11, 2003

Majority Report

My country is being run like The Minority Report, except without the Precogs.

The movie engages the moral paradox of arresting someone for a crime that they didn't yet commit - is this just? How does it speak to predetermination and human freedom? The conceit that frames the film is that the Precogs can accurately predict the future. The film's dynamics are put into motion when their failibility is evinced through the existence of a 'Minority Report'.

In the film, remember, an outwardly benevolent politician played by Max von Sydow covers up the faults in the Precog system. He can tolerate a world where for every nine guilty men in prison, there is one innocent unfairly convicted. He is comfortable with this because the success of the system is key to his own political ambitions, and because he weighs the good of the collective over the dignity of the individual - something that our late friend Rawls would recognize immediately as problematic. In the end von Sydow realizes the errors of his way, repents, and commits suicide.

And this is especially important: the Precog system is shut down because it is totalitarian and unfair. Americans, we tell ourselves in our movies at least, would prefer freedom even if it does mean sacrificing safety. Because we believe that each of us individually should be able to decide concretely, in the moment of the act, whether we will or won't pull the trigger. Because being able to decide for yourself how to live your life is what is called 'adulthood'. Because the government's job is to create a world in which we are able to make choices about how we want to live our lives and exercise our capabilities. Because it is not the government's job to decide whether we are qualified to do so or not.

Today new categories of enemy are being constructed and construed and used to label a wide variety of people. I am not a lawyer. But as far as I can tell we are arresting people before they commit crimes as if they had already committed them. Even more, these new legal categories entail that these innocent (although suspected) people will receive less representation and due process than they would if they had actually committed the crime we suspect them of, a crime for whose trial and conviction we have a firm judicial framework.

The Precogs could see someone pull the trigger. All we are working on is the suspicion that someone may have a gun.

Posted by Alex at 11:40 PM | Comments (1)

L'cha dodi

I've always felt a certain inadequacy as a singer because of my inability to sing harmony. This sounds strange, but consider: I was weaned on polyphony. Give me anything written between 1600 and 1900, the tonic, and maybe a piano to help and I can do a pretty good job of sight-reading. In fact if it's Purcell, Victoria, Haendel, Palestrina, or Byrd I may just blow you the fuck out the water. And even if its Bach, Britten, Vaughan Williams, or Brahms, I will not get nearly as lost as your average chorister, because I am down with the personal stylee of said composers. Throw as many hemiolas at me as you want - I'm down, yo.

But the genius of polyphony and part-righting comes from their ability to make each part musical on its own terms. I've always felt my weak spot has always been just singing harmony - hanging stupidly unbending a third above the melody. And since I didn't exactly go to Church in my youth I lack the ability to sight-read hymns the way other members of the choir - who have been doing this since birth practically - can do. This is a diferent kind of subjection than the kind of yielding-up-to-harmony that I experience as I feel myself drawn into a decoration around a Catholic plagal cadence, or the familiar, honey drenched chromaticism of a rising passage in Brahms, or those familiar open fifths of Purcell. I mean the dumb moments of harmony, slaved to the frequencies of the melody it follows, falling like a bumbling thrall over its whole and half notes in order to keep the requisite tonal distance from the tune.

I remember in my youth asking a friend of mine how it was that she had learned to sing the way she did, how she could find and fill the chinks in acoustics so easily. "When I was a child," she told me, "My parents used to sing to me when I was still in my crib. They sang in harmony. And we've been singing together ever since then."

And so it's not surprising that a lot of my time listening to music is spent humming around, poking at the thirds and fifths and octaves, finding the harmony, feeling where it falls in my voice, sensing where it grows and melds with its source and origin. Kurt Elling seems particularly easy to harmonize to, and the Beatles (duh - just find Paul in the middle and hang on), listening to Purcell choruses you don't know and sussing out where he's placed the bright young boys holding down the fort above middle C.

I was at services tonight. We were lead in prayer by a very nice bass-baritone who often leads and inevitably picks the fast version of Yigdal. Now: even when the tentative mezzo leads services we rarely get out the basement, but when this guy is running stuff we're singing in like, fucking F all the way through. Even the responsive chorus of L'Chai Dodi barely gets up to an A. Fuck. So typically for me kabbalat shabbat is mostly an exercise in 1) recentering myself and my sprituality after a hectic week 2)practicing singing healthily in my low range.

So tonight at the end of the entire service we were singing Aleinu and of course it was down in the basement so I was like "fuck this - I sing in the RMC" and just decided to sing the entire thing a third up. There are precedents for this - a lot of time Orthodox services are shot through with all sorts of parallel harmonies (although more spiceally modal than my vanilla major thirds, to be sure) just 'cause if you go to Yeshiva every day you've got to do something to keep yourself amused. And also anyway at the end of certain phrases it's common to hop up to the fifth and then down to the third (hu eloheinu aiyn od), which the undergrad with the overly-developed headvoice who was sitting behind me was doing anyway.

And I found I could just do it - find the groove and stay there, all the way through the prayer. finding lines bursting through and over and under the tune, hovering above and below, tight third, airy fifth, locked in anticipatory sonorities ripe with the possibilities of their fulfillment, waiting for someone to realize them, dragging me into their passion whether I care to join them or not. Which fabric had they been hiding behind all this time, discrete and unavailable? What cognitive realignment elucidated their shape?

Hymns, at any rate, may shape you. Ironic, their authors schooling you in a method of worship so unlike their own Protestant certainties, amplifying a covenant they would declare obsolete, drifting enmeshed as Miriam sings out over the Red Sea, the mute harmonic intensity of god as he spreads the shelter of his peace over you, the nervous joy of welcoming the bride to her wedding, searching anxiously in your pocket for the ring, knowing you're too in love for either of you to do anything but accept, hallowing this night and your tenderness, reciting the vows you've made a hundred times before, remembering the care you'll proffer infinitely into the future, feeling the engagement draw to fulfillment, the realization that there is no other place for you, your adoration beyond motives as petty as your own small self, your history together, the times she's dried your tears, the times you've tasted her lips, shabbat...

Posted by Alex at 02:47 AM | Comments (2)

January 10, 2003

Graduate School is like Palm Olive

I'm soaking in it.

Posted by Alex at 11:20 PM | Comments (0)

January 08, 2003

Two Towers Smackdown

Ok, so here's a thought experiment for you: Take a genius director, a cast of actors ranging from talented newbies to elegant veterans. Include a daringly progressive totally CGI character. Add eyepoppingly beautiful state of the art special effects, a script years in the making, and one of the most beloved storylines of our generation. You can even make Christopher Lee the bad guy - although Peter Cushing is otherwise engaged, unfortunately. Pile on as many costumers, set designers, theater combat types, dialect coaches, lighting gurus, and some tasty-ass caterers. Now give them an infinite amount of money and all the time in the world. What kind of movie do you end up with?

A total disaster.

You all know which movie I'm talking about, right? It's obviously Attack of the Clones. And the 64,000 question is: how can such an enormously talented group with such enormous resources at their disposal make a movie so incredibly bad? What sort of insidious force could make something so right into something so wrong? The question is all the more pressing in light of the Two Towers, which was basically a three hour long George Lucas smack down.

In an era where films are hyper-streamlined to appeal to everybody a little and to no one a lot, Two Towers is a film whose vision is totally realized. You may not necessarily be so switched on to this vision. I've never been a big Tolkein Head. I wouldn't go as far as China Mieville (onto whose vision I have been switched) when he writes that "Tolkien is the wen on the arse of fantasy literature." Although I feel his list of Tolkein's problems, including "his cod-Wagnerian pomposity, his boys-own-adventure glorying in war, his small-minded and reactionary love for hierarchical status-quos, [and] his belief in absolute morality that blurs moral and political complexity." Actually misses some of Tolkein - or at least the film's - biggest problems. Jackson does his best to include some chicas in the film, but the overwhelmingly masculinist thing is not so cool. And I don't mind the black and white morality in a film. Fantasy has certain advantages over waking life, and its nice to know there's a place in our lives where choices are simple, even if that place exists only on screen or in our dreams. But I do object when those black and white choices are racialized as well. I've read lots of people complaining that the film didn't have (to simplify somewhat) any black people in it. This is obviously not true: they were the orcs. I'd been referring to Chistopher Lee as 'The Ossama Bin Laden character' since Fellowship of the Ring, but this is ridiculous. Like the Star Wars prequels which are its overweight, acne-faced twin brother, the Lord of the Rings taps into the Anglophone subconscious at the place where the moral imagination meets the racialized prejudgment. And just because Jackson elides an issue that his hamfisted alter ego George Lucas takes up with both hands doesn't mean that the howling mob of filthy, dreadlocked (they had dreadlocks for Christ's sake!), blackskinned evildoers is any less problematic.

But with these provisos, I have to say that Two Towers is the fullest realization of a director's vision that I've seen in a very long while. Despite the occaisional creeping gimmick (Legolas skateboarding, all the stupid wisecracks in the middle of what ought to be a deadly serious battle scene), we have here a story of well-wrought intensity, wonderful camerawork, and spectacular performances. Jackson's decision to not only include a CGI character (splashing around, no less, which was awesome), but to get right up in your face about it means that he made movie history while Lucas was stuck with a bunch of merchansiding no-one would buy. Having read the trilogy when I was very young, the plot had a sort of mythical quality for me - I recognized the characters and events but had no beef with the way the adaptation took place (although Naomi is all up on that tip). I'll admit it: when the elves showed up I just about lost it. And the opening sequence with Gandolf and the Balrog? Dude.

In closing, I can't help but point to my new favorite link - LOTR Slash Art! My favorite is the Elron/Legolas series.

Posted by Alex at 12:13 AM | Comments (0)

January 06, 2003

Musics

(The blog entry of 1/04 refers. Please find inclosed instructions regarding Important Birthday Presents.)

I've been completely and totally frustrated in my attempts to find any of the albums that I've wanted to buy at any of the record stores I've visited - including the ultra-big-huge ones in the loop and in the magnificent mile. This is OK, really, since I didn't actually have the money to buy any of them anyway. In case you are wondering, however, here's the music that I can't push enough. Remember - just cause I can't listen to them means you're not able to.

I recently sang Faure's Requiem. It's a piece I've always loved, mostly through its proximity to Durufle's Requiem, which rocks my world. This is ironic, since Durufle was influenced by Faure rather than the other way around. Anyhoo. The piece is essentially a lullaby, and with a few exceptions even the choral movements are essentially solo parts scored for entire sections (delectable soprano-tenor duets, for instance). The central movement is the Pie Jesu for solo Soprano and orchestra.

I ended up listening to eight hundred million separate thirty second samples of the Pie Jesu on Amazon, and after extensive taste testing I am standing before you today to tell you that I like Naxos' seven dollar version the best. Although John Rutter and Barbara Bonney give a run for the money, I like the purity of tone of Nicole Becksley the best. Its perfectly appropriate for the text at hand. While some would find the phrasing a tad stilted and the vowels a bit fudged, I don't actually mind the inflexible tempo - the constant triple-meter apreggios that the strings use to envelop the piece throughout would sound kinda stupid being slowed down here just to suit the soloist. The Oxford Camerata shines, which it often (but not always) does. The small size of the orchestra and ensemble help preserve the intimacy of the piece, and the way they've mixed up the violins, although a little wierd, is fine with me. Plus you get the Messe Basse thrown in for free and of course the obligatory Cantique de Jean Racine.

Don't believe me? The good folks of Naxos have the entirety of their catalog on line so that you can check it out. Free registration and [shudders] Windows Media Player required. Why pay $20 to hear some senseless celebrity like Cecilia Bartoli tart it up with vibrato you could drive a truck through when for US$7 Naxos provides these guys? Yummers.

Maria Cristina Kiehr. The name alone makes my heart melt. Harmonia Mundi's claim that she is "incontestably one of today’s leading vocal artists in the field of Baroque music" is an understatement. Her pure tone, incredibly vocal agility, and warm sound are perfect for baroque music - proof that one doesn't need to warble like a stuck hen to convey emotions (could someone tell Deborah Voigt, please?). Imagine a laser beam made of barbecue sauce - that's her. Its no wonder her Cantata la Maddalena won the Diapason D'or. A collection of baroque italian solo motets based loosely on the theme of Mary Magdalene's lament on the foot of the cross, looks like a real winner, judging from the samples at the Harmonia Mundi website. Giovanni-Battista Agneletti in the muthafuckin' hiz-ouse, yo!

And then we have Janet Klein, a completely different kind of chanteuse. Her speciality is the ) and performance of music from the first three decades of this century. After a solo album featuring just her and her ukulele, she coralled her Parlor Boys ensemble into producing two albums. One of them, Put a flavor to love has become one of my favorite things to code to. In particular, I find myself listening again and again to All My Life. My goal in life is to feel always that I am living out scenes from Miller's Crossing. I am convinced that Janet Klein will help me do this.

Those of you not from California may not pick on it immediately, but Klein's style and approach reeks of a certain subcultural chic. Its not surprising that her album is lavishly illustrated and that the entire operation is part of the Janet Klein Retro-Flapper Lifestyle Thrift Store Slacker Thang. Her website is graphics-intense and bandwidth-deprived, which kinda sucks since it's so beautiful. Luckily, her CD is for sale from CDBaby.com the most morally upstanding music website on the planet. We must all love CDBaby and Janet Klein. If she would cover I Concentrate on You I'd be head over heels.

I will state right off the bat that I have no faith at all that the Los Angeles Master Chorale is any good since I've never heard a note that they've sung. I mean, there's 120 people in it for christ's sake! But Lauridsen did write specifically for them, after all. And he's one of America's greatest choral composers today. His Lux Aeterna CD is the definitive recording of his most defintive works and did get a grammy nod. It also includes his O Magnum Mysterium, which has been this year's Ubi Caritas, performed by seemingly every church choir in the entire universe. How can you dislike a composer whose nickname is "Skip"?

Ok, is it just me, or is it completely fucking crazy that I can't walk into any major record store in the country and buy a copy of Siembra? A definitive album by two definitive salseros (Willie Colon and Rueben Blades, duh) on the definitive label (Fania) which sparked the definitive effloresence of 1970s salsa. After the days of the Palladium, when largely Cuban acts took their brand of big-band mambo and cha-cha up north, Latin music in the US had slowly rotted away and trivialized by motherfuckers like Perez Prado - basically Esquivel without the irony - it took 1970s ethnic consciousness to produce the (mostly Puerto Rican) effloresence of Salsa, and Colon and Blades were sitting at the center.

Now, I have to make a little bit of a detour here. Prior to LOTR, the only movie I had ever seen with Viggo Mortensen was Carlito's Way, in which he plays a crippled Puerto Rican drug dealer. The salsa scene of the 1970s permeates both Scarface and Carlito's Way (or, judging from the soundtrack of GTAIII, just Carlito's way), but for me it totally ruined Two Towers. Everytime Aragorn looks dreamily off to the horizon and imagines his Elf girlfriend, all I can hear is him screaming in a really really bad Spanish accent, "C'mon Carlito, I wear fuckin' diapers man!"

Ok. I'm glad I got that out of the way. Anyway, Siembra is the totally perfect salsa album, and I can't seem to find it anywhere. What the fuck?

Alright, alright, I know what you're thinking: why another recording of Pergolesi's Stabat Mater? Hasn't she stabat enough? The reason is simple: Barbara Bonney and Andreas Scholl. need I say more? It's like the classic Bowman/Kirbky recording except on steroids and with a decade of improvements to sound engineering technology. While I can't actually listen to the tracks since all the on-line samples are one minute long and the singing doesn't start until fifty-eight seconds into the piece I have no doubts that Scholl, who is probably the best all-around countertenor to my mind (although I continue to harbour and idiosyncratic love for Yoshikazu Mera). And Barbara Bonney. Well, anyone who has heard her heart-breaking, soul-rending, life-destroying melismas on Oh, Fair Cedaria on The Complete Secular Songs of Henry Purcell Volume One will know what I mean.

Eric Whitacre - one of the most up-and-coming contemporary composers alive today. The latest recording of his complete choral works is out on Arsis. They're the label I'm signed too, so its not surprising I picked up on this album, which has got tons of buzz - if twentieth century choral music featuring hand bells can be said to have 'buzz'.

Patricia Barber studied composition and classical piano before moving on to almost a decade of writing and performing angry, almost unlistenable avant garde jazz. She's settled down now, and her spare arrangement, starkly beautiful lyrics, and the virtuostic performance of her entire ensemble have made her a 'rising star' in the world of jazz. Where Kurt Elling embraces such hoary jazz methodologies as vocalese and scat and is unironically beatnik in sensibility, Barber's work harkens back to cool jazz. Setting e.e. cummings and her own poetry, often mentioning Derrida, Lacan, and Postmodernism, Barber's chic nihilism eats away at preconceptions of what is and is not 'modern cool'. Her latest album, Verse will doubtless rock as hard as Companion and Modern Cool.

There are more - a couple of great 2cds for 1 deals from Virgin Classics and Harmonia Mundi, but since that falls in the "what I can afford in February" category rather than "music I probably won't own 'til I finish my dissertation" and I'm blue skying here I'll skip it. Good luck and good listening!

Posted by Alex at 11:39 PM | Comments (1)

January 04, 2003

Happy Birthday, Baby

Three days ago this blog turned one year old. It's amazing to look back at it and realize how much I've written and how much it's meant to me. 2002 was kind of suck for me, and unsealing the writing- and tech- heavy innerchambers of my heart has been a redemptive highlight.

It is ironic that at this juncture my own blogfather, the G-man, should pack up his bags in Kansas and move out west. Just when you think you know Graham, he's on to something else again. First the saxophone, then Maths, and now cooking. I for one wish the staff at Chez Panisse all the best, and I hope they realize the value of the person they're getting. I was always under the impression that running Honey Baked Ham franchises always involved more accounting than actual dealing with livestock, but I guess The Elder Leuschke always insisted his son learn all the ins and outs of the business. Niman Ranch watch out. Only the most succulent of cuts will appease the all-seeing eye of Leuschke. Good luck, Dr. Leuschke, and godspeed!

In fact, although this is my first year with a blog, 2003 marks a full ten years of internet presence. I still vividly remember the day that it happened. I was scrunched up in the back seat of a car with a bunch of nerds and one of their girlfriends on the way somewhere and they were explaining about this thing called 'the world wide web' and how it was going to change the whole universe. I liked them a lot, but these were the over-educated computer geeks who took acid, listened to phish, and read Godel/Escher/Bach over and over agian and who claimed it was going to make the world a better place. A certain kind of hippie technocratic Bucky-Fuller utopianism that I, angry student of leftist politics, thought laughably naive.

"This sounds exactly like gopher to me," I said skeptically.

They tried to explain to me why organizing documents in a web was better than hierarchically. I wasn't convinced. Hyperlinks meant Apple's Hypercard, which pissed me off because it had no way to store stack-wide variables. They explained to me that they were looking for people to be 'early adopters' so that they could convince the powers to be that people other than computer scientists were interested in the web, and that it would be worth the trouble to get a 'web server' running on the Institute's machines.

Turns out they accurately predicted the course of the world and I was totally wrong. My first page - which I think I may still have a copy of somewhere - was a link to other places, including a quote from the book of Revelations (the one about bronze breastplates) linked to the Chunk website. Learning the code was as easy as using "View Source" on your Mosaic browser. The web was completely unsaturated. It was all links and no content - endless links from one site to another saying things like "hey - someday they're going to have the Dead Sea Scrolls on this page" and "in the near future we're going to do all sorts of avant-garde stuff here". People were intoxicated by the possibilities but no one had taken the time to realize them. Remember - this was back in the day when Yahoo's url was http://www.stanford.edu/~akebono/yahoo.html.

After I left the Institute and headed up to Chicago I established my own homepage there, still mostly links to stuff I liked. Most importantly I had a page of quick reference links using forms and a self-written cgi, which I thought was pretty fine. I also shifted the color scheme to maroon and white, the school colors, since I had no aesthetic taste of my own. My current links page is an outgrowth of that.

The Debian box that my web page lived on died while I was in PNG, and so when I got back from the field I got another webserver set up. This time though, after giving it some serious thought, I decided to add a blog. And - despite a few embarassing moments in church - I've never regretted it. Et voila.

So happy birthday to me. Instructions regarding birthday presents will be issued shortly.

Posted by Alex at 11:49 PM | Comments (0)

January 03, 2003

We, The Tikopia

"In the cool of the early morningm just before sunrise, the bow of the Southern Cross headed towards the eastern horizon, on which a tiny dark blue outline was faintly visible. Slowly it grew into a rugged mountain mass, standin up sheer from the ocean; then as we approached within a few miles it revealed around its base a narrow ring of low, flat land, thick with vegetation. The sullen gray day with its lowering clouds strengthened my grim impression of a solitary peak, wild and stormy, upthrust in a waste of waters.

In an hour or so we were close inshore, and could see canoes coming round from the south, outside the reef, on which the tide was low. The outrigger-fitted craft drew near, the men in them bare to the waist, girdled with bark-cloth, large fans stuck in the backs of their belts, tortoise-shell rings or rolls of leaf in the ear-lobes and nose, bearded, and with long hair flowing loosely over their shoulders. Some plied the rough heavy paddles, some had finely plaited pandanus-leaf mats resting on the thwarts beside them, some had large clubs or spears in their hands. The ship anchored on a short cable in the open bay off the coral reef. Almost before the chain was down the natives began to scramble aboard, coming over the side by any means that offered, shouting fiercely to each other and to us in a tongue of which not a word was understoof by the Mota-speaking folk of the mission vessel. I wondered how such turbulent human material could ever be induced to submit to scientific study.

Vahihaloa, my 'boy', looked over the side from the upper deck. "My word, me fright too much," he said with a quavering laugh; "me tink this fella man him he savvy kaikai me". Kaikai is the pidgin-English term for 'eat'. For the first time, perhaps, he began to doubt the wisdom of having left what was to him the civilization of Tulagi, the seat of Government four hundred miles away, in order to stay with me for a year in this far-off spot among such wild-looking savages. Feeling none too certain myself of the reception that awaited us - though I knew that it would stop short of cannibalism - I reassured him, and we began to get out the stores. Later we went ashore in one of the canoes. As we came to the edge of the reef our craft halted on account of the falling tide. We slipped overoard on to the coral rock and began to wade ashore hand in hand with our hosts, like children at a party, exchanging smiles in lieu of anything more intelligible or tangible at the moment. We were surrounded by crowds of naked chattering youngsters, with their pleasant, light-brown velvent skins and straight hair, so different from the Melanesians we had left behind. They darted about splashing like a shaol of fish, some of them falling bodily into pools in their enthusiasm. at last the long wade ended, we climbed up the steeply shelving beach, crossed the soft, dry sand strewn with the brown needles of the Casuarina tree - a home-like touch; it was like a pine avenue - and were led to an old chief, clad with great dignity in a white coat and a loin-cloth, who awaited us on his stool under a large shady tree.

Even with the pages of my diary before me it is difficult to reconstruct the impressions of that first day ashore - to depersonalize the people I later came to know so well and view them as merely a part of the tawny surging crowd; to put back again into that unreal pespective, events which afterwards took on such different values. In his early experiences in the field the anthropologist is constantly grappling with the intangible. The reality of the native life is going on all around him, but he himself is not yet in focus to see it. He knows that most of what he records at firt will be useless: it will be either definitely incorrect, or so inadequate that it must later be discarded. Yet he must make a beginning somewhere. He realizes that at this stage he is incapable of separating patterns of custom from the accidentals of individual behavior, he wonders if each slight gesture does not hold some meaning which is hidden from him, he aches to be able to catch and retain some of the flood of talk he hears on all sides, and he is consumed with envy of the children who are able to toss about so lightly that speech which he must so painfully acquire. He is conscious of good material running to waste before him moment by moment; he is impressed by the vastness of the task that lies before him and of his own feeble equipment for it; in the face of a language and custom to which he has not the key, he feels that he is acting like a moron before the natives. At the same time he is experiencing the delights of dicovery, he is gaining an inkling of what is in store; like a gourmet walking round a feast that is spread, he savours in anticipation the quality of what he will later appreciate fully."

-Sir Raymond Firth, We The Tikopia, 1936

Posted by Alex at 10:05 PM | Comments (1)

Tikopia, Anuta

On the 29th of December 2002 Cyclone Zoe crashed into the small islands of Anuta, Tikopia, and Fataka. The cyclone was the worst in history, its winds reaching up to 300km an hours. All three islands were devastated. Relief in the form of personnel and supplies have just reached the island. Although details are still sketchy, everything I know about the Pacific and everything I've heard from my colleagues suggests that the devestation is absolute and, given the state of aid to the islands, casualties will be hideously high.

Natural disaster stories of this sort tend to get more coverage than the usual problems that plague the pacific, and the delay between the disaster and the arrival of aid has made this human interest story. GoogleNews lists 371 stories that it has indexed about the cyclone and its aftermath.

To anthropologists, and particularly to anthropologists who work in the Pacific, this is one of many disasters that have struck the region this year. But it is particularly painful because of the immensity of the devastation as well as how closely it hits home. The Pacific has always been an area where fellow-feeling and friendship has always come easy both for anthropologists and the people they live with as well as with their fellow scholars. I have never been made to feel as welcome into a community of scholars as I have been by the Association for the Social Anthropology of Oceania or ASAO. Although the title is a bit ponderous, the people who make it up have been the most encouraging peers and mentors I could possibly imagine.

New Guinea is the size of France, and I did my fieldwork six thousand feet above sea level three days drive away from the coast. And frankly, the only way I can keep track of the bintillion little islands that dot the pacific is through the faces of people at the ASAO. The diverse cultures of the pacific have always been incarnated for me in my friends. Joel is the Urapmin. Rob represents to me Pukapuka in its entirety.

To me Anuta and Tikopia have always been synonymous with Rick and Judy, both scrupulous researchers, welcoming and gracious scholars, and fieldworkers with deep and enduring ties to the places where they lived. In particular, Rick's Oral Traditions of Anuta is the result of twenty five years of research that spanned not only his marriage, but the birth of his children. It represents literally a lifetime of work.

This is what kind of guy Rick is. Last year when the ASAOs had their annual meeting in Auckland we were welcomed onto the Marae of the local Maori group (I'll save you the discussion of social structure). These sorts of things involve speeches made between the visitors and the guests, and every speech ends with a song. The main speaker for the Maori was Professor Sir Hugh Kawharu, paramount leader of Ngati Whatua (the Maori groups which owns the land Auckland is on), member of the Waitangi tribunal, and inaugural chair of the Department of Anthropology and Maori Studies at the University of Auckland. (Here's a picture of him and Clinton). His speech was half powerful Maori eloquence and half gracious Oxbridge. Unbelievable. Anyway then I was like 'Shit, what are we going to do to top that?' And then Rick got up and made this huge speeck fucking in Anutan. I sure couldn't do it in Ipili, but there he was doing in Anutan, complete with the oral presentation and Anutan hand gestures and everything. Since Maori and Anutan were are closely related languages, people were fascinated by the similarities and excited by disconcerting sight of a white guy speaking in a poetically formal mode of a Polynesian language. Then we all stood up and sung a song. Originally it was going to be 'This Land is Your Land', but then we realized with the politics involved with Maori land tenure, this was probably not the best choice. We sang 'Michael Row Your Boat Ashore' instead.

Above all, however, Tikopia will always be synonymous with Sir Raymond Firth, who died less than a year ago. Sir Raymond was one of the founding fathers of anthropology in what was then the British Empire. His work was uniquely detailed and demonstrated a keen appreciation for ethnographic details that set him apart from the other members of the British School. Although I never had a chance to meet him, I can tell you that he was universally respected and, what is even more, loved.

Above all, he was the Tikopia. His masterful We, The Tikopia (1936) was lucid, tightly detailed, and authoritative - a genre-defining work that set the tone for future ethnography during a moment when what anthropology would be was still being decided. And above all, it opened with an account of arrival on the island that was both respectful and non-exoticizing and yet impregnated with the romance that inevitably marks the beginning of fieldwork. Although anthropology is not the tightly-focused discipline it once was, for decades it was impossible to receive a BA in anthropology and not read selections from We, The Tikopia.

And it didn't end there. It was followed by nine books, including History and Traditions of Tikopia, Rank and Religion in Tikopia, The Work of the Gods in Tikopia, the Tikopia-English Dictionary (proceeds of which were used to fund development efforts on Tikopia), Tikopia Songs, and hundreds of articles, including such seminal papers as A Note on Descent Groups in Polynesia which was a wakeup call to a field dominated by close-minded accounts of African lineage systems. He made the Tikopians superstars, at least in the small world of anthropology. Sir Raymond lived to be 100 years old, meaning that he not only taught generations of scholars, but generations of Tikopians. I've often heard it said jokingly (and sometimes seriously) that with his enormously long history with the island, prodiguous memory, and detailed records, that he knew more about Tikopia than the Tikopians - or at least the younger ones. A message of condolence carried by hand from Tikopia (no easy task, believe me)was read at the annual Firth Memorial Lecture. He was particularly remembered leaving the island to find help and supplies in 1952 when a cyclone similar to (but much less serious than) the current one struck the island

Most people have never heard of Tikopia or Anuta, but the lives of the people there matter deeply to many. Even those who, like me, have never visited. I wish them luck, hope for the best, but fear the worst. My prayers and thoughts go out to them.

Posted by Alex at 12:01 AM | Comments (0)

January 01, 2003

Happy New Year

Sitting here, sipping on a hair of the dog, eating ever more stale cheeze twisties, contemplating the twisted ruins of my apartment, I can't help but meditate on the pleasure of having a dozen people come over and merrily tear your apartment apart.

Mostly, though, I'm hungover.

Hangovers. To the connosieur they come in infinite variety: the delicate interplay of sulfides, exhaustion, and dehydration. The fascinatingly diverse methods of amelioration. The entire experience resolves into a hundred and a half clearly perceptible and distinctly unpleasant threads. I'm always a little amused by people who don't drink much: "I think I'm hungover". How monolithic the experience must seem to them! How unfamiliar! Don't get me wrong - I don't mock them. Watching a non-drinker hungover gives me the same surge of amused paternal affection that most people experience watching a puppy with big paws fumbling with a bone.

These people have never dealt with the real thing, the super-dooper 'what am I doing here and where am I exactly kind of hangover'. The kind where you go up to the North Side for a party, wake up on a couch, ask your still unconscious host where the nearest el stop is, get told to "walk down 75th", you walk down 75th, find yourself in the middle of Central Park, and realize that at some point in the evening you've flown to New York. The kind where the next morning you find your left hand burnt and blistered, your bed soaked in lemonade, and your house inexplicably and yet cunningly seeded with mousetraps. The kind where you wake in bed to find yourself entangled in the arms of some woman, except that its not a woman, its Yassir Arafat, and like a bolt of lightning you're rethinking your sexual preferences, and then you realize with relief that its not actually Yassir Arafat, but a woman who is wearing one of those highly realistic and slightly suffocating plastic masks of Yassir Arafat, and you can't remember when exactly she put it on because you can't remember actually ever like you know meeting her or anything but you can't imagine that any sort of strenuous activity which at this point you can't really tell whether or not either of you were even physically capable of engaging in and lets face it we're talking about your own inability aren't we wasn't too unpleasant since after all she had to (or at least you think so) wear that Yassir Arafat mask.

Excuse me, I've got to go drop an alkaseltzer in my Unterberg.

Posted by Alex at 12:23 PM | Comments (0)