Lesson Number One
Print only, 2004.
Lesson Number One
Print only, 2004.
Sick and Tired
Letter from a Wounded Electrician
Love Story: the Endless War, NYC, 2003
American internet activism in Berlin
An American in Prague, 2004.
Religion and Identity
Interview from 2010.
Jacob Needleman is a professor of Philosophy at San Francisco State University and author of many books, including Money and the Meaning of Life, What is God, and The American Soul. He was educated in philosophy at Harvard, Yale and the University of Freiburg, Germany. He has also served as Research Associate at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, as a Research Fellow at Union Theological Seminary, as Adjunct Professor of Medical Ethics at the University of California Medical School and as guest Professor of Religious Studies at the Sorbonne, Paris.
Pulse: Mr. Needleman, as you see it, can money lead to greater self-knowledge? Can it help us better understand ourselves?
Jacob Needleman: Money is a great mediator, and it can bring us considerable self-knowledge if we can learn to study how we actually behave with money. We need to become acutely and honestly aware of our contradictions and self-deceptions in how we actually feel about money, how we regard it, what role it plays in our lives, and what it means to us. In that way, our attitude toward money can be a tool for self-knowledge, and the sincere study of our actual relationship to money can be a very powerful mediator between the two parts of our nature—the spiritual and the material parts of ourselves. But it’s not exactly the money itself that brings us self-knowledge; it’s the inner consciousness of our troubled relationship to it.
Is there anything sacred about money?
Money isn’t sacred, but our relationship to money can have a sacred dimension when we focus it towards accessing greater self-knowledge, generosity, and love.
Something about one‘s relationship to money can at times feel like a Zen koan. Can money bring us to a higher level of awareness; can it be a way we learn about courage and self-discipline?
If you need money for a sacred purpose, and if you take a risk with money in order to search for truth, that’s a very interesting way of bringing a new and higher order into your social, everyday life. If you really want to search for truth and love, and if that search costs a certain amount of money which exceeds what you’re comfortable with, that can be a spiritually creative situation. Not a comfortable situation, but one that can attract a certain energy, just like a koan can attract a certain energy, if you’re trying with your whole being to solve the unsolvable. After all, the “answer” to a koan is not in the words, but in the state of engagement of the whole of the mind.
Is that because our relationship to money can push us to our extremes, test how much we can take?
Yes. But of course all this also depends on your upbringing. Everybody has a different upbringing, and has different levels of “what they can take”. Money is often a very serious stress. And for many of us there are certain imaginary fears and assumptions of how money works in the world that we carry with us unknowingly, and those add to that burden or stress.
Things we learned as children?
Yes. Many of us are conditioned at a very early age. We watch our parents. Very often money is one of the great sources of conflict or tension in a family, and this energy affects us. It goes very deep. As we grow older, we are often unaware of this ingrained relationship to money; our awareness doesn’t penetrate deeply enough to reach the area where these beliefs reside. So our behavior toward money remains fundamentally amoral.
Why amoral? Because it’s not contemplated?
It’s deeply unconscious.
So these preconceptions about money, or these energies we’ve absorbed, are part of us in a physical sense, you mean?
Not physical exactly. But money means something to us that we are not aware of.
It’s part of us, but not a conscious part. So it’s almost formed at a cellular level, these patterns…
Well, in that sense, yes. It’s built into our behavior, almost into our DNA: As a metaphor, you can put it that way.
This reminds me of something you say early on in Money and the Meaning of Life. You’re talking about Freudian psychoanalysis. I’m not sure I remember the quote precisely… Freud says…
“Man is not as bad as he thinks he is, nor can he become as good as he wishes to become.”
Right. And you say Freud had it backwards, that —
Actually, we are much worse off than we think we are, but we can become far greater than we can imagine.
So even though these patterns or feelings about money might be deep and ingrained, we are nevertheless capable of changing them. How? Simply by becoming aware of them?
Exactly. These things are very difficult to become aware of, however. It’s very difficult to become conscious of these preconceptions and patterns. They’re blanketing us; they are buffering our awareness, protecting us from seeing our contradictions. But sometimes the veil is lifted for a moment, and you get a tiny glimpse through those protective illusions. You see your own deep contradictions, and if you have courage, you can stay with that and look at it closely — and that can bring us a glimpse of our higher, inner possibilities.
If we’re paying attention, do we get those intimations often?
Yes, but they are very hard to admit; it is very hard to admit our self-contradictions to ourselves. We don’t like to admit that the truth about ourselves isn’t what we think it is, or say it is. For instance, a person might live a very bohemian existence and claim not to care about money but when someone dies and a will is read and some money is up for grabs in the family, then that same person may act in a very different way, a way that contradicts many other aspects of his or her life. It’s very hard to face these kinds of contradictions in ourselves. There’s more inner hypocrisy and self-contradictions about money than almost anything else, including sex.
If we are talking to someone who looks kind of worn and rumpled, for instance, and we think they are poor, we see them one way. If someone then comes along and whispers into our ear “You are talking to so and so, and he’s famous for such and such, and he’s a millionaire”, then it often does very quickly change our view of the person.
In Money and the Meaning of Life, you talk about this too, you call it “the disparity between our values and our behavior”. But these moments are also gifts, are they not? It’s in these difficult moments that we are actually given a chance to grow. Is that right? Or am I reading something into your work?
No, that’s true. That’s where the awakening is; in those glimpses into the embryo of the soul. If we see the contradiction in ourselves, and have the courage to face it – if we see the contradiction between how we want to be seen, and how we actually are – then a lot of growth can come from that. One grows inwardly by those kinds of shocks. It can be a kind of spiritual discipline, to really take that attitude toward money, and to discover more of ourselves in these shocks of self-knowledge.
We all see these kinds of contradictions in others, and perhaps others see them in us. But how can we share that information with each other? How do we meet?
Well, often we don’t meet. Just going up to someone and saying ‘You’re being hypocritical!” is probably not going to help. It might even end the friendship, at least if it’s said in that judgmental tone. In these kinds of situations, sometimes you just have to suffer it and take it as a call to look at your own attitude. The Other can be a mirror to us if we allow that. In fact, that is a very spiritually interesting attitude towards relationships: things we cannot bear about others, or the things we judge in another, if we’re honest, we can probably see the same things in ourselves.
Maybe that’s the bridge, or what opens a space where we can meet: the meeting comes not from me telling my friend how he is but rather from my friend seeing me have a revelation about my own situation.
Yes, if the connection comes, it comes out of a state of presence, and out of you having a revelation about your self and being open about that and letting it be seen.
What do you mean by “state of presence”? The word “presence” comes up often in your work.
Well, it’s one of those things that you know only when you’re in it. Many of us go through our lives without actually being present, or aware, of the actual moments of those lives. But sometimes you just wake up, and suddenly you are Here, Now, Present, Aware. You’re in this moment, with this person, doing this task, having these feelings. And you know it. Sometimes the lucidity only lasts a moment, but when you’re in that kind of moment, life has a whole new meaning for you.
That state of presence is a very potent state to share with someone, isn’t it?
Yes. When you share a certain quality of attention with another person, it opens up a whole other dimension and there is a whole new conception of what it means to be in a relationship. It’s a dimension that is almost entirely lost in our culture, or that so many of us do not even know we are missing because we do not know this other dimension exists. And yet, it’s precisely this dimension which we are hungry for. That’s what I meant by “you know it when you’re in it”. It’s very hard to define this state when you are not in it. In fact, it’s very easy to forget that state as well, even after one has been there. We often go through our days in a kind of daze.
Well, it’s hard to be present when life is feeling stressful. We’d rather shut off and not deal with the reality. And yet, it’s only by looking at it, being aware, that we can move through that stress to this other dimension. For many of us, this seems especially true when it comes to issues involving money.
Well, money is part of the world. We have to be savvy about money and still not let ourselves be poisoned by it. That’s one of the great challenges of our era, as individuals, the challenge of how to be engaged in this world of money, which we have to be engaged in, without being swallowed by it. The world has become so commercialized and commoditized, and we have to live in it, and play the game, even as inwardly we’re searching for something else. That balance is what teaches us. Money is necessary. We have to accept it and move on from there.
So the view that money is evil is no better than the view that money is the answer to all our ills?
The reason why you are doing something is important. There is a different energy that comes from doing something just for money, and doing something with awareness and looking at money in the way we’ve been discussing. Money in itself is neither evil nor sacred. It’s about our relationship to money. But money and transcendent value can be connected. It can take an amazing amount of precious discipline and hard work to generate wealth. And these human qualities can be very positive. In that sense, certainly, money can be very good.
What’s interesting is that we often have a hard time putting a price on our services. If we were asked how much we want for some service, we often have a hard time quoting a fair price. We can be greedy and go too far, or – and this is even more likely – we can feel guilty about money and not ask for enough. The real task it to look at your life and figure out how to be clever without being corrupt.
A favorite saying of mine is: “Trust in Allah, but tie your camel first.” God is the main focus. But the world is a jungle and you have to be sharp and awake in your interaction with it.
One last question: since you were around for the Sixties and the protests in Berkeley, and now you are teaching in the midst of the Occupy Movement, I’d like to ask you: How are the protest movements of the young people different today?
There’s a kind of despair among younger people today. A kind of aching despair. In the Sixties there was a kind of hope or belief in possibility that was a bit naïve, but it was still an energy that was very bright. There’s not that kind of hope anymore. But there’s a need, and maybe that’s even stronger. It’s more enduring – the need – because that need is understandable and justifiable. At the same time, there is also an element to it that is still naïve. I write in American Soul that people expect a nation to be a saint. But a nation is not a saint. A nation is a lower organism than a person. A person can be a saint; a nation cannot be a saint. Just like a law cannot be a saint. A nation is there to provide a much different kind of service—to protect the subtler, more tender search for inner truth and goodness.
Maybe that need is just the beginning. Maybe the Occupy movement is an attempt to do what we’ve been talking about, provide some light and clarity about these preconceptions we have about money and wealth, things that are so hard to notice and admit. We might take it to a more individual level now.
Many in this country are certainly exploring this in a new way. I think we have a president now (President Obama) who to some extent outwardly, politically, exemplifies that change. It is all being done imperfectly of course, but we have come a long way compared to our recent political blindness. Nevertheless, inwardly we have a very long way to go.
Capitalism is Highly Malleable
Dani Rodrik is the Rafiq Hariri Professor of International Political Economy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. He has published widely in the areas of international economics, economic development, and political economy. Professor Rodrik holds a Ph.D. in economics and an MPA from Princeton University, and an A.B. (summa cum laude) from Harvard College. His most recent book The Globalization Paradox was published by Norton in 2011.
Pulse: In your years of studying globalization, what theme have you found to be the most consistent and important for your work?
Dani Rodrik: I would say the central theme is seeking a country-specific balance between domestic policy prerogatives and the pressures of economic globalization. Economists are supposed to study trade-offs, but strangely in this area, most orthodox economists have taken an absolute position: the more globalization, the better. I have tried to show how too much globalization (in the sense of reducing scope for domestic policies and national diversity) can undermine other contending values: social and political coherence, and economic restructuring and diversification in the developing world.
You have written about economic theory and practice as a process. Do we need different economic models and institutions in different circumstances?
I view capitalism as a highly malleable and evolving system. Poor countries need different institutions compared to rich countries. And there is no reason why even advanced countries should converge to a common set of institutions, whether in the area of financial markets, labor markets, or tax regime. In the presence of institutional diversity at the national level, we should not expect or strive for a great deal of global rule making. What I argue for in my book The Globalization Paradox is a “light” form of global governance that focuses mostly on procedural rules (transparency, accountability, representativeness, use of scientific and economic evidence) aimed at enhancing democratic deliberation and at neutralizing major spillovers where they exist (as in the case of trade imbalances and currency policy).
Can globalization be separated from financial globalization? Can globalization come without further international integration at the governmental level?
We can have significant globalization of trade without the kind of financial globalization we have experienced since 1990. That was the kind of regime Keynes sought in the aftermath of the Second World War.
In terms of the role of information and reason in economics, is there a way in which greater information about each other on an international scale inevitably requires more international institutions and financial governance?
I am not sure the globalization of information is something that needs much governance at the global level at all. It is mainly driven by technology, the advances in communication and Internet.
We don’t need institutions that pursue global interests?
In the area of trade and finance, I actually don’t see a whole lot of difference between pursuing the national interest and pursuing the global interest. If all countries do what is right for themselves, we end up with an open, healthy world economy with plenty of international trade and cross-border capital flows. In this way, the world economy is very different from, say, the global climate, which is a true global public good and requires a great deal of global rule-making to manage appropriately.
True, sometimes countries do silly things, like follow policies that are extremely inefficient such as high level of trade protection and agricultural subsidies. But the bulk of the costs of such policies are borne at home, not abroad. So international restraints on domestic policy offer neither an effective restraint on such policies, nor the greatest source of leverage for reforming them. Domestic economic policy failures, where they exist, can only be removed by improving the quality of deliberation and policy-making at home.
Are you saying we should only focus on strengthening our nation-states? Or are you simply saying that we need more of that focus at this time rather than more global rule making?
We should focus our global rule-making in areas where there are significant spillovers and countries’ self-interested behavior harms other nations. For example, we went too far in the trade regime with the WTO, and did nothing at all on the question of exchange rates and macroeconomic imbalances. The result is the worst of all possible worlds. As a member of the WTO, China has limited ability to use industrial policy to promote its manufacturing industries, but can achieve the same end through the backdoor by undervaluing its currency. The latter strategy imposes much greater costs on the rest of the world. This is an excellent example of how overreaching in global rule making has left us worse off.
Still, if private enterprise is the foundation of economic prosperity, could it be true that the real evolution of the international economic/political situation would come when private individuals from any or all countries began to take stakes, and feel intimately and monetarily connected to, the global economy? Is this happening now?
It is happening but in a very asymmetric way. Finance and large business are thoroughly internationalized. Business executives, skilled professionals and investors feel themselves untethered to any national base – except for in times of crisis, when they go running for help to “their” government. But much of the workforce remains nationally based, with fewer opportunities for international mobility. Their fate is directly linked to the fortunes of the national economy. This asymetric globalization is at the root of the legitimacy problem that globalization faces.
How do you see the relationship between economic growth and the checks and balances, debate and institutions, that characterize a democracy?
I think you can have significant amounts of economic growth without necessarily becoming a democracy. But being a democracy is not a hindrance to growth either.
However, it is really difficult to become a wealthy country without having in place the kind of checks and balances and open political competition that democracy requires. The only exceptions are oil-rich countries and perhaps Singapore. So if you want to sustain your growth, you have to develop democratic institutions ultimately.
The German economist Fritz Schumacher once wrote that “We always need both freedom and order. We need the order of lots and lots of small, autonomous units, and, at the same time, the orderliness of large-scale, possibly global, unity and coordination.” Is that a statement you would agree with, or disagree with?
I agree that we need both freedom and order – markets and regulation, if you will, in the economy. And we need to be careful to match the scope of freedom and order to each other. The broader the reach of markets, the broader must be the scope of their governance as well. As I explained, I think there are severe limits to the idea of global governance, which is why I think truly global markets are unattainable.
You have (gently) criticized Milton Friedman for drawing too sharp a distinction between the market and the state. Is it not possible that your own work, while equally as important, might also one day be seen as drawing too sharp a distinction between the nation-state and the global-state?
I will be far long dead when we can talk about the “global state” and won’t at all mind the criticism
As you see it, how culpable is Germany for the current crisis we now find ourselves in here in Europe? Have austerity measures been helpful, or misguided?
Germany is key, and I think has fundamentally misjudged the situation. It was clear from the outset that austerity would make the debt situation worse rather than better, and that growth was required in addition to fiscal consolidation. But the German government blocked any action at the national and European level that would have given Greece and the other problem countries room to grow. I have in mind Germany’s insistence on very low inflation targets and its refusal to boost its own demand.
What are your feelings about the idea of European countries (those both in the Eurozone, and those not in the Eurozone) coming together in some way to provide itself with something like a Marshall Plan, a plan to help areas that need help right now?
That would be highly desirable, and may be the only way to ensure that Eurozone survives. In the absence of either some growth in countries like Greece or transfers from the rest of Europe, social and political conflicts will escalate, making an exit from the Eurozone a certainty.
Interview by Andrea Hiott, 2011.
photo credit: Hugo Munoz
Lesson to be Learned
Barry Eichengreen is George C. Pardee and Helen N. Pardee Professor of Economics and Political Science at the University of California, NBER Research Associate, and CEPR Research Fellow. He writes a monthly column for Project Syndicate and periodic columns for Conjuntura Economica (in Brazil), Finanz und Wirtschaft (in Switzerland), and Eurointelligence (in Europe).
Pulse: Professor Eichengreen, as you know, Germans have a difficult history with inflation, and the memory of this plays out heavily in politics here. As you see it, are Germans correct to still be so worried about inflation?
Barry Eichengreen: Anyone who has spent time in Germany (I spent a sabbatical year there some time back) will appreciate that the hyperinflation of the 1920s is seared into the collective consciousness. Not unlike some of your readers, I can remember my father who grew up in Germany telling me disturbing tales of the hyperinflation.
But what is harder to understand is why, while memories of the hyperinflation and its political consequences are so vivid, memories of high unemployment starting in 1930 and its even more dire political consequences aren’t equally dominant. Chancellor Bruning’s policies of austerity and the unemployment to which they led resulted ultimately in the breakdown of democracy and then the greatest single tragedy of the 20th century. Given the economic pressure being applied to societies across Southern and Eastern Europe, partly as a result of the policies of austerity on which Germany insists, I for one wonder why memory of that 1930s experience isn’t equally fresh.
In Europe, we have reached a moment where many of our leaders think the only way forward is to achieve further (more encompassing and whole-hearted) unity in our political and economic institutions, and yet the consensus (in terms of the non-elites) is still not there. You’ve written about the relationship between ‘the creation of institutions’ and ‘the creation of consensus’: How do you see this relationship, as it is playing out in Europe today?
The European project has clearly been driven by the elites rather than by popular consensus, with the elites pushing economic, financial and monetary integration in the hope that political integration would follow – that public opinion would adapt and that closer economic relations would lead to the emergence of a European identity. That theory has always been problematic; complaints about the “democratic deficit” and an imperialistic Brussels are of long standing. At the same time, there is evidence of movement in the expected direction. Not a few young people I’ve encountered describe themselves as both German and European. Maybe this is product of low-cost airlines (themselves made possible by European integration), which allow young people to holiday by flying into secondary airports in other European countries.
Levity aside, it’s clear that the construction of a European identity, or consensus, is under strain as a result of the crisis. Crises are when ties are either deepened or broken. We will see which is the result of the current crisis.
How culpable is Germany in the debt crisis Europe now faces?
I’m not too big on the language of culpability. But it takes two to tango. For every reckless borrower there is a reckless lender. The Greeks may have borrowed too much, but someone lent them all that money. German banks and those who regulated them clearly played some role in the crisis.
I’m also not too big on referring to the current problem as a debt crisis. Greece clearly has a debt crisis: its government debt is unsustainable and is in the process of being restructured. But Ireland has a banking crisis: its banks were allowed to grow too large, and when its housing bubble burst all the bad bank debt migrated onto the government’s balance sheet. Italy has a growth crisis. The fact that it has high public debt is hardly new. What’s new is its inability to grow, which casts doubt on its ability to service that debt. The tendency to oversimplify the crisis – to reduce an interlocking set of debt, banking and growth crises to debt, debt and debt – is part of what makes it hard for European policy makers to mount a coherent response to their problems.
Have austerity measures (such as those imposed on Greece) helped or hurt matters in Europe? Would you advise us to focus less on austerity right now, or is such a way of thinking still necessary?
Some countries like Greece have no choice but to pursue policies of austerity. Their governments simply can’t go on spending like there is no tomorrow. But very sharp cuts in public-sector wages, in pensions, and in social services can rend the social fabric. They are causing severe hardship, and I worry about political instability. We are already seeing the rise of extremist parties with less than full respect for democratic processes elsewhere in Europe, in Hungary for example. That’s why I’ve been arguing for some time that if you want Greece to persist with the necessary structural adjustment and fiscal stabilization it should be offered a carrot as well as a stick. Greece needs a Marshall Plan, not unlike the Marshall Plan received by Germany after World War II. Foreign aid conditional on structural adjustment – on making sure that people pay their taxes, for example – could help Greece adjust and return to growth, just as the Marshall Plan helped Germany adjust and return to growth starting in 1948.
The other caveat I’d make about austerity is that austerity everywhere at the same time is self defeating. If Greece and other Southern European countries are now going to spend less, someone else has to spend more. Reducing budget deficits in Germany right now is of dubious efficacy, in other words.
Professor Eichengreen, we are interested in how you came to study economics. What led you to this discipline, and to the specific topics you are now so well known for? Is it something you knew you wanted to do from the beginning of your studies?
At the beginning of my studies, all I knew was that I was interested in the social sciences. I was an undergraduate at an institution, UC Santa Cruz, with no grades and few requirements, so I sampled widely from history, political science, psychology, sociology and anthropology. I think I was drawn to economics because it had more structure. I was drawn to macroeconomics because I was interested in large social phenomena. And I was drawn to international macroeconomics because, even in the 1970s when I was a student, it was clear that the world was becoming increasingly globalized.
As for the specific topics I work on, like the Great Depression of the 1930s, it was Ben Bernanke, I think, who referred to the Great Depression as “the holy grail” of macroeconomics. If a macroeconomist can explain the Great Depression, in other words, he can explain anything!
Since you have studied and have a deep understanding of Europe and its monetary history and economic relation to the U.S., perhaps you could help us understand: What made the Marshall Plan so successful, and what lessons from this can Germany (and Europe) learn for today?
The Marshall Plan worked because U.S. aid was conditioned on market-friendly reform, as I mentioned earlier. But it also worked because it required the recipients to work together. Recipient governments were required to coordinate their plans for using the aid they received, which started them down the road of European integration.
For many normal, working people here, as frustrated as we are at times by the EU, it is hard to imagine how the German market could exist alone again: At the end of the day, is the only healthy choice now one that involves a common market?
No question, Germany would be worse off without the single market. Exporting would be more difficult in a world where Germany’s neighbors were able to discriminate against its goods and where they were able to manipulate their currencies. The key to Germany’s economic success in the last ten years has been exports, and it is not just China that has been on the demand side. California is better off because we have a common market of the 50 U.S. states, and notwithstanding our difficulties here no Californians seriously contemplate its dissolution. I similarly think that Europe’s single market is too far advanced, and that European firms have gone too far in adapting to it, to turn back now.
How much faith do you put in the idea that there could one day be a “United States of Europe”(in terms of a working monetary union)? If we want to prosper as a common market, do you see any other model (aside from that of the United States) that we can look to for guidance now?
Europe needs stronger fiscal and financial institutions to make its monetary union work. It needs stronger oversight by the European Commission of national fiscal policies. It needs stronger supervision of banks by the European Banking Authority. It therefore needs a stronger European Parliament to hold these institutions of fiscal and financial governance accountable for their actions. It seems clear that Europe will move over time toward deeper political integration. But I don’t think the United States is a model. I don’t envisage a “United States of Europe.” As I’ve written elsewhere, the European project is sui generis. While Europe will move in the direction of deeper political integration, my guess is that it will stop short of federation. Notice also that I have obeyed the first rule of prudent forecasting: give them a forecast or give them a date, but never both.
PULSE staff, 2011.
The Ingredients of Balance: What Makes it Good?
Dr. Michael Mandel is well-known as an expert on innovation and growth. He is president of South Mountain Economics LLC, which is currently developing new metrics for estimating the impact of innovation and trade on state, local, and national economies. He received his PhD in economics from Harvard University and served as chief economist at BusinessWeek, where he directed the magazine’s coverage of the domestic and global economies. While at BusinessWeek, he was named one of the top 100 business journalists of the 20th century for his writings on innovation and growth. He has received multiple awards for his work, including “Best Economic Journalist of the Year” by the World Leadership Forum, and the Gerald Loeb Award for Business and Financial Journalism. Dr. Mandel heads the Innovation and Regulation Initiative at the Progressive Policy Institute in Washington and is Senior Fellow at the Mack Center for Technological Innovation at the Wharton School.
Pulse: As you see it, where (ideally) would the most productive funding for technology and innovation come from (government, big business, VC)? What is your ideal ecosystem, in this sense?
Mandel: The best ecosystem has a combination of government, big business, small business and venture capital . Government should be heavily funding basic R&D across a wide range of areas, while avoiding excess regulation that holds back innovation. Big business should be tackling those tough industry-wide problems that require large resources and a long time frame. Small companies should be making high-risk, high-return bets on a wide range of potential opportunities. And venture capitalists should keep funding a wide range of startups.
In the US, is the Obama administration aware of the need for strong innovation? How much faith do you put in President Obama’s newly formed committees such as the “Innovation and Entrepreneurship Council”?
The Innovation and Entrepreneurship Council has some very good people on it, including Desh Deshpande. However, the Obama Administration still doesn’t understand that tightening regulation works against innovation.
Are you worried about the current U.S. deficit?
I am worried about both the trade deficit and the budget deficit. The U.S. economy is more based on consumption and borrowing than on production. That’s not acceptable over the medium or long run. The U.S. needs to put more emphasis on production, which means accepting a run. Instead, the U.S. needs to focus more on investment in physical, human, and knowledge capital
In creating our financial and social systems, would you suggest we focus more on flexibility rather than certainty?
We should focus on both flexibility and safety. Since I wrote my 2004 book “Rational Exuberance”, I’ve developed a greater appreciation of Black Swans, a term used by Nassim Nicholas Taleb to rever to unexpected events with unexpectedly large consequences. Prudent social and financial management should understand that bad events occur, so systems should be designed to not break when that happens.
Black Swans, both good and bad, are part of life. We have to plan as if they will happen, and structure our systems accordingly. For example, it’s important to keep debt from growing out of control, because excess debt makes bad Black Swans more dangerous.
In the United States, are people able to aim for higher growth and to simultaneously move from a consumer society to a society that thinks of itself as creative and manufacturing-based again?
That’s an excellent question. I believe that shifting from a consumer to a production economy is the only way for the U.S. to get genuine growth. It won’t be easy, though.
In that sense, do you still believe that the United States is the only place that can walk the path of exuberant growth? Daunting as it is, if Europe really were able to eventually achieve some kind of fiscal unity, would that allow them to move toward a high growth system that incorporate risk in the way the U.S. market is able to do so? More VC, innovation, creativity?
Good question. I don’t know. Europe over the past ten years has suffered from the same malaise as the U.S., which is the result of a widespread innovation shortfall. It’s less about fiscal unity, and more about the decision to shift to a more risk-taking strategy.
How did we get into the crisis we are in now in Europe?
I believe that the financial crises of recent years are caused, in part, by the stresses and distortions in the global real economy. In addition, global and national economic statistics have not yet caught up with the changes in the flows of goods and services.
How do you see Germany’s role in this crisis?
I’m not sure I understand the German economy. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, German manufacturing productivity growth has only averaged 1.8% per year over the past decade. If that’s accurate, it suggest the German economy has benefited more from the weakness of other Eurozone economies.
Photo credit: Zeno Crivelli
That Used to be Us
Michael Mandelbaum is the Christian A. Herter Professor of American Foreign Policy at The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C. and is the director of the American Foreign Policy Program there. He has also held teaching posts at Harvard and Columbia Universities, and at the United States Naval Academy. His most recent book, written with co-author Thomas L. Friedman, is THAT USED TO BE US: HOW AMERICA FELL BEHIND IN THE WORLD IT INVENTED AND HOW WE CAN COME BACK.
Pulse: Professor Mandelbaum, one issue you and Mr. Friedman discuss in your most recent book is the challenge the United States faces in terms of America’s growing deficits and debts. In short, what solutions do you prescribe?
Michal Mandelbaum: We believe that the United States needs both lower medium- and long-term spending and enhanced revenue to deal adequately with its deficits and debt. The paralysis of the political system, due to the sharp polarization of the two major parties, is responsible for preventing the appropriate measures.
You have said that keeping gas cheap is a failure of political will. Why is this a failure in the States?
Europeans and Japanese tax gasoline far more heavily than the United States does. America and the world would be better off with higher American energy taxes. Taxes are ultimately a political matter.
You’ve shown that America must wean itself from foreign oil. What would be the immediate benefits in terms of foreign policy?
The world won‘t be able to do without oil entirely for many decades. Reducing American, and therefore global, consumption, however, which is feasible, would reduce the revenues available to oil-producing countries, such as Iran, that oppose Western interests and values.
If a future America is able to wean itself from foreign oil and foreign credit to a considerable extent, what kinds of consequences do you see this having for us in Europe?
Lower American oil consumption would be good for Europe for the same reasons it would be good for the United States: it would weaken our common adversaries.
If the United States is to make such cuts, and become a frugal superpower as you describe in another of your books, why must that mean less humanitarian interventions as well?
In The Frugal Superpower: America‘s Global Role in a Cash-Strapped Era I foresee the end of American humanitarian interventions because the country will have fewer resources for foreign policy, because these interventions are unpopular, and because other missions are more important.
Do you imagine that would mean less humanitarian intervention globally, or simply that it would mean that such intervention would have to be an international effort, rather than dependent upon the US?
I am skeptical that other countries or groups of countries will engage in humanitarian intervention unless the United States supplies most of the troops.
If America’s four main challenges for the future are globalization, the revolution in information technology, its deficits and debts, and its pattern of energy usage, then what, in your opinion, would be Europe’s main challenges? Would they be the same?
By far the biggest challenge facing Europe today is the euro crisis. As for the other four, Europe, too, must come to terms with the consequences of globalization and the IT revolution. I have the impression that despite all our problems Americans are doing better here than are Europeans. On the other hand some European countries have less debt than the US, and Europe‘s energy policies have much to be said for them.
In the future, how do you see Europe (if it is healthy) fitting in with the kind of “global governance” that you discuss? How might our role be different from the past?
I am, I‘m sorry to say, pessimistic that Europe will offer much in the way of global governance, although I certainly favor Europe doing so. I explain the basis of my pessimism in The Frugal Superpower.
It is often said here that “Europe is forged in crises.” In terms of crisis, is the way dramatic change happens in modern Europe and in the U.S. different from the way it happens in countries in Asia and the Middle East?
We in the West are not, fortunately, going to experience the upheavals to which other parts of the world are prone. We do need mechanisms for gradual, constructive change. Sometimes crises are the midwives of needed change, but we shouldn‘t count on them.
In our hope to prosper through diversity, we are wondering: Why are immigration and diversity so essential to America’s economic strength and growth?
The United States has traditionally been a country of immigration, unlike most European countries. It was immigration that populated the vast North American continent, and immigrants from all over the world brought, and still bring, energy, talent, and drive to the United States.
Photo Credit: World Affairs Council
Art and Money. Yesterday and Today.
by Marco Antonini
Introduction (Ash’s Stash)
In the early Spring of 2011, after having followed the work of his then Bushwick-based exhibition space Fortress To Solitude, I invited Guillermo Creus to participate in NURTUREart‘s WE ARE: a Summer program that featured 10 different week-long projects by a diverse cast of artists, curators and organizations. He proposed to present three artists he had been keeping an eye on: Nadja Verena Marcin, Sarah Frost and Ash Sechler. Sechler‘s contribution to the show (titled Red Herring) was a stack of one thousand one dollar bills of his own money. The stack presented itself as a rather diminutive object, compact in size and irregularly textured because of the different color and condition of each individual note; it rested on our gallery floor exposed to dirt and wind gusts and –most importantly– totally up for grabs. Sechler signed a waiver releasing NURTUREart from insurance obligations on the piece. Red Herring was intended to be a materialization of financial risk: at the current state of his finances, $1000 was the most Sechler could have afforded to lose.
A few days after that meeting, the Guggenheim revealed its plans to present Hans Peter Feldman‘s one hundred thousand dollar Hugo Boss Prize award in the form of a gallery installation made of exactly one hundred thousand One Dollar bills. I received the Guggenheim’s press-release early one morning and immediately thought about Red Herring. One detail caught my attention: Feldman’s considerable stash was going to grace the storied walls of Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural masterpiece pinned to the walls and guarded by Guggenheim security staff as capital “A” artwork. We were all amused by the coincidence and immediately understood the ups and downs of presenting Red Herring just a few weeks after Feldman’s closing date. I personally felt that it would be hard to avoid some sort of comparison with such a highly visible and spectacular installation. The upside, of course would be that of braving the superficial assumptions that many would have made about our show while holding on to the superior value of Sechler’s idea. To my eyes, Feldman’s gesture was paradigmatic of strategies reiterated over and over in contemporary art. Shock-value gestures that are not only empty and irrelevant but conceal (reverting the biblical idiom) a sheep in wolf clothing.
Soft Cash/Hard Cash
As with all works concerned with powerful subject matter and materials, money-related or currency-based artworks often miss the spot. There are a series of reason for this failure, but I would like to discuss at least a couple of them. Firstly, it’s honestly hard to re-shape (whether actually or metaphorically) something developed in form and meaning throughout the entirety of human history into something “else.” Decontextualising, tweaking or otherwise recasting actual currency is hard. Historically, money has developed a myriad of awesomely designed and conceptually charged forms and shapes: a web of signifiers (ripe with all sorts of symbolic and iconographical subtext, ranging from the pompous to the ridiculous to the mysterious) resistant to infiltration and manipulation. Furthermore, money in its visible forms can hardly be disencumbered from its universal symbolic power. In Kathy Siegel and Paul Mattick’s words, money exists to represent the social character of productive activity in a form ownable by individuals”. In fact, currency-based exchange can be understood as a form of organized religion. Once we have established that (e.g.) a British Pound does not circulate as a sterling unit weighing exactly a pound, we are in a grey zone were faith is absolutely necessary. Believers have been indoctrinated to the existence of an equivalent “solid” counter value to the worthless paper and alloy bits they trade for centuries. The roots of this belief, anyhow, could dig much deeper at times when financial transactions were largely based on goods and tangible product exchange. In a present of global financial crimes and transactional economies, money as a symbol is more than ever under close scrutiny , but dealing with it can be even more tricky, considering how fast and inexorably physical currency is disappearing from our lives.
In today’s economy, finance has elected a series of totally abstract instruments to phonemes of a new insiders-only code, a language of exploitation that travels over invisible networks, determining the unstoppable accumulation of fictitious capital. Benedict Seymour has recently compared this non-existing value to a feedback loop in which “an anterior process of valorization and expropriation remains necessary (…) in order for these claims on value to be made good, supported and sustained.” In this context, the aforementioned requirement of an unconditional belief in currency value has become increasingly unacceptable. Seymour’s sonic metaphor extends to encompass a larger reflection on the relationship between the developments of the financial world and avant-garde art in the post-50s. Apart from such specific concerns, I would agree that it was in that period that cutting edge artistic research and the corporate world started to share an interest in deregulation and flexibility, experimenting with new forms of dissemination for their “products” and determining the dematerialization of their core values. The influence of this dematerialization on the way artists perceive money, art and their respective meaning and value led more of them to investigate currency in their work. The most interesting among such investigations tackle the meaning of money; its influence on our lives, its role as an entry point to the abstract reality of the financial world and the mechanisms that make the preservation and development of its very existence possible.
Hand-Penned Checks and Burning Millions
As usual a precursor among all precursors, Marcel Duchamp created a hand-penned Tzanck Check to pay his dentist (Dr. Daniel Tzanck) as early as 1919. [Image] The check was created with the cynical intention of circumventing financial conventions and procedures thanks to an added “value” that, although technically art world -specific, could have been easily converted into monetary gain. As a matter of fact, the check immediately acquired value, far over its initial denomination, bringing Duchamp to eventually buy it back at an unspecified price. Another prescient example is Yves Klein’s 1959 checkbook for his Zone de Sensibilité Picturale Immatérielle. Klein’s checks toyed with the idea of selling invisibility but, as in Duchamp’s case, it was the artist’s own aura that was being appraised and sold. It should be noted that Klein’s notes actually did promise a form of payback (although immaterial) and were attached to an elaborate ritual involving burning the check and tossing gold in the river Seine. As an artwork, the Tzanck Check was emitted as a self-sufficient object that did not suggest more than what it actually was, apart, of course, from the perspective appreciation of its value. In this sense, Duchamp’s creation was and is very close to the fictional reality of contemporary currency, created and destroyed in shady meeting rooms by Federal Reserve executives and farther removed from reality than a graciously and meticulously hand-penned note.
Ten years after, another ground-breaking artist would investigate money in an art context in a radically new way. Robert Morris’ Money intervention at the “Anti-Illusion” exhibition at the Whitney Museum (1969) simply required the museum to invest the budget available to Morris and pay him back at the end of the show. The significance of this investment was multiple as Morris was producing a quintessentially conceptual, hard to commoditize “piece” while also taking advance of the Museum’s financial means to gain a quick and sure revenue. Morris’ Money can be ascribed to similar semiotic and institutional investigations developed by Michael Asher, Robert Barry and Maria Eichhorn; it uses money (in the form of an invisible and unspecified “investment”) to probe the organizational structure of art institutions. It is a way of extending artistic practice outside of its confined fields of action, an interest that is shared by Cildo Meireles’s Zero Dollar (1978-84), Zero Cruzeiro (1974-78) and Zero Centavo (1974-78), in which he combined the notions of counterfeiting and valuelessness, indirectly investigating the nature of money while openly addressing the possibility for an artist to create a “circulating” artwork to be effectively disseminated outside of art world sanctioned precincts. Zero notes resemble actual money but are completely removed from the rules and regulations of currency-based exchange. Meireles’ fascination with money and his solid understanding of its symbolic power and semiotic potential (strongly tied to his interest in the socio-economical context of late sixties Brazil), is also evident in an earlier work, Money Tree (1969), a stack of one hundred folded Cruzeiros sold for the price of two thousand Cruzeiros. Money Tree emphasizes a slippage between the currency’s raising value as an art object and its mere monetary value, bound to diminish inexorably because of -then rampant- Brazilian inflation. Using rubber (one of Brazil’s primary exports) bands to secure the small stack, Meireles adds to the piece’s complexity, locating it at the juncture of culture, geopolitics and global commerce.
The modest monetary values of all examples so far considered are quantitatively overshadowed by a series of grandiose projects developed by K-Foundation, the moniker adopted by world-famous techno-pop band KLF after retiring from the music scene in 1992. Using their considerable fortune, KLF members Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty enacted a series of provocations intended to question the art-world and its core values. Firstly, they awarded Rachel Witheread with a “Worst Artist of the Year” prize, doubling the twenty thousand Pounds she just received as winner of the Turner Prize. After Whiteread turned the joke on them by donating the money to artists in need, they nailed a Million British Pounds to a wood frame and tried to exhibit the work without success. Prosaically titled Nailed to the Wall, the costly artifact was in fact quite difficult to show around — mostly for insurance and security related concerns. In a final coup de theatre, they burned the whole million, in a controversial private ritual that took place on the Scottish island of Jura in 1994. The event was filmed and featured in a documentary titled Watch The K Foundation Burn a Million Quid, released in 1995. In Jimmy Cauty’s words, the gesture was “about controlling the money, Because money tends to control you.” Drummond, on the other hand, has made no secret of his own conflicted feelings, a sense of guilt and shock that apparently took him over since the burning began, as reported in a contemporary article appeared on the Observer . In an apotheosis of nihilism, Cauty tried to destroy any evidence of the performance, only to discover that the footage had been saved by one of their assistants.
Buy It Now
Art and Money, as we have seen, have quite a history. Several books and exhibitions have tackled the topic of this (according to many) unholy union, with results ranging from the celebratory and spectacular to the flat-out critical. Money as medium and topic is still constantly addressed in contemporary art and always will be. Somewhere along the path, anyhow, artists have started to show a new attitude towards the whole idea of incorporating money in their discourse. In short, they are more and more attracted by the transactional nature of money, its disappearance from the physical world and the consequences of its circulation than from its “essence.” It is possible to trace back this trend to the increasing feeling of looming financial and/ or existential uncertainty shared by my generation as well as by the post-crisis youth of today. Money-wise, we have long lost our future — or so we’re told. We increasingly look at money like it’s really little more than an abstraction so it’s quite logical to think about it as artistic material. As Daniel Spoerri has noted, in exchanging art for money, we exchange one abstraction for another. Several recent artworks well represent this state of things, exploring and exploiting the current state of invisibility investing financial transactions small and large.
The venerable Nedko Solakov was an early mover in this direction, with his video-performance The Deal. In this work from 2002, Solakov converted a small sum of money from currency to currency until it was completely extinguished by exchange rates and fees. It is a bittersweet work that reproduces on a microscopic scale the dramatic waste implicit in all major financial operations. In its own modest terms, The Deal hints to an underworld of invisible black holes, small and large voids created and sustained by the financial system itself. Solakov’s little loss mirrors the daily squandering of all humanity in its forced escalation towards a desire for materialistic accumulation that benefits the very few who write the rules. Solakov’s positive statement of refusal is echoed by Cesare Pietroiusti and Paul Griffiths’ two Eating Money performances of 2006 and 2007. Volunteering to eat Euro banknotes of the highest possible denomination (offered via a public auction and returned to the owners after digestion and excretion) Pietroiusti and Griffiths have transformed their own bodies into a conduit for a nonsensical and poetic financial transaction. Nothing is wasted in this process; because of its own remarkable security and durability features, the banknotes come out in pretty decent condition, ready to be washed and admired as sculptural remains of the artists’ surrealist feat. Eating Money is a humorous and slightly disgusting tour de force that successfully reveals our “physiological” desire for money, fear of losing it and the disturbing distance between its abstract value and physical form.
A work by Romanian artist Ivan Moudov uses actual Euro coins as the vector of an immaterial exchange, surpassing their nominal value and transforming them into the props of a joyous and surprising trick. Romanian Trick (2008) [Image] is a private performance that can be staged by Moudov at any given time for an individual “client” who pays a variable sum of money to learn a street trick from the artist: the way to separate the exterior copper ring of a One Euro coin from its central nickel core. For this little tutorial, Moudov requires a payment to be immediately reinvested in artwork for his collection. In this way, value circulation and exchange and the creation of a cultural “surplus” all happen inside the art world and, to a certain degree, follow its logic. What’s even more interesting is the use of currency in its most obsolete form as a mere tool in the operation, a signifier that doesn’t really contribute any actual value if not via the enactment of its own unforeseeable destruction. The theme of money destruction is indissolubly linked to that of its disappearance and re-emerges quite literally in Caleb Larsen’s diminutive $10.000 Sculpture (in progress) (2009). In this work Larsen installs a single dollar bill acceptor (of the kind commonly found in snack vending machine) on an empty white wall. The device literally “eats” currency, accepting and depositing it in an invisible security box. For Larsen, the device “is a continual charity, or more cynically, a form of panhandling. It asks for money, and offers nothing in return.” The artist’s apparently straightforward attitude towards easy profit goes hand in hand with an artwork sale contract stipulating that the money collected by the piece is not to be considered as part of the work’s market value. In short, the money collected by $10.000 Sculpture (in progress) is to be considered mere material, producing artistic value only during the fleeting moment it takes to “activate” the piece.
These examples add to the contemporary discourse on money-related artworks and what Olav Velthius has described as “Imaginary Economics” while also signaling a shifting interest towards the processes that bring money from point A to point B, C, D and on to infinity in its constant transitional flow. This independent motion is, as many have noted, the real reason for the dispatch and displacement of goods and, increasingly, people around the world – not vice versa. Money and its independent, invisible movements are also the real reason behind mundane and dramatic political developments that shape the life of present and future generations. At a time where the interests of the seemingly all-powerful 1% that channeled this obscure energy for ages is once again coming into question, contemporary artists are increasingly called to reflect, analyze and discuss money and its fascinating dynamics in their work.
Thanks to: Sandrine Canac, Maja Ciric, Guillermo Creus, Danilo Correale, Francesca Divano, Ettore Favini, Dorian Kulla, Astrit Ismaili, Raul Martinez, Johan Norling,Veronica Valentini, Nikola Uzunowski, for suggestions and/or feedback.
NURTUREart‘s WE ARE:http://nurtureart.org/?p=2296
1. Interestingly enough, at the time of this writing the single most popular and widely downloaded episode of the famous NPR radio program “This American Life” was “The Invention of Money.” One of program host’s Ira Glass initial remarks in the episode (originally aired on July 2011) is that, according to a businesswoman they interviewed “Money is fiction.” – http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/423/the-invention-of-money
2. As far as counterfeiting goes, the trade has become more and more sophisticated along the years. Unfortunately, the idea of crime artists printing notes in the basement is now little more than a romantic fantasy; today, large organizations, most probably controlled by national banks, rule the game. The fact that one in ten thousand of American Dollars is suspected to be a “Superdollar” (a note forged outside the US with technology that exceeds the one used to produce the real notes) contributes to suggest that the collective trust in the social contract at the foundation of currency-based exchange might never be fully restored. In this context, the forgeries of a poetic prankster like J.S.G. Boggs (née Steve Lintzer, still active in the production of mostly hand-drawn, single sided “Boggs Notes”) or any other creator of alternative currencies for that matter are almost pathetic in their subversive efforts.
References for works discussed above, in order of appearance in text:
–Siegel, Kathy and Mattick, Paul: Artworks: Money (Thames and Hudson, 2004) p.15
–“an anterior process of valorization …“. http://www.artandeducation.net/paper/short-circuits-finance-feedback-and-culture/ originally pub. On MUTE magazine (research it).
–Tzanck Check. This powerful gesture was still outrageous 85 years after that, when it was lifted by Maurizio Cattelan, who emitted a one dollar check as a gift to one of his collectors.
–Money Tree. Zamudio, Raul, “Knowing can be Destroying”, on Part 5 – http://web.gc.cuny.edu/dept/arthi/part/part5/raul.html
–“about controlling the money…“.quoted from Watch the K Foundation Burn a Million Quid – http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=611972753567740682)
–as reported in… the Observer. Reid, J., „Money to burn“, The Observer, 25 September 1994. — As Daniel Spoerri has noted… quoted in Velthius, Olaf, “Imaginary Economics”, 2005 NAi Publishers. p.32
–is a continual charity…. Larsen, Caleb, “The Value of Nothing” (eBook available for Free download on Lulu.com).
Russia, the Revolution Will Not Be Televised
The fear of an opaque future makes us long for what has already passed, when in actuality it’s as the song goes – ‚there were never any good old days‘. For the majority of the twentieth century, the Soviet punitive response to dissenting written opinion was exclusion from The Union of Writers, exile, imprisonment, execution, confinement to a psychiatric ward, or systematic manipulative erosion. Times have changed and these days journalists who draw attention to the dark and delicate underbelly of the Russian power structure are murdered outright. This is acutely evident in the killings of Anna Politkovskaya and Paul Klebnikov.
The murder of Anna Politkovskaya on October 7, 2006 was met by icy silence from her president, Vladimir Putin. It was his birthday. When he finally commented three days later, he said „the level of her influence on political life in Russia was utterly insignificant.“ This made perfect sense – the best way to censor the legacy of your toughest critic is by minimizing the relevance of her work. Indeed, Politkovskaya did not seem to have any direct effect on Russian political life. Politics under Putin was, and is, closed. The Putin method of governing glows with the aura of Soviet redux and seemingly functions as a cabala for the initiated. During his administration, this muscular style was a reaction to the violent turbulence of the 1990s – an attempt to graft order onto chaos.
Paul Klebnikov understood power. He understood how easily it could become interwoven with strains of violence and corruption. In his book, ‚Godfather of the Kremlin: The Decline of Russia in the Age of Gangster Capitalism‘, Klebnikov describes, step-by-step the failed transition from the communist economic structure based on state ownership to the unbelievably violent feeding frenzy of perestroika. Perestroika metamorphosed into a bloody pseudo-capitalist kleptocracy during the 1990s, and the looting of Soviet industry was at its core – a war over control and ownership fueled by greed, intimidation and blood.
Perestroika, Russian for reconstruction, was virgin soil. The initial vision was a transition toward an idyllic vestige of freedom. Russia strove for an ideal that it has since systematically failed to reach. That the economy would have to change along with the government was an afterthought. Across the board, all the rules were being rewritten. Klebnikov’s knowledge of perestroika era economics earned him the first editorship of the newly established Russian Forbes Magazine. In 2004, he published a list: ‚The 100 Richest Russians‘. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the dethroned oligarch and former CEO of the now state-owned Yukos Oil Company, topped the list. Klebnikov went on to publish a second book still only available in Russian – ‚Conversations with a Barbarian: Interviews with a Chechen Field Commander on Banditry and Islam‘. The barbarian referred to is Khozh-Ahmed Noukhaev, the prominent Chechen warlord. Paul Klebnikov was murdered on July 9, 2004.
To try and better understand these crimes against Russian journalists, I spoke with writer, translator and n+1 editor Keith Gessen. At the time, Gessen had been living in Moscow for over a year and had just covered the Politkovskaya murder trial for the New Yorker. “Politkovskaya and Klebnikov both had a very personal style,” he told me, “An aggrieved style. Something traditional for Russian journalists”. Making reference to a conversation with a veteran reporter who covered the Politkovskaya trial for a relatively mainstream Russian newspaper, Gessen recalled the veteran’s opinions: “Her writing was personally insulting to them [the Chechens]. She felt it was not enough to just report the facts”. And about Klebnikov, he added: “He did not write like a business journalist”.
Contrasting the trials of their alleged killers, Gessen said: “In the Politkovskaya trial, it was obvious that those guys were not guilty of the things they were accused of. Family and lawyers at the end had come to the conclusion that they were not guilty. But the Klebnikov case was different. The Klebnikov case – the guys on trial were guilty. The jury may have been intimidated or bought. It wasn’t clear who ordered them to do it, but there wasn’t a lot of doubt it was them”.
Klebnikov was of Russian decent but a citizen of the United States who worked for a prominent, muscular, mainstream periodical accustomed to interacting with power brokers, and Forbes has since been unwilling to forget the loss of one of its own. Around the time of the fifth year anniversary of Klebnikov’s murder, I asked Gessen whether he had heard that the U.S. Department of Justice was going to be working with Russia on the case. He was mildly surprised but hopeful. “Certain governments are not very cooperative with Russia. For example, the English, who think Russian courts are rigged. For a while, European countries were not extraditing to Russia because Russia had the death penalty.” Russia has not executed anyone since 1996 and has had a moratorium on capital punishment since 2007. In our conversation, Gessen also touched upon the growing émigré community of nefarious Russians now living in London including Boris Berezovsky, the focal point of Klebnikov’s Godfather of the Kremlin.
But who is responsible for the murder of Anna Politkovskaya? “The government is involved in a weird way,” says Gessen. “It’s hard to tell in what way exactly. The line between government and non-government is pretty blurry. Eventually, I think, these things will come out but you need a new regime.” I asked if he really believed that a new regime would tell the truth. Gessen hesitated, sheepishly laughed and uttered a drawn out “yes.” His intonation was that of someone shaking their head from side to side in negation. He went on to cite the example of Georgiy Gongadze, a Ukrainian journalist kidnapped and beheaded in 2000. The president of the Ukraine at the time was Leonid Kuchma. “Kuchma was heard saying ‘Can’t someone take care of this problem?’ Recently, they arrested a retired general. Even though this guy was a former general – they finally got him.” Meaning: it had been necessary for Viktor Yushchenko to become president of the Ukraine for the truth to come out and reform to take place. In 2004, Yushchenko defeated the Kuchma backed Viktor Yanukovych. Massive voting fraud helped to ignite a series of bloodless protests and strikes now known as the Orange Revolution.
On July 14, 2009, Novaya Gazeta reported that human rights activist Natalya Estemirova had been kidnapped from her home in Grozny and forced into a white car bearing the license plate ВАЗ-2107. The newspaper reported this information and posted it online hours after her disappearance but before her body had been discovered. She had been working on the cause of kidnapping in Chechnya, a profit driven industry reminiscent of Italian and German revolutionary faction kidnappings of the 1970s but on a much less glamorous, microeconomic scale. Estemirova headed the Grozny division of the venerable human rights organization Memorial. Estemirova was also Politkovskaya’s personal friend. Following Politkovskaya’s death, Estemirova was the first recipient of the Anna Politkovskaya Prize established by RAW in WAR/Reach All Women in War. On the morning of July 15, 2009 Estemirova’s body was found in Ingushetia. Memorial has publicly blamed Ramzan Kadyrov, the Moscow supported Chechen president of the decimated region, for Estemirova’s death.
In and around Russia today, some speak of change under the Medvedev administration. But there is also talk that Medvedev’s governing is just a continuation of Putin’s policy. Is this just ‘business as usual’ for Russia? “Medvedev gives speeches where he doesn’t threaten to cut people’s balls off – which is nice,” Gessen told me. “His reaction was already better than Putin’s was to Politkovskaya. He [Medvedev] accepted that this is a major scandal.” “Kadyrov’s reaction also is an improvement in a way. He says he’s suing Memorial for defamation. This is also something: Usually when he’s asked about someone’s murder, Kadyrov just smiles.”
Both present and past, the question of how expendable people are is one that has haunted Russia. Anna Politkovskaya wrote for Novaya Gazeta, perhaps the last vestige of free discourse in Russian media. It is a periodical that has lost a disproportionately large number of journalists and its lawyer, Stanislav Markelov, to seemingly professional assassination. Politkovskaya’s strength and brilliance lay with her Akhmatova-esque loyalty to the common citizen. She recognized that common people were perceived by the government as expendable masses, people of no consequence, and she criticized Putin accordingly.
“The killing of Politkovskaya is something people are aware of,” says Gessen. “It’s rare enough for someone to be killed for her beliefs, or what she wrote out of those beliefs. Most people get killed [in Russia] because they’re in a business dispute – this is the ordinary way to be killed. Or for your apartment. In the 1990s you could be killed for money, even if you didn’t have money. Russians still think all killings are business-related, where in the West we are quick to blame the government. But both points of view are right: The Russian government has become part government, part mobster.”
That seems bleak. As an average Russian citizen, how is one supposed to understand this? Gessen responds, “In the 90s everyone around you – every Russian citizen – was getting killed. Now there is stability. Now people who get killed are prominent. Politkovskaya was prominent. The elite are conscious about losing certain things, like losing the Ukraine. They hate Yushchenko. The nation’s been much reduced, to half its population. They’re nostalgic for the communitarian ethos. Much of what the Soviets were doing was keeping the standards of living in the west hidden. Nobody wants to go back to wearing funny clothes and not knowing what people in Paris are wearing.” This is an intensely ironic observation. Where the Russian citizen is aware of what the Parisians are wearing thanks to the media, that same media minimizes the murder of journalists and human rights workers, arguably offering a two dimensional perspective on the Chechen crisis. Gessen thinks that longer historical processes are eventually going to improve things despite the best efforts of the Russian government. “There are objective forces of modernity in Russia – well, the internet. It’s harder for the government to control information. Of course, TV in Russia is becoming like FoxNews was during the Bush administration, except it’s on every channel, and run by the government.” An observation which harkens back to Vlad Listyev whose murder Klebnikov had written about and essentially accused Berezovsky of committing. Listyev, an astute television producer and host of televised discussion forums in Russia during the 1990s, made a play at privatizing and controlling the only national television station in Russia – Channel One. He suspended all advertising on the station and was subsequently murdered.
Should anyone want to look into the face of a dead man walking, it’s available on the internet: The last episode Listyev ever filmed of his talk show Час Пик/Rush Hour shows him wishing all his viewers a happy first of March (1995) and all the hope in the world, then saying “…because as we all know, hope dies last.” He was found shot dead in the stairway of his building that night. After his murder in 1995, the only television station to broadcast nationally, across 11 time zones, became state owned.
Media isn‘t everything, and a nation’s subconscious is often best revealed through its art and culture. As the Soviet state crumbled, for example, Igor Letov and Grazhdanskaya Oborona wrote the quintessential punk anthem of the time. The dirge ‚Everything is Going According to Plan‘ gave voice to the despair, bitterness and disillusionment of the Russian citizen experiencing the privations and mess that was perestroika. “I bought a journal about Korea – It’s good there too. They’ve got Tovarish Kim Il-Sung. They’ve got exactly what we do. I’m positive they’ve got exactly the same. And everything is going according to plan.”
North Korean journals in Russia during the time that Letov refers to are fascinating in their uniformity to Soviet and Chinese propaganda. They depict smiling happy children as hopeful symbols of the communist future lined up in rows performing in celebratory assemblage. They show a sprawling untouched landscape, lush and green. And of course, they depict the benevolent father leader in all his cult of personality glory, Kim Il-Sung. These journals are perversely beautiful in the way that only something produced by the government of a closed society can be. Letov was right – it probably is and was just as good in North Korea as it was in the collapsing Soviet Union of the 1980s and perestroika of the 1990s. By default, he was drawing attention to the media. During Soviet times, there was Pravda, “a journal about Korea,” and Samizdat. These were the sources of news for the Russian citizen. If the state has a good solid hold on the media in general, then was Anna Politkovskaya perceived to be a thwarter of propaganda by her government? Both Chechen wars were on near media lockdown and it seems that no one, from the expert to the layman, has a clear understanding of what exactly is happening in Chechnya even now. Klebnikov refers to the first Chechen war as some kind of business deal gone wrong. The Russian citizen would tell you – people of the mountains have been fighting amongst themselves for as long as anyone can remember. In actuality, Russia has been playing at imperialism in the Caucasus for as long as anyone can remember and a prolific number of romanticized accounts exist in the writings of Tolstoy, Chekhov, Lermontov and others. None of these responses are satisfying.
As Russia was overconfident and anticipated a quick and decisive victory, the first Chechen war was better chronicled internationally. The reality of the conflict is perhaps most accurately recorded in Anthony Suau’s 1995 photojournalism of the ravaged Grozny. Here, one finds stark high-contrast black and white photographs of a decimated, razed city that resembles Warsaw at the end of the Second World War. Wounded soldiers, dead soldiers, survivors with mad eyes fighting over the distribution of supplies while desperately clutching the bars of what appears to be a relief truck. An elderly woman showing the passport photos of her two dead sons. An elderly man searching a mass grave and finding the body of his son whose face had been eaten away by dogs. A mass grave. These images are available to the Russian citizen on the internet if he or she knows where and how to look, just as they’re chronicled in Anna Politkovskaya’s articles and books, in the collective knowledge of Natalya Estemirova’s Memorial, and in Paul Klebnikov’s writings. You won’t find any of this, however, on the nightly Russian news.
Article and Interview by Margarita Shalina, 2010.
Geography is Destiny
Two notes before reading: This interview was mostly conducted in virtual space. Also, be aware that Andrei Codrescu uses the term „herm“ instead of „his“ or „her“ to evoke an all-encompassing gender intimacy when speaking about unspecified individuals. Herm is not a typo.
Pulse: Your writing, and your public persona as a poet and writer and radio personality, has often been linked to specific places: Romania, Boston, New Orleans, Zurich… How deeply do you think these ties to geography have affected your work?
Andrei Codrescu: Geography is destiny, anatomy, and evolution, to put it mildly. I was born in the medieval Transylvanian-Romanian hilly town of Sibiu, surrounded by Carpathian peaks, so I wrote mysterious craggy poems with snow on the tips of end-lines. The geography dictated poetry to the skinny (sort of craggy) adolescent who renamed himself „Steiu,“ meaning „crag“ in Romanian, in order to melt into the landscape. The communist era was threaded through by certain mountainous clichés, one of which was the requirement to be a „pine.“ The national poet of communism was one Ion Brad (John Pine) whom we hated but understood, geographically and politically. I never became a „pine,“ but „crag“ was close enough, suggesting (to my mind at least) a certain dangerous ambiguity: yes, we rise high to the „yawning heights“ of communism (as Alexander Zinoviev called them), but we also impale you, reader, like Dracula and fascism (which was well represented in Sibiu by the nationalist poet Octavian Goga, who as a minister of state in the 1930s passed a slew of antisemitic laws intended to eliminate Jews, i.e, me, from the landscape.) My hometown Sibiu was a multilingual, multireligious town of dour people who rang their church bells at different hours in order to cause insomnia in their hated neighbors: the protestant Germans rang in the vespers maddeningly slow, the Catholic Hungarians boomed martially thirty minutes later, and the Orthodox Romanians rang them all the time to sound like bleating copper sheep. My mother, who was agnostic, stuffed our ears with wadded cotton. At school we sang the „Internationale“ every morning. For all that, it was a quiet crumbling city filled with mute ghosts who specialized in twilight and autumn. I had an intimate idyll with the city, and a distant but sentimental relation to the mountains. Mostly, I cried and felt proud, which is what my birth town did since its inception in 1100 or so CE. Living there for eighteen years made me morose, craggy, cruel, filled with demonic joy, and very good at listening to tiny gasps. The rest of my geographies did their job too: San Francisco made me watery and brisk, Sonoma County made me cry wine, Baltimore made me proud to be an American because of the mighty erect phallus of George Washington on horseback in Peabody Square, and New Orleans made me first fat, then decadent, then skinny again. Should I go on?
Maybe on another matter. Ok? You often praise the writers Twain, Cervantes, Gombrowicz, Marquez. Regardless of what country they lived in or wrote about, all these writers speak sensually of their geographies, both literally and fictionally. Do you think a place and a writer create each other as imaginative presences? Does that have anything to do with why you like these writers?
I like Twain because he‘s deep and funny, Cervantes because he‘s free and funny, and Gombrowicz because he upholds the sanctity of childishness (and he‘s funny). There are others, but they are too numerous, so let me just point to this crowd of scriveners having an orgy in this swimming pool in Hell, and say: „I like‘em all! They are funny!“ Like I said, the place makes the writer, but the writer, of course, makes the place feel more „at home“ by expressing things the place tells herm. The most interesting places, with the most varied history, are composed of layers of feedback between what they fed the animals (er, writers) and the stuff the beasts spewed back. A really great place, like Venice, Italy, is a palimpsest of spews of the greatest specificity. In a literal sense, flesh is shaped by place, place puts culture into the flesh, and the flesh gives place sensual, fleshy features. A new place is a new lover: the first sensation is immersion, then not knowing where one starts and the other begins. Most post-adolescent writers bring with them the places they lived in and add them to their new places, exactly like lovers bringing their amorous experiences to a new person. Mark Twain, for instance, was preoccupied in his childhood by Time, a notion he found in Missouri caves, which are perfect representations of Slow-Time and Fast-Time, and he dragged it to the West and the East: to each new place he brought his Time jokes, and like a good 19th century thinker, he made the places he lived in more modern, more intellectual, more… timely. He had a stopwatch and was fascinated by speed. Cervantes ended the chivalric novel‘s dominion in Spain and closed the door to Moorish baroque: he invented Europe because that‘s where he found himself in the 16th century. Europe back then was a place that needed to end one history and start another (expansion, the New World) and Cervantes took dictation. Gombrowicz was a Pole-Argentine or Argentine- Pole and he took some mighty strange instructions from the surroundings, the main one being that Exile is itself a place, a 20th century place that „real“ geographies must make room for.
And how does all this physical movement affect one’s sensual world, do you think? Is there something about movement that opens up a new inner space?
Think of lovemaking: movement is all. Or dance. Or speech. Or eating. Humans move in physical space and make objects through movement. If I wink at you I make an elliptical rocking shape. If I come up from behind and bite your ear I can make a propeller spin or an apple fall (or I might make you reach for your gun). Since movement is such an effective creator of material objects I try not to move much: I type with one finger and I stare straight ahead. Try to budge me. Space is a web: anything moves, everything changes. And everything moves, like Heraklitus said, so make as many funny faces as you like, or none at all.
In your work about New Orleans, you discuss the German immigrant writer Baron Ludwig von Reizenstein. His writing is built out of the sooty, sultry contradictions of New Orleans. I wonder if he needed the city to make him a writer. Could he have written such affecting pieces had he not changed countries? Could you?
No, me and the Baron could not have written what we did if we‘d stayed nailed to our birth space. We would have been still great, but unknown. And we‘d still have been „outsiders,“ because you have to be an outsider to write. Only outsiders are foolish enough to take dictation from the environment; they believe that observation and literacy improves the wobbly thing inside them. The wobbly thing is the feeling that one doesn‘t belong. The real secret, though, is that nobody belongs, whether they are natives or not. After expulsion from paradise all humans are in exile. You can be a Colonel Sanders chicken, born, raised and fried in one quarter of a square foot and you‘ll still be an outsider. The thing we call reality is a holding tank for people who must worry about belonging — it‘s a worrier prison. Don‘t worry people! You‘ll soon be fried and eaten. A few of us are writers, hence double-alienated, but happier (because we are busy).
If it‘s true that many of us go through life feeling like we don’t belong, how might digression (geographical and otherwise) be our way of trying to forget, or to escape, that feeling?
Bad news: there are no digressions. Everything is connected in the whole darn ball of yarn: start pulling at any end and you‘ll get to the same place. On the other hand, most normal people dislike digression because they have to lose themselves to follow you. The surest way to drive your dear ones crazy is to digress. In private, it‘s an offense. In public it‘s „art“, „performance“.
The internet feels as though it was built for digression. But it also proves your point: everything is connected; we move from link to link. Has the internet changed the writer’s relationship to geography? Has this “new place” changed the role of the storyteller?
Six books it took me to answer these questions!
I know. But…in short? Are there regional writers and regional poets when it comes to the virtual world?
In short, the internet liquefied physical borders faster than they were already doing on their own. For all that, there are only regional writers. There are no „internet writers“, like there used to be „paperback writers“. Every tweet comes from somewhere, and that „somewhere“ goes into the „somewhere“ where you‘re reading it in. You read Nietzsche in the Ozarks for a while, let‘s say, then you get up and sweep the leaves from your porch for a longer while. Place wins on time spent every time, unless you‘re demented enough to put out your eyes on screens longer than you sweep. We are in a state of „transitional regionalism“, a place where regions are instantly transmitted to other regions, but they don‘t universalize them, they only make them more provincial, by framing them with the local. Like I said, six books! Amazon.com. Now that‘s a Weird place! To wit, „virtual space“ is just another place, like a house on a street in Columbus, Ohio. If you get up from your computer you can go out and forget all about the virtual place. If you tell stories about the internet from Columbus, Ohio, you‘re an Ohio internetist (tho it might pay better to be an internist); if you tell stories about a fried-chicken incident that could‘ve been in a Sherwood Anderson novel, you‘re a double-regionalist: an internetist in a place. Like the founder of VR said to me in Seattle in 1997: „At least reality has a competitor now!“ He was being hopeful. VR won‘t keep you out of the VA (hospital), to coin a saw.
But what happens to modernism then? Can there be modernism without the big literal city?
There is no more „modernism,“ or its better sibling, „the avantgarde.“ Those revolutions ended in Restoration in 1978: the monarchies (of boredom) came back then, psychology snuck back inside people, institutions reshaped people, money was everything again. (As opposed to other currencies such as youth, poetry, love, feathers, and murder). „Diversity“ is just a word for hiding the crime of increasing monocultures, growing like mold since 1978. Fun ideas are created in free interplay by people with big eyes and insatiable appetites who feel like laughing whenever anybody says something, anything. It‘s true that city neighborhoods full of bohemes and wannabe bohemes are more inspiring when you‘re young and poor. Those places exist mostly in the imagination now: no sooner do artists funkify a hood, the developers move in. Though there is some hope now, thanks to the financial meltdown, that places may rust back for a while and we can breathe freely, ah, ah. Unemployment is good for art too, necessary actually. Give us about 20% unemployment and we will rise again!
Big cities require diverse people to find a way to live in close proximity; opposing ideas often end up walking side by side. In an internet age, what happens to that kind of contradiction and paradox?
It‘s not diversity or cities that create contradictions: everything does. You have to make a bigger effort to accommodate seemingly opposed ideas in New York, for instance, because New York is aggravating every second. Your landlord and your temperament will never see eye to eye. The violent anarchist and the pacifist next door, both of whom you‘re sleeping with, are trying to present their cases as irreconcilable, but the intellectual standoff dissolves because your body bridges them. As long as you have a body, ideas can clash all they want, they won‘t harm you. It helps to have a young healthy body. The body is currency, creativity, and insurance: the better you know that, the better your works. The common usage of the word „creativity“ these days is „marketing.“ How you see the world and what you make is all terrific, but you have to be really creative to make others see you the same way.
Does that mean first being skeptical of both the anarchist and the pacifist, and then finally accepting and loving them both?
The only way to stop doubting is to develop selective forgetting. Alzheimer‘s is a disease, and it‘s sad, but you don‘t need a disease to reap the benefits of forgetting. Listen to me: take a deep breath, close your eyes, and on the count of ten repeat ten times: My brain will automatically erase the bad, the boring, and the ugly. My brain will automatically… Now open your eyes and drunk-text.
Maybe it’s possible to be playful and honest without also being drunk, or maybe being playful and honest is itself a way of being drunk. Is it one way or the other: play Judge, or Just play?
We have to play. So we‘re silly. So what? We are artists. We don‘t have good taste, we‘re too busy for that. If you have to judge make it final. If hypnosis doesn‘t work, moving out might. To paraphrase and quote my master Ted Berrigan, there are only two solutions: „suicide and murder// but that‘s dumb!“ Moving out (and on) is better.
Is moving really always better though? In New Orleans Mon Amour, you write about how old cities soothe and ease the pain of living because they are places with histories; it’s comforting to know others have lived and stayed there before you. And yet, one hardly recognizes the history and depth of one’s place until one has left it. Can travel be less a matter of finding new places and more a matter of really seeing what is right in front of one, of being still?
Both are true: you appreciate a place after you leave it, and you can train yourself to appreciate it while you‘re in it (though it‘s harder). The Mysteries of Paris by Eugene Sue was the first novel to discover the exotic at home; Sue was too poor to travel so he found the magic where he lived.
In that sense, are languages ways of traveling too, of entering a new geography?
Yes, but like I said before, it‘s better done in bed.
Florida and Louisiana, 2010.
Article and interview by Anna Rohleder, 2011.
Even in a brief conversation with Wayne Koestenbaum, it becomes apparent that his interests are broad-ranging, from Sigmund Freud to film stars, 1960s American pop-culture icons to European Expressionist poetry, opera recordings to billboard advertising. His work also spans (and occasionally combines) fiction and non-fiction, as well as prose and poetry. Of his books, The Queen‘s Throat: Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire, an investigation into the affinity of gay men for opera, and Hotel Theory, a novel set in a hotel juxtaposed with an extended essay about hotels, are among the best-known. He is also involved in the visual arts. He taught on the faculty of the Yale University School of Art and has contributed art journalism and criticism to magazines such as Art Forum and Art in America as well as general-interest publications such as Vanity Fair and Vogue. He is a poet, novelist and professor of English at the City University of New York.
Pulse: There is a Matisse show about to go up at MOMA („Radical Reinvention“), and one of the recurring motifs in his work is the artist‘s studio, which is both an artificial and necessary space. I was trying to think of a counterpart to the artist‘s studio for a writer. Is it possible to do creative work in an office?
Wayne Koestenbaum: I have. I started writing poetry at an office job. I worked as a typist, and while I was at work, when no one was looking, I‘d write poems on index cards, or sometimes on the back of one of those „While You Were Out“ message pads. The size of the index card was the poetic form, and the duration of time would be the amount of time stolen. This goes back to Certeau‘s idea of „la perruqe“ („the wig“), which I talk about in my book Hotel Theory – stealing time from the boss and using it for my own purposes. There was a permission for me that being surreptitious allowed. I could not have authorized myself to write a poem at home: it would have been too much of an abyss. By being at the office job — which was a job I had no sympathy with — there was a sense of being off duty from myself.
I tend to write in different genres out of that same impulse to find an incognito. Poetry is the free space outside the writing I‘m supposed to do. In terms of writing environments in general, this café for example (Café Le Grainne, New York) used to be quieter and less bustling. There was something more lax about it, and I could lose myself. Now it‘s become louder and busier.
There‘s more regulation.
If we extend that idea to mental landscapes, do you think that the synapses of the brain may reflect or mirror the paths we take through a familiar place, so that we always encounter the same thoughts at the same points of topography?
I like to ask myself, „Where is that emotion (or memory, or fantasy)“ when I feel it. „Where is it located?“ And I‘ve begun to feel split between a palpable self and a nimbus or thought bubble or haze that‘s located somewhere behind my eyes and above my nose but which is not material. I am vaguely coincident with my body as I move through the world but there‘s a split second of delay.
We‘re trained to think of our emotions as embodied, in the chest or in the shoulders, but what if it‘s not that specific? What if it‘s all just hovering? If your thoughts are not in your head, maybe they are somewhere outside waiting for you.
I think all of us have had the experience of moving through an environment in the wake of an emotional event, and feeling that resonate in the landscape, that everything actually looks and feels different as a result.
Well, I don‘t have that many romantic or nostalgic memories of places. But I once stayed in Venice for a month and I used to take a nap in the afternoons listening to Luigi Nono. The recordings I was listening to would go in and out of audibility, and I had the windows open, so these characteristic Venetian sounds would come in at the same time, which for me made up an idealized soundscape. Nono himself lived in Venice, so he composed to the same sounds I was hearing, and I was completing the mystery by returning to Venice with his music. Similarly, I recently took a book of 20th century German literature on a trip to Germany. And I think being in Berlin while reading Brecht for the first time made his poetry make more sense to me.
This then leads you into the field of ethnopoetics. What does it mean to mark an environment, or make a map of a place? Think of the medieval arts of memory, which encompassed not only maps of topography but also the music of the spheres.
That makes me think of the Austrian fin-de-siecle poetGeorg Trakl, who died very young – in the first year of WWI – of a drug overdose , and who in fact had been a drug addict since he was a child. He describes an entire synesthetic universe where the landscape itself makes music, and even colors ring or chime…
I am fascinated by imagining the world of the German or Austrian child at the turn of the 20th century. Take Freud‘s case of Little Hans, for example. What possibilities were there for a four year-old boy in the Vienna of 1900? Leaving Freud‘s formulations aside, what were the emotional possibilities? Little Hans had such an unfettered curiosity. He was encouraged so much by his father and by Freud. It seems quite idyllic, like the antidote to Michael Haneke‘s vision of childhood [in a film like The White Ribbon]. And you know, later in life Little Hans actually became a major opera director. He worked for the Met for over 30 years.
I try to imagine childhood in other historical times. Imagine a particularly dreary time to be born, so for example, what if you‘re a woman who‘s not from one of the upper classes born in rural Austria, 1805? What is your emotional environment? When does it dawn on you that it‘s a blighted time – if, in fact, it ever occurs to you? Like the photographs of August Sanders. You look into the faces and try to imagine what their sense of expectation and possibility was in relation to what the environment allowed.
I saw the film „Babies“ recently, which deals with this question of environments across cultures, and allows one to study the unmarked face of an infant, the degrees of boldness or shyness. I was very excited by the audacity of the African boy – this phallic narcissism – his extreme confidence of his place in the universe, in contrast to the more cosseted child in California, who seems to be somewhat at sea. In the African scene, there‘s so little of what we consider to be stimulating: this little boy is sitting with women who are not really dressed, and he is just playing in dirt. Meanwhile, in California, the American baby is in a bedroom full of toys, the kid seems confused, because it‘s just glutted with codes.
I‘m convinced the next great leap in technology is going to be a means of dynamically „forgetting“ data, because we‘re coming to the limits of what we can do with storage. Even in terms of the electricity to power all the data centers needed to „remember“ the information we generate, never mind figure out what to do with all of it.
I saw a billboard the other day for a company that said it could shred and/or store your documents, and it really struck me that there is this dual relationship between storage and shredding. I‘ve come to the point in my life where I‘ve starting thinking about the placement of an „archive.“ I imagine it as a very comforting space to be in, if you had a whole room in a house full of personal papers and books – even old books of mine that have gotten brown and look depressing now, because I remember when they were first published, and they seemed so permanent, like they‘d be around forever, but now they seem like trash – and I‘ve started to understand why publishers pulp books. It always seemed like a sacrilege before but now I can feel the distance even on my own bookshelf between what‘s worth keeping and what isn‘t.
A lot of what I tend to do is try to find internal and external environments that allow me to concentrate, because most environments I find myself in make it difficult. It‘s not just a matter of finding the right coffee shop. There is a need to forget a little, to clear space and pay attention. We have no night anymore, no moment of silence between yesterday and today. This perpetual awakeness without the interruption of sleep is just terrifying.
There is also a dimension to this that concerns an inattention to ceremony. I had noticed I was sliding into writing rather than preparing for writing as an act. Over the years I‘ve accumulated several manual typewriters, and lately I‘ve begun typing on colored construction paper when I use my pink typewriter. I choose the color and put the paper in, choosing to begin deliberately.
I used to think in terms of performance, of the higher stakes that an audience brings, but now I think it has more to do with issues of attentiveness, concentration and deliberation. Attentiveness doesn‘t depend on performing.
In our world of constant interruptions and fragmented attention, it‘s almost as though you have to choose your own form of autism to filter some of the stimulation.
[Austrian poet] Trakl is a good form of autism, because he has a limited vocabulary and a limited body of work. I was reading him while I was on jury duty recently – immersing myself in an entire body of work was my chosen autism.
I made another decision to limit the field and only read poetry this summer. I will only be taking my messages from people who have worked on themselves and their language – who have edited and isolated. There‘s no pandering though there‘s plenty of bad faith… Reading poetry means I‘ll always feel at home in my reading.
The In-Between Place of Contemporary Art and Politics
When I arrived in New York from New Orleans in 1978 to become an artist, the city was emerging from a very dark time. New York nearly went bankrupt. Manufacturing had mostly left the city, opening up vast amounts of cheap industrial real estate to artists. One of these areas became known as Soho, which was at that time a scary place after dark. New York was dirty, dangerous, and cheap. As Soho quickly became too expensive for some of us, we began to populate the East Village and Lower East Side. My classic East Village walkup on East 10th near Avenue A, with the bathtub in the kitchen, was $115 per month. Artists met cruising each other on the streets and we created our own scenes in bars, clubs, and storefronts. Performance Art was having its heyday, an indicator of just how much the work was about ideas and community rather than commerce. This lasted until the Wall Street and concurrent New York art-world booms of the late ‘80’s, a time when some argue the ‘Art Star’ was born and New York’s bohemia died. Even without the rose-colored glasses—I was mugged, robbed and attacked numerous times, and we all suffered the tragic and painful losses due to AIDS—it was still an exciting time to be an artist in New York. The downtown slate was blank.
These days it’s filled in. When the latest financial crisis hit in 2008, the initial spin was that the crisis would supply the New York art world with what it was sorely lacking—the space for new ideas. Comparisons were made to the 70’s and 80’s. There may be around a ten percent unemployment rate in the U.S. today but we New York artists still must juggle two or three jobs to maintain our work, studios, apartments, and wardrobes. Our artistic community is reduced to a place for networking where introductions are contacts for career advancement. And still our voices are barely heard above the commercial cacophony. New Yorkers are carrying on as though there were no crisis at all. I have frankly never seen this level of extravagant construction and consumption in the thirty years I’ve lived here.
Granted, this jaundiced view of New York is mine only on bad days. And I am loath to admit that it may have been for nostalgic reasons that I first wanted to go to Berlin. I had often heard that Berlin today is like New York was in the 70’s and early 80’s, sans the danger. And to some extent this is still true. Berlin’s slate may no longer be completely blank, but there is considerable space left. Berlin occupies the theoretical, philosophical, political and ideological space between east and west, which translates into potential, into the cultural space of in-between. Berlin is all about occupying unoccupied spaces—the abstract ones just mentioned, and the real empty cheap ones like those in New York in the ‘70’s, where new experiments happened on the site of those that failed. My real interest in Berlin is in understanding to what extent contemporary art participates in these experiments and/or to what extent it is a casualty.
As art movements go, the term ‘contemporary’ might refer to all and none. Unlike the modern project, whose mission it was to reinvent traditional forms and belief structures no longer viable in a post enlightenment, newly industrialized (western) world, contemporary art acts as a catch-all for a variety of ‘anything goes’ made in the ‘here and now’. Yet it is not simply a designation for all art made in the present. While anything from the most traditional to the most experimental of materials, forms, processes and projects can constitute contemporary art; it is its discursive and socio relational connection to the present that constitutes its contemporaneity and the extent to which it is taken seriously. At the same time, another characteristic or condition of our contemporary present is that it is dis-connected in so far as it is post-oppositional. Our present is not connected to what it opposes, at least not in the way east-west opposition delineated by communism defined modernism’s utopian present.
Now is a time of no clear sides, which along with technology has rendered our global culture borderless, nomadic, all over the place. Like the post-feminist woman, contemporary art must now be all things. So contemporary art is now. But it is also post: post-oppositional, post-Cold War, post Marxist, post-modern, post-academy, post-colonial, post-identity, post-feminist. What kind of now is contingent on being after? And what is its relationship to the future?
Nowhere is this borderless, post-oppositional now-ness embodied more than in Berlin, where the gap left by a lack of conflict is as palpable and visible as the yet undeveloped real estate that once housed modernism’s greatest symbol of division, the Berlin Wall. And it is the propensity of this space to be filled that is attracting all the action there. Berlin’s post-oppositional now in no way means that the action in Berlin excludes critical dissent, quite the contrary. In the short twenty years since the failure of communism when the whole of Berlin was united under the banner of democratic capitalism and its promises, Berliners have witnessed 9/11 and the biggest economic collapse since the Great Depression. While Germany’s economy rages on as the strongest in the European Union, Berlin itself continues to struggle economically and to experience repercussions from reunification’s radical shift in its society, a society largely subsidized by what many German citizens collectively dub the ‘Berlin Tax’. This contributes to political tensions within the country, but adds to the allure of Berlin’s marginality and its experimental moment—artists, poets, and philosophers on the dole—creating a space for the valid critique of the systems that
were meant to save them.
One meets artists and writers in Berlin today who really are “In Search of the[ir] Postcapitalist Self” and who look critically at our new ‘post-Fordist’ economy predicated on ‘immaterial labor’ where ideas are sold as opposed to material objects using factory labor. This is a marketing, design, branding, consulting, finance, information and communication service economy that is computer reliant. To fuel the post-Fordist economy, immaterial workers sell us ever-changing ideas about ourselves resulting in our endless pursuit of products that go out of fashion long before their usefulness, while much of the manufacturing or material labor for these products is outsourced to places like India and China. The process appears to benefit both sides of the global economic coin, but there are, at the very least, serious environmental, therefore economic, consequences.
Designing things with planned or built-in obsolescence uses an inordinate amount of natural resources and end up as mountains of toxic waste. Today’s economy is dependent on our dependency on ever-new things and our greed-over-entitlement impulse. We must desire more than we need and choose what we do need from a surplus of options all designed to match our ‘lifestyle’. Lifestyle itself is commoditized. This lopsided production strategy seems destined to falter.
Berlin’s history and present economic conditions make it naturally skeptical of this new order. No wonder that in such an environment of skepticism a once vigorous oppositional left has reemerged as an intrinsic community of ‘cultural producers’ with neo-Marxist tendencies. Members of cultural communities from other places and with similar tendencies go there to meet, creating global communities with overlapping purpose—a defining role for Berlin. In this sense, perhaps the defining role for contemporary art is as the solitary ambassador of social change. If we look at the big international biennials and exhibitions today, contemporary art is again political and in service of change; it’s now responsible for what the larger socialist utopian project failed to do. In the aftermath of so many failed or post systems, this is a heavy burden. Consequently Berlin, contemporary art, and culture itself, is under continual and intense scrutiny.
Take the term ‘Cultural Tourism’, for example. It’s pejorative use implies a worthy debate; just how much do these large exhibitions, like the recent Berlin Biennial, evolve out of a vital need to communicate the socially and politically engaged ideas of artists and curators, or the contradictory need to revitalize a city’s commercial viability? A biennial promises the cachet of membership in a select club of cities sophisticated enough to participate in the avant-garde conversation. This brings an exclusive stratum of tourism, and business, to a city like Berlin, now branded to be at the cultural fore. The ‘culturalization of the economy’ or the ‘economization of culture’ might produce the perfect immaterial commodity to be bought and sold by ambitious curators and urban planners, but it takes away art’s most emancipatory characteristic, its autonomy. What is interesting about this critique and others like it is that it comes from within the cultural community itself, who is in part culpable. If we as cultural producers are the sole heirs of the left’s mission for social change, then it makes sense we inherit the left’s unsparing self-criticism.
Living in Berlin for three months this past summer, during the time of the Biennial, I began to wonder if I was complicit in this cynical neo-liberal economics of culture. Was I contributing to Berlin’s gentrification by perhaps paying more for rent than Berlin artists could afford? It bothered me that I considered this (unsparing self-criticism), that I might be doing something wrong by living in Berlin. Of course I was a Cultural Tourist, and yes I was a member of an elite global audience that large international exhibitions catered to. Nevertheless, I concluded that I was in Berlin because I belonged there.
Site Berlin localizes and externalizes for the rest of the world our most monstrous and schizophrenic impulses, and, since the fall of the wall, our chance for redemption. We are all implicated and we are all responsible in some way for what comes next, and for not forgetting what came before. In this way, we are all citizens of Berlin, of the gap. That this international gathering place is affordable compared to other European cities contributes to its rich diversity. Its alternative scenes are possible because artists, poets, philosophers, curators, and other cultural workers, who are more often than not well educated and broke, populate it from far and wide. This is why I spent the summer in Berlin, and why I will return.
BIO: ARTIST BRADLEY WESTER,
Bradley Wester is a New York visual artist working in a hybrid medium that combines painting, sculpture, digital imaging and installation. For the past ten years Wester has worked on a project where he lives and works in three disparate but geographically symmetrical cultures, ultimately resulting in three connected bodies of work. He has exhibited in numerous solo and group exhibitions across the U.S. and in Europe including most recently at Margalef & Gipponi Gallery in Antwerp Belgium. Awards include: Specialist Fulbright Fellowship to Kyoto Japan, two MacDowell Fellowships, Pollock-Krasner Grantee, and twice published in New American Paintings. Wester’s Visiting Artist credits include: CalArts in Los Angeles, Sint Lucas Antwerpen Belgium, Kyoto University of Art & Design, The American Academy in Rome, and a recent three-year Visiting Artist full-time faculty position at Ringling College of Art & Design in Sarasota FL. Wester has also designed theatre sets for Off-Broadway, and in Los Angeles for writer/director Eve Ensler, producers Mike Nichols, Fox Television, The Promenade Theatre-NY, LaMama-NY, Music Theatre Group-NY, and The Court Theatre-LA. His work was seen in a recent Adam Sandler film. He performed in a Robert Wilson production at New York’s Lincoln Center, and created his own performance/theatre works at venues such as The Kitchen Center and PS1 in New York.
In the recent documentary A Crude Awakening, it is said that the United States of America was once “the Saudi Arabia of the world” when it came to oil production: in other words, much of the world once purchased its oil from the States. Now those vast resources have been depleted. Many other places around the world have also peaked. In Baku, Azerbaijan, miles of machine carcasses clutter the landscape – oil from here once powered the Allies (especially the Russians) towards defeating Germany in World War Two, and now the well is dry. Less than sixty years ago, the British found oil in the North Sea. According to Colin Campbell, an oil geologist and consultant to the world’s top oil companies, Britain will become a net importer of oil within the year, and its oil will be used up by 2020.
It’s easy to roll your eyes and ignore this trend. With all the noise being generated around ‚the end of oil‘, perhaps it is difficult to listen deeply to what‘s being said. The views sound extreme to some. The end of oil feels like a conspiracy theory. Even so, everyone admits that our current way of life is based on oil. We require oil to create all our plastics, fertilizers, tires, and computers; oil is also the primary energy behind our transportation. And oil is not a renewable resource.
Does running out of oil mean disaster? Is the end of oil also the end of civilization? Can we change and find new ways of thinking about energy? Author and environmentalist Derrick Jensen doesn’t think we can, at least not quickly. He believes the current culture is irremediable, and that it will be (and must be) destroyed. According to Jensen, we have treated our earth the same way a rapist treats his victim. And we have to deal with those who have hurt our world the same way we would deal with a man who has committed a particular act of violence.
Pulse: How do you define violence?
Derrick Jensen: The definition of violence that I like the most is ‘any act that causes harm to another’ and the reason I like that definition is because it demystifies the word and shows it to be what it is, which is a part of everyday life. Every time I defecate I kill zillions of bacteria. When I eat, it doesn’t matter whether I’m eating a carrot or a piece of chicken, I’m still doing violence to another.
Are you saying violence is natural?
On that level, violence is natural. It’s inevitable. We all feed each other. Eventually I’m going to feed the worms and the soil. It’s a big, beautiful circle. So the question becomes: what sort of violence do you find acceptable or unacceptable? Most of us under most circumstances see doing violence to a carrot as morally acceptable. And I think most of us under most circumstances see doing violence to a human being as not morally acceptable. And yet, even then, there’s a lot that doesn’t get counted as violence. An example I often give is: What do the movies Doctor Zhivago, Straw Dogs, On the Waterfront – and I could name so many others – all have in common?
Scenes of rape? I’ve heard you say that before.
That’s exactly it. Except it’s even worse. Each of those films has a rape scene where by the end of the scene, the woman is putting her arms around the man.
Rape that supposedly becomes something intimate?
Right. A pornographic rape fantasy. So my point is, from the perspective of those screenwriters and actors, that kind of violence is clearly acceptable because they’re turning it into an intimate act. In that same sense, judging by their actions, clearly there are also members of this culture who perceive the violence of destroying the planet as acceptable.
Do you think members of culture consciously accept these things, or is it something else?
There’s a great line by Combs which says “Unquestioned assumptions are the real authorities of any culture.” A Canadian lumberman once said “When I look at trees, I see dollar bills.” Another explorer of the American northwest, upon seeing the great waterfalls there, said “I determined that I would possess them.” I say in The Culture of Make Believe that any hatred felt long enough no longer feels like hatred, it feels like economics or philosophy or something else. There are things we don’t question, and so we think they are true.
Nietzsche said that there is nothing more resistant to correction than self-deception. Still, isn‘t there something to be said for a radical kind of honesty, for seeking internal clarity? Can such work lead to an awareness that affects the way one sees?
I think that’s really important; I just don’t think everyone is capable of it. I don’t think if you put BP former CEO Tony Hayward on the coast, he’d get all jazzed about the beauty of it. I think he’d see the money to be made. When the Europeans arrived in North America, they saw what the indigenous people called home and worshipped, and saw it as a savage wilderness that needed to be tamed. It’s a matter of how you perceive.
Are you saying there are simply different kinds of people? The people who want to destroy the environment, and those who see the beauty of it and care for it?
I don’t know. In my different books, I’ve explored different answers to that question. In A Language Older Than Words, I talk about how most members of this culture are suffering from what Judith Herman called ‘complex post-traumatic stress disorder’: They’ve been so traumatized that they’re no longer capable of being in a relationship or conceptualizing what a relationship means. In the The Culture of Make Believe, I wrote about how this culture systematically rewards competition rather than cooperation, and how such a system leads to sociological atrocities. Then in Endgame I wrote about how if your culture is based on the importation of resources then it’s going to lead inevitably to atrocities. I’ve got a book coming out this spring where I explore an idea that Jack Forbes (an American Indian) raises in his work: He believes this problem is a spiritual illness with a physical vector. He talks about members of the dominant culture having a spiritual illness that causes them to become cannibals; they have to consume the souls of others in order to survive. The members of dominant culture are zombies, and they don’t see that the dominant culture is killing the planet. Very sober people are writing very sober articles about this, and still the response is to continue promoting capitalism. I’ve written fifteen books about this and I still can’t wrap my mind around it.
Does that mean you are resigned to this destruction? Do you believe it is impossible to change people’s minds?
Realizing we can’t change the minds of those who are destroying the planet doesn’t mean we are resigned to what they do. What that means is that we are going to use different tactics.
And what would be the goal of those tactics?
To stop those who are destroying the planet, using any means necessary. How do you stop Ted Bundy? How do you stop a rabid dog? How do you stop a sociopath? You don’t stop them by appealing to them. Lundy Bancroft wrote about the only way to stop an abuser is to give them no other choice. You can’t appeal to their best interests because the abusers are gaining tangible benefits from their abuse. You can’t change a capitalist because they’re benefiting from the system; they’re getting hot showers and gold-plated toilets. You stop them by stopping them, and that means going to any means necessary, because the world is at stake.
To do this, do you think civilization has to end, that it has to be brought down, that it will end through catastrophe?
Well it’s not that I think this. I mean, that’s like saying that I think if you jump off a cliff, you’re going to fall to the ground. Our modern way of life is by definition unsustainable. It’s based on oil, and oil will run out. Anybody who thinks we can go on as we are is engaging in magical thinking. (go read Richard Heinberg’s book The Party’s Over if you want an in-depth explanation of this). So to directly answer your question, yes, it will crash.
What comes afterwards then? Humans are curious. Curiosity leads to things like innovation and infrastructure and what we now call ‘civilization’, the civilization you say must fall.
Are you saying that the Tolowa, the indigenous people who lived on the land here in California where I live now, weren’t curious?
Then how were they able to live here for 12,500 years without doing what the dominant culture today has done?
I don’t know. That’s what I’m trying to understand. I can only learn another option if I can understand that option.
My point is that it is extremely dangerous and racist to believe that curiosity leads to technological innovation of the sort that this culture now has because that implies that people like the Tolowa or the Dakota were too stupid to invent backhoes.
I don’t think that follows. I am trying to get at the fact that if civilization falls, that doesn’t necessarily mean that all the people who created that civilization, or that all the ideas that have come out of that civilization, are suddenly gone. They’re still here. We’ll still here. I’m just wondering how we learn another way. How do we not repeat what we’ve done?
We can’t repeat it. There will never be another oil age because the reserves of oil will be gone. This is a one time blow out. Same thing happened with bronze: There will never be another bronze age. There will never be another iron age. There will never be another age of tall ships because they’ve cut down all the old growth forests that were necessary to build them. There were once runs of salmon twelve miles long that lasted for 28 days. Those are gone. The point is: the only way you can build up these modern cultures is by being extremely wasteful and destroying your landbase. The Fertile Crescent is no longer fertile. The Sahara Desert was once the bread basket of Rome. We’ve been destroying the landbase as we’ve created this modern culture. We’re using it up.
If you want to know what happens when a patriarchal culture collapses, look at the Democratic Republic of Congo (where women are being brutally raped in large numbers). As civilizations collapse, women are going to bear the brunt of this and it’s no use pretending that won’t be the case. What we need to do is to prepare for that crash. I love the line by Andrea Dworkin: “My prayer for women of the twenty-first century is harden your hearts and learn to kill.” What that means to me is that women need to learn self-defense and they need to learn it now. The time to learn self-defense is not when someone is breaking down your door.
Peggy Reeves Sanday did a cross-cultural study of rape asking why some cultures are high rape and why some are low rape. A lot of the markers she found are things you’d expect: a higher militarized culture is probably going to be higher rape, for example; a culture that treats children better is probably going to be lower rape, and so on. But there was one marker that was very interesting and a little bit unexpected, which is that if the culture has a history of ecological dislocation in its previous four or five hundred years, that could be a marker for high rape. What that says to me is that when a culture is stressed, men often take it out on women through rape and other forms of violence. Another thing that says to me – and this has to do with civilization coming down – is that it takes four or five hundred years for a culture to recover from trauma, so ten to fifteen generations. When people ask will there ever be sustainable cultures again? I would say it would take a good four or five hundred years for such cultures to develop locally once the dominant culture is gone.
So to get back to your original question, yes, when civilization crashes, the people who were assholes before are still going to be assholes afterwards, but those people will no longer have the power to control and kill the entire planet.
Won’t people still try to create order? To create civilization? Can freedom and order exist together, in this sense?
I don’t think that having freedom implies a lack of order. Part of the problem with living in this incredibly oppressive culture, is that because this hierarchy is oppressive we assume that all hierarchy is oppressive, and that’s not the case. It’s ok to have hierarchies that are based on experience, and they don’t imply a lack of freedom. If you go to a new place, you go to Costa Rica, and you want to go walking, and you know someone who has lived there their whole life and knows all the walking trails and can tell you what is or is not a good hike, what is or is not dangerous, then you still have the freedom to take the route they say is uninteresting or dangerous, but that doesn’t alter the fact that their experience makes them a leader in that specific and fluid sense. Order or hierarchy does not necessarily imply domination.
When it’s on an intimate basis, someone you trust, that’s one thing. But when it comes to large groups of people, to society and politics for example, how do we deal with it? How did indigenous people deal with it?
That’s a great point, because it’s not something that just happens magically. The Indians of the Columbia River had very specific hard-headed treaties that they would carry out with each other having to do with who could take how many salmon, to make sure that the salmon would survive, and that they could all eat. And if one group took too many salmon, the other group would either complain or if that didn’t work they would raid them. I was talking to a Dakota friend of mine about what the Dakota would do if someone took too many buffalo. That would burn their teepee, destroy their weapons. There would be consequences.
And did everyone agree on that somehow? Was it democratic? Or were there a few powerful people who enforced it?
Different cultures would come up with different methods. Anyone in any culture can sometimes end up hating others in that same species or culture, and there are different ways of dealing with that. There are rituals where people would enter trance states through dancing and that would bring people in the community back together. The Inuit, who would be stuck together inside all winter, had some sex games they would play to break up the monotony and to help people get along. Different peoples would have different means, to use a phrase that has been co-opted by the US government, of finding ‘checks and balances’. They would also often have means of being sure wealth was transferred from rich to poor because that would make everybody in the community secure. They would have gift exchanges, or other means for making sure power remained fluid.
In small groups, this works. It becomes more difficult with larger groups.
You’re right, they are small. I’ve seen sociological studies that suggest that it’s not really possible to have a functioning democracy with groups larger than 120 or 140 people.
It’s almost like the larger the group, the less personal it is and the less accountability there can be.
Absolutely. There’s no face-to-face interaction. There’s no community. You don’t need a police force when there’s a small group because if somebody does something horrible, then everybody goes ‘what the hell did you do that for, you jerk’ It becomes much more obvious that any one person’s act of theft or violence or stealing fish or whatever hurts the whole; it becomes much more obvious that it is not in anyone’s self-interest to allow such things to occur.
I see. So, in large social groups – nations or businesses, for example – it becomes very difficult for individuals to make the connections between cause and effect. Accountability becomes more ambiguous. Still, it seems self-deceptive to imagine that we can go backwards and live wholly as indigenous people have. But we can learn that there is something valuable in cultivating a “small group” way of thinking, can‘t we? Perhaps there is a way to have smaller groups within the larger whole, if that makes sense.
People have to learn that. And it will take a lot of time. But people have to learn that, or they won’t survive. It’s not going to happen in two years, it’s not going to happen in two generations. It’s going to take a lot of time to excrete all this terrible trauma. It’s going to take time for us to deal with all this violence we’ve generated.
In the beginning of this discussion, you defined violence as ‘any act that does harm to another’. In supporting that definition, it could seem you are generalizing. But in fact, aren’t you calling for people to look deeper? To be able to cope with more nuance?
Yes, exactly. I was being interviewed by a pacifist a few years ago and I said something like I told you at first, that we can mostly all agree that it is acceptable to do violence against a carrot but that it is not acceptable to do violence against a human being. And his response was ‘so are you saying that there’s no difference between committing an act of violence against a carrot and committing an act of violence against a human being?’ and I was like ‘did you even fucking listen to what I just said?’
But I can understand why he said that. Many cultures teach one to think like that, to NOT make space for nuance. There are supposed to be all-inclusive objective rules that apply to everything. We think it’s a contradiction if we say that violence is okay in one case and not okay in another.
I think that’s absolutely right. And it’s part of the problem with literacy, because as soon as something is written down, then it’s considered wholly true in all cases. Rarely is any statement wholly applicable in all cases.
Maybe our next real evolutionary leap is one of being able to see more clearly, which means being able to handle paradox and nuance in our daily life. In that sense, William Blake talks about paradise being Now, already here but something we haven’t yet learned to see. Would you agree with that idea?
This answer’s not going to surprise you, but I think it depends. I think the whole ‘live in the present’ thing is really important sometimes, but sometimes it really pisses me off. I mean, how do you live in the Now if in your now you are being sexually assaulted? I don’t think that’s paradise. And I don’t think that pigs living on factory farms are living in heaven. I think that’s hell. I think the people in Guantanamo are in hell. I think right now I’m living in heaven. I’m having a nice phone conversation, looking at beautiful trees, I have a great dog here with me… So I think it’s circumstantial. When I’m standing in line at the airport to go through security, I don’t think that’s heaven. People have asked me over the years, do you meditate? And I always think: I live in a forest, I don’t have to meditate.
Every moment can be a meditation, in that sense.
Yes, exactly. But if I were in a traffic jam, we’d have a different discussion. I was actually stuck in a traffic jam a couple of weeks ago in Los Angeles, late to get to the airport, and I was really tense. I could have used meditation or someone to whisper in my ear –
This too shall pass…. But I guess when Blake wrote about paradise, he was using the word in a wider sense: we on the planet have paradise if we choose to see it and if we DO all see it, the stressful traffic jam experience would probably not exist as such–
People wouldn’t allow paradise to be paved over. The system would change completely.
Well, if that’s what Blake was saying, I totally agree.
interview by phone, 2011.
Pulse: You were born in Iran and lived in Trinidad and England as a child. Today, you are a presence in the creative world of the United States, especially in California where you live for the majority of your time. How has all of this movement affected your work and your sense of self?
Wolpe: When I was a teenager, my mother used to say: when you are out of the house, your behavior, dress, manner of speaking and everything else you do reflect on your family. I took this to mean that if I did not conform, I could single-handedly ruin my family’s reputation. Therefore from a very young age, the idea of not belonging was very attractive to me. It stemmed from wanting to rebel, but also take charge of my own destiny.
However, not until I was sent to Trinidad and later to boarding school in England did I truly understand that belonging is not always a matter of choice. “Otherness” could be imposed because you don’t have the ‘right’ skin color, eyes, or don’t pray to this god or that deity. In Trinidad, I physically stood out. In England, at the boarding school I attended, I was the girl with the weird accent, or the one with wild brown curly hair who came from a place where everyone has an oil well in their backyard. These were the days of the Shah, and most people didn’t really know exactly where Iran was located.
As I gradually came to understand the complexities of belonging, I took comfort and pleasure in my “otherness.” I learned the art of fluidity. It allows me to be connected with different languages, people, neighborhoods and cultures, while maintaining my sense of “otherness”, which is a key ingredient in the force that defines my own creative life. I’ve found a sense of liberation in standing on the outside because I can choose to be who I want to be; it’s helped me to look inward, and consequently I’ve found that the inward journey is much more real and meaningful than anything else.
Have people in the United States become more aware of Iran in the years since you moved there? If so, how has literature played a role in that change?
In 1979, fifty-two American citizens were held hostage in Iran for 444 days. That’s when Iran became visible to many here in the United States. Before then, most people I met could not even locate Iran on the map, and if they could, they didn’t know what language we spoke, let alone anything about our culture, history or literature.
Unfortunately, because of the hostage crisis, the information people at the time got from the media about Iran was not flattering. However, over the past twenty years, Iranians living in diaspora – particularly those like myself who saddle both cultures and languages – have been not only writing, but also translating literature from Iran, giving the American public the opportunity to look at our country through a different lens.
Literature is a bridge that can span the chasm between cultures and countries. I edited the 2010 Iran issue of the Atlanta Review and it immediately became the journal’s bestselling edition. That indicates to me that people are interested in Iran itself beyond the picture presented by the current regime, and trust the poets to give them an accurate view of that.
You’re known for your writing and art, but also for translating the poetry of Forugh Farrokhzad from Persian to English. Translators must work intimately with languages, and think deeply about their relation to place. Do you feel “at home” in any one language? Does your sense of a place change depending on which language you use to describe it?
I am intimately connected with the music of my native language. It affects the music of my own poetry in English. In fact, in trying to learn another language, I first try to hear its music. Recently I gave a reading with the Chinese poet, Yang Lian at the Semana Poetica festival in United States. Later, over a drink, he explained to me the hidden music behind every Chinese character, and how that music changes the meaning of words. That is something I intuitively understand and connect with.
Perhaps that’s why I find translating poetry pleasurable. It isn’t just about conveying meaning, rather the challenge is the transference of the music of one language to another.
Much of Forugh Farrokhzad’s poetry centers on very feminine themes. Are these same feminine themes central to your own life and work? Is this part of what drew you to Farrokhzad’s work?
I am a woman and obviously I am very concerned about human rights violations against women — not just in Iran, but anywhere in the world, including such things as domestic violence here in the United States. It is my belief that women must learn to repudiate the unjust standards they are taught by the societies they live in, and empower themselves with a sense of self – demanding justice and equality of rights – and envision for themselves and their daughters a better life than the one imposed on them by male-dominated societies. More often than not, our mothers themselves are victims of oppression which they often demurely accept and in turn impose on their own daughters, while treating their sons as betters, teaching them a sense of entitlement withheld from girls. We have to break that cycle. I come from an educated class of professional women and even among these there are those who seem to believe that there are a limited number of good professional or artistic positions to be had by women in our society. They fight over these “positions”, adopting masculine sensibilities to survive. I don’t think there’s much of a question that we still live in a world dominated and too often defined by men, however, I believe that women need to break out of this competitive mode, and, in particular, be supportive of one another. If we are to truly achieve equality and change the unjust standards imposed on us, women must unite and achieve it collectively.
As to my interest in Forugh Farrokhzad… it has always been on two levels: as a ground-breaking, gifted modern poet, and as a courageous woman who did not allow the taunting of an unforgiving, morally rigid culture stop her from what she felt she needed to do to tear down the barriers of taboo and inequality. She is arguably the first women in the modern history of Iran to write poems purely from the perspective of a woman – sexually, mentally and emotionally. In her poem “Sin” she writes about sleeping with a man to whom she is not married, drinking wine, and finding both acts quite pleasurable. The question isn’t whether she is morally right or wrong. The core issue is that she wrote at a time when she was not free to express herself the way men had been doing for centuries: she was called a whore and her poetry was perceived as scandalous.
However, Farrokhzad was dedicated to her art, and her sense of “otherness” in her own society did not deter her from freely expressing herself as a woman. She was a brilliant poet, and very much a pioneer in the modernist poetry movement. She died at the age of thirty-two in a tragic car accident. By the time of her death, she was one of the most well-known and beloved poets in Iran. Today, she is an icon whose grave is always adorned with flowers.
I spent two years translating forty-one of her poems doing my best as a poet to recreate the music of her work in English without compromising the meaning. To me, translating poetry is a grave responsibility. I didn’t want her poems to end up as corpses in translation, rather I hoped to present living, breathing poems in English, as they are in Persian. Farrokhzad deserves to be read and appreciated internationally.
Your work is often very intimate and sensual, as is the poetry of Forugh Farrokhzad. Do you imagine this sensuality as a place that one must discover? Is it part of our “natural state”, something we can always access if we search?
When I write, I connect to a bottomless well within myself– so deep that at some point I transcend myself. By that, I mean we are ultimately connected to one another and to an invisible world, accessible through a tireless, incessant searching that begins by going inward and eventually leads to what is no longer ourselves, but a collective self. Therefore, in my opinion, our “natural state” is more complex than we realize. It hides nothing. It is accessible. But, at the same time, it needs to be reached for, and that reaching is a journey that can take one a life time.
Farrokhzad was speaking of natural feelings and inspirations, and yet she was considered a dissident in her society and time by some. An artist’s inner search at times requires questioning basic systems or traditions that govern their lives. Is there a way in which this inner search is dangerous? Can one go too far with such things?
“Going too far” always begs the question: For whom?
Berthold Brecht in his poem To Posterity writes:
Ah, what an age it is
when to speak of trees is almost a crime.
Everything is relative. I can’t say what exactly going “too far” is. Poets and artists dig deep within themselves, travel that endless inner landscape towards interconnectedness and beyond. And they chronicle their journey. And when religious or governmental authorities don’t like a particular chronicle, they move to censor or suppress it which in the end has the opposite effect of giving it prominence and credence.
In a sense, to connect with nature, and with our natural selves and each other, is a matter of being authentic. How do you see this idea of being true to oneself and one’s community, especially when it comes to finding ways to better our lives or make a positive change in our world?
The currency of the poet is truth. And truth is highly subjective. It manifests itself in different forms and textures. The function of the poet, in my opinion, is offering one or more perspectives to view the same “truth”. A good poet does that in an authentic, skillful way that goes right to the heart. This is the poet’s gift to humanity. Does that contribute to bettering the world? Absolutely.
His first two works, Nowhere Man (2004) and The Question of Bruno (2001), were well-received. The Lazarus Project (2008) and James Woods’ admiring review of it in The New Yorker established Hemon’s reputation, significantly raising his literary profile in the United States. A native of Sarajevo, Aleksandar Hemon came to English relatively late in life. Stranded in the United States by the outbreak of hostilities in the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, Hemon began to write in English within a few years of his arrival. Less than a decade later he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship (2003) and a MacCarthur “Genius Grant” (2004). I met Hemon some months ago in New York, when he was in town promoting the collection he recently edited, Best European Fiction 2010, for Dalkey Archive Press. Over syrup-drenched French toast and coffee in a mid-town hotel restaurant, Hemon and I had a free-ranging conversation about some of the key themes of his work, and about his frustration with critics who assume every fictional character is an autobiographical reference. We also paused a moment to enjoy a little punk rock. What follows is a reflection on the theme to which our conversation kept returning: displacement.
Our conversation begins with a minor dispute. Hemon corrects me when I suggest that his writing is preoccupied with exile. Not exile, he says, but “displacement” is the proper word to describe the main characters of his novels, Joseph Pronek in Nowhere Man and Vladimir Brik in The Lazarus Project, characters far from their former homes in Yugoslavia who must confront the inevitable identity issues that arise as they forge new lives in the United States. Exile, Hemon says, implies a noble separation from the plebes and more suitably describes modernists like James Joyce, or one of Joyce’s main inspirations, the mythical figure of Ulysses. A quick glance at the Oxford English dictionary suggests that Hemon—the non-native English speaker!—is perhaps correct. Exile is “the state of being banned from one’s native country” or “a person who lives away from their native country, either by choice or compulsion.” The definition for “displacement,” by contrast, is more neutral, broader, and, I must concede, more accurately describes the rootless, unanchored state of many of Hemon’s characters. It is a word that perhaps also better describes the state of our contemporary world. Displacement, according to Oxford, is:
1. the moving of something from its place of origin
Where is the movie theater? When Hemon returned to Bosnia for the first time after the war he searched in vain for the theater and movie posters that had been such well-known parts of his youth and Sarajevo’s topography. He had a sense of the uncanny as he walked the streets of his hometown. Everything was eerily familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. It was the late 1990s and a great deal had transpired since Hemon’s school and university years in Sarajevo, and his young adulthood in the United States. Hemon had left home in 1992 to participate in a cultural exchange program in Chicago. It was supposed to be an extended, but temporary, stay. A few months after his arrival war broke out in the former Yugoslavia. Hemon decided to remain in the U.S. When the war finally ended, he returned for a visit in 1997. It was not the same place he had left. Sniper bullets, bombing, and the accompanying fires, had dramatically altered the Sarajevo of his youth. With so many pieces of the urban environment gone, Hemon’s “place of origin” had ceased to exist.
2. the enforced departure of people from their home, typically because of war or persecution
Hemon’s characters, like Hemon himself, are part of the millions who have been displaced by one of the great hallmarks of the twentieth century: war. The end phases of the three great wars of the twentieth century, the First and Second World Wars, and the Cold War have all been marked by mass migration. At the close of World War I, hundreds of thousands of Russians, Greeks, Poles, Armenians and Germans were either forced from their homes or fled in fear of revolution or retaliatory violence. Adding to this spontaneous movement was the population transfers between Greece and Turkey, who exchanged their respective minority populations. The numbers involved are staggering. According to historian Mark Mazower, 1.2 million Greeks and half a million Turks had to leave their places of origin and “return” to their “national homes.” Even more dramatically, the end of World War II saw the movement of millions of refugees in the closing phase of the war: Hundreds of thousands of Germans, freed prisoners of war, Jews and other former concentration camp inmates, accused collaborators, and Greeks, Poles, Czechs, and Yugoslavs who had been transferred by the Nazis to work in Nazi-occupied factories and were now trying to get back home. Mazower estimates that between 1938 and 1945 there were over forty-six million people on the move in East Central Europe alone. After the war over 11 million people were officially classified as Displaced Persons, or DP. The last years of the Cold War and the first years of the twentieth century have likewise seen a remarkable increase in the number of migrants. According to the United Nations, quoted in a recent article in The New York Times, the number of migrants worldwide has increased by 37 percent in the past two decades. Most of these migrants are moving to more industrialized parts of the globe. In the past two decades the number of migrants in North America has increased 80 percent, in Europe 41 percent. If you add tourists and travelers to this number, a group known as “temporary migrants”, then the planet appears to be a mass of moving bodies. (According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization, there were 806 .8 million tourist arrivals worldwide in 2005.) Unlike the displacement created by World Wars I and II, today’s permanent and temporary migrants are not only fleeing war and persecution, they are also fleeing the economic and psychic pains of modernization in search of jobs or a better way of life.
3. the amount by which a thing is moved from its normal position
When placed in water, an object, like a boat, forces a portion of the water to move from its “normal position,” to another place amidst the seemingly endless sea. War and modernization cut a similar path, plowing their way through the sea of human and animal life, destroying the natural and manmade habitats that stand in the way of their ever-receding destinations. Ruthless and dispassionate, bombs and wrecking cranes displace people, mountains, flora and fauna with reckless abandon. Military and modernization campaigns create a class of peoples known as the “displaced,” who lodged from their “normal position,” must either find a new home, or perish in the rubble. It is possible to measure how much water is displaced by a submerged, or partially submerged, object. But how does one measure the amount by which a displaced person is moved from her or his “normal position” when the damages of war and the drive to modernize force them from their natural habitats? Geographic distance reveals very little about the perceived distance between one’s place of birth and one’s new home. To get to zero, to establish a baseline of stability, a foundation solid enough to be worthy of the label “home,” requires a great deal of effort and, as the case may be, a great deal of self-reinvention. In the new setting, or environment, the narratives of self that formerly made sense no longer apply. Through characters like Pronek and Brik, and the fascinating Szmura in the short story, “Szmura’s Room” in Love and Obstacles, Hemon’s fiction explores this issue of the pains and pleasures of attempting to reinvent oneself. Even as Pronek wanders the streets of Chicago imagining himself inhabiting different roles in increasingly fantastic scenarios, he keeps bumping into the headline, “Bombs in Grozny,” implicitly reminding him that he is not only far from home but that home is no longer a stable, physical space to which he can return. Identity, Hemon tells me, is hard to reinvent. It’s a confusing process to try and reassemble yourself. Take Pronek again. In his new home, Pronek keeps changing his identity, trying on numerous hats— Greenpeace canvasser, English as a Second Language instructor, private investigator. But such willed self-invention begins to take a psychic toll on Pronek until finally erupting in a sensationally physical and violent display of his pent up frustration. (I am not Pronek, Hemon reassured me, contrary to what some reviewers have suggested. Pronek, he added, is an exploration of possibilities.)
4. psychoanalysis: the unconscious transfer of an intense emotion from its original object to another one
One possible response to the destruction of home is to transfer one’s attachment to another object and to latch onto new, seemingly stable, narratives: to nationalism or religion. In the face of the crumbling foundation of the Yugoslav state some Yugoslavs turned to their ethnic community and to the dream of finally establishing a homogenized nation-state. On the occasion of the arrest of Radovan Karadzic— the former president of the Serbian Democratic Party, a hard-line nationalist organization, wanted for inciting Bosnian Serbs to murder thousands of Bosnian Muslims— Hemon penned an op-ed piece for the New York Times. Karadzic, Hemon writes was “a prosaic nobody…a mediocre psychiatrist, a minor poet and a petty embezzler before the war” who sought greatness by linking himself to the Serbian nationalist movement. Wellacquainted with Serbian epic poetry, Karadzic cast himself in the role of “the hero in an epic poem that would be sung by a distant future generation.” If the account of a Belgrade newspaper is to be believed, even while in hiding, Karadzic couldn’t resist publicly reciting one such poem in which “he himself featured as the main hero, performing epic feats of extermination.” Karadzic is only one man, albeit a particularly vile specimen, but there have also been many others who, unable to find their footing in the ordinary world of anonymity, have transferred their ego onto the nation, attaching themselves to a glorious national destiny. After all, Hemon notes, a stable physical environment also provides a stable psychological environment. If you grow up in a stable society, without rupture, and with a sense of continuity in terms of infrastructure, you have a physical sense that the walls won’t crumble. But something happens when what was once a safe street is no longer a safe street, no longer safe because there might be snipers. In the face of such instability some become war criminals. Why? I ask Hemon. Why, do some people turn to violence and nationalism? Whereas others do not? Is it random? Well, Hemon speculates, part of it can be explained by the fact that once you cross the line you keep going that way. In the face of a constant, daily sense of displacement, when the stable network of people is torn asunder, it’s hard to turn back. One of his long time friends surprised him with his volte face turn to Serbian nationalism: This is partly, Hemon reflects, because in times of catastrophe what seems a stable identity can fall apart. In the context of a literal, physical destruction— and the values linked to home—ethics may also become fluid. In other words, lacking the continuity of the physical space that constituted home, all continuities are torn asunder. In the case of Hemon’s childhood friend, the state of fragility that accompanied the disintegration of the known environment pushed him to turn to the nationalist project of creating a unified Serbian nation-state. His friend, Hemon says, ultimately couldn’t distinguish his own narrative from the national one.
But what, I wonder aloud, prevented Hemon from falling apart or from turning to nationalism? It’s a constant negotiation, Hemon explains, between the state and other narratives. Still, I press him, how did you land on your feet, avoid schizophrenia? I landed on English, he answers. In Europe the native tongue is axiomatic. English didn’t displace Bosnian Serbo-Croation. It did provide me with a sort of anchor, though.
All Roads Lead Home?
Hemon’s prose offers an appealing mixture of serious introspection interspersed with moments of banal absurdity. Rambling, alcoholic priests, intensively sincere but naïve young environmental activists, violent poets, and megalomaniacal macho outsiders, his insecure but sympathetic antiheroes, blunder and stumble their way through America, inspiring self-reflection. Part of the drive to read fiction is to overcome a sense of isolation, to discover connections with people and places with whom we otherwise would never come into contact. When I read Hemon in particular, I am always tempted to weave my own story into his novels and short stories, finding points of identification with his fictional creations. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that during our conversation, when Hemon begins describing his return home to Sarajevo, my thoughts immediately turn to my own return home after a period of extended absence. Unlike Hemon, I reflect, when I returned home to Southern California for a visit in the late 1990s, I wasn’t looking for the movie theater. The Mann Six Theaters, though it had grown to the Mann Ten, was still there. (It has since closed.) But where, I wanted to know, had the kale and cornfields gone? The rows of Tapaia Brothers corn and the sickly sweet, slightly putrid stench of kale were endemic to my memories of my desert home in the far reaches of Los Angeles County. When I left for the first time in 1992 it was to study in Hawaii. I never lived there again, instead moving ever further away to such places as Provo (Utah), Athens (Georgia), New York, Seoul, Seattle, Prague, and Berlin. During my studies and travels abroad my hometown underwent an intensive campaign of urbanization and gentrification. Local civic authorities courted developers and wealthy white professionals, resulting in the decimation of nearly all of the elements that made home familiar. In the place of the corn and kale fields, a large, groomed park and baseball diamond now stood, with the aspirational name of “Central Park.” Newly planted trees and strip malls lined the former dust-and-tumble-weed main road, Bouquet Canyon Road. Scores of SUVs clogged Bouquet’s once quiet two-lanes, which now led not only to the freeway entrance but to a recently opened, and very successful, mall with an indoor carousel over which hung a mural of orange groves populated by smiling white and brown faces, wearing beatific expressions of joy to match their Sunday best.
In my case, the destruction of the physical environment that constituted home and its swift replacement with new structures, made my attempt at self-reinvention possible, or even conceivable. The absence of continuity is part of what made my self-reinvention possible. Other ruptures also severed my ties to home and my childhood self. My mother’s untimely death when I was on the cusp of puberty and my entire family’s eventual abandonment of the religion of my childhood—Mormonism— for reasons intellectual and personal, all found their metaphoric extension in the sudden and dramatic transformation of my hometown. The destruction of the known, however, pushed me to explore new narratives and to reconstruct the ones of my past. In other words, with the environment that created me torn asunder by bulldozers and death, I was in a sense freed up to reconstruct my personal narrative, my links to larger ones, and to indulge the myth that I could ex nihilo create and follow my own path. Even though I was born in California, I abandoned my hometown, my Mormon roots, and my national identity, and sought to reestablish myself in connection with a cosmopolitan elite, the wandering bourgeoisie, in search of experience and cultural capital. I studied and scrubbed toilets in Hawaii, cleaned houses and sold books in Seattle, taught English in Asia, backpacked in Europe, volunteered in France and Italy, studied Czech and babysat in Prague, learned German, conducted research, and gave birth in Berlin… The wheel of self-reinvention, and the drive to move, went on and on.
The wheels of self-reinvention can spin too fast, though. With the accelerated pace of moving in my early thirties and the complete exhaustion of my financial resources, things began to move so fast for me that they felt out of control. The birth of my son and a gradual but firm embrace of motherhood finally anchored me to one place. Pragmatism supplanted the fanciful. The stark reality that I was my son’s sole economic provider and source of stability killed my wanderlust and averted my gaze from dreams of artistic and intellectual greatness. My life became defined by the more earth bound, immediate goal of ensuring that my son had, quite literally, a place to call home. If there is a reason I misunderstood Hemon as preoccupied with exile, not displacement, perhaps that’s because I projected my own experience onto his work. It was me, not Hemon’s characters, who had adopted the state of exile as a lifestyle, who had unconsciously sought to become a part of the noble class of great intellectuals and writers who had distanced themselves from their places of birth, and countries of origin. In my naïve snobbery, I identified Americans as plebes from whom I wanted to separate myself. Thus, instead of recognizing the actual gulf that separated myself from Hemon’s fictional creations, who did not choose to escape, but were forced to leave home by war or persecution, I read Hemon’s work with a superficial eagerness to find links of identification The ongoing, internal, exchange with Hemon and his characters reminds one that home is more than a merely imagined space. It is also a physical reality. Over the course of the past century the relentless pace of war and modernization have permanently altered the physical environment, amplifying the separation between the past and present, between the longed for home and the reality of displacement. The resulting environmental damage goes beyond endangered animals, carbon footprints, and oil spills. It extends to the psychic level, creating a new community of the rudderless in search of a home to which they can never return.
Our conversation coming to an end— Hemon has already missed the first showing of the movie to which he had hoped to take his family—Hemon gamely turns to me. Oh, you’ve got to hear this song, he says, handing me his Ipod. (Hemon is known for writing with punk rock playing in the background.) I put the earphone up to my ear and hear—of all things!— the British band Gang of Four shouting, “At home he feels like a tourist…” I’ve listened to the song many times since. I still don’t know what the lyrics mean. Yet, every time I play it I end up shouting along with the chorus, singing in unison with my imagined cohort—with Hemon, with Pronek, Brik, and Joyce—“at home I feel like a tourist.” Perhaps you might like to crack open a novel by Hemon and sing along too. Standley is a writer, academic, and mother based in Brooklyn, New York. Her essays and reviews about Berlin, mass tourism, and contemporary art have appeared in such publications as Artdish, Left History, and in edited volumes published by Berghahn Books and Ashgate Press.
Interview and article by Jason Green.
Photo: Kelly Ruth Winter
Home is the focal point in each of Marilynne Robinson’s novels. In Housekeeping (1981), the old family home in Fingerbone provides refuge for the orphaned sisters Ruth and Lucille and their eccentric Aunt Sylvie, a space where their imaginations and creativity, their oddness and individuality, can flourish. Outside the home, the wilderness that surrounds the town, with its seductive lake and sheltering forests, provides Ruth and Lucille with further space apart from the confining routines of the town to roam and wander and explore—requisites for the inner transformation their adolescent souls long to fulfill.
In Gilead (2004), named after the fictional Iowa town of the setting, the preacher John Ames’s house is his life’s sanctuary and true church, the place where, through writing a lifetime of sermons, the drama of his inner life has been carried out. It is the place that harbored his dark years of loneliness and the place where, in old age, he discovers the joys of family love and devotion. The sanctuary of the house in Gilead’s companion novel, Home (2008), is unsettled with the Prodigal Son Jack’s return: the home becomes the theater of spiritual struggle between Jack, his younger sister, Glory, and their frail, dying father Robert Boughton. While the first novel focuses on Ames’s house and the second on Boughton’s, the action in each depends on both homes. The dual homes are the twin poles between which the characters—and the imagination itself—moves. They are binaries of concentrated human interaction each deeply implicated in the other: Ames, as Jack’s godfather and namesake, must confront the Prodigal Son in the course of his own spiritual battle, and Jack’s quest for atonement and reconciliation leads him to Ames’s home for guidance.
The prominence of the physical house in the action of all three novels creates an aura of solitude that enhances the deep inwardness of the characters. The real home in Robinson’s novels can be found here, in the discovery of an enduring spiritual truth in the course of daily life. This truth hovers on the surface of our experience but it often takes devoted efforts of memory or imagination to reveal it. During the long letter to his young son that comprises the form of Gilead, John Ames writes, “Sometimes the visionary aspect of any particular day comes to you in the memory of it, or it opens to you over time. [. . .] I believe there are visions that come to us only in memory, in retrospect (91).” Begun in order to record what, as a result of his failing heart, he will never be able to say in person, Ames’s letter comes to record, beyond this, his efforts to return to the spiritual center of life in his life’s final days, to salvage visions from long ago as much as from the quickly vanishing present. Ruth’s return, in Housekeeping, to her ancestral house in Fingerbone; Glory and Jack’s return, in the two Iowa novels, to their childhood home in Gilead: each is a figure of the same search for the enduring home at the center of experience.
Pulse: All of your novels are set in small remote towns. Characters make excursions beyond these towns, but the center of the drama and the majority of the actions take place within a narrow circumference of imaginative space. How important was the choice of setting for you?
Robinson: The town in Housekeeping is in the Far West, just west of the Rockies. Though the novel is not autobiographical, the town is modeled, in terms of topography, on the town where I was born. I chose that terrain, that sense of a thinly populated place in a great wilderness, because it was something I knew well, something outside the world that seemed to me to be conventionally represented in fiction at the time I wrote the book. The choice of setting was very liberating for me because I felt that I was eluding convention. No one had written about the place before. I had it all to myself.
There’s a tradition of American writers firmly rooted in a specific place, finding sustenance throughout their careers in their own little patch of the country, discovering in the narrow and limited environments of their experience stories that acquire universal appeal and significance. Do you think of yourself as a regional writer?
This is such a big country–I suppose the opposite of a „specific place“ would be New York or Los Angeles? Both notoriously specific places, of course. By comparison with European countries, whose economic, political and cultural centers are also their major population centers, the life of the United States is centered around a considerable number of regional capitals, no one of them so definitively American as to seem un“specific“–as Paris or London might seem definitively French or British, and therefore not regional despite their particular histories, populations, accents, etc. It is hard for me to imagine writing about anything except a limited environment, no matter where a fiction is set. This is a long way of saying that all writing is regional, and that this is not different in America, simply more apparent because of a broadly dispersed cultural life. In more specific response to your question, the regions invoked in Housekeeping and then the two Gilead novels are very different from each other historically, culturally, demographically. Though I love Iowa, I am not really a Midwesterner–instead a student and observer of the place. In theory I could choose yet another region to write about.
Memory plays a powerful, creative role in your novels: collective regional or family memory as much as personal, private memory. Do you think of writing as a kind of remembering? What role does memory play for you during the writing process?
A discipline of mine when I am writing is to try to remember what things are like–the idiom refers to the fact that experience is conveyed through simile, metaphor. This is true of memories of dreams and emotions as well as of places and objects. It is more useful to me to recall things than to see or feel them directly. My memory is a better judge of what is essential about them.
In each of your novels the action revolves around characters who transgress traditional boundaries of ordinary living. What is the attraction of the outcast for the literary imagination? The one who transgresses?
People who seem to define themselves, even by reacting against the definitions offered to them by family and culture, allow another look at what a person is essentially. Goods and attainments whose value is clear and socially established obscure individuality. This is no criticism of civil life, which I think I admire more than most people do. It is just an acknowledgment that there is an outcast in anyone, perhaps the element that is otherwise known as the soul.
It seems novels are often built out of the materials of story traditions—for example, religious, historical, literary, or folkloric traditions. While dependent on traditions and shaped by influence, the nature of a novel is to tell a story that’s never been told in a style that’s wholly unique and original. Can you comment on these conflicting pressures for yourself as a novelist as they are played out in your work, for instance in the way the prodigal son narrative was instrumental in the creation of Jack?
In fact, the stories, here the Prodigal Son, emerge for me within my fiction, rather than my choosing to base a fiction on them. Of course I become aware of this as it happens, and my thinking is influenced by this more primary narrative I find in conversation with the one I’m writing. In this quite natural sense the fiction becomes a meditation on a story that is rooted in my imagination. One hears often about the influence of the Bible on literature, and I think it has been strong and persisting because in the churches these stories are told and reflected on so often over the course of years that they become an intrinsic part of one’s thought.
Gilead and Home explore the ways history affects small towns and the private lives of individuals. The theme appears in various guises in your characters, from the trauma of the Civil War on John Ames’s grandfather to how Civil Rights turmoil broadcast on the television—drama that seems to be happening far away—has direct bearing on Jack Boughton’s secret marriage with a black woman. What role did researching history play in your conception of these novels?
History really had everything to do with them. When I came to Iowa, never having lived in the Middle West, I started reading the history of the place, just to be able to feel located there. I found that it had a wonderful early history, very important to the country as a whole, especially for its part in the movement to abolish slavery. I did the history for its own sake, but when the figure of John Ames came to my mind all the history settled around him and set him on that landscape. The town of Gilead is based on Tabor, Iowa, in the southwest corner of the state, hundreds of miles from where I live. I spent about two hours there one day to see what the river and woods and the hills looked like–it was once a famous settlement, and I knew about it from old books.
An Emerson line that appears in various forms throughout his writing is expressed this way in Representative Men: “[T]he experience of poetic creativeness [. . .] is not found in staying at home, nor yet in traveling, but in transitions from one to the other.” Your novels are shaped around such moments of departure and arrival. How have moments of transition oriented or energized your work?
I wrote Housekeeping in Seattle, France and Massachusetts–at a great distance in every case from the place where the book is set. I wrote Gilead and Home still aware that Iowa was an adopted home for me. I have always felt at a remove from the place where I lived. Although I was born in Sandpoint, Idaho I spent my childhood in other towns and came there to visit my grandparents for summers and holidays. It was home to my family, not really to me, though their feelings about it and the stories I heard made it seem to epitomize home. So I have reasons for my own interest in arriving and leaving, for being at a remove. I know other writers also deal with these things, so I suppose it is in some way a universal human experience that I understand in terms particular to myself.
In Gilead, Ames tells a story about a horse’s head sticking up out of the center of a dirt road. In Housekeeping, Ruth and Lucille shake old books by the spine sending flowers raining down to the floor. Your novels are full of extraordinary and peculiar imagery such as this. What’s the relationship between strangeness and beauty? Between eccentricity and the literary imagination?
Poe has an excellent essay on the relationship of the strange to the beautiful. I accept the fact of their privileged relationship though I am not sure I can explain it. I think it may be that the strange requires a freshness of attention. Too much of the conventionally beautiful disappears in a haze of familiarity. William James has an essay that begins, imagine a newborn mind. Imagine that all this mind can perceive is the flame of a candle. The idea of perception without context or interpretation makes a sense of the beauty of perception itself come flooding back–the strange draws on other resources than beauty alone can do. It makes the mind singular and active.
Do you agree with Joseph Conrad’s view that the writer’s task is get the reader to hear, to feel, but above all, to see? Is the visual sense paramount in your pursuits as a writer?
Yes, I agree. Even when I am teaching nonfiction (this summer I gave a seminar for practicing theologians, to help them improve their writing) I tell the students always to keep something before the reader’s eyes. (Which means their own eyes, too, of course.) This is not an illusion that can in fact always be sustained. But the attempt to sustain it is a very good discipline, not least because it reminds the writer that ideally she or he is creating experience for another consciousness.
Your character Jack Boughton brings his hands up to cover his eyes whenever he feels threatened or vulnerable in a conversation. The drama of Jack’s fate is played out in that one gesture, his longing to hide himself from the world and his predisposition to loneliness and exile. Is characterization like this an intuitive discovery? What comes first, Jack or the gesture?
It is always hard to say which comes first. In one way fiction is a sort of metaphysical thought experiment–within its world, all we know are what the philosophers called “attributes.” But in fiction there can be assumed to be no substances whose attributes these are. The writer has to persuade the reader that he or she knows the fictional world in a way that resembles the real world at least well enough to sustain the suspension of disbelief. Ideally, the writer succeeds in making reality seem more acutely perceived within the fiction than it is in the phenomenal world. All the arts play on the capacities of the mind, its richness of association, its generosity of attention. All I really meant to say is that you, writer or reader, know characters through attributes, not otherwise, and a sense of the fictional person as presence is the crucial thing.
In your most recent book, Absence of Mind, you write, “Why does catastrophe occur? What are its implications?” Catastrophe and its implications: each of your novels can be read as providing a new variation on this theme. In each novel, catastrophe is at the origins of the family’s history: in Housekeeping, the “spectacular derailment” that ends Ruth’s grandfather’s life and the watery suicide that ends her mother’s; in Gilead and Home, the disasters of History, through the terrible violence of war, provide the originating catastrophe whose aftershocks continue across the generations; another catastrophe important to the plot of Gilead and featured in the plot of Home, is Jack’s youthful liaison with a poor uneducated girl that results in the death of a young child. As a novelist, what is your fascination with catastrophe and its implications, and why does this one theme seem so inexhaustible and essential to understanding the human story?
I’m afraid catastrophe is a thing to which we are highly vulnerable, and toward which we are very much inclined. So to exclude it would be an evasion. Then, too, it disrupts habit and order and comfortable assumptions, and throws people back on themselves, making them think long and hard about things that otherwise might seem to them stable and unquestionable. And it prompts them to look for the sources of disaster in what before might have seemed innocuous. Catastrophes large and small (and by definition they resist being understood in relative terms) open all questions and restore an awareness that all answers are tentative at very best.
In each of your novels, sacred space is created that provides sanctuary for the characters and shelters their loneliness. The obvious example is the physical house, the stage of family drama and the scene of housekeeping, those daily mundane rituals—cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, taking meals—that your books prize as nourishing experience. But there are other spaces as well: the attic where Ames writes his sermons; the hayloft out in the barn where Jack goes for solitude. Would you say that these private sacred spaces are a figure of what literature is—or can be: nourishment to individualized, experience-centered spirituality?
Yes. I think this can be said about the arts in general. Arts in the broadest sense of the word. Everything that is a cell of memory, everything that is meant to be humanly communicative, however candidly, even of oneself to oneself. I subscribe heartily to the view that human beings are the crowning wonder of the universe, and that this is true of them one by one, each as a unique intelligence and perceiver. So ideally each one of them would find and create sacred space, if not private in every case at least expressive of a singular experience-centered spirituality, to borrow your phrase.
Glory from Home, and Aunt Sylvie from Housekeeping, are both woman who return to the small towns and houses where they grew up following years spent out in the world trying to forge new lives—attempts that fall short. For both women, their trials in love have ended in disappointment, and their return home seems motivated by the desire to distance themselves from heartache and find healing. As different as your recent novels are from your first novel, there are elements like this that unite them. Do you think of certain themes as native to your imagination, as themes that will always fascinate you?
In fact I try not to repeat myself, even to the point of resisting the idea that there are themes that fascinate me. Then, when I have written another book, I see themes recurring. For practical reasons I remain in a state of denial. Therefore my answer to your question is: Definitely no (and apparently yes).
Interview conducted August, 2010.
STEPPING OFF THE BUS — UH, BOAT!
by Allison Gurski
A teacher and her 11-year old students talk about their experiences learning how it might have felt to be one of America’s first immigrants.
I live in the same town I grew up in, a place that was once a small town with a distinct personality but has now been converted into just another ordinary, overpopulated Atlanta suburb. I’ve been teaching 5th grade here for nearly three years now. All thirty of my students, which for the most part I refer to as “my kids”, are ages ten and eleven. The following reflections on immigration are written from the perspective of some of these students during our annual Immigration Day at Lewis Elementary. The journey of European, Latin, and Asian immigrants to Ellis Island in America is one of many state curriculum standards to be taught to fifth grade students here. Rather than just reading about the immigrant’s hardships of leaving their country and arriving in a foreign land, we decided to let them walk in the shoes of many of America’s ancestors and feel a bit of the experience for themselves.
Prior to arriving to school on Immigration Day, the students have no idea what to expect. They have only been told to dress as they think an immigrant may have dressed, and to bring food from a foreign country. Upon arrival the students, now considered immigrants, are quickly ushered off their buses (the ships) and into a line of close to 150 other students (immigrants). The line wraps around the school building. The temperature on this particular morning was less than 35 degrees Fahrenheit, and the students had all of their belongings in hand. There was nowhere to sit, and they had no idea of exactly what was happening to them. It is this unknowingness and confusion, as well as the language barriers (no one is spoken to in their mother tongue), that not only test their patience but also give them a very real experience that stays with them for longer than just that day.
Speaking only when necessary, my fellow teachers and I act as the Immigrant Officials and speak to the students in foreign languages that confuse them and often leave them feeling somewhat helpless. It is up to the students to figure out the situation and decide how they must react to what they encounter. Just as chaos outside the school is about to ensue, the “immigrants” are issued passports and ordered
to complete their papers of entry. They realize that they are trying to get into a new country and that the goal is not so easy to attain. Many are quarantined after the “six-second” medical exam and then have to wait and reflect on the experience in “The Great Hall.” Others are subjected to a citizenship
test in a language they cannot read or understand. If they pass this test, they must then explain their reasons for wanting to enter the country, and figure out how to purchase train tickets to their desired destination in America.
Each year I look forward to Immigration Day because I know it is a day that students will never forget. In this fastpaced technological society, a society where fast food, the Internet, IPODS, TIVO, and Gameboys seem to suck up all of a kid’s attention, it is often difficult to teach these “hightech” students of the times that preceded their generation. Immigration day is a day dedicated to history and to the experiences of our ancestors. It’s a day where students are taken back to their beginnings, to a time when technology either didn’t exist or wasn’t available, a time where the dreams of a better life drove immigrants towards this country. I know this process continues today, but the ideas behind what it means to have “a better life” are perhaps a bit more complex. I hope “my kids” can use this experience to understand the history and diversity that make up their country. When reading their reflections, one feels the real emotion and thought that they went through during this experience. It is this emotion and reflection that opens them up to other understandings of life, and this is what makes Immigration day worthwhile, and also what gives me hope in my place as an educator.
Allison Gurski, 2005, teacher of a 5th-grade-class in Kennesaw, Georgia – U.S.A.
Some Tentative Thoughts on Immigration
Immigration is an emotion-laden and politically contentious subject, not only here in Germany, but throughout Europe and the United States. It poses problems that even those policymakers willing to confront the issue have not satisfactorily solved. The columnist Martin Wolf is at his usual perceptive self when he observes, “Immigration is set to be among the most – if not the most – controversial topics of the 21st century.”1
The difficulty stems from the multi-faceted nature of the problem. Start with the economics. An ample supply of labor is in the interests of employers, but threatens the jobs and wage levels of many workers, particularly those with no or minimal skills. Then there is the social issue – or more properly – there are multiple social issues. In Britain some worry about the pressure of sheer numbers on their still green and pleasant land2 ; in Germany and other European countries some worry about the effect on the native culture of a large number of immigrants with different customs and values; still others worry about the pressure newcomers who have not contributed to the cost of schools, hospitals and the transport system, impose on the social services.3 Finally, we have a new fear: that radical Islamic terrorists will arrive, intent on mayhem. Let me suggest a framework within which a civil argument can be held. I do not propose to take on the harder task of offering definitive solutions to the myriad problems associated with immigration policy.
Economists have long contended that the free movement of goods and capital adds to the wealth of nations. There is no need to repeat that argument here. But even the freest of free traders never meant all goods and all capital. No one, with the possible exception of a few dyed-in-the-wool libertarians, favors the unrestrained movement of drugs, or of weapons of mass destruction. And no one quarrels with efforts to prevent the international movement of capital earned illicitly and seeking a “laundry” to make such funds clean and respectable, or capital intended to finance the operation of terrorists.That sounds like a rather simple and easy distinction, but in practice it is not. In the case of goods, we have dual-use products, capable of fertilizing fields or being turned into lethal chemical weapons, tubes that can be used in legitimate production activities or as parts in the manufacture of offensive weapons.
In the case of capital, it is often difficult to separate money intended for humanitarian and charitable uses from that headed for the coffers of terrorist organizations. The problem becomes even more difficult when it comes to the movement of people. Theoretically, the free movement of people should add to international efficiency every bit as much as does the free movement of capital and goods. But just as there are goods that no decent society would want to see freely imported, and corrupt capital that nations attempt to track down and exclude, so there are people that nations feel it in their interests to exclude. Terrorists are the most obvious example. But what if the only way that such potential threats to national security can be excluded is by identifying a class of likely perpetrators, and excluding all of its members, with regrets for the innocent kept out with the guilty? And what about people who want to join the mass migration now underway with the hope of changing the culture of the countries they intend to settle in, rather than adopting it? And what if the potential immigrants come, not in pursuit of opportunity and work, but in the hope of receiving the generous benefits of the rich countries’ welfare systems – a hand-out, rather than a hand-up?
I start with a few hard facts of life.
1. So long as there are huge disparities of income between rich and poor nations, large numbers of workers will have an incentive to move to the richer countries. It is estimated that there are between 12 million and 15 million immigrants from poor places such as Sri Lanka and sub-Saharan Africa inside the EU4. Since these disparities are likely to persist, even if slightly ameliorated by all of the anti-poverty programs that politicians now say they find so attractive, we must take them as a given in formulating policy towards immigration. Those ambitious and adventuresome workers who want to better their circumstances, and those of their children, will have an enormous incentive to pull up stakes and head for better-paying jobs, even to countries with unemployment rates as high as those in Germany.stantial incentive to seek out immigrants. When we hear that immigrants take jobs that “increasingly well-educated US workers have not been interested in”5 , or that “Germans will not do”, we should translate this into “native workers are not interested in these jobs at the current wage rates, which immigrants find attractive.”
2. So long as there are huge disparities between the wages at which potential immigrants will work, and the wages demanded by the indigenous workforce, employers will have a subsstantial incentive to seek out immigrants. When we hear that immigrants take jobs that “increasingly well-educated US workers have not been interested in”5 , or that “Germans will not do”, we should translate this into “native workers are not interested in these jobs at the current wage rates, which immigrants find attractive.”
3. So long as governments erect barriers to prevent the willing sellers and buyers of labor from coming together, there will be a substantial incentive for criminal gangs – known as coyotes in the Mexican-American people trade, and as “Snakehead gangs” in Europe – to organize the movement of workers seeking work at wages they find attractive to employers, willing to hire them. These gangs make their money by claiming a portion of the savings that employers seek, and a portion of the income increment that prompts immigrants to move from their home countries. The UK Government estimates that the people-traffickers move some 30 million people annually across international borders in a trade worth between $12 billion and $30 billion. This trade is susceptible to policy adaptation of two sorts: construct a legal system that permits a systematic crackdown on the gangs and on the illegal activities in which some immigrants engage, or, alternatively, allow the free and open immigration that would eliminate the source of the people-traffickers’ profits. (Libertarians would argue that legalization of these now illegal occupations, such as prostitution, would eliminate that problem as well.)
4. So long as there are huge disparities between the welfare and other benefits programs on offer in rich as compared to poor countries, the richer countries will serve as magnets for those who seek an improvement in their economic circumstance without working to achieve that objective. Again, policies are available to cope with this problem. The differential in available benefits can, for example, be eliminated if the potential host countries would deny benefits to new immigrants, a step that would involve a willingness to take on those who argue that human rights include the right to housing, medical care, food and other necessities (not to mention cell phones
and satellite television), whether or not the recipient has contributed in the past to the funding of those benefits, or is willing to work in the future to contribute to their funding. But policymakers who include the denial of welfare benefits as an option available to them must realize that they are depending on teachers to turn away
little children and doctors to refuse to treat sick immigrants – not the most reliable enforcement force.
5. It is possible for sovereign states to control their borders. This might require the commitment of substantial resources and involve measures that many policymakers find unattractive, but they cannot reasonably argue that they cannot control their borders – after all, since Australia’s Prime Minister John Howard made it clear that sea-borne immigration would not be permitted, there have been no unauthorized boat arrivals in Australia’s migration zone, according to Australian sources. If illegal immigrants were turned back at airports and ports – and if the exporting country refused to accept them, they were shipped to a remote, unpleasant but non-deadly internment location – the flow would certainly be diminished. True, some would always arrive by clandestine means, but this would be a minor problem compared with the current situation in which being detained means a relatively comfortable existence, and for the host nation, the cost of providing access to myriad benefits. So, rigorous control of borders is an option available to policymaker – if you doubt that, think of the success of the former Soviet Union in sealing off the border between East and West Berlin.
6. It is impossible to separate “bogus” from legitimate “asylum seekers” – and I say this with great reluctance, coming from a Jewish family. This inability to distinguish between the two stems from the difference between the situation in the 1930s, when Germany made quite clear its intent to exterminate the Jews, and the situation today, in which even genocidal governments routinely deny such an intent. Authorities simply have no way of checking individual tales of persecution, especially when related by a person with an incentive to embroider the truth, and who has destroyed his papers.
Besides, the definition of persecution is not always clear cut. Must the asylum seekers‘ life be threatened? Or her genitals threatened with mutilation? Or should he be granted asylum merely if his ability to earn a living is circumscribed in his home country for reasons of race, religion or what is now called “sexual orientation”? Those who generally oppose immigration contend that asylum status should be reserved for those threatened with, say, ethnic cleansing, and should be denied to those merely suffering economic persecution. Sounds sensible, until one remembers the early days of Germany’s assault on its Jewish population, when a progressive tightening of the economic noose was taken by many Jews as a warning to get out, but who found no nation willing to accept them, leaving them to become victims of the Final Solution.
So confusion reigns: the American government has the bizarre policy of returning to Fidel Castro’s tender mercies those Cubans unlucky enough to be caught by our Coast Guard while still in their rafts and boats, but offering sanctuary to those who make it to our beaches; women’s groups argue that asylum should be granted to females threatened with genital mutilation or forced marriages in their native country; European governments act as they are helpless
even to deport those whose asylum claims are found to be bogus, which of course is true, given the international obligations and restrictions it has chosen to accept.
The stakes are real: unless immigration policy can be made coherent, popular dissatisfaction with current policy will harden into opposition to all immigration. That would be disastrous for the countries now exporting workers, for those nations increasingly reliant on an intake of younger workers to offset demographic trends that threaten the viability of their welfare states and for the individuals who genuinely want to contribute to their adopted countries by working hard and assimilating into the cultures of their new homelands. Here are the policy choices.
Choice number one* would be an open-door, humanitarian policy. But such a policy is not without difficulties. When then- President Jimmy Carter urged China’s Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping, Deng to respect human rights, among them the right of the Chinese regime’s subjects to emigrate, Deng responded, „Well, Mr. President, how many Chinese nationals do you want? Ten million? Twenty million? Thirty million?“ Had Carter picked a number – which he wisely did not – Deng might then have asked him which of the millions of Chinese he would like to welcome to American citizenship. So much for the wide open door, which in any event is unacceptable to those with legitimate concerns about over-crowding, increased burdens on the social services, and dangers to the existing culture.
Choice number two is a slammed-door policy. This would be wirtbased on the notions that immigrants represent a net drain on a nation’s resources, and that a nation cannot allow any significant immigration without diluting its values, customs and mores, and becoming a multicultural hodge-podge of groups with such varied approaches to life and public policy as to become ungovernable. This “slammed-door” policy has its advocates in all countries, from historically liberal America and Great Britain to historically, well, less liberal Austria and France.
Choice number three might be called one that is based on economic self-interest. Such a policy would be designed to admit only, or primarily, those immigrants likely to maximize the wealth of the native population. In earlier times, it was possible to argue that this goal of enriching the host nation was served by an open-door policy, one that also served humanitarian purposes. After all, the tempest-tossed immigrants who were seeking better lives were willing to work hard at menial tasks, and did not seek aid from the state, relying instead on their own efforts and a bit of help from voluntary agencies and their families. They and their offspring were destined in the end to enrich the nation that received them. So a nation could benefit economically from its humanitarianism.
But then came the welfare state, creating the possibility that the immigrant might be seeking a hand-out rather than a handup. The emergence of the welfare state in industrialized countries made it impossible to continue to argue that a nation could do well by doing good – that by adopting a relatively open immigration policy for humanitarian purposes it also served its economic interests by attracting only a valuable stream of eager new workers. So closing the doors to all who might be a burden on the state came to be regarded by pragmatists as the unambiguously correct policy.
But it is arguably no easier to distinguish immigrants who might add to national wealth from those who will be a drain on it, than it is to distinguish legitimate from bogus asylum seekers. For one thing, nations with declining populations need younger workers – workers whose prospective contributions to society over their working lives it is difficult to estimate at the time they seek to immigrate – to carry the burden of the welfare benefits that have been promised to retirees.
Indeed, even an informal policy of turning a blind eye towards poor, illegal immigrants, which as a policy has a certain appeal to those who think that immigration policy should be based on humanitarian considerations, has clear economic advantages. In America, for example, there is no question that without the some five or six or seven or eight million illegal immigrants estimated to be in the labor market (all told, there are over 34 million immigrants, legal and illegal, living in the United States ), upward pressure on wages and hence on inflation would be greater, interest rates would have to be higher and economic growth slower. At some times of the year, three out of four agricultural workers are illegal immigrants.
Britain is another case in point. It doesn’t take a very keen observer of the social and economic scene to notice that London’s hotels would be hard hit were unskilled immigrants not present to make the beds and empty the trash cans, that many construction projects would screech to a halt if every Eastern European laborer were deported, and bus operations in Bath and Bristol might be curtailed if Poles were prohibited from becoming drivers. Less visibly, many employers, in the UK, the US, and Germany, among other nations, have come to rely on immigrants to fill skilled jobs such as nurses, doctors and IT professionals. America’s Silicon Valley has among “the world’s most ethnically diverse” workforces, with immigrants constituting some one-quarter of all workers; and “foreign-born scientists and engineers are increasingly visible as entrepreneurs and senior management.”
This is not the place to discuss just how a policy of economic selfinterest might be implemented. But the current popularity in the UK of the point system that Canada, Australia and other countries have adopted makes that approach worthy of comment. Britain now proposes to follow the lead of both of those countries by assigning points for educational and skill attainments, a process that seems on first reading to have much to recommend it: in Australia the process quite sensibly assigns 50% more points to a chef than to a “real estate salesperson”, but oddly assigns the same number of points to a “grief counselor” as to the clearly more valuable category, “economist”!
I mention this not to make the obvious point that economists are among the most desirable immigrants, but instead to point out a serious flaw in the point system: it substitutes bureaucrats’ judgments for that of the labor market. The system assumes that civil servants will know just what mix of workers would be most valuable to the receiving-nation’s economy. So the system would tend to admit workers just like the bureaucrats – information technology specialists, “finance experts” – but be less generous to immigrants who might arrive seeking work in the hospitality industries. Such a system has the potential to automatically exclude those adventuresome enough and willing to work in low-paid jobs that are unattractive to the millions collecting disability benefits.
The point system, by granting points for language skills and education, also has a bias against those wanting to assimilate but who have not had the opportunity to learn a second language in their countries of origin. Let me at this point declare more than a little self-interest: such a rule would have prevented my father from entering America from Poland. More important, such a rule would, for example, bar Mexicans seeking to work in America and to assimilate, to sign on to the “American Dream”, while admitting well-educated Saudis with a quite different dream, seeking to fly airplanes into the World Trade Center.
It seems to me that a better system would rely on the market to determine which sorts of workers are needed – I will explain how that can be done in a moment – and insist on the attainment of language skills and other tools of assimilation as a requirement for permanent permission to remain. And certainly as a prerequisite to granting citizenship. Unfortunately, the inability of a point system to incorporate market- determined labor requirements, or to accommodate hard-working but less fluent immigrants is not the only reason it cannot identify those immigrants who might add to the wealth of the receiving nation. Even if the process of assigning points to language and job skills were precise, which it is not, questions concerning the extent to which the family of the immigrant will draw on the social services, and the net contribution his children will make to the nation’s wealth remain. It is indeed possible to estimate the costs and benefits of all of these variables, and such efforts can inform policy, at least on a broad level. But such cost-benefit studies, used to assign “points”, might easily ignore the hard economic fact that a nation might be woefully short of people whose work and language skills are minimal, but who are willing to empty bedpans in hospitals or dig foundations for new homes and factories.
How then to accommodate the economic goal of the most efficient allocation of the world’s workforce, while at the same time meeting the legitimate social concerns that weigh so heavily on so many in the receiving countries? I have ten suggestions worthy of consideration – I say “suggestions worthy of consideration”, rather than “commandments”, not to distinguish myself from Moses, but out of a genuine sense of uncertainty.
First, end the attempt to separate bogus from legitimate asylum seekers. There are two reasons for doing this: humanitarian considerations suggest that a person fleeing genital mutilation or a forced marriage or abject poverty is every bit in need of “asylum” as is someone whose life is threatened10; and officials in the destination country have no way of separating fact from fiction, a fabricated tale of persecution from a genuine one. It can’t be done. People seeking entry should be tested against the remaining nine criteria.
Second, take every step possible, including rapid deportation to the home country or some remote location, to discourage illegal immigration, or criminal behavior by legal immigrants. If this pains human rights lawyers, or requires withdrawal from the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees, as Michael Howard has suggested, so be it. Such a policy of rapid deportation quickly becomes known to potential illegal immigrants. This is no panacea, and not nearly as effective as barring entry in the first place, since even countries such as France, less concerned with legal niceties than Britain, have had difficulty in deporting even those foreigners it has arrested. But a government that really means business can make deportation an effective tool.
Third, deny welfare benefits to immigrants so as to discourage the lazy and the incompetent from seeking entry, and reduce some of the opposition to immigration by those who bear the cost of immigrants unwilling or unable to work. Such a policy cannot be applied with complete success, since it relies on people whose lives are devoted to caring for or educating others to turn away the ineligible. But we can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
Fourth, separate the issues of crime and immigration. New York City has witnessed a huge increase in immigration, coincident with a large decline in crime. A crime is a crime whether committed by a native-born thug or one newly arrived in the country. A government serious about being tough on crime will be tough on the causers of crime, whoever they may be. Bogus charges of “racism” cannot be allowed to become a bar to law enforcement.
Fifth, develop criteria that do as good a job as is possible to identify those immigrants who are likely to make a net addition to the wealth of the nation. I have already laid out my doubts about the point systems, since they are nothing more than attempts by government bureaucrats to guess at what the labor market is demanding. We should consider the possibility that the value an immigrant might add to national wealth might more accurately be discovered by relying on a market-driven system of bidding for immigration visas. Such a bidding system will prove more efficient in identifying those who will make a net contribution to their new country than will even the most refined point system, and it need not disadvantage potential immigrants who have no money, since employers would be willing to put up the funds necessary to bid for a permit.
Sixth, meet the objections of the vast middle class, and the threatened residents of poorer neighborhoods, by abandoning multiculturalism and insisting on assimilation. Respect for ethnic origins and traditions must not be allowed to destroy the cultures of the countries that receive immigrants fleeing from less attractive places. The tendency of immigrants to concentrate geographically in what Harvard professor George Borjas calls “barrios, ghettos, and enclaves”, and to adhere to many of the customs and mannerisms of their country of origin, frighten the native population into believing that theirs is becoming a strange and alien land. Social and legal pressures to require assimilation and, eventually, citizenship, might – just might – ease these fears.
The danger of not doing so has been clearly demonstrated in the Netherlands, where militant Muslims have used murder as a means of protesting the dominant, permissive Dutch culture. It is simply unacceptable to have to cancel a film showing or allow an artist to be forced into hiding because immigrants object to their work. This is why the government of the Netherlands is proposing that immigrants “face an exam testing detailed knowledge of everything from Dutch language and history to its laws on topless bathing before taking up residence…”. My own preference would be to apply this requirement as a condition of permanent residence, rather than entry.
Seventh, insist that the language of the host country is essential to citizenship . But, again, I would be inclined to make the attainment of this language skill a condition of granting permanent residence or citizenship, rather than a condition of entry.
Eighth, since immigration creates winners – purchasers of labor – and losers – sellers of labor and residents of poorer neighborhoods, develop methods of transferring some of the gains of winners to the losers. Remember: when proponents of freer immigration say that the increased availability of labor holds down wage inflation, they are also saying that it depresses wages – by how much, if at all, we do not really know and will not until we have good studies of the elasticity of the supply of native labor.
Ninth, recognize that in this new era in which we are waging a war on terror, national security interests take precedence over most others. We might consider designating certain countries and groups as too likely to threaten our security to warrant admission without much heightened scrutiny – a form of “profiling” that has the twin virtues of barring the dangerous and expediting the admission of those whose origins suggest they are least likely to do the admitting country harm.
Tenth, adopt something between the open door and the slammed door – perhaps the ajar door – so that in the case of true humanitarian disasters such as the Holocaust, policy-makers can make exceptions to rules one-through-nine, above. And I might add, grant any persons so admitted an opportunity to work, rather than languish in some detainment camp.
If all of this seems excessively complicated, you might want to retreat to the summary of immigration-policy objectives offered by the late Texas congresswoman, Barbara Jordan, “People who should get in, get in; people who should not enter are kept out; and people who are deportable should be required to leave.”
I conclude with a disclaimer: these ideas are subject to immediate and substantial change in the face of superior arguments.
THE END OF OIL?
Pearl Jam’s Stone Gossard in discussion with author Michael Klare, 2008.
Stone Gossard: I read your book ”Blood and Oil” about three months ago and I thought it was amazing – really uh – riveting-
Michael Klare: Well that’s certainly the first time anyone’s used that word but-
No, really. These are interesting topics you’re writing about– especially if you’re someone whose trying to see oil in a different way. Your book consolidates this overwhelming amount of information into something that makes some crucial points about oil consumption and its relation to the decisions the US has made in the past few years.
Well, thank you.
So I’m just going to jump right in and start asking you some questions if that’s ok. Buckminster Fuller-
Buckminster Fuller, from what I understand of him, was the first person who talked about an expanded view of economics in terms of viewing the world as an entire interdependent system, one which must include the quality of the environment in its economic ledger if it’s going to flourish and survive. That was a pretty remarkable idea for me: to think that economics, something that before had always been rather separate and academic, could actually be a way of improving the living environmental system as well. With this sort of reasoning, it’s possible to think of economics and the environment as being in a relationship, and this opens up the possibility that economics might become a positive force in the health of the planet. Do you think this same sort of reasoning might provide the impetus that finally makes us look in a direction other than oil?
You know my sense is that two things are going on. On one hand, there’s the engine of economics and growth that’s been the driving force of world affairs since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. And implicit in that is unlimited growth and progress, that this growth would proceed forever and that man’s ingenuity would lead to ever new and more efficient ways of producing more things and more wealth. That’s the basis of all the ideologies of the past centuries: from capitalism to socialism, they all rest on the notion of perpetual growth. But now things are taking another direction and we’re coming into collision with a different reality, the reality that there may be finite physical realities to what humanity can do on this planet that we inhabit. Its no longer clear that growth, as we understand it to mean ever higher levels of consumption, is possible to be sustained if we reach the limits of planetary carrying capacity.
Now here’s where we get the debate that is currently taking place in the world: on one hand, there are those people who say that human ingenuity will find solutions to the impasse that we face with the existing resource pool, that we’ll invent new sources of energy to allow us to continue growing. There are people who believe in these very visionary ideas such as harnessing the energy of the sun, or micro waving energy from space down to earth, or drawing on the geothermal powers of the inner planet and so on. And then there are other people who say that there is a physics to our universe that places limits on what mankind can do and that all of these visionary ideas require a investment in resources and materials that we simply don’t have. The laws of physics may not permit a lot of these ideas to come to fruition; therefore, in this view, we must learn to accommodate ourselves to natural limits of what’s possible. That means growth has to come through conservation and new ways of doing things, not through endlessly expanding consumption.
I guess this idea of taking a more holistic view of the world in terms of the economics of the environment falls more on the optimistic side – believing that human ingenuity will prevail. I think I tend to lean that way, to think that there is a route where humans can continue to grow and expand while at the same time finding ways to appreciate and cooperate with nature rather than ignore it –
Well it’s more than just ‘ignore’- it’s to invade and plunder nature.
Yeah well I believe, and maybe we agree on this, that its not a matter of some new technological solution but of a new mental solution, a new spiritual solution that will be required, that people learn to live in a very different way on the planet, and behave differently –
Yes, exactly –
– and that’s the challenge, that’s the mountain we have to climb.
As a scholar and historian, how do you see the role of spiritual intuition in your work? How do you balance out your position as both a historian and an advocate? Do you find that both of those things are part of your writing and thinking process?
Good question. I’m becoming more aware of this as I do my research. I came out of the peace movement of the sixties and seventies, so my interest has always been in how to convert violence and conflict into something peaceful and productive. That’s what led me to the issue of resources because I’ve come to believe that the competitive pursuit of resources is the main source of conflict in the world, both historically and in the present, and that it’s getting worst. So I see addressing resource issues as essential to finding ways of peaceful cohabitation on this planet. So yes, the more I learn about resources and the planet, the more I see that there is a deeper, spiritual or conscious factor that has to come into play. If we’re going to cohabitate on this planet, all nine billion of us that are expected to be here by 2050 or so, without endless bloodshed, then we have to learn new ways of social and personal interaction and behavior. There’s no getting around that.
Well I think the exciting part of studying history is being able to look deeper and find new connections and patterns that were maybe never thought of before. This is what I think you do so well in ”Blood and Oil”. In America, we tend to just blindly take our oil consumption for granted without actually realizing its prominent position in our lives. Americans tend to go along with the program. They don’t really want to be told that part of going to war was about oil. Do you think that the US and its cooperation with the new Iraqi government has the potential to actually buy us more time in terms of oil?
Not in this decade. I think it was a monumental miscalculation on the part of the administration. It’s conceivable that in the next decade it might make a difference, but that’s only a speculation. It certainly won’t help now. I don’t think that George Bush really grasps the multiple dimensions of foreign policy, especially in the Middle East. I think he was sold a bill of goods by the neoconservatives which promised that not only would the US invasion of Iraq lead to democracy but it also would bring a lot of oil.
To me it seems that the most powerful reason for us to be in Iraq, at least from the administration’s point of view, is to be sure that for the next fifty years we have a military presence surrounding an oil field that may supply a large percentage of the world’s oil.
Yes, well, I think there was a lot of assumptions made in the White House about the success of US intervention bringing all of these good things, and its clear from the record that those who were pushing this intervention silenced the professionals in the government who were warning them that there were real risks and that things might not work out the way they wanted. So only the rosy optimistic views prevailed, and they made a monumental miscalculation. They didn’t grasp the magnitude of communal antagonisms within Iraq. They didn’t take into account that toppling this authoritarian regime would lead to enormous fighting among different factions for everything, including oil. And the recent elections have only accelerated rather than reduced that process.
Right now its chaos, and oil companies are not going to invest the billions of dollars – it’s estimated that it will take ten billion dollars just to get Iraq back to where it was before the war- You mean just in terms of oil infrastructure?
Yeah. And people aren’t going to invest that when first of all their people aren’t safe, and when secondly, they don’t even know who is going to run the government or what the laws will be because no one can tell them that. So it’s a mess.
Can we talk about China?
There’s a lot of interesting things about China in your book and China seems to be on everyone’s minds these days. Is the US ignoring China in ways that might make a crucial difference to our future in terms of the way the US interacts with the rest of the world?
There’s so many dimensions to that question that I don’t think I can do them justice. There’s this whole trade relationship and I’m not an economist so there are ways in which I can’t quite grasp the implications of some things like that they hold a very sizable chunk of our national debt as you know. So the question is whether or not China and the US have become economically interdependent to the point where we each have a vested interest in propping up the other? Or are our interests so mutually irreconcilable that conflict is inevitable? I don’t know the answer to that. I don’t that anyone knows the answer to that question at this point.
But you can look at growth in China and you can say here’s their pace of growth and here’s how much oil they’ve been using and you can think about Taiwan and see that that’s a volatile issue-
If you think that our interests are irreconcilable, then you start looking at the flash points. Taiwan is a flash point, but so is oil. And I do write about that and I do worry about that because the Chinese have their eyes on the same pools of oil that we rely on – which is mainly the Middle East and Africa and Central Asia. And they’re very aggressively pursuing access to those pools of oil. That has an economic consequence of driving up prices, which we’re all aware of, but it could also have a security consequence. Namely, that the Chinese are often forging alliances with regimes that may be unfriendly to the United States. So that enters into a security dilemma where the Chinese are becoming more and more reliant on Iran and therefore are predisposed to prop up the existing regime in Iran with weapons. And that has us deeply worried. So if you think that we’re eventually going to go to war with China, and there are many people who think that, then this is a very worrisome sign and it calls for very aggressive actions to try to put roadblocks in their way in the Middle East. On the other hand, if you think that ultimately we have no choice but to cooperate then that leads to a different option, one which I favor, and that is to cooperate with China in creating energy-saving strategies so they don’t become so dependent. But we have to do the same thing.
I agree. But if there is that sort of fear in the think tank world of Washington, is that enough of a motivating factor to begin changing an administration so entrenched in the oil business? Is this development with China the beginnings of something that is compelling enough to get a US government to address energy issues in a brand new way?
Well if one is intelligent enough, then the answer is yes. There’s good reason to proceed in this way. But I don’t think that’s what the Bush administration is doing. They’re being driven by their own secular parochial interests, their ties to the oil industry – and not just to specific companies but to big oil in general-
The mindset of big oil –
Yes, the mindset of big oil, well-said. And that prevents them form behaving in a way that I think would be in America’s best long term interest. They’re sacrificing our future for their present benefits. And I think that young people in this country are going to pay a very high price for this current trend of greed and selfishness.
On that note, is there anything you’ve discovered or read lately that’s inspired you towards some new way of looking at these issues and problems?
Well where I’m at here in Massachusetts is very close to what was once the 19th century Shaker movement. So my mind’s been wandering lately to their way of life. I studied them briefly when I was younger, but now I’m slowly coming to think that they were on to something. I think people mostly know of the Shakers today because of the beauty and elegance of their furniture and handicrafts, but that beauty derives from the fact that they believed in simplicity and in using no more resources than you absolutely needed to achieve a certain purpose. Everything they did was utilitarian and simple, but it was also elegant and beautiful. And that was driven by a philosophy that was communitarian and pacifistic, one of putting a very small footprint on nature yet having a rewarding spiritual life. And they were extremely successful, despite all the reasons for being skeptical about them.
But they were maligned for sure.
They were maligned, but they were also very popular. But my emphasis on the Shakers is in thinking in terms of how we are going to have to live in the future in the sense of having to learn with less. This to me is the all time challenge we face. We’re told every single day on television that the way to be happier is to have more. Bigger. More. Consume more. And that’s self-destructive behavior. But telling people they have to have less because if they don’t they’re going to be punished just isn’t going to work.
They have to believe that it’s cooler. Less is the way to go. It’s Zen.
Yes, and also just to have the realization that greater happiness could come from this way of thinking about life. The elegance and beauty of the Shaker’s way of life is an example of what I mean. This physical reality of choosing to live with less and not finding that a sacrifice or deprivation but actually something attractive and appealing. That’s the point I want to make.
An interview with the filmmaker Jan Schomburg about his short film and how it is to be in a world where everything runs backwards.
Interview by Nicola Gerndt
Translated from the German by Anna Rohleder
Photo credit: Jan Schomburg
The second law of thermodynamics states that in any closed system, disorder or entropy increases over time. But what would happen if we suddenly found ourselves in a world where order steadily increased – where time ran in the opposite direction? In Jan Schomburg’s film “Never Even,” the main character Max wakes up one morning to find himself in a world where everything runs backwards. However, he is still living by his own chronology. He actually needs something to drink but that turns out to be a real problem: Water is being absorped by the tap instead of flowing into his cup and at the takeaway they give out empty bottles, where the people spit in liquid in order to give it back when it’s filled. Finally, the love of a young woman helps him to solve his problem by giving him what he needs to survive. She fills an empty cup with lemonade and gives it to him to drink, then stays with him.
Gerndt: How did the idea come about of letting the film run backwards?
Schomburg: Letting a film run backwards is probably the oldest trick in film history. It’s as old as the idea of making a person go forward in a world that goes backward. And once we started working with this subject we found out that there are some films that are structured on this same model. ”Never Even” is special because it takes the idea to its logical conclusion in an intellectual sense. We tried not to let the visual effect be the main focus in this film. We really wanted to do a thought experiment where certain demands were made on the viewer, where they were made to think a little bit.
Essentially there is also a certain preoccupation with time when you are making films because when you cut, you have these little pieces of time you edit together and partially see backwards. So it’s an obvious next step to make that idea the subject of a film.
… but it’s not only about the flow of time?
It’s about how someone can survive in a strange world, where everything runs in the opposite direction. The direction of motion is meant to be a metaphor for a mental or emotional direction – what happens when you find yourself in a world where nothing is familiar? How do you react to that, and how do you accommodate yourself to such a world.
Does it often happen that you feel like your main character – that you somehow feel you’re in the wrong place?
Actually I feel like that relatively seldom – generally I feel pretty comfortable in my own skin. But of course there are situations where I feel alienated and where I feel like what’s happening around me doesn’t have much to do with me. Funnily enough it happens a lot when I watch TV. I have a latent addiction to TV and keep my antenna cable in the basement so I don’t watch too much, but when I do get it out and start clicking through the channels it all seems very foreign because it is partially this parallel universe which is totally self-generated. I start seeing things that I don’t understand because they’re only related to other things on TV.
In “Never Even,” things return to their initial order. What’s negative becomes positive, crimes become nice gestures, someone who throws something away gets it back. Do you sometimes wish you could undo things that have happened?
Basically I find it interesting that – physically seen -the things in our world strive towards a higher disorder. If a glass breaks, its order is smaller than the one of an unbroken glass. In a world, where everything moves backwards, the things strive against it – purely physically seen – and into a higher order. Of course there are times when you think it would be nice if you could undo something. But in the end I’m more of the opinion that you grow from terrible things in the past, that they make you into the person you are today.
When the main character Max goes out looking for nourishment he meets a girl and falls in love with her. She gives him something to drink by putting a cup to her mouth, spitting out the lemonade and giving it to him. What does thirst mean here? Is it an equivalent of love, which humans also need to live?
Thirst is a very basic human need, and that’s also what it is in the film. But thirst isn’t an automatic equivalent of love. In the film it stands more for what makes us human, for the fact that we have certain needs which can only be met when we learn how to interact with other people, when we cooperate with them and help others. Even love in this context is a metaphor for interacting with others. Of course, thirst and quenching thirst, in that the woman fills a cup which the man then drinks from, has an erotic connotation too, but really in the end the point is just that we have certain needs and asks how they can be satisfied through our interactisn with others.
Without this lover who provides him with water, Max would be lost. It’s like the foreigner who would not be able to find his way in a strange place without the help of strangers. It’s communication without language, since words spoken backwards don’t make any sense to Max. The actions of the girl, like giving him water and her warm caring for him, help Max to survive, but at the same time they force him into a deep dependency…
I would see it differently in this case. What’s especially important from my viewpoint is that they fit together, that they find a way to unite the different directions they are going in, by dancing. I like that very much as a metaphor, because dance brings together two different directions. And at the same time dance is a great symbol for culture and art, because it doesn’t go backwards or forwards and welds both together. Ideally, it’s a form of communication when you do it properly. For me, this image
of dance in the film, even when it comes apart again, is a symbol for the way you can interact with someone playfully who is a stranger.
By giving him something to drink, she breaks through the passage of their different conceptions of time, as both are brought to the same level. If you let this scene run backwards, he would be giving her something to drink… What is love, is it symbiosis?
This scene is also paradoxical, because she does it twice, which actually isn’t even possible. That’s why it is like a symbiosis or a type of perpetual motion – suddenly something is generated from itself. She fills the cup and he drinks, then she fills the cup again. But that also means she can only fill the cup because he drank from it. And if you stay with these different directions, it becomes apparent that drinking for him is excretion for her. In that sense, of course it’s symbiosis. And that’s where the suspension of thinking in terms of direction begins.
Why does she stay with him? If you kept the story going, he would just get older and more unsightly…
As for becoming unsightly, it raises the question of what the ideal of beauty really is in a world where everything runs backwards. In our world it is like that – the older you get the more unsightly you become, and in the backwards world it’s perhaps exactly the same that the old persons are juvenile there and the young people old. But we’re dealing with a love here which is above the concerns of age.
But they are really about the same age when they meet. That’s when things get started for both of them with each other.
Right, and the melancholy at the end constitutes, because in the finish they are really united in death. He will die like we do and she will break down into a sperm cell and an egg. That’s when they will really become one.
In the last scene we see him as an old man holding an infant in his arms, which is supposed to be her. For us it’s kind of the image of a grandfather…
Absolutely. It’s also referring to the fact that when you get old you become a bit infantile again and maybe it’s all at the same level. When I was about 12 I had fantastic conversations with my great-aunt about Hermann Hesse, which you can enjoy reading apparently only under or over a certain age. I think when you get old you become a little simpler in your feelings, more immediate, you’re not thinking anymore about a career and you have time again for the things you liked doing when you were a kid. That’s why I can imagine that in the film those two characters really understood each other when she’s 6 and he’s 60…
Why did you choose the title “Nie solo sein” (Never alone)?
“Never Even” is the title of the film in English, which actually means something quite different. You’re somewhat limited by language when you want to create a palindrome, in other words, if the title is supposed to read the same forwards as well as backwards. And since “never alone” isn’t a palindrome in English, we looked for something else, and “never even” was a title that also fit the film.
How was the film received abroad?
It was received very well everywhere – the humor of it is universal. Everyone can follow it because everyone’s thought of something like it at some time. In the end it’s a very intuitive thought experiment.
The film was awarded various prizes – did you expect it to be such a success?
To be honest, we did actually expect that. The other films I’ve made are rather depressing tragedies that are a bit hard to digest, and I thought, I should try to make a movie that is fun for the audience. At the same time it’s also a film that fits in with the festival formula because it’s a very intuitive idea that’s immediately comprehensible. Though at the beginning we got a lot of rejections. The film had a relatively slow start, then gradually things improved. The high point was when it was shown
on the closing night of the New York Film Festival before 2,800 people in Avery Fisher Hall as the supporting movie for “Sideways” by Alexander Payne.
How did the film change you – you said you started dreaming backwards at that time?
It was a bit strange to spend all day thinking about how things go backwards – is it logical for him to do that, shouldn’t he smile earlier… At some point those thoughts just get in your head so that at night you also start dreaming backwards. Fortunately that more or less subsided and I won’t make another film backwards again anytime soon.
What’s next for you?
My next project is to make a science fiction film in collaboration with the ZDF channel’s “The Little TV Play”. Shooting will start in spring 2006. It’s sort of similar in a way to “Never Even” as it’s also a relatively clear external idea, although my hope is that I can combine the tragic and depressing for the first time with a light, charming topic in this film, as was the case in “Never Even.” The story in this movie is that in the year 2020, plastic surgery has been perfected to the point that a 70 year-old can be surgically transformed into a 20 year-old without anyone being able to notice. In that sense the “old/young” subject is there again, but this time with the question of what really is this bodily shell if it can be modified arbitrarily, what does that mean for our identity. A philosophical, theoretical inquiry which is hopefully going to be a lot of fun.
Translated from the German by ANNA ROHLEDER
Über neue Videoarbeiten der amerikanischen Künstlerin Jacqueline Goss, 2005.
For my meeting with video artist Jacqueline Goss, who is living in Berlin for a few months, I picked a pizzeria on Rosenthaler Platz. I brought a tape recorder along to record our conversation, but this was rendered almost useless by the noise of the traffic outside and the drone of an espresso machine. Those sounds were an appropriate sort of annoyance, however, given the issues that Goss deals with in her work.
Jacqueline Goss is interested in the symbolic power relations of translation processes and recording systems which are supposed to aid in understanding and orientation. Such systems, though complex in themselves, seem to promise a simpler future. Measuring, communicating and analyzing are the methods Goss both observes and uses in composing her videos. She uses all the known cultural techniques as her departure point, adding her private observations on scientific fields like genetics, cartography and writing as she goes. Her observations also function as critical commentary on the techniques they address. In so doing, these systems can also be interpreted as models for other, similar scenarios. The unifying element that brings the two levels of criticism and modeling together is either voice-over or an inserted text. The systems are described very slowly and indirectly. Her video piece “The 100th Undone”, a clear statement against stem cell research (which has only gotten the green light so far in Germany), is also a summary of the milestones achieved in biotechnology. Dolly the sheep (February 1997) begins that list. Soon after is the biotech firm Celera: by having put together the first copy of the human genome, Celera concretized the image of DNA as something book-like and readable. Later in the video, Goss is shown looking up all the entries for her own name in a phone book. Information related to various companies who have participated in stem cell research, as well as the number of their relative patents, is also added to the list. As the piece continues, Goss herself dreams of her mother’s murder, wants to undo it, but must first overcome level 99: “The 100th Undone.”
In “There there square” (2003), a 7-minute Flash animation, the cartographic history of the United States is told in short bursts, and finishes at a place of particular personal meaning, a piece of land owned by Goss’s own father. At the beginning, the squares of the map are shuffled like cards, different Pantone color fields move over one another, spin, and then disappear. “Like everyone else, you look at maps a lot lately,” begins the hatshort subjective history along the edges of the map which includes all 52 states; its introductory sentence making a subtle reference to post-9-11 America. Goss continues thinking out loud: you do it the same way, “making the parts you know best bigger.” A cartographer going along the Tennessee border did it differently when he ran into the Mississippi further north than planned. He didn’t correct his route; instead, as Goss relates, he went along with it, stating: “I think I have found the American Way.” Perhaps it is subjective
desires and projections that actually determine the creation of territories. “The map expands to fill the square.” At the end, the camera zooms in on a point that can no longer be distinguished geographically. It is her father driving past his own piece of land in order to see how it appears to others. The viewer might then see distance as a means to achieving objectivity. This symbolic statement not only points to the overview-regime of the cartographer, it also draws metaphorical attention to the actions of many current political decision-makers as a whole.
Moving to another historical stage: as part of Stalinist imperialism in the early 1920s, one newly created culture collided with an older one. At that time, the Russian psychologist Alexander Luria traveled from Moscow to the Uzbek Ferghana Valley to interview the Muslim population living there. He wanted to investigate the influence of new literacy programs ordered by Moscow on their logical thinking processes. Luria published the transcripts much later in his book “Cognitive Development: Its Cultural and Social Foundations” (1976). Using these interviews, Goss created her piece “How to Fix the World” (2004). The interview subjects in the video appear clever and crafty in the way they interpret and evade the tasks they are given. In the video sequence “Studying the Writing of Lenin,” a lecture hall is shown in which students are gathered, bending over Stalin’s writings. An animated circle moves over the scene like a magnifying glass, changing the Roman letters into Cyrillic characters. Goss scans documentary pictures and translates their messages. In the middle of the video, an encomium to Stalin is recited called “Be immortal, great Stalin.” In contrast to oral relativism, this constructed text is an extreme example of literalness.
Political indoctrination also becomes apparent in a concrete question and answer situation. As to whether all people are equal, an old man replies as though quoting from party literature that he only sees a difference between land owners and workers. In “How to Fix the World,” Goss reminds us of the role that language plays in the attempt by governments to influence the future of their own country as well as that of other countries. Even the laconically formulated title of this piece is a reference to the intention, as crass as it is absurd, to change cultural prejudices. Using a nonsense phrase to illuminate the sinister use of propaganda to twist the truth, the video ends with a chorus intoning, “Precious metals do not rust. Gold is a precious metal. Do precious metals rust? Precious metal rusts.“
Goss’s work tends to question the creation and sustainability of the facts and rules that surround us. Currently, she is working on a video piece about the meter, the European standard of measurement. For this piece she traveled through France, as France is the country where, at the end of the 18th century, the meter was first derived from a piece of brass of that same length, and which can still be seen today in Paris.
interview by Andrea Hiott, 2004
A profile of Banuta Rubess, a director and playwright living in Riga, Latvia. Though Riga is one of the new cities on the map for young artists and writers in Europe, it’s a city where change has never been easy,and the past never forgotten.
Riga, one of the oldest and most architectually preserved cities in Europe, survived the hell of the 2nd World War only to emerge into further complications from a forced loyalty to Russia. At a time when the general mood of Europe was one of exhausted relief, a time when Russia – having just defeated Nazi Germany – was hero and savior to most, Latvia was battling the “winner” from another angle. Riga is very aware of its Russian influences. A large part of the population speaks Russian rather than Latvian and there is a palpable tension – usually enacted in one’s choice of language – between a city reasserting its Latvian identity and a city redefined by a Russian influence that, whether good or bad, is impossible to extract. The Museum of Occupation in Riga, an amazing building flanked by Soviet-style statues in the heart of the old city, testifies to this convolution. It tells the story of Latvia’s occupation between 1940 and 1991; first by Russia, then Germany, and then again by Russia. There is a difficult parallel to the stories from the Russian occupation and the more recognized suffering that caused WWII. One feels the strong suggestion that those who saved so many from suffering under Nazi rule inflicted just as much darkness on the “saved” and yet, unlike Germany, have never formally apologized or admitted credit. During my time in Riga, I was told that the Russian Ambassador had recently visited the Museum of Occupation and made light of its exhibition, dismissing it as misguided and questioning whether there had ever even been such a thing as an “occupation” at all.
I wanted to talk with someone living in the midst of these contrasts and was lucky enough to find director and writer Banuta Rubess. Just before my trip to Latvia, I’d heard a BBC program called “My European City” in which Rubess had taken the announcers on a tour of the city. I contacted her and asked for a meeting. She was interested in talking but her schedule was so tight that we had to reschedule two or three times before finally managing to meet during a coffee break between two of her rehearals. Shaking hands with her in the lobby of the New Riga Theatre, I wondered how such a petite body could manufacture such palpable surpluses of energy. Sparkling but serene, she led me through a labyrithe of staircases and small rooms, sporadically introducing me to the smoking actors and actresses that leaned against the beige walls of the building. As we continued, first up one staircase, then into a cozy red-seated theatre, and eventually back out into yet another stairwell, she told me that our project had really struck a familiar cord in relation to her own life and
Rubess grew up in Canada but ultimatley made her home, along with her two children and husband – himself a talented British composer – in Riga. Banuta’s parents were Latvian refugees. Her grandfather was sent to Siberia during the Soviet occupation. Although she was born in Canada, she told me that she grew up with a consciousness of not belonging to the place where she was born: “I actually should feel very Canadian but I don’t and that is because I was brought up to think of myself as Latvian. It was very important in my family that we keep the Latvian culture alive. At the time when my parents left Latvia, the place was being systematically destroyed by the Soviet Union, so we felt it was our duty to help Latvia become independent again.” In the 70’s, she began making regular trips to Riga. “I came a lot until the KGB decided they didn’t want me to come anymore.” Then once the Soviet Union fell apart in the late 80’s, she started coming back regularly, doing projects and working in Riga as much as possible. It was in 1998 that she realized how strong her connection to the city really was and moved there with her family:“I felt I belonged here more than I belonged anywhere else. I don’t know how to explain it except to say that it was like there was a pocket here waiting for me to fill it.“ Leading me into a courtyard, up yet another staircase, and finally settling in a cafe that might very well have been modeled from a cubist painting, bartender included, I asked her if the move to Riga had been a positive one for her and her family: „This city has been a tremendous stimulus for us all. It’s a demanding place, but it’s a place where people are really looking in all the corners, searching things out. It’s a very dynamic environment, especially for an artist. It demands things of you.“ We talked a bit about how much one’s environment can influence his or her creation.
„One thing about living in a place like Berlin or Riga is that the city itself forces you to deal with some very major questions – about life, about freewill, about the human’s capability to create and destroy. The culture is very strong and that can’t help but become a part of your own daily questioning and awareness.” On that note, I asked her about the tension that I was feeling between the Russian and Latvian population. She said that it was, of course, a constant presence in daily life but that she did not feel it as much in her creative workplace as she did in everyday interactions on the street: “Sometimes there’s conflict because we don’t speak much Russian. When someone speaks to us in Russian, we’ll reply in Latvian, but then that person will not speak Latvian with us, either because they don’t know any Latvian, or because they want to make some sort of political point.” Language and origin are undeniable issues here. Her children can speak Latvian, and in their schools, they are also learning Russian and English. The connection with Russia is not something one can refuse, yet it’s also something that isn’t very often openly debated. “Honestly for Latvians it’s almost like a taboo to speak about Russia. It’s painful. It’s very hard and still very confusing and close. It’s something that needs to get discussed but doesn’t.“
She elaborated by saying that one’s perception of Russia has a lot to do with one’s age and what view of Russia was presented to them as they were growing up. ”Many people grew up being told that the Soviet Union was protecting them from the bad United States, and so they feel some loyalty and connection in a way that I never did.“
About this time in our conversation, a herd of young thesbians entered from one of the corridors and the room was suddenly so crowded and loud that I was afraid my recorder would be unable to pick up her voice. She leaned in closer to finish her thought: „It’s as if the story has changed from generation to generation, and this can leave people feeling very uneasy about what the truth actually is.”
Like every other interesting city in the world, Riga is still struggling with its history, its identity, and the direction of its future. This may sound like a generalization, but it is also a fact. The confusion of any city’s cumulative aura is a sign of the dynamic nature of its diverse life, yet also reflects a very human desire to categorize and define. Patterns suggest that change is the only constant, but a pattern is something with form, and so the entire enterprise is constantly turning back into itself, even while growing. In the midst of such movement, one is often able to
find a great deal of inspiration and creativity. In that sense, its no surprise that Riga is steadily becoming one of the cities that many artists are seeking out in Europe. I wanted to ask her a bit about one of her latest projects – a site-specific theatre performance called Escape From Troy which explores the experience, both historical and modern, of those who have been forced to leave or flee their homeland – but glancing quickly at her watch, she suddenly rose to pay for our drinks. She apologized sincerley for not having more time but I could see that her thoughts had already drifted to other things. „Are you sure you can find your way out?“ she asked as she was leaving. I nodded yes and thanked her, the both of us deciding that we would meet again as soon as our schedules would allow. She disappeared through one of the odd-angled doors and as I finished my last sip of tea, I realized that I actually had no idea where I was or how to exit. 15 minutes and numerous wrong turns later I emerged onto a familiar street and went to meet some friends waiting in a bar nearby. Before they could ask me how the interview had went I ordered a glass of Riga’ infamous Balsam, my mind already searching for the next possible time I might return. One cannot discover Riga in a week, but at least I had begun.
You can find more information about Escape From Troy and other works by Rubess at www.Culturebase.net.
When I first picked up Anne Applebaum’s book Between East and West I was nearly twenty years old and thought I knew a good bit about the lay of the land in Europe and the former Soviet Union. Her book proved me embarrassingly wrong, as I’d not heard of many of the places she mentioned: Vilnius, Perloja, Radun, Kaliningrad, Kishinev; all places of important transition in the East, places with rich traditions, contrasts and intertwined histories, places that perhaps chart the conversion of empire-to-nation better than any, but places that were never mentioned in my school. Applebaum know this geography well. While she is best known for her latest Nobel-prize winning book Gulag, A History, a book that could not be more important in this time when everyone is a bit unsure of the real definition and proclivity of that large landmass known as Russia, her first book and one that resonates most with many people my age in Berlin, is Between East and West.
Gulag is rightly praised. It is a brilliant and well-researched look into the Soviet concentration camps that held millions of prisoners under communist rule. These were places of repression and terror that before had gone almost undocumented. At a time when “a vast majority of elites in Europe and the U.S. are concerned about Russia’s retreat from democracy” (Aspen Institute 2005), it seems right that those elites might start to learn a bit more about the history of the power that concerns them. But it also seems a good time to get to know the borderlands, the crumbs of the nation-obsessed mind, the once- Russia, now independent or trying-to-be. Places like Lithuania, Belarus, and the Ukraine are some of the most democracy and/or totalitarian prone places in the neighborhood of Europe. These are the places where change is both crucial and opposed, needed and yet often threatening or dangerous for its people.
When I asked Ms. Applebaum about the current situation in Belarus, she summed it up as “A dictatorship run by a crazy person.” But she also went on to say that there was an opposition in Belarus, and that the West needed to do as much as possible to expand civil society and address the opposition there that favors democracy. With the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine, I noticed that myself and some of my (intelligent and otherwise well-informed) friends in the States actually began to talk about this till then unheard of place, a land that suddenly had the papers in America debating whether its amazing revolution was or was not “an American creation, a sophisticated and brilliantly conceived exercise in Western branding and mass marketing”. Americans, I often here, like to believe that everything somehow relates back to us. When I asked Ms. Applebaum about this theory, she said:
“The US had no strategic need for the Ukraine. They don’t have any oil and there’s no reason why we would be there except for democracy. Far from it being a plot, I think most people in America were shocked.”
But was she?
“I was surprised just because my previous experience with the Ukraine wouldn’t have led me to think that they had that much national energy, but clearly they do now. I was very pleased.”
She went on to say that her husband, a former Polish politician who now works for a think tank in Washington, had actually been quite involved in the process, working there as a vote monitor. The current situation in the Ukraine certainly becomes more interesting when one knows a bit more about its history, a history that Applebaum touches on fairly extensively in her book. She wrote Between East and West out of her own personal travels through the lands between the Baltic and the Black Sea in the early nineties, just after the fall of Communism. This was the time just after the collapse o the Soviet Union and people were reasserting old identities while simultaneously trying to rid themselves of the past. They were excited but unsure of how to continue in a world where they were again allowed to create and believe in their own identities, identities that had been passed around and renamed more times than the current generation could even remember.
In her first book, Applebaum takes trains and walks through these borderlands, interviewing people who live in Lithuania but consider themselves Polish, or who live in Belarus but adamantly demand to be called Lithuanian. It is clear that the people in these lands have learned to have a strong definition of themselves in relation to something external, but what that external is changes from doorstep to doorstep. In fact, in some of Applebaum’s interviews, it becomes very difficult to see any lines of demarcation outside of the mental boundaries that these people have erected; people’s definitions of allegiance are rather formula-less, all word of-the-mouth but central to the lives of those who hold them. Sometimes it isn’t even a land they identify so strongly with but a religion. Ms. Applebaum told me that in some places she’d ask the people “What are you?” and they’d respond “Catholic” or “Orthodox” and when she’d say “Where are you from?” the response was often “I’m from here” “Tutejy”.
I asked Ms. Applebaum what had led her to travel and write about these places, and if it was difficult for her to make this journey during such a time of change.
“I guess it started because I was living in Poland in the late 80’s [working as the Warsaw correspondent for The Economist] and while living there I met a lot of people who were from the East and the Baltic States and Ukraine. At that time, there was a lot of action there because they were just getting ready to declare their independence. I asked myself why I knew so little about these places, so that created a natural inclination on my part, but it was also a news story. I first went as a journalist. I did the trip that the book was based on in the early 90’s, just after the Gorbachev coup. In many ways, it was actually easier to travel then than it is now. It was so unusual to see Westerners then. People were very nice to you and helped you as much as they could. It was a very odd moment because communism was gone and it was before any of the mafia untergroups had really been organized. One didn’t have the sense that it was dangerous. Nobody was independent yet, so there was still this feeling of potential about what was to come.”
I wondered if all of her work with people who had such varied and complex histories had affected her opinion of what it means to be defined by a nation. We inevitably began to talk about the current debate on immigration and I asked for her views about the situations in the EU and the U.S.; of the different ways that this problem is being dealt with, ignored, or handled.
“I think there are very different traditions [in the U.S. and Europe] and naturally this is reflected in their policies. Here in the U.S. there’s a tradition of thinking ‘anybody can become American, all you have to do is take an oath, etc. If you’re born here, you’re automatically a citizen, but in Germany, there is a very different definition of nationalism and nation, one based much more on ethnicity and inheritance. For that reason, Germany has had a lot more trouble with immigrants in terms of how to accept and take them in. But I think that’s Germany’s prerogative. I don’t think every country has to be just like the United States.”
Not sure I understood clearly and wondering if this was a little one-sided, as the United States is certainly having its own immigration problems as well, I asked her if something was being left out of the picture she’d painted. She agreed with that, but said that the point she wanted to make was that the very perception of immigration is different. In America, we are quite use to having people come in and assimilate, but she finds that this is not so much the case in Europe where people have firmer ties to one distinct idea of nation.
“The trouble for Europe is that while its legitimate for Europeans to have a different definition of nationalism and for them to have a different idea of who is Dutch or who is German or French or whatever, I don’t think they’ve given that enough thought, or they haven’t figured out what to do with people who aren’t easily assimilable once they’re there. So then you get these phenomena like what you have in Holland and parts of France where you have these big Muslim slums at the edges of major cities. Everybody knows it’s a problem, but nobody’s been able to come up with the answer yet.
You just can’t solve a problem like this quickly. It’s something each country has to work out on its own. Your definition of what you are as a nation isn’t something that changes in a day and I
don’t think you can just pass a law and make it better. It’s something that will have to change over time. People need to continue thinking about what assimilation means and how they’re going to structure their citizenship and so on.”
With all the current discussion of immigration, it’s helpful to read some of Applebaum’s early interviews with people who perhaps have never had a consistent, chosen land or nation but who nevertheless have a very distinct sense of community identity and history. Much of this is based on language and tradition, but as borders become more and more fluid, it seems obvious that one small way to ease the birth of a more global identity is to understand a bit more about each other’s past. In this sense, Applebaum’s books and work provide a necessary documentation of voices that are oftentimes the ones who could teach us the most about the present, but who are, ironically, the least likely to be heard.
interviews from 2005, Andrea Hiott
A List of Who We Are
It is often the intangible but intimately lucid nudges and signals of our family, peers, and lovers’ judgments that navigate us through our daily decisions. And it’s usually these decisions which, when compiled, create the more obvious direction of our lives; the signature direction, the one others define us by or know us as; the one we may cling to even if it makes us miserable or eats away at our potential. Henry Park, the main character in Chang Rae Lee’s bestselling, first novel Native Speaker, gets confrontedwith such a definition head on – on the first page in fact – the first line: The day my wife left she gave me a list of who I was. Not such an easy thought – to have the person you love create a list that defines you, and then leave. It’s even less comfortable for the main character, Henry Park, as Park is a man already regulated to the sidelines by his society and his own conception of self. He’s a Korean American living the new and ever-more-subtle experience of the American immigrant. Park is riding that paradox of seeming incredibly normal (i.e. not particularly noticeable) while simultaneously being exceptionally un-included, even if only by “the usual“ and “taken-for-granted” norm. Perhaps only the immigrant could understand such an axiomatic composition of self; yet it is this lonely but involved position that gives Park a truer view of the society that surrounds him.
Chang Rae Lee is also a Korean American. ”Native Speaker” was his first book, but he is also the author of A Gesture Life and the more recent Aloft. He is a professor at Princeton, a PEN/Hemingway award winner and one of those names you might have seen on lists like The New Yorker’s 20 Best Young Writers.
Lee understands the immigrant experience first hand – he was 3 when his family moved to the US from Korea – but he is equally as articulate in describing the typical American lifestyle and the oddities and pains that arise in trying to live up to such a widespread but consistently impossible idea, the American dream.
There are many places to dream from, and Lee finds the ones we recognize easily. All of Lee’s work deals with the outsider and the brands we stick on one another based on such things as race, color, image, and language. He effortlessly gets inside the experience and takes one to the place where truth meets label. His books deal with the immigrant experience and those alienated by culture, but they are also human stories, complex and without cliché. He simply comes at it from the angle he knows best, matching pieces of the puzzle of collective society with that of the individual, showing us relationships that are constantly in motion, not always fair, and at times even ambivalent about the assimilatory necessities and differences within a nation’s mix of race, religion, history, and worth.
Pulse: A word that is often brought up in the debate over immigration is “foreigner”. What does this word mean to you? In your experience, has it acquired any specific connotation?
Chang-Rae Lee: Well I think certainly its negative, or at least it’s used negatively. Though for me, in some ways I can’t actually say that word the way it’ s usually used because I so deeply identify with the human moment of it.That word holds so many stories for me, both personally and externally, so my relationship to it is quite different than it is for most people. But I think even for most people it’s a word that really cordons off and divides. It’s a really dangerous word. I think that in my writing I’ve always wanted to give a voice to the void that that word suggests, to give humanity and a narrative to “the Other” so that they can no longer be thought of as “outside”. I think “foreigner” is a word that precludes imagination or any further thinking because its shorthand for “dangerous”, “unknown”, “insidious” – it invisibly stands for all those things wrapped into one. It’s been used throughout history for no good. But aside from those connotations, my own personal view of the word foreigner –intellectually and almost spiritually – and in a way that isn’t negative- would be that it’s the idea of someone who is very conscious of self and context, someone who is very conscious of his or her place.
It seems to be relative to the idea of alienation – whether it is cultural displacement or dealing with family or love, or maybe even with prestige or power – it’s about being outside of something that you want to be inside of, or at least recognized by in some way.
Yes but I think the next idea, the following idea that is perhaps the most important one, is how does that positioning then influence self, then influence who that person is. I do think we’ve all felt alienated, but I think for some that alienation becomes part of a core character. And that core character of course has social and cultural implications for how people are treated. I think – in terms of the immigrant experience – one changes their identity in a sense, whether they want to or not, and therein lies the problem, this tension between having to change and feeling a certain lack of control over the result. I think foreigners have much less control over how their selves and characters are seen and treated. From everything from going to a bureaucratic office and being treated in a certain way to interactions on the street where they live, being misunderstood or unable to ask for what they need – all those sorts of experiences eventually accrue to a deeper influence.
My mother, for instance, was someone who was wonderfully articulate and proud and very capable, but she was capable in the Korean language. When we moved to America, because of her English skills, or lack of them, and her outsider status in the community, she became a very different person. She was tentative. She was quiet. She was yielding. I mean obviously there was a core person that didn’t change but in her day-to-day life, which is really the main portion of a life, she had to act and react in different ways than she had before the plane trip over.
So what does that mean? It means context is important for how selves are. I think a lot of people who feel as if they are established and belong to a place never really understand what that is;they don’t understand that they are who they are not only because they were born that way but because they have a place in their landscape or society or context that’s been solid and unchanging. Once you change that foundation, the self actually changes as well. Maybe not drastically, but certainly in a meaningful way, in a way that affects that life.
But there is another thing that I want to point out also and that’s that a person does change when they move to a new environment,but that this process goes the other way too. Foreigners change, but they also change us. They change the society around them even if they don’t have, at least on the outside, much of a voice or power. Slowly, inexorably, the ground shifts because of their presence.
Perhaps with time the contradiction even dissolves.
I’ve seen that in practice over the 35 years that I’ve lived in America. From when we were seen as a family who was just really a foreign entity because there was no other family like us who lived in this small town that we lived in, to a time now where the same family coming over would be much more accepted and, in some ways, less acknowledged because people wouldn’t find it such a stark detail. Not to say that anyone can fully assimilate easily, but it is certainly much different now. Maybe my mother would have had a different life had she come over now as opposed to 35 years ago.
But even today a lot of people still feel really outside the normal community. A Chinese friend of mine lives in New York City and there’s an entire community there of young people who only speak Chinese. He says that he has a sense of being two people: one when he is with his Chinese peers and another when he’s with his English-speaking friends. It’s as though somehow he’s always outside.
Of course. And that’s because there’s a mainstream context and a marginal context that are both important to that person. And there’s no way that you can really bridge the two.
You don’t think so?
Well the two will be bridged at some point perhaps because of how the larger culture will change, because of the shift, but what does that mean? I think it goes back to what we were talking about before: the culture doesn’t change quickly enough, so the self changes. And in significant ways: there’s a new consciousness built from that bifurcation.
It’s an odd sort of circle though: context changes the self and then the self changes the culture.
Right. And even more interesting is that ultimately the majority of these changes are untraceable from moment to moment.
Well I guess you can never really set it aside and look at it.
No you can’t, but we know it’ s there just because of basic human feeling.
One thing that worries me, or that I think about, is how many people are silently negotiating these two different realities. For instance, some kids go to school and are just everyday kids but then they go home to their parents who speak another language,who have difficulty with their new country’s language, or who might live in reference to a totally different culture. How well do you think the peers of such people appreciate or recognize this tension or difference that the children of immigrants have to balance?
Actually, I don’t think they can if they haven’t experienced it themselves. What you just described was exactly my life. I moved to America when I was three years old, and I only spoke Korean until I started school. Even then, when I came home from school, particularly with my mother, she would speak to me only in Korean. Even once I was seven or eight years old, she would talk to me only in Korean and I would understand everything but by then I’d reply to her in English.
And was that difficult for you?
I didn’t think so then. I was just a little kid. And kids are good with languages. They can move between them pretty fluidly and easily. But then later on…well, I guess that’s the reason I wrote some of those books I’ve written.
Of course. Your cells remembered.
Yes, I think so. Those experiences don’t happen without some kind of imprint, some kind of consequence. And the consequence doesn’t necessarily have to be negative, but again it’s a consequence of self-consciousness. And honestly I’m not so sure that that particular awareness could have come in any other way. It’s derivative of a very particular context and experience. To look at it from the other side, I’m sure I can’t understand the feeling that people who were born and then grew up in one city – people who have lived in one place their entire lives – might have. That’s something inaccessible to me on a certain level.
Though you were young and assimilated easily, it must have been difficult for your parents: suddenly the son was speaking English and being “American” while the parents were still trying to figure out this new language and culture and yet still be „the parents”. They’re still trying to realize and figure out what “American” is while their son is naturally acquiring those qualities
with much less effort and time.
Right. That’s true. It was harder for them. The concepts of society were more fixed. I think in all of our cultures, European and American, we’re still dealing with immigrants and their problems. But the immigrant problems are really mostly the native’s problems. It’s caught up with this troubling question of ‘how are they changing our society?’ I can understand the idea, but I could never have a nationalist point of view on this because my very sense of culture is that culture is dynamic, and so to be German or to be Turkish or to be anything, isn’t fixed. We might think it’s fixed at any given point and time, but its not. Cultures are always influencing and changing one another. And I guess I’m just not afraid of that dynamism.
My initial feeling about immigration is that it’s all good. Why should we fight this? But then I think it’s too easy to take that view, and so I want to understand why we do feel this need to have such well-defined borders and boundaries among us. Why do we block each other off this way and distinguish each other by groups?
Right. Why is that? Is it because we want to preserve a certain sort of national character and visage? What does that even mean? I don’t know the specific impetus.
Tracing it back gets complicated. Especially in America where its already an assimilation of so many other cultures.
Well I think in America we just have a little more experience with this. I think with the EU perceptions are really starting to change there as well. People are starting to really look at these problems in new ways. I find it fascinating, but other people find it frightening of course.
I find it interesting – and frightening. Only in the sense that it’s very difficult to understand or to find out why we think we have to preserve these particular forms of national identity, an identity that is already an assimilation of other identities.
Well I think that’s why these discussions have to happen, so that people can realize what this need is actually about and then ask themselves if it’s really valid. A lot of it is beyond anyone’s control – even governments because places and cultures change regardless of all these rules governing who can and cannot come in.
But at the same time, one has to ask, could we even exist without these rules and borders?
Yes, if everyone had open borders, what would that actually be like? It’s a difficult question.
There are so many variables to consider, but when all is said and done, maybe it would be possible.
Yes, maybe it would be something positive for us all. But there are just too many factors to be able to see it clearly at the moment. We just have to keep communicating and see where that can take us…
Jesper Nielsen, coordinator of the East-West Dialogue, a conference about European identity and politics held for young professionals each year in Denmark, speaks with one of the dialouge’s participants, Val Tchoukova, about the direction of the European Union.
Val Tchoukova: Would you classify the European identity – if we can speak of one – as problematic? In your opinion, is the idea of a united “European identity” too abstract or illusary to actually be achieved?
Jesper Nielsen: I think that it is possible to talk about a European identity of sorts. And it is not problematic; in fact it is very liberating because it limits the constraints of the nation on some people. It is a kind of cosmopolitan post-national identity. It is cosmopolitan in the sense that people feel obligations as strongly towards individuals in other European countries as they do with their own fellow national citizens, many times an even stronger obligation. However, it is also a very individualized form of identity. I believe it is a cosmopolitan identity based primarily on personal experience and interaction with other Europeans and only secondly on democratic principle (as expressed in the European Constitution for instance).
It is primarily an identity which is developed on an individual basis whenever persons are connected with concrete European networks of individuals, some formal, some informal, centered around events, tasks, interests, needs and so on.
For instance, when people educate themselves in another European country, work in another country, participate in seminars, arrange cultural events, are members of European organizations and networks etc., then they begin to understand more of what a European identity might look like or be for them. However, in situations such as these, when the identity is not based so much on democratic principle as it is on personal interaction, there are then limits to how strong the sense of obligation to other Europeans, and to Europe itself, might be.
The sense of obligation is not particularly felt towards all Europeans as Europeans, or as EU citizens. I don’t see many signs that people in Europe identify strongly with European institutions (the European Parliament or the EU Constitution), European culture, European history, or other European interests. It is not, for the moment at least, that kind of cosmopolitan identity. Of course there is a sense of Europe as being opposed to the USA, but it is not something new or something uniquely European. French people always opposed the USA in terms of their foreign policy – now we’ve just discovered that other people and nations in Europe feel the same way. This of course unites people, but not necessarily as ”Europeans”.
I would say there is a critical voice in Europe, represented by the East-West Dialogue for instance, which takes these ideas apart and searches for an explanation in the details. This voice demands or at least urges others to seek out the truth of what this new identity could mean for them. Is this voice the beginning of a postmodern European identity, one which experiences “difference”, “unification” and ”the Other” through a positive unification with the idea of European identity?
There is definitely a critical voice being developed in Europe that is demanding the EU find a clear direction. However the demands are on behalf of special interests and sectors of society (like animals rights, lobbying for business interests, youth, educational resources etc.). So politics are transformed from being exclusively national towards being partly national, partly European, and of course also partly global. It is a good thing when individuals, organizations, movements, networks, and businesses can have not just national but also transnational influence. However, this is still something very fragmented: it is not a unifying “European movement”. I think politics in a post national world will be a fragmenting, not a unifying, force. This is a good thing because it is liberating, but it comes with a cost. Law is unified in Europe but people and politics are not. Unified European laws further special interests much more than they further any idea of ‘a common European good’! But on the other hand – what is the ‘common European good’? It can only be that all Europeans respect the rule of law and majority rule (with minority/national guarantees) regardless of what nationality or culture make up the majority or benefit from the law. I don’t agree that European parties promote a common European good, unless this is defined as merely the absence of war!
How would you comment on the direction of the homogenic EU consciousness, one which could potentially change (rather than develop) the other identities that sustain it?
I believe that a post-national cosmopolitan identity, a European identity understood as described above, can co-exist with more traditional identities, national identities, regional identities, minority identities, religious identities and so on – not only within our societies, but also within one person. I think reality shows us that today we live in a network society: some networks are national, some local, some European, some global, and there are more networks for some people than there are for others. This makes a multi-dimensional identity quite unproblematic for most people. It is already a condition for existence in a certain sense.
How would you define European culture in the blurred and flunctuating realities of globalization? Culture is no longer just a matter of national identity and national memory: it is also a matter of cultural exchange and cultural creativity between nations. In what way will the rich mosaic of national cultures in Europe develop?
I am not too sure about the importance of a European culture in this discussion. There is high culture and consumer/popular culture shared by Europeans, but this is more of a universal culture nowadays than it is a European culture. Europe has a unique political construction; therefore, it’s identity in a certain sense can be based mainly on politics and to some degree of mutual political obligation (though there are limits to this sense of obligation). European culture is also irrelevant for Europe as an identity construction. There is a mosaic of cultures in Europe, from dominating national cultures, to strong regional cultures, to immigrant cultures, subcultures, to weak and slowly dying minority cultures. In Europe, they are all connected by family resemblance, and of course will be more so in the future as a result of enhanced cultural exchanges. There is a continuous transformation of cultures and cultural expressions, but it will not result in any one unified identifiable European culture distinguishable from a universal culture, be it high culture or a consumer/popular culture.
When we think about the reality of constructing an authentic identity, one that overcomes such limiting boundaries as race, gender, class, sexual practice, alienation, nationalism, fear etc., it seems difficult to imagine replacing these differences with a decentralized subject, one without heterogeneity or recognition of an opposite. Is it possible to have a unified European identity without the boundary of the Other? All identities, being European, national, regional, minority, majority, personal, must have at its core both a sense of “sameness” and a sense of “otherness”. I hope that individuals in Europe can think of other individuals living in Europe as equal to them, when it comes to enjoying a wide range of political, social and cultural rights. But at the same time, in other areas, especially in areas of culture and language, they can still see themselves as different and diverse. In other words, I hope that Europeanism and national identity can co-exist, that a life without boundaries can co-exist with a life with boundaries. I think it can. I see no reason why it shouldn’t.
Photo Credit: Volker Wolpert
Diary of a City, 2005
Although Cairo is considered to be one of the most polluted and populated places in the world, here we still look to it as a great and old city of our past. It traces the modern in us as well as our history.
Some of my friends abroad think that Egyptians ride camels and horses, and though I hope that to still be true somewhere, it certainly isn’t the case in Cairo. Here we have cars so modern that even the people in Austria or Ireland have yet to drive them. Still, from the outside we are considered a developing country, a place that tourists still sometimes venture to visit.
If you do come to Egypt, I suggest you come in the winter. My country is wonderful in this season, so purified and clean. I never get back home before midnight in winter. I spend all my time after work wandering and enjoying my city. The temperature is usually about 17 degrees Celsius during the day, and drops to 8 during the night. But lately, keeping with other trends of our city, the weather has started to change, drifting more towards a shocking similarity with the US and Europe.
Simultaneous with these changes in the weather, the Egyptians have started wanting political change as well. Recently there were large demonstrations here. People walked around holding signs that read “ENOUGH!” Everyone knew this was in direct reference to the urgent demand for changing political law to allow multi-lateral elections for the presidential position in Egypt. The people wanted to be heard. They wanted democracy. And because of their insistence, things have begun to change. We now have the freedom to choose between candidates in a direct election for the presidency.
When I take a look at my life here I find that there are a few truisms to be told and they all revolve around money. If you are a rich man here, you can live happily and safely. Life is easy and comfortable for those who can afford it. You can even get a drivers license from home this way: there’s no driving test or person-to-person situation needed. If you have the money, you can get what you want. But if you don’t, life can be a real misery.
Still, like I said, things are slowly changing. The cultural life is gaining its voice. One such revolution is the reading festival now held here every summer. This is very important to Egypt because it allows for great books to be reprinted and available in cheap editions that everyone can afford.
I think if there was one thing I wanted most for my country at the moment it would be that our capital would set a solid goal for its future, a way of planning for our city to find its rank alongside other major cities in the world. I also dream that we will go to many areas of the desert again so that the population might be able to more evenly distribute itself across this land. There is actually a lot of hospitality and generosity in Egypt and I hope that one day the rest of the world will have the opportunity to learn more about our country and its people.
Though this text was written much earlier, we talked to Shimaa after the the bombings last month and she and her family are safe, though her brother had been close to the explosion only days before the attack.