Michele Sala: Entropy

As the mathematician Claude Elwood Shannon once suggested to his colleague, “if you’re having trouble naming a concept call it entropy, as nobody knows what entropy really is and therefore in every discussion you will start ahead.”

Experts have striven for years to find the correct definition of entropy but with poor results. Fortunately, instead of delimiting the problem they are continuously providing us with new and bizarre themes for debate. It is this difficult delimitation of the semantic boundary that induces us to continue committing ourselves to interdisciplinary discussions of the nature of evolutionary direction and its application to art, science and simple daily life.

Entropy first originated with the notorious second principle of thermodynamics, a principle that asserts that a machine, in order to produce work (or energy usable for practical purposes), has to spend a quantity of energy higher than that eventually produced. So it produces less than it takes in because during the machine’s evolution, as in any thermodynamic system, it loses something: a part of its energy turns into a useless form. Entropy has thus been defined as the quantity of life lived by a system (or the quantity of death created by a system during its existence). Entropy is deterioration. It is the heat given off “in chaos” or outside of a system’s understood limitations. It is a term used for the measurement of disorder “produced” as well as a marker of the “absolute zero” or “rest” state. Conceptually, entropy represents the direction towards which a thing evolves. It is the developmental grade of a system, yet it also quantifies that developmental grade by the measure of energy dissipated during a system’s evolution: it represents a loss of order and potential. Entropy, while inseparable from evolution, is simultaneously the disorder created by its process.

Such scientific theories of disorder left many believing that all things were headed for an unavoidable extinction. To put it in simple terms, people thought that if a system (such as the universe) loses a little energy with every action, then soon its energy would dwindle to zero, absolute rest and nothingness. What they couldn’t quite see at that point was the possibility that the ‘wasted’ energy of a system might not entirely disappear but a part of it could be useful in forming and preserving other systems. Evolution, by definition, does not “end”.

We usually think of disorder as something negative. Disorder may, in fact, be negative (harmful, destructive) but its effect does not end there. Often times it is by creating more disorder that we find another order. For instance, if you are having trouble with your lover, you have a situation of disorder in your life. But it may be the case that only by leaving your lover – therefore creating more disorder – are you able to find a new direction. In this sense, it becomes interesting to look at the entropy of a system in a wider context. Perhaps then we can find an understanding of entropy that is relative to the direction and evolution of a (our) life.

Evolution of life is generated by the exchange of genetic information, information that tells how a living system will develop and in what direction it must head to stay alive. A more elegant definition by Gatlin asserts that ‘life may be defined operationally as an information processing system – a structural hierarchy of functioning units – that has acquired through evolution the ability to store and process the information necessary for its own reproduction’.

So information, or in-formation, means to order a configuration that is not yet ordered, to give something an identity or a shape, to provide direction for the directionless mass. This definition of information leaves us with the concept of order. Information, in a sense, is order. We define or recognize structures because of this sense of order. It is the same process by which we make something familiar out of the confused visuals of a cloud in the sky. After a moment spent observing the cloud, we often distinguish the shape of an animal or some other object. We see a structure by mentally ordering the “prior” blob we’ve named cloud. We put the situation in order, in-forming the animal or object we now recognize in the cloud. Information is the essence of the connection: its energy is taken from an aim that holds the structure together. Life is information producing a significant configuration. We tend to place importance – whether consciously or not – on making the order appear in things, finding the pattern or organization we assume is inherent. The aim is where the significance is found. The aim is the process, the energy, the information, the meaning inside the mass.

If order is the presence of structural roots that define purpose for us – if it is a formal composition, a structural coherence formed as an ensemble of myriad parts – then disorder is the dissolution of familiarity, the inability of structural coherence, and the lack of coherent correlation between the parts and the whole. In other words, disorder is the dissolution of the functional contents that define a structure. But this does not necessarily mean that one structure’s disorder is the end of the entire system: disorder is also the most favourable condition for creating an entirely new order. We might see this process as one system dying and another appearing in its wake. Or we might see the entire process as a system with one order collapsing into the creation of a new order.

Let me give you an example . Imagine you want to give a gift to your nephew and you present him with a new wooden tricycle. Imagine also that your three-year-old nephew likes to take things apart as soon as he gets them, thus he will (with a scientifically provided finality) destroy the tricycle. But what does this mean exactly?

At first, the object is ordered. It is a system called the tricycle. Your nephew produces the first level of disorder when he breaks the toy into two separate parts. With just this one break, the toy has become two useless wooden pieces that are now unrelated to any common action. With his action, the tricycle is modified and looses its identity and function. The system is no longer ordered. “Tricycle” no longer exists.

But leave entropy to its course (and leave your nephew to enjoy himself) and soon the situation will reach an even higher level of disorder. Your nephew will continue his work on the system, breaking the toy into a multitude of molecular particles. Soon you will obtain an ensemble of parts with the potential of being arranged into an infinite number of toys, and thus we have a chaotic situation easing the birth of a new configuration, just as the cloud in the sky allowed for the visualization of numerous shapes.

Commonly, this would be seen as a system that became disordered, lost its status and then ended: there is no more evolution for the tricycle because the tricycle (the system) is dead. But what actually happened was that the system lost its old order and gained the potential for a new one. From this we can see that a disordered situation, one in which an ordered configuration of parts is lost, allows the creation of new structural information. We can also deduce that the continuance of this ‘in-forming of new significant structures’ is predictable, probable and desirable when considered through the lens of aim. Your nephew had fun destroying the system and created a new system that was just as productive. In this sense, if your aim was to give your nephew a toy, then the aim has been met. If your aim was that your nephew enjoy the mass as a tricycle, then your aim was not met. In this way, it is not a matter of a system dying but of a conversion of order. And it is the aim which carries the weight of success or failure. The system itself continues regardless of that aim but the aim carries the subjective judgement.

Just as with the tricycle, disorder does not mean the end of everything but rather an infinite set of new beginnings. This breaking down is as relative to evolution as any building up of order. It is the aim – or we could even venture to say the attitude – that sees this process as positive or negative. The process itself is neutral: it continues by way of entropy, disorder being the change of one order into another.

But how does this relate to our own lives? How do structure, order, and their connection to entropy relate to personal life and evolution?

Perhaps growth and personal evolution are more a matter of aim than of quantity-of-energy. Aim is the energy that informs new directions. Any particle of our world has its own potential energy, but it needs a “goal” to inform that energy and participate with other particles in a structure. We have our own potential energy, but that energy needs direction if it going to find an expression. Our life is a continuous system but it is not ‘of one order’. Life is made up of numerous fields of activity. Together these parts constitute the essential structure of a person: the duties, the pleasures, the emotions and interests. The loss of energy in a part of a system supports the birth and preservation of other parts of that system. Going for a run after a stressful day releases energy or converts it into a more workable form. Perhaps it helps us release tension and relax into another system of interaction within our life and social world. As we interact, we give and take energy from our environment, from one another, and from our own system as well. Systems overlap and blend. Systems change and connect. And when taken as a whole, all of these systems are only various orderings of one larger system: life.

Life is movement, a thread of changes and conversions. There is duration, but this duration is not of a closed system. There is the potential for chaos and there is also the potential for death or “an ultimate state of rest”. It is entropy that keeps this alive: we exist between disorder and a state of inert uniformity. This is life, this balance that is not a balance at all but a subjective view of the aim. With an aim, we feel our continuance in the movement. Entropy constitutes a developmental condition. It also constitutes the development itself. If the evolutionary system does not move with a direction guided by a balance eventually indicative of its own energetic ‘waste’, then that will be the last condition of that order. But there is always another order and so the system itself is both whole and lacking boundary. As the aim changes, so does the direction.


Allison Gurski: Stepping Off the Bus


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.


Irwin Stelzer: On Immigration

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.


Jan Schomburg & Nicola Gerndt


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.


Jacqueline Goss & Vera Tollmann


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.”
Everything goes.
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.


Banuta Rubess: The Tension of Change

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


Anne Applebaum: Between East and West

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

Chang Rae

Chang Rae Lee & Andrea Hiott

A List of Who We Are
Interview, 2005

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 & Val Tchoukova

European (Con)fusion

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


Shimaa Aly: Hello from Cairo

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.


Brant Fulton: Journey Through Vietnam

February 10, 2005

Last night finished quite brilliantly despite the earlier misgivings. After gladly returning the motos, my friend Harry and I went on our usual evening time walkabout in search of a meal or new vista. As the hour was late, we didn’t stand much chance of acquiring dinner. Nonetheless, we chose one of three or four adjoining sparsely populated outdoor establishments in which to try our luck. Instantly, we were besieged in rounds; first, by a jovial sloshed Tet celebrant who hugged me several times, second, by an equally embarrassed friend coming to the rescue of his sloppy pal, and third, and most importantly, by an exceptionally beautiful waitress.

Upon making eye contact with the waitress, we both visibly demurred. I felt a hiccup somewhere in my otherwise empty cavernous ribcage. In fairly decent English she apologetically began to explain what we already suspected: the late hour combined with the fact that Tet was well underway meant no food for anyone tonight. Nonplussed, we gladly ordered beers. Beer is food. Minutes later however, she approached us carrying menus as if her earlier denial of our request for nourishment never occurred. She tentatively held one end of my men after handing it to me and ventured: “Would you like to try a Hoi An specialty?” That specialty ended up being some of the best food Vietnam had to offer.

Time passed and our attention fell to the oddly fragrant air that stirred off of the lagoon. A footbridge disappeared into the darkness. The hum of a moto reverberated beneath the corrugated sheet-metal roof, headlights cast shadows against our nearly empty beer bottles, and then magically our waitress appeared again, balancing a tray of two large porcelain bowls. To our surprise, despite the late hour, despite this being the
most sacred of holidays, and despite the already offered and consumed local dish, she had taken it upon herself to enlist a nearby kitchen (the family kitchen perhaps, or that of a neighbor) and prepared two heaping bowls of fresh pho for us. We were speechless, but oddly not very surprised, for the hospitality and graciousness of the Vietnamese had blossomed in every room, at every bus stop, and along every road of our journey.

After sating ourselves on this bounty, after a couple more beers, and our realization that a Chris Rock comedy was blaring in translation from the TV; the waitress came back to talk. She told us that she was a university student but was spending the Tet holidays with her family and helping out at the restaurant. Her smile, radiating shyly beneath alert, warm eyes, was as genuine for us as it must be for any of her familial elders. When she took her leave, it was with an assured air, as if we were old friends or neighbors, and would naturally see one another again in the future. Privately, I was futilely planning such a future. Along the quiet, contented walk towards the formerly state run Binh Minh Hotel, we came across two caged monkeys sleeping peacefully in each other’s arms.


February 11, 2005

We started early with cafes at 6 a.m., then gathered our packs and took two motos west to Vinh Dien. We’d heard that we could catch a bus there to Kon Tum. After a few un-deliberated turns, we found ourselves on a crowded chicken bus that we hoped was heading in the right direction. As we spoke the name of our destination, the bus burst into hilarity. This bus was going nowhere near Kon Tum.

Moving in the direction of whatever fate had to provide, it became clear that our destiny was often linked to the unmitigated kindness of strangers. Within moments, an older passenger made his way to our side. He spoke nearly unidentifiable English but was determined to help. After some gesturing, some smiles, and some spontaneously agreed upon vocabulary, he made it clear that we would need to link to another bus to get to Kon Tum. After a few more awkward but friendly moments, it came out that he also spoke German, thus he and Harry (who is American but fluent in German) were able to gab for ages. When our new friend returned to his seat, Harry told me that his German had been quite impossible as well, but sufficient enough to confirm that he would return in an hour’s time to usher us off the bus at the correct stop. To our amazement, he not only came back to usher us off at the right stop, he also got out with us, insisting on helping us with our detour.

Thanks to him, we made our way to the bus that would take us to Kon Tum. Except this was no bus at all but rather a fully occupied mid-80s minivan. Approaching, we noticed that 12 people or more drooped within its steaming interior, a space made to fit no more than 7. Seeing the state of things, Harry and I prepared to wait for another bus, but our new drivers found this attitude absurd. They snatched our bags and tossed them into a luggage hold already occupied by three young uniformed soldiers. None of the passengers seemed even the slightest bit daunted by our intrusion. Amidst unconcerned whistling and singing, Harry and I squeezed ourselves through the door and into a row. The young man at my right lay his head on my shoulder and slept.

It wasn’t long before the driver made a sudden U-turn, going back to pick up a few pedestrians he’d spotted who needed a ride. Harry and I laughed in disbelief. A family of four climbed into the van. Where they found space, I cannot say, but things were just getting started. It wasn’t long before we stopped again, this time to pick up a couple of elderly Buddhist nuns who found it hilarious to be traveling with two six-foot tall hulking white boys. It was only then that the others seemed to notice us. Suddenly the entire van was humming with laughter and witticisms. Incredulous – absolutely incredulous – were the next twenty minutes, as we stopped four or five more times to take on even more passengers – a total of thirty-four in all! Among them; the world’s smallest and oldest couple, several teenage girls, and a pack or two of kids. This was a banner day for all aboard. The tales, I’m sure, were repeated mirthfully over dinner for days to come. Yet I knew that Harry and I were likely the only occupants who would carry this experience with us as a full-fledged memory. We were a phenomenon, and honored to be so. At such close range, and smothered in such warm and palpable cheer and goodwill, I felt an empathy and sense of belonging the likes of which I have never before experienced. Despite the ever-present cloud of cigarette smoke and the acutely real danger that this voyage engendered, I couldn’t recall having ever been happier.


Tet Nguyen Dan, is the lunar New year Festival and it is the most important Vietnamese holiday.


Monia Filipe: Eine andere Perspektive

A not-so-German look at three German films.

Even though I grew up in Portugal, the fall of the Berlin Wall had a very lasting effect on me. I was still quite young then and had a difficult time understanding how one city could be cut in half. I imagined it must have been sliced the way I’d watched my mother slice a piece of fruit or bread for our breakfast. For days I questioned my father over this city, eventually convincing him to go out and buy a map of Berlin for me. I needed to see the division for myself.

Looking back now, I imagine this as the first moment in my continued fascination with Berlin. I suppose it was inevitable that the map would not be enough for me and I would have to see this place for myself. Though I’ve lived here for over two years now, I recently found myself searching my local video store for films made around or about this particular moment in time. I ended up with Lichter, Sonnenallee and Herr Lehmann. Though I’m quite sure my view of these films is relative to my own history and understanding, I do think they are films that an international audience can identify with, each in their own ways, because they remind us that nothing is ever really as black and white as ”one side” and ”the other”.

Politically, much has been made of the difficulties involved in reuniting East and West Germany. The two ideas of East and West have been discussed in Cold War terms: opposing forces that could scarcely be reconciled, with the Wall as the great divider. But these three films reveal that the lines in people’s lives are perhaps never drawn that neatly. What they do point out is that relationships and the small details of our indivdual existence are what occupy our thoughts most on a day to day basis. These are the things that tell us whether we are happy or sad, tense, relaxed, or otherwise. Though of course the political and national condition in which we find ourselves – which side of the metaphorical wall we live on etc. – is crucial, ultimately our real stories are played out in much more personal contexts.

The first film, Lichter, was made in 2003 by Hans-Christian Schmid, and begins with the flight of a group of refugees left in Polish territory. Thinking they’ve just arrived in Germany, they follow what they believe to be the lights („Lichter”) of Berlin. It doesn’t take long for them to discover they’re much farther away from their destiny than they had hoped. As they go their separate ways, they meet people who challenge their desire to emigrate as well as those who propel them closer to their eventual destination. Through these relationships, the people come to question something a bit larger than just simply what geographic place they fit into. This personal search still resonates today: drawing boundaries on the land doesn’t always help people figure out where they really belong.

Going back several decades, the 2nd film Sonnenallee is a comedic portrait of East Germany in the 1970’s. Director Leander Haußmann tells the story of a group of teenagers and their families, most of which live on a divided street (called Sonnenallee) which runs through East and West Berlin. Micha, a 17-year-old boy, lives in the East, listens to the Rolling Stones, and is deeply in love with Miriam, a beautiful girl who doesn’t even know that he exists. Nothing else matters to him – not the Wall, not the Soviet Union, not the West – nothing but the girl. These kids are in the East but their concerns are universal: music, romance, adrenaline. Though subtle metaphorical parallels run through the plot (kids spying on the teens from the West, a love letter flying out of someone’s hand and into a forbidden zone), the Wall is not something that is always on the minds of those living around it. Life is light and funny and full of drama for these kids. In fact, after watching the film one isn’t quite sure if the East was really that bad a place to grow up afterall.

Herr Lehmann, another film by Leander Haußmann, takes place in 1989 in Herr Lehmann’s Kreuzberg SO36, a
neighborhood in West Berlin. The action bubbles up from the neighborhood’s microcosm of philosophers, artists, gays, straights, cocaine addicts, and other defenders of an alternative way of living. Like Micha of Sonnenallee, the main character of this movie, Herr Lehmann, is obsessed with his own problems and love affairs and fails to take any notice of the dynamic life around him. Even the fall of the Wall, which occurs on his otherwise uneventful birthday, fails to make much of an impression. The Wall is an unwanted distraction. He would prefer to remain closeted with his own trivial problems than be drawn into a dialogue about the future of his society. Politics are a part of his life, but not the only part, or even the primary focus.

What I didn’t understand about the Wall as a kid was how it was possible to draw a line through the middle of a city. As an adult, what I don’t understand is how it is possible to draw a defintion of a person based soley on their geographical location. Lichter, Sonnenalle, and Herr Lehman are stories of divided lands but they are also stories of people trying to live normal lives and figure out who they are individually. Where they are is an important factor, but so is who they are with and what they desire.

For more information about these films and their directors, take a look at:



Immanuel Kant & Brad Bassler


A discussion of Kant, the sky, and the ways in which we come to find a sense of personal orientation in our lives.

by Dr. Brad Bassler

In his essay, “What Does It Mean To Be Oriented In Thinking?,” Kant asks us to consider the following thought experiment: first imagine a viewer looking at the stars in the sky, then take away the body and imagine only the viewer’s consciousness of the sky. Next imagine that by some miraculous event the positions of the stars were reversed from the eastern edge to the western edge of the firmament. Failing the orientation provided by a body in terms of which we may distinguish left from right, Kant claims, the disembodied viewer would be in no position to perceive any changes in the configurations of the stars. As Kant puts it, we require a subject-oriented perspective, in terms of which we distinguish left from right, in order to orient our topography and distinguish direction. Distinctions such as east, west, north, and south are not to be found as such in the landscape itself, but only in the subject’s orientation to the landscape.

Analogously, Kant suggests, in the absence of those needs and assumptions which orient us, our capacity to reason remains undirected. If our “body” of needs and assumptions is not there, our reason has no direction. Kant sees reason as an “objective” faculty, and it is only in the presence of our subject oriented needs and desires that we can use our capacity to reason in an oriented way, in a way that is directed. Refusing to acknowledge our needs and desires does not make them go away, but tends rather to smuggle them into our picture of reason itself. When this happens we will appeal to reason to argue for what we want without recognizing that that is what we are doing. Hence we are better off to recognize our needs and acknowledge them for what they are in the beginning since, in either case, they play their part.

Equally, however, we should not abandon reason in an unregulated pursuit of our needs and desires. This emphasis on freedom to the exclusion of rational constraint produces what Kant calls “Schwärmerei,” enthusiasm. In this case also, but for the opposite reason, our tendency will be to inflict our needs and desires on others without any concern for how it might affect them.

To evade both of these extremes, Kant proposes the following maxim: ”To make use of one’s own reason means nothing more than to ask oneself, in the case of anything that one is asked to assume, whether one would indeed find it practicable to make the reason why one assumes something or the rule that follows from what one assumes into the general principle of one’s use of reason.”

Kant’s maxim opens out onto the related question: would we want the reasons we are giving for our own actions to be the general rules which others use also? As Hans Blumenberg points out, the freedom which Kant promotes is “not an arbitrary but a lawful freedom”: one which recognizes that in using reason we (collectively) always depend on a multitude of assumptions which are needed to fill out our orientation in the world, the world in which we live together. These needs must be socially integrated in a coherent way, and the capacity to make the reasons for our own assumptions the reasons for everyone else’s assumptions as well provides a picture in which everyone’s lawful freedom can be integrated together harmoniously.

But, in fact, the ways in which we find ourselves oriented in the world speak to many different dimensions of the human experience, and we possess these orientations in ways which are often not compatible. Differences in orientation, such as religious, political, or sexual orientation, lead to some of the deepest problems facing a society which seeks the promotion of freedom within the context of the rule of law. Freedom of religious and political expression, and the personal freedoms associated with sexual orientation and practices are, within reasonable limits not specifiable in advance, a necessary condition for a free society, but the protection of these freedoms equally opens up a ground for political, religious, social and ethnic contestation.

Although it provides nothing like a universal solution to this dilemma, Kant’s notion of charting a middle path between rational dogmatism and anarchic freedom is a good one. It suggests that we would do well to bring our various forms of worldly orientation into proximity with Kant’s question by asking: when I enlist my rational capacity to express or argue for the needs associated with my self-orientation, am I using these capacities in a way I would warrant for others as well, particularly for those whom I find have self-orientations different from my own or in potential conflict with them? Kant gives the philosophical orientation which this question indicates a name: he calls it an “enlightened” orientation. But how does this philosophically “enlightened” orientation bear on the various non-philosophical orientations mentioned? More generally: what is a philosophical orientation, and what bearing does it have on the way we live our lives?

These are large questions, not to be answered here. But a start can be made. Once we recognize that we all enlist our capacity to reason both in expressing and in defending our various senses of self-orientation, it is clear that Kant’s philosophical notion of selforientation is not disconnected from our senses of political, religious, sexual and ethnic orientation. But Kant’s conception of philosophical self-orientation solely in terms of an appeal to our capacity to reason, while not obviously mistaken, is almost certainly too narrow. For more broadly, our philosophical response to our condition in the world finds expression not just in explaining and reasoning, but also in questioning and wondering.

In this latter regard, perhaps the strangest aspect of our various political, religious, sexual and social orientations is how we find ourselves thrown into them. I did not choose to grow up in the United States or in the Protestant church. I did not choose my racial or ethnic affiliation, nor did I choose to grow up in a predominantly heterosexual and largely homophobic society. Perhaps even more pressingly, the extent over which we may make choices about these orientations later in life is largely unclear. I have left the Protestant church, but not the United States. This bald way of stating the facts, however, conveys none of the sense of my ambivalence about both. And in general, such facts fail to capture what is interesting about our choices regarding such alignments and refusals of alignment.

In such a complicated context, a broad notion of philosophical orientation may prove fruitful. Considering our own rational orientation with concern to how it might compare with our ideal standard of rational orientation for others is not a bad place to start.Simply put: how do we find ourselves in the world? What bearing
does our locatedness in the world –fleshed out in terms of the environments we inhabit – have on our experience? These are philosophical questions, and questions that may help us find our ways, individually and collectively, in the world we inhabit together. These questions do not lead us to a narrow focus on the employment of our rational faculties in the way advocated in Kant’s enlightenment project. Rather, they suggest a broader forum for communication which may help us to become more conscious of the values we adopt, the needs which lie behind them, and the difficulties of integrating them in a way which ensures freedom within a harmonious social context. In all of these ways, they inherit and develop the vision of philosophical orientation we already find expressed by Kant, and suggest that a consideration of philosophical orientation can be a productive tool for improving our common condition of living together, in this world.



Kamran Acbar: Turning Back Time

19-year old Kamran Acbar was forced to flee his homeland in order to escape being drafted into a war that eventually took the lives of thousands.

Written by Kamran Acbar, Translated by Ines Lorenzen.

The Iran-Iraq War, also called the First Persian Gulf War, or the Imposed War in Iran, was a war between the armed forces of Iraq and Iran lasting from September 1980 to August 1988. More than 100,000 Iranians died of Saddam Hussein’s chemical and biological weapons during the eight-year war with Iraq.

When I was 19 years old, I fled from Iran to escape being drafted into war. It was my mother’s wish that I leave. For different reasons, my two older brothers did not have to join the army. My mother had been able to keep her first two sons at home but I was sure to have been drafted. My mother suffered from diabetes and her doctor told me that stress would worsen her condition. She was already close to losing her eyesight and the air of our country was becoming so thick with stress that it seemed the only chance we had was to act against its futility.

We decided it would be better for me to leave the country than stay and fight in the war. My cousin, two friends and I managed to find a guide who was prepared to help us leave. For a sum of money, he agreed to take us to Turkey where we would be safe. One night around 10 p.m., we set off from Teheran in a BMW sportscar. It took us two days to get to the border. We spent the first night in the car, the second night we took a room. Eventually we reached the border region. We spent yet another night in the car, and the next morning two border police officers woke us. They asked us why we were sleeping in the car, and we told them we were from Turkey on our way home. Since we were Persians, we escaped being searched. After this encounter, we immediately continued our drive to the border. On arriving there we again took a room and got some sleep.

Around midnight we were supposed to hike across the hills to reach Turkey. Each one of us carried only one small bag for the journey, but my cousin eventually became so weak that he could no longer carry his bag and was had to leave it behind. We had been without food or drink for several days at that point. After a considerable hike we came to a river. We were terrified and followed our leader’s instructions blindly. It was only seven degrees Celsius, and we shed our shoes and clothes. We took our bundles and swam through the freezing cold river, more than 50 feet across. Finally we reached the mountain. Our guide announced that he would give us a sign, indicating when we should run. Imagine it like this: police were patrolling the border day and night on the lookout for fugitives. If we’d been caught by the Irani police, they’d have shot us dead on the spot. The Turks would have sent us home. Only the villagers from the border region were allowed to move freely between Iran and Turkey; but it was obvious who belonged to them and who didn’t – strangers looked and dressed differently.

In the middle of our journey, we also learned that the border police had increased. At this point we had been on the road for five days. We were hungry, thirsty and exhausted. We hid in a cave. It was awfully cold; we tried to keep each other warm and took turns sleeping. We couldn’t light a campfire since that would have been too suspicious. All we had left to eat were some nuts we’d been carrying in our bags. They fell down to the ground. We ate madly in the dark, scooping them up from the ground. The next morning we realized that the ground had been littered with sheep droppings as well. Apparently we’d been eating everything without even noticing the difference. The next day, our guide brought us some bread. We broke icicles off the ceiling of the cave for water. Around 1 a.m. we finally left again. We were told to run. Not to talk, not to stop, just to run. So we ran for our life. My cousin fell and hurt himself, and he had to be supported. It was so dark we could hardly see the footpath in front of us. Finally we reached Turkey. We were safe. Wearily we set up our camp. In the morning, we continued our journey to a Turkish village. On the way we saw a pack of enormous dogs. They looked as large as calves. We reached the village and were brought to a small room with a tiny window where we hid for five days.

We weren’t allowed to turn on the light and stayed in the dark the entire time. We weren’t allowed to leave the room, not even to go to the toilet. We caught our excrements in newspaper and threw them out the window. For meals, someone brought us potatoes and tea. We never knew if it was morning, noon or night; the food was always the same. On day 5, we were allowed to continue by car. When we left the room, it was nighttime, but everything was white. Snow had fallen, and we were blinded by its brightness after so many days of darkness.
First we traveled to Ankara, then to Istanbul. About six months after that, I obtained a residence permit. My father came to visit me in Turkey, as he had left Iran just before the Iran-Iraq war began. The war was a nightmare Chemical weapons were used. The telephone services broke down and I had no contact with my family whatsoever. My father sent me money, but it seemed to have gotten lost in the mail. I hardly had enough money to get by. Until communication with Iran started working again, lots of people invited me to dinner; otherwise, I probably would have starved. Some time later, my father’s money reached me after all. I stayed in Turkey for two years where I managed eventually to learn the language and find a job. Things began to brighten: I earned some good money and met a lot of interesting people.

In Iran, I had started pilot school. I wanted to finish my training, but it just wasn’t possible in Turkey. That’s when I decided to go to Germany, taking a train via Yugoslavia and Austria. I wasn’t allowed to enter Germany immediately and they imprisoned me in Austria until the authorities had thouroughly checked my identity. After three weeks – eight of which I spent behind bars – I continued my journey, making it into Hildesheim where I finally settled. It was possible for me to get a passport there. For the first time, I was allowed to travel anywhere I wanted – anywhere that is except to see my family in Iran. Draft dodgers faced the death sentence so it was not possible for me to return. I knew pilot school would be expensive in Germany, so I decided to get a job and work for as long as it took to save the money. As time passed, my life took a direction of its own and I gradually abandoned my plan. Today I own and manage a clothing store, something I had never imagine for myself but all the same enjoy. It took 17 years before the laws in Iran changed and I was allowed to return home and see my family.

Going back was like a dream to me. Surreal. Even today, I still hardly believe it happened. Fifty people picked me up from the airport. Everything had changed and was hardly recognizable with my memory. My nephew, who I remembered as a tiny three year old boy, was now 21 and a foot taller than me. My parents’ hair had gone white. The broad streets of my childhood now seemed very narrow. At first, I refused to acknowledge these changes. It was too strange to mix the past with the present. I wanted to go back to the past. I wanted to turn back time.



The Iran-Iraq War, also called the First Persian Gulf War, or the Imposed War in Iran, was a war between the armed forces of Iraq and Iran lasting from September 1980 to August 1988. More than 100,000 Iranians died of Saddam Hussein’s Chemical and Biological weapons during the eight-year war with Iraq.


Brendan Dougherty: At Home in Ausland

Historically free of institutions, inhibitions, and money, something about Berlin’s awkward-cool works well for the artists, painters, writers, and musicians who end up staying.

Berlin has long been known as a destination for the rouges of the world, especially the rouges of Germany. Historically free of institutions, inhibitions, and money, something about Berlin’s awkward-cool works well for the artists, painters, writers and musicians who end up staying. Ausland, a performance space in Prenzlauerberg, has become one of the meeting places for such people. The word “Ausland” means “foreign country” in German. This reflects the ideologies of the founders of the space, but also suggests a more general longstanding attitude of seeing Berlin as a city distinct from the remainder of the country that surrounds it.

Ausland is located in the basement of a house that was bought just after the fall of the Wall. Over the years, this large concrete room has steadily gained its reputation as an international venue for those who play either too loud or too soft for anywhere else. It’s built for improvisational, experimental, brash and somewhat brainy creation, but don’t expect any intense conversation ‘til the performance is over, the DJ is playing, and minds are well lubricated (the shots of whisky are measured liberally and generously).

A good part of the program at Ausland is dedicated to improvised music – a style that has been slowly developing for the past 40 years or so, first appearing in the 1960’s in England when artists such as AMM, Evan Parker, and Derek Bailey began defining a new type of music that relied less on traditional compositions and more on a unique vocabulary created by each individual musician. In this form, musicians eliminate, or rather combine, the old roles of ‘inspired creator’ and ‘dutiful musician’. These are the people who stretch instruments to their limits, be it a laptop, an acoustic instrument, or some found object. At times this use of extended instrumental techniques can be extreme, leading to such things as drum sets played with feathers or guitars strummed with various vibrating devices and tools. At a recent festival held at Ausland to celebrate the anniversary of the Zarek Music Label, there was a performance that involved dropping multiple sorts of fireworks into varioussized water coolers. The performers reacted to each other’s previous move by choosing different explosives – and thus different sounds – to create the thrilling cumulative piece.

The rest of the festival remained true to this “anything can happen” mood. Even if one was familiar with the names on the bill, one could never quite be sure what might happen once they got up on stage. But this random element did not lower the caliber of the music that was presented. Everything (with the exception of an electronicist who could never quite get control of her homemade microphones) was well played and professional. Though not every performance at Ausland is a success, this is taken in stride, as even the generally critical audience tends to allow for failure in the name of experimentalism. I asked Andrea Ermke, one of the people responsible for the program at Ausland, how the venue was able to stay true to this organic feeling while still attracting some of the most interesting performers and audiences around. “It’s love for the music,” she told me

“No one is getting any money for it so it’s a commitment thing, completely.” I asked her who she would like to see playing next at Ausland and her wish list was impressive: rogue improvising vocalist Phil Minton, extreme indie rockers Shellac, and the ever-mysterious and revered Wu-Tang Clan. I’m pretty sure they’d all feel at home at Ausland.


Nick Fowler: Chase Reprise

You sit back down nude, this time Indian style. You’re making good decisions. Like all your favorite things, the posture’s both uncomfortable and comforting. It recalls a lost world, of kindergarten symmetry, of surrender, of waiting. Obviously, you want to get this one right. You’re posing for your last picture. You’ve turned – or really, because you’ve barely moved since you woke up three afternoons ago, you’ve left all the lights off. The little candle in front of you is thrashing, when it drowns you revive it. You keep replacing the shotgun with a cigarette. You’re sick of all this symbolism, but even more of the solipsism that, like a torch song stalks a broken heart, would have you believe you’re attracting these symbols, that you’ve reached a centripetal level of perception, center stage, that innermost ring in which all is resolved (calls it quits, the long lost passport reappears). That in your transcendent despair you’ve become a kind of Magnetic Resonance Imaging machine. A metaphor magnet.
You’re in the imagination room. Where else.
Imagine all the people.
And you try to. A last gesture, embracing friends and enemies,
all-forgiving as a Pope, as a Coke commercial.
Imagine all the people.
But guess what, you can see only one; it’s your dad’s favorite song.
This is not about forgiveness, but revenge.
You do another speedball. Outside, the day takes a last breath before dusk. There’s that cool logic in the air. Citrus clarity. Some of which you actually seem to possess. Alone here, in your dome in the sky.

Which you realize, in this closing couplet of serotonic epiphany, is the perfect emblem to cinch your conceit; a big white seashell, yanked out of context, then displayed up on a shelf—outward symbol of harmony, but full of infinite roar.

Or maybe you’re reaching here.

At any rate, unless the market keeps soaring at the rate you’d banked on, the massive mortgage you’ve leveraged will break you. It would appear other things have broken you.

The laws of work don’t apply now. Which brings you back to the adolescent existential dilemmas: if space and time aren’t infinite, but infinitely expanding, then what’s beyond them? You see your failure to comprehend nothing is a refusal to believe in it. Like the threat of terrorism. The problem, as always, is egocentric; nothing offends your sense of self. But only empirically; you can’t stomach the thought of your imagination as a preset of cells. Dimly, you suspect the hole you can’t fill in yourself is one in the space/time continuum through which you’ll slip and find that self waiting, cured. That all this rationalization might only be a survival tactic is only more evidence there’s a reason for survival. Or else why would the world go to such trouble to keep believing in itself? Which is why, coming full circle to that innermost circle, you haven’t pulled the trigger. Your failing at this ultimate failure is the final contra passo.
Or maybe you’re just scared.

Listen to the waxy silence.
Inside it, the diligent clock in the hall chews time, like it’s celery. And that seems about right, right? Growing up they never told you how boring it’d be, how you’d spend your life wishing you were somewhere and someone else. Or maybe that’s just you. Or maybe, no. Maybe, despite all your strokes, on a Darwinian level your brain’s way past its due date; maybe this despair’s only a sort of frantic ennui, because all of these chemicals— your memories, your wisdoms—have been too long embalmed by elixirs. Maybe time is trying to tell you something.

The clock in the hall reminisces, striking chimes.
It strikes you: How little you know yourself. How much less you did each year.

You see you’ve defined yourself by setting limits and then breaking them. That you’ve confused exploration with violation. That your madness is an ever expanding detachment from this second self you’ve come to call you. That there’s probably power in this, but that you’ve lost the will to yoke it.

Before it was always vanity that saved you. So you stagger to the triptych medicine chest mirror. Your final performance, paranoid panorama, infinite hall of reflections, where illusion and origin lose sight of each other.
Endless you. A million ghouls. Man of rags.
The drooling toothpaste tube is unbearably messy. You run cold water over your burn. You’ll miss all this self-pity most of all. It’s sustained you this long. It’s all the longing you’re tired of, but it did keep you living. To live is to long, to live is too long.

Just go back and do it.
Sit down. Root the pacifier back in your mouth. The taste of steel is: deeply alien, sterile, boring. You’re certain the several organ-donor forms you’ve filled out over the years will fail to find those organs.

You cock the gun. You’ve never gone this far and you get an orgasmic little shiver. How can something so counterintuitive feel so inevitable?
This is it, this is it. The last moment of consciousness. This is it.
Maybe you should give it another year, you’re just not famous enough is all.
But isn’t fame the artist’s enemy? Shouldn’t you have the sixth sense, the uncommon courtesy, to know when to implode already? Maybe you shouldn’t end it here in Lullabiss either, it’d be so much more appropriate to dissolve in Demerol and Bleecker Street rain. Don’t you owe it to Manhattan to let it know what
it’s done to you, to lose on home turf?
No. You can do this. You deserve this.
Outside, the crickets have forgotten how to scream.
The sun leaks through the Venetians.
You open them up. A last look at the world. The approaching darkness is a finger being lifted to lips. Annabelle’s bike in the driveway leans on its crutch. On the patio, her slingshot’s a man who’s thrown up his hands.
Enough. Stop turning the world into you. Where did that ever get you? That world was full of too many things. Things you didn’t own or understand. Remember? That was the problem.
It was artistic. The space between what you always heard in your head and what you were able to express. The unspeakable possibility.

It’s nearly dark. You nodded off.
You were drooling down the barrels.
Will your father cry?
You’re not crying. That water’s too deep.
You’ve labored under lots of things, mostly self-imposed, and one of them is no longer illusion. You know your crimes. You’ve found guilt instructive. And it’s not that you’re nostalgic for the person you don’t want to be again. You’re nostalgic for the life you didn’t lead. You didn’t give enough gifts. You didn’t have enough laughs. You weren’t so kind.
The artist thinks he can revise what he’s written. He believes in erasers. That the past can make him happy, instead of only wistful. Life is short, but regret is forever. This is it.
Since you were two, through sexual charm and keen helplessness, you’d managed to turn a few degrees away from the onrushing moment, to dodge the final fact, as now you struggle to get outside your skull before he sees it on the wall, your thumb searching the gunstock’s gridiron for encoded signs…you have to finally face it.
This is it.
In the distance, twinkling in the canyon, people are chanting Happy Birthday, then the disappointed applause.
You begin to squeeze the trig–and suddenly, cinematically, your truest friend comes wobbling
into the Imagination Room. Her paper-thin ears full of dusk. Favoring a front paw, she sits down beside you. From the buzz and thud against a distant window, you realize she’s been beestung.
“Oh, baby, I’m so sorry,” you pull her onto your lap. “I know. It’s not fair.”

And you’re flooded with tenderness, for her, for yourself, but then all for your father.
After the passage of some unaccountable seconds, the dog is standing with her front paws on your chest. Licking your tears. Almost laughing, you’re almost able to forgive the fact that it’s only for the salt. You take her front paw and you stroke it. Until you can no longer feel it. Or your own burned palm. In fact, you feel nothing. And now the tune comes to you. The one you’ve been waiting all your life to write. Only now it writes you.
It is a reprise. A return to an ordering instinct. It’s been waiting. Conspiring. Now released, it has value. And like everything sane, it seems it had nothing to do with you. As you sing it, the voice echoing through your vast
empty shell is not your own. But then slowly you realize you are channeling, yourself. That it’s the first thing you’ve owned. That all of it’s out of your hands now. Exempted, exalted, you imagine, drifting, as white light hums in your veins, this song whispering to a million imaginations, forever ago, to the cave man taming his fire, to Leibniz dreaming calculus, to Michaelangelo freeing slaves from his marble.


David Bulter: I met direction…

I met direction the other day while I was thinking with my eyes closed but not sleeping

Nothing { life begins—movement—life ends } Nothing
Nothingness ends ] life interrupts [ Nothingness begins
no movement-birth-lifetime of movement-death-no movement

Movement cannot exist without direction. Movement must begin in -or be sustained through- an item
or aim. This object or item must be created, born, or allowed the time to have consciousness. Or
non-consciousness). Here the term “non-consciousness” is used to highlight the point at which consciousness
could begin if the item had the capacity. There is a point where it could begin to develop
into something conscious, but it does not, and so there is one thing sustained: existence; and therefore
the capacity for movement. Potential. This does not necessarily have to be a movement we are
familiar with, nor does it have to be a movement that follows the rules of human reason. It is an
unconscious item in nature and therefore will not always act consciously. Movement can be ‘from
point A to point B’. It can be ‘the process by which a baby grows until it is no longer a baby’, or ‘how
a cell progresses’. Movement can be described as a change. Ideas can move. Your ideas change. You
rearrange them, record them, forget them, or ignore them completely. Ideas improve, deepen, grow,
evolve. An idea is like a small creation in your head that is allowed movement. If it is growing, learning,
advancing, or dying, it has direction. So direction can be observed directly (a racing Indy car) or
implied (our understanding of nanotechnology increases) but it doesn’t yield to standard methods of
Does movement need direction and an object to exist?
Can direction exist without movement or an object?
Imagine for a moment that the universe is frozen: time stops along with all celestial objects; and does
direction still continue? Does direction still exist?
If you watch a video of a wine glass falling from a table, you can pause the tape as the glass is in midair.
The glass’s movement would be suspended but its direction would still exist.
Likewise, if you stop a small child on his way to the ocean and ask him “Where are you going?” he’ll
respond “I’m going to the ocean” or “The ocean.” Even though your question is keeping him from
moving towards his destination, his response still describes his current direction. No matter how you
phrase the question, his answer will be that he is going to the ocean. It is easy here to confuse the
destination with direction, but direction is a mode for arriving at a destination.
If you put these questions on a larger scale, you’ll ask yourself: where am I going? Here is where you
will find your direction.
One day I observed direction in its singularity. I saw it free from everything in this world. Pure as a
diamond. Purer. I can recall every detail to the point of feeling. But my descriptions are inadequate.
Its form is absolute and distinct. The scientist in me wants to call it dense, disgustingly dense. It is
tremendously solid but also, by its very nature, fluid and ever changing. Its body is infinite like water,
solid as a train’s endless inertia. It does not fit into our vocabulary. Direction keeps no time. It
resembles a steel cylinder that never stops and has no scale. It travels immeasurably, running its own
course against a white background. Not white, blank. It has soaked up the reflections of all its
objects. It’s color mocks the world like chrome. There’s no room for it.


Shreekumar Varma: After-Life

Chellamma died with a prayer on her lips. Her husband lay down beside her and covered himself. He was soon fast asleep.

That morning, as she’d swept the tailor-shop owner’s front yard, his wife had swooped down on Chellamma and shouted, “Stop coming if you can’t even do this properly!” She was known for her evil tongue. Chellamma continued to sweep. When she ate an unripe mango for lunch behind the kitchen, the little boy saw her and reported to his mother who resumed her shouting.

The tailor-shop owner then sent for her and she had to get him coal for the irons. It was inevitable. He placed a flat palm on her hip, and once there it wasn’t so flat any more. He stared at her breasts with open hunger and she stood still, waiting for him to let her go. She found herself becoming more and more impatient with such men now that she was with child.

After that there were three more houses. She liked the third one the best. There was a new little baby who had transformed the house. The master wasn’t coming home drunk any more and his wife wasn’t so finicky about Chellamma’s work. She held the little one in her arms and saw her own future. She knew things were going to be different.

That night she served her husband and finally stretched out, exhausted. Her prayer rose unsteadily. Tomorrow she would wake up to another life full of the same old certainties.

Shreekumar Varma is an Indian author, playwright, newspaper columnist and poet, known for the novels Lament of Mohini (Penguin, 2000), Maria’s Room (Harper Collins, 2010), Devil’s Garden: Tales Of Pappudom(Puffin, 2006), The Magic Store of Nu-Cham-Vu (Puffin, 2009) and the historical book for children, Pazhassi Raja: The Royal Rebel (Macmillan, 1997).


The Berlin Column

She looks hopelessly outmoded, the overweight woman in a shabby sweater, sitting at her window in a Prenzlauer Berg tenement house and gazing at the spectacle below. Who knows what’s running through her mind at the sight of all those fancy cafés and coffeeshops, the hat makers and wine dealers and luxury bathroom furnishers that have cropped up in recent years, shaping these streets into Berlin’s most coveted neighborhood. Cultivated and trendy, these parts are possessed by female twenty- to thirty-somethings pushing their ultimate fashion statement: the baby carriage. Recklessly plowing the pleasant tree-lined sidewalks, mercy is bestowed on the equal-minded only — those wobbling multitudes of expecting woman. Other dwellers are pressed by Mother Nature to make way.

Prenzlauer Berg’s prolific atmosphere surely belies the country’s concern with dwindling population growth numbers, what’s more, the quarter’s nation-wide status as the stronghold of procreation is a statistical fact. In the fifteen years following German reunification, the once barren neighborhood was developed by Western junior colonialists from a no man’s Bohemia into the swelling idyll of an educated elite,  featuring walking distance facilities and an acute lack of variety. Bite-sized Thai food and a new Alessi bathtub plug do a pretty elegant job sending unemployment, senior citizens, and Muslim households down the drain of the collective consciousness.

On the weekends, the popular Kollwitzplatz market emits an aroma of health food, while right next door, handouts fastened to the fence of the local playground with its vegetableshapedjungle-gyms offer „poetic theater nights and art history lectures for 3 to 5-year-olds“. Parents in Retro-Seventies sunglasseslounge by the sandbox, making sure their offspring refrain from poetically cracking each other’s skulls with a wood-carved shovel.

The neighborhood spurs a zealous nostalgia on which salespeople capitalize, selling hand-crafted toys and other overpriced goods along with a squeaky-clean conscience. It seems as if the flood of TV and junk food, depressions and tsunamis is rerouted by some giant’s benevolent hand to other, less fortunate parts of the earth.

So, is this the new Nirvana of family values? The place to be fruitful and multiply? The fat camp of post-feminist delights? Open your mind and join the club? Sure enough, no one keeps these hip and skinny women from self-realization — that is, parading the streets and publicizing their progeny, making the place appear like an unstoppable merry-go-round. Who knows if they get into a spin cleaning the house as well, or if the mopping’s left to the multi-lingual nanny? What comes next when the art historians leave for kindergarten? And what about those dads in designer trainers, spending their freelance lunch breaks basking with their buggies in the sun? Are they really a new breed of men, or just as significant as the smoothly renovated fronts stripped of war-time bullet holes?

Apparently, it’s up to the females to brave the Big Questions of human improvement. „Educated women in Prenzlauer Berg with child(ren)“ are regularly sought by sociology majors for assessments. Perhaps in a few years, non-fiction will enlighten us – or, in few years more, the traumatized will come out and speak for themselves.

–Monika Schmalz