Playwright, poet and activist LeRoi Jones on June 30, 1964. Jones later changed his name to Amiri Baraka.

Amiri Baraka & Andrea Hiott: Decide

Decide for Yourself

Pulse: I’d like to talk to you about the relationship between truth and creativity. How important do you think truth is to the experience of writing?

Amiri Baraka: If you don’t think about what’s true when you’re writing, then it’s just some kind of propaganda. If you’re not trying to find the truth, and if you’re not at the same time communicating that truth, then you’re actually a very negative force. There’s nothing more dangerous, according to Mao, than a skilled artist who represents bad things. Skilled artists who represent evil are the most dangerous forces in the world because they can make you believe it. We’re constantly perceiving things, like we have antenna, we’re always learning, but the big question is: how are we going to use it?

You talk about process and movement a lot in your writing and I’m interested in how those things relate to truth. Because it seems you’ve been through many different stages, often going from one extreme to the other. Has the truth been different for you at different times?

Yes. In the same way that what you know when you are 9, you might reverse when you are 12.

But your changes have been quite radical. You’ve shocked people. You’ve been inconsistent.

And I don’t see anything wrong with that. I think people should understand that if you think the same things when you’re 60 that you thought when you were 30 then something must be wrong with you. What have you been learning? What have you been waking up to? It’s not about always being right. You’ve got to be strong enough to be critical of yourself and then move on. To say this is why I thought this and this is why I don’t think it now. Self-criticism is a good thing. It’s like going to the bathroom: if you don’t go, then you’re going to be full of shit. You have to get rid of the waste material and that’s a process that goes on all the time. That doesn’t mean it’s easy: sometimes it’s very hard to get rid of things, even when you know they’re negative.

Because of fear?

Fear is a big part of it. People are afraid of losing what they have. It’s also hard to say what you think when you know it’s going to be opposed, or when you think people are going to jump on you for what you’re feeling.

So why go through all this effort in the first place? Why is saying what you feel worth taking risks and making mistakes?

Because you want to have a healthy mind, a healthy spirit. Because you know your mistakes might make something clear. As much as people might jump on you or taunt you, they can’t really hurt you if you’re clear with yourself, if you know you did something because you believed in it; whether it’s taken as wrong or right, it’s what you had to say. That kind of strength is the thing you should never deprive yourself of. People become cowed by society, prostituted by society, suicided by society. I read an article once where Van Gogh was described as “the man suicided by society’. People couldn’t handle the way he saw things. A lot of stuff happens and we just don’t want to handle it.

But isn’t what you’re describing more on the side of life than death? Isn’t it about dealing with truth as something alive and dynamic rather than static or fixed?

Yes. But a lot of people aren’t conscious enough to go that far, they aren’t aware at all. They lack true self-consciousness, and they aren’t even looking for it. To be aware of who you are essentially, to be aware of where you come from and of what you want, that’s a strong quality and it has to be sought; you have to work for it.

But are people who aren’t consciously dealing with their truth living worse lives than those who are? Are they unhappy?

It’s not always a matter of happiness.

But is there a reason to be more aware? Do you think this is something we should feel responsible for or try and change?

Of course it’s something we should want to change. If people weren’t so unconscious they wouldn’t allow themselves to be abused. The more conscious a society is then the more that society will develop. Everybody’s got to know enough to walk down the street without falling down. To live in a world where the ignorant outnumber those who are aware is a very dangerous thing. Whether the ignorant mean you harm or not, it’s still dangerous. They can’t protect themselves or anyone around them. Just like the current ignorance with global warming. By the time everyone becomes aware of what’s really happening,we might already be floating down the river.

We might. But its funny how quickly the awareness of something can spread once it begins. It’s like dominoes falling.

That’s why you learn so much during periods of revolution. When there’s revolutionary turmoil, people learn in two or three days what it would otherwise take them years to learn. They’re shocked into awareness because things are so immediate and society is turning over so rapidly. People aren’t generally encouraged to think. They’re encouraged to eat and copulate and work. They aren’t encouraged to do research and learn. Mao said ‘be good at learning’. Take the time to understand that you don’t understand. There are a lot of things you don’t understand. They are a lot of things you might never understand. But you should always be trying. You’ve always got to try and find out what’s out there because you have to know what the other paths are before you can reject them. You have to learn, and then you have to clear away what you’ve learned and find your own answers.

I learned your poems in school before I knew anything of your autobiography. I identified with your poems as they related to my own life, not understanding the context from which they came. Do you think it’s strange that a young, white girl would connect with a poem like Return of the Native, a poem you wrote in a time when you were considered a Black Nationalist?

It’s not a question of who wrote it or when; it’s a question of sensibility. It’s a question of what’s immediate, not what’s on all the sides of that. If you can sense what’s human in it, then you’re at its essence.

There’s a Guatemalan poet named Otto Rene Castillo who writes “If you can feel the man beneath these words; if you can feel the human being beneath these words; if you feel real life beyond what I am describing, then we are brothers and sisters” and that’s what art is supposed to do. Even if you think you hate people, you still want them to understand what you’re saying; you want them to get the emotion, the feeling. You communicate with people at all kinds of levels. It’s about human beings. They come from diverse places, sizes, shapes, colors, wants, needs, but there’s always a need for recognition. Recognition is what helps us understand each other. The question now is: when will we advance enough to create societies based on our ultimate humanity rather than all the other bullshit that separates us and makes us enemies?

Do you think we can do that?

I think we’ll either do that or we’ll perish. We’ll either find the way or we’ll disappear. It’s another epic: either we perfect this society in a way that allows us to live together or we’re all dead. Global warming makes it obvious that it’s not in any one person’s hands. We’re part of nature, and we have to be in tune with it, with the body of it, or it will get rid of us. There are levels of agreement that we must ultimately come together and see. At a certain point it’s just abstract to think about individualism. Individualism is an abstraction in the face of this. The same thing goes for social relations, for international relations: keep fooling around in Iraq and it’s going to be the same thing. Are we going to keep putting
the whole world in jeopardy so a little group of us can steal? That’s insanity.

Do you think that kind of understanding starts on a smaller scale? With our friends and lovers? You and your wife Amina have been married for over 40 years now. I imagine that has also required a similar process of learning.

People ask me how me how we’ve stayed married so long and I say ‘Because we want to be married’. It’s a question of need, what does another person have that you need. A relationship is also about finding yourself there, because if you don’t find yourself there then you’ll leave. Marriage is a completion, this half and that half, and it’s the real stuff, not the bullshit. The life of a single individual is limited no matter how smart or how brilliant or how rich you are. Human beings are social animals. There’s no such thing as a society of one. Sometimes people think they’ve got to create the ideal world when really what they’ve got to do first is just learn to live with another person.

So it’s about being open or true, even if just with only one person, letting them see you as the monster or the angel or the good guy or the bad guy or whatever?

Yeah.

Do you think people are able to consistently let go and feel that?

Well people aren’t taught to be like that, to express themselves like that, or to be that comfortable with their own truth. Being open is very difficult. Saying ‘I need you’ or ‘I love you’ and really feeling it is very difficult, much more difficult than just using the words. Anyone can use the words because they’ve heard them said in the movies; they’re just going through the motions. To actually express that at the utmost level of sincerity is a hard thing because none of us wants to be that naked.

Do you think that same idea is related to being creative? Getting to that same place?

I think ultimately that’s the only place you can go to or feel when you’re creating something. I don’t know what you’re being creative about, unless it’s about going there.

interview at Amiri and Amina Baraka’s home,
Newark, New Jersey, 2007

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Rolf Mehnert: Design and Authenticity

Interview by Nora Circosta, 2009.

How important of a role does authenticity play in Corporate Design? Is an authentic presentation necessary for success in the global market?

It’s a paradox: The more artificial the world gets, the higher the demand is for something real. The boom of virtual worlds like Second Lives is happening at the same time that others are successfully investing in traditional firms such as Manufactum where “the good old things” and “quality” still matter. The world has become so commercialized that the customer now demands personalized, reliable, memorable goods and services. Authenticity, which comes from the Greek word authentikós, indicates this idea of realness and reliability. Being perceived as inauthentic has an immediate, negative impact on a company’s success. Corporate identity and brands are ultimately about standing out in a world full of attractions and impulses. You can pretend to be someone you’re not, and build up a Potemkin village . Or you can go to the outside world and present values that really exist in your core. A lot has changed in the last decade and because of new technology such as the Internet, companies now face customers who are well informed and who actively exchange information. It’s no longer so easy to get away with being inauthentic. Many people understand this, but others are still resting on past success, thinking: “It’s worked so far, so why should I change?”

What exactly defines a company? Does the company’s mission statement give you values that you then translate into the language of graphics? This is the question every company has to ask itself: What defines my company, my organization, my brand?

They have to ask what values are offered to the customer, and how these values are generated. Is it about the product or service itself, or is it about the experience offered by the product or service? It’s the business model – this configuration that generates value – which determines the differences from one company to the next. Each company determines these values for itself, and I find a way to present those values to the outside world.

Authenticity is a benchmark for stakeholders (i.e. customers, cooperating partners, everyone related to the company) under which any presentation and communication of the company is checked based on content and consistency. In order to achieve the authentic presentation of a corporate identity, it’s useful to regard the company as the “sender” and the stakeholder as the “receiver”. Authentic communication works on the basis of self-perceptions and individual means of expression, which are differentiated by meaning. Communication must be traced back to these attitudes. These attitudes should be assignable to the “sender” and clearly related to the sender’s “core”. As long as this relation to the core persists, the company will be authentic in its expressions and presentations. The difficulty lies in the fact that it’s impossible, and the attempt inadvisable, to dictate the perception of a “receiver”. One can only make one’s appearance as authentic as possible while in the midst of any “contamination” from the density of information. There is no golden rule for communicating the attitudes of a company. One must choose a path and stringently follow that path (as perceptions are also formed by penetration) in order to be equally perceived and accepted by the majority of receivers. Through an iterative process, authentic presentation and communication also modify the identity of the sender.

What makes an authentic presentation successful? And how do you know where to draw the line between an authentic presentation and a falsified image?

This all comes back to the existence of a “core”, a true value. For instance, last week in Zurich, I noticed a café that was closed. It was a kind of “smokers’ café” and I liked the idea of it. I’m not a smoker myself but I could imagine that a café only for smokers (who are now “homeless” due to the prohibition of smoking in public areas) was likely to represent a value, thus I began wondering why this café was not open. I found out that the owner of the bar had made a peculiar invention: a gadget as big as a mobile phone that held cigarettes that could burn without fire; the nicotine was inhaled through a filter. Though this gadget was available in lots of trendy designs – space themes, bears, flowers, imitation wood — it’s still clear why the bar closed down so quickly: No smoker would ever be satisfied by sitting down in front of a plastic box to have a cigarette. This invention also represents an inconsistency or inauthentic idea, because authentically the place would either not allow smoking or else be a place where people can really smoke. This is a simple example showing that no value, even if it has been nicely packaged and praised, will be successful for long if it is not embodied.

In my own work, I rarely encounter companies that don’t generate this value. About 90% of the companies are changing their appearance because they’ve produced a new value and have to approach a new target group, or because they’re asking themselves: “We have such a great product, so why isn’t it successful?” In such situations, we’ve specialized in moving past the limited insider view and getting an outsider view, so that we can then identify, present and communicate the core values of the company in an adequate way. There’s a clear line between authentic presentation and a falsified image, and the customer realizes quickly if his or her trust has been betrayed. Of course there’s a difference between a company passing itself off as what it’s not, and a company promising what it is unable to maintain in regard of service and production. Both are fatal. As the Czech writer Karel Capek once wrote: “A value is not a value for promising something but for meeting it.” And he’s right.

Rolf Mehnert is board member of Fuenfwerken Design AG and active in the field of Corporate Design, Brandi ng and Business Design. In this role he is intensely confronted wi th the issues of authenticity, scenery and communication. 1) Potemkin villages were, purportedly, fake settlements erected at the direction by the Russian minister Potemkin to fool Catherine II during her visit to the Crimea in 1787. According to the story, he erected facades of villages all along the Dnieper River in order to impress her with evidence of new conquests.

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Stephen Post: Benefits to giving?

Is it really of benefit to give to others? A discussion with the bioethics professor of Case Western School of Medicine and director of The Institute for Research on Unlimiited Love.  Dr. Stephen Post is also the author of the book Why Good Things Happen to Good People.

Pulse: What is the main goal of the Institute for Research on Unlimited Love?

Dr. Stephen Post: The main goal is simple: to bring scientific attention to generous forms of behavior and emotion that are incredibly important to a well-lived life but that generally don’t get the scientific attention they deserve. The goal is also to create a dialogue between sciences, humanities and the spiritual traditions that challenges us to abide by the ideal of a common humanity.

The basic point of your book seems to be: The more we give, the better our lives will be. Is that true?

Well that’s a generalization of course, but it is true that when you’re generous and good to people, you’re going to find acceptance and more opportunities to create things with your life. Cultivating the emotional state of love is helpful to the internal self as well. It’s like saying ‘virtue is its own reward’. Unselfish giving is a good way to live; people who stumble upon that joy tend to lead happier and healthier lives.

How big a role does intention play in this? For instance, would it be inauthentic to give because of a desire for personal gain?

I don’t think any action in life is completely pure. I think everything is of mixed motive. What we’re talking about here are actions that are predominantly genuine – there’s a sense in the person that he or she wants to give. So intention does matter. If people set about doing good things in the world just for self-benefit, it probably wouldn’t be very beneficial to them in the end. There’s a kind of paradox here, and yet the appeal is not to selfishness, the appeal is to the better side of human nature. When that better part is expressed, we flourish. It’s an appeal to the human essence and to the possibilities of love versus the possibilities of hatred, anger and fear.

Your book seems to promote action, but how does that apply to things such as race and class? For instance, if you are in a community that sees you as inferior for some reason, how can you still interact with that community with the intention to give?

I think resiliency is the key. Some of the most successful and influential people are those who are known to be helpful and kind even in the midst of very difficult circumstances. Living a creative, giving life can help people get beyond those kinds of noxious environments. Even so, there is a very real stress that people feel when they perceive themselves as disrespected by a society or a community because of race or class. It’s a response to the universal need we have for acceptance, the need to know that our lives have meaning and value. When you look around yourself and cannot see that reflected, it’s very hurtful.

In your book, you say very blatantly that there are innate differences. You say that status and rank matter. You say that nothing is neutral. Could you talk about that?

Well, everyone is different. Everyone has a unique experience of life. To some extent we all come with a set-point personality, which means people are born and hardwired to be the way they are: Most of positive psychology says that about 50% of our personality is set at birth. For instance, some babies are happy and some aren’t. It could be argued that another 25 percent of happiness is environmental; it has to do with relationships and circumstances that you’re thrown into in life. But that leaves another 25 percent or so that becomes what you make of it. We all start out at different places but whoever we are, whatever our genome type, whatever our environment, there’s still this area of control where it’s up to us.

But if we see these hardwired differences in one another, what makes us want to help one another rather than fight and compete?

I think that game theory is very relevant to answering that question: what seems to be clear from most mathematical modeling is that when we compete in ways that are respectful and compassionate towards others, we do better. In game theory the rule is that on the first move you should be trusting and kind. As the game proceeds the golden rule becomes ‘do unto others as they have done unto you’, so you begin to respond according to how you are treated. Your reaction to someone who is harsh and mean is pedagogical. You almost have a responsibility to react in a certain way.

In the same sense that I discuss courage in the book, each of us has a responsibility to have some kind of constructive confrontation with people whose behavior is really aberrant. When they realize they can’t treat you like a doormat, then good, come back to that relationship and move forward. In game theory, competitors follow these same rules of engagement: on the first move, trust, if the other reciprocates, step back and reengage. People who compete in that positive and cooperative fashion are the ones who actually win the game. Not to pretend that there aren’t some really obnoxious niches in life where things are so fear-laden and destructive that you can’t function in this way. But the problem of evil is not so much that we are wolves but that we are sheep. We tend to prefer the hierarchical virtues of obedience, which is why people have to be strong. They have to be able to buck the system if they need to, rather than go along with what they are told.

Do you think dealing with problems such as this through science is a way of trying to create a better world?

Yes. But it’s just a step. Science can only do so much. In the end I firmly believe that a better world comes when people live good lives and transmit or pass the torch of kindness to others. So it’s really a matter of transmission and modeling. There are three legs to the stool and you need to have all three of them in place to get any use from it.

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Joel Schalit: Fighting Purity

Pulse: In your book, Jerusalem Calling, you make the claim that “Truth is always partisan”. This suggests that no political or ideological belief is ever pure. Do you think this purity is something people still strive for?

Joel Schalit: I don’t think anything is pure, but people do have an unhealthy desire for such things. Purity has horrible aesthetic and moral connotations. We see these in the war on terror and we saw them resolutely manifest in the 19th and 20th centuries as well. I’m particularly allergic to the notion of purity because I think to be pure is to be without contact, and no one single individual mind or opinion is formed independent of what surrounds it. The part of me that remains a committed, orthodox socialist, still believes in the absolute necessity of dialectics when it comes to talking about truth or knowledge.

If the world works dialectically, why do you think so many people cling to the notion of an absolute ‘right way’ or ‘wrong way’ of doing things?

Because they want to be free. It’s a symptom of the illness of being oppressed. People want to escape — they want transcendence. There’s nothing wrong with desiring transcendence, but it’s important that people remind themselves of its impossibility. The problem isn’t so much that we want to be pure, it’s that we believe being pure is possible.

Do you think this leads to the fundamentalist views that have been so destructive in the past few years?

Exactly. Particularly in the United States. What European progressives don’t always understand about the American left is how much American politics as a whole are conditioned by a Protestant heritage and a sense of religious purity. To talk about political freedom and social equality in this country is usually to speak about it in almost messianic terms because our language has been molded and informed by religious definitions of equality. In addition, because the political situation in the U.S. has been bad for so many years now, what is considered left is actually quite conservative: You never have anything in American left politics that hasn’t been manicured. There has always been an extreme desire for liberation from this conservatism in the United States, but the attempts at that liberation have consistently failed.

Couldn’t one make a strong claim for the history of resistance in the United States as well?

It’s true that resistance is a constant feature in American life. But because we have such an inconsequential history of progressive breakthroughs, the intellectual left tends to excoriate itself and go along with the European criticism that the U.S. left has been permanently neutered. If you look at the post-war period, between say 1948 and now, you do see periods of liberal-inspired social upheaval and breakthroughs in things like civil rights legislation and gender equality. The problem is that as soon as people resist and things change, the results get rolled back again.

I’m not sure that liberal ideas regress any more than conservative ideas. It’s like what we were talking about in terms of purity; nothing is purely liberal or purely conservative, at least not consistently so. In Jerusalem Calling, you write about the language of the 1960’s leftist movements being taken or coopted by conservatives and then used to accomplish rightwing agendas. One might say that Bush does this as well, using leftist language to sell the rightwing war on terror. Why is it that the left seems to always manufacture the language of the right?

One thing that has always conditioned my argument that you can never push for progressive politics from places of purity is that the left’s victories are frequently obscured by rightwing power. Cynically, one could say that the left manufactures the political language of the right because the left is the chief ideologist for the right: the left manufactures the right’s ideologies. Realistically, I think it’s more of a reflection of the fact that the left and the right, at least in the United States, are not as separate as one would like them to be. They tend to come from the same community and their members tend to travel back and forth between camps. A lot of the Bush people were former Trotskyites and 1960s radicals, for instance, so it makes sense that they would traffic Bush in the language of the Cold War left.

It then becomes difficult to say who is right and who is wrong.

I’m very sympathetic to postmodernist-inspired notions that politics itself is problematic, and that you can’t necessarily explain political differences rationally because politics itself, as a metacategory, may subscribe to a kind of conservative morality that does not distinguish between right and left and always pushes for conservative social and ideological solutions to problems that people face in their everyday life. Clearly postmodernism of that cynical disposition is largely attributed to derivations of Michel Foucault, but nevertheless I think on the left we’ve largely forgotten the ideological warning that such a reading can provide. These nebulous but necessary political traditions like postmodernism can serve as a reminder not to be absolutist in our convictions or in our deliberations about the progressive character of our own politics. Regardless of the side, it’s always good to introduce a level of skepticism.

Your work suggests that it’s possible to create a better present through understanding the ways we use what we’ve learned in the past.

My friends and I love to quote Karl Marx about how the first time something happens, it’s tragedy, but the second time it happens, it’s farce.

I actually think it’s more beneficial to go into the nuance though, because no thing really ever happens twice, at least not in the same way.

And yet it’s particularly important to understand the nuances of repetition itself, because we do remain trapped in the dialectics between religion and secularism. We can’t understand that social progress and social justice remain inhibited in the same ways they were inhibited 1000 years ago. It’s the same struggle between culture and capitalism.

Do you think people in power are aware of the ways they use this system? 

I think Bush and his team are aware that religion is a means of helping them culturally advance other kinds of more concrete political objectives, but it’s also fascinating to look at the degree to which members of that very same establishment also really do believe in such religious notions of equality and freedom. Bush is a great example: there is nobody more capable of articulating the anti-democratic objectives of the political elite than he is while at the same time actually believing in the ideologies they’re invoking to convince people to support their claims to power. It’s crazy. Bush is one of the more psychotic characters in that regard; he’s a fascinating study because he almost believes his own hype.

It’s almost like the better you can handle being a paradox, the more successful you’re going to be.

That’s right. The problem that a lot of folks outside of the US have is that they don’t understand what kind of spell that paradox holds for most Americans. Americans are enthralled by it because it appeals to the economic side of the equation. Americans like being a hegemonic political power on the world stage, and yet on the other hand it also appeals to their most heartfelt cultural identity, which is being a good Christian who has a sense of purpose in the world, a reason for existence.

What would you like to see happen in the states?

I would like to see some kind of renewal of progressive ideology within American popular culture and within non-institutional realms of American culture at large. Americans have very profound needs and desires for a better state of affairs that approximate a progressive political agenda; there just aren’t any cultural or institutional forces pushing them in that direction right now. There is a lot of anger about the war, and anger about poverty and anger about the state of the economy, but I don’t see people organizing or helping folks at large thematize those feelings into the kinds of real political discussions and goals that could actually influence the direction of this system. Americans don’t feel empowered to make decisions that would be best for their own self-interest in the long term. Religion plays an enormously negative role in that regard because it’s very hard to think about political freedom in an environment where people’s conceptions of freedom are already so wholly overconditioned by religious commitments. The kinds of faith Americans are taught to have don’t inspire the kind of radical negotiation of faith and politics that is necessary right now. In an ideal world, that would be one of the first things that would have to change

 

Interview by Andrea Hiott, from early 2008.

Joel Schalit is a writer and editor based in San Francisco. An Israeli-American pundit noted for his unique views on Middle Eastern politics and US culture, over the past thirteen years, Schalit has produced four books and contributed to numerous periodicals. The former managing editor of Berkeley’s Tikkun magazine and associate editor of Chicago’s Punk Planet, Schalit served two terms as the co-director of the world’s longest running online publication, Bad Subjects: Political Education for Everyday Life. His latest book, Israel vs. Utopia, will be out in Autumn of 2009.

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Pakistani Filmmaker Feryal Ali Gauhar

Interview by Anna Rohleder

Do our thoughts create our world? Gauhar wants us to look inside to understand our images.

Feryal Ali Gauhar’s professional life has encompassed many different activities: acting, writing, filmmaking and teaching, as well as serving as a diplomatic representative. She was a UN Goodwill Ambassador from 1999 to 2004, and she continues to be a sought-after participant for international panels and workshops, particularly on women’s issues. Her first novel, The Scent of Wet Earth in August (2002) made the New York Times best seller list. Her second novel, No Space for Further Burials, was published in March 2007. She regularly writes op-ed pieces for Dawn, Pakistan’s leading English-language newspaper, and teaches film at the National College of Arts while also lecturing on women and development at other universities and institutes. Feryal Ali Gauhar lives in Lahore.

Pulse: The narrator of your most recent novel, No Space for Further Burials, is an American man imprisoned in Afghanistan. What did you feel you could say or explore from his perspective that you couldn’t say from the perspective of a narrator who had a personal biography more like your own?

Ferial Ali Gauhar: I wanted to juxtapose two worlds which have been pitted against each other in the current global climate, both refusing to reveal their common humanity to each other, and both therefore perpetuating the myth that their nations are essentially opposed in terms of belief systems and behavior.

My American character is not the stereotype with which people in this part of the world are familiar – he is not the gun toting, swaggering cowboy who spits his disgust at all that is unfamiliar. Instead, he is at the edge of the mainstream, the son of a Native American farmer and a white woman, a young man who spends his time in libraries instead of chugging beer at the local football game. He is a man who dreams of being able to write, and who finds himself in a situation beyond his control. I felt it was important to explore my world from the perspective of those men and women who find themselves in the midst of a war which seems to have no purpose. I wanted to draw out the human dimension of the “enemy” or the “victor” and the “vanquished”. I felt I could do so by giving a voice to the American who comes with his own tale of sorrow, who is not always so sure of the agenda of his country, who is as vulnerable to violence and treachery and boredom and betrayal as anyone else, anywhere else.

At one point your narrator says, “I have come to understand what it means to live inside the landscape of one’s own mind, where one can create an entire new world, keeping it secret from others.” That seems true of this book in general, which is very much an interior narrative and not very visual in its language. This is surprising given that you are also a filmmaker. Is this something you were aware of as you were writing?

Yes, of course. My first novel, The Scent of Wet Earth in August, was highly visual in its language, based as it was on the script of a film I wrote and directed. This one, No Space for Further Burials, was written in the isolation of a California suburb where my only contact with the world was the bits and pieces of news I would get over the Internet. I was spending much of the day on my own, with no conversation, except that which my characters had with me. I built the asylum in my own head, I saw the characters playing out their lives, I smelt the decaying flesh and the overflowing urine, I felt the wounds and the cold and the hunger. All of this is hard to describe, but it was such an intensely real experience for me that the words just came, as much as the stories told themselves and the characters acted upon their own will. I did no drafts of the book – what was published was really the original manuscript. I never spoke to anyone at all about the book, and
I was quite surprised when a publisher asked for anything I had written recently. I still don’t know how the book was written, or whether I was just the instrument for the stories of these people who may have existed and who found me to tell their stories.

What does it mean to tell the truth of someone’s story? Is it different for an artist than for anyone else?

I don’t know what you mean by “artist”. Is a writer an artist? Is a journalist an artist when he or she puts their life on the line to “seek the truth”? I have never considered myself to be anything other than an ordinary human being, though I do have a deep compulsion to “tell the truth”… I am never conscious of the risks that I may be taking in the process; in fact, I am not even conscious of the process itself. Truth is something which manifests itself in ways which are unexpected, in the choices one makes, in the stories one tells, the songs one sings, the friends one keeps.

But what is it you feel compelled to say?

Simply that I believe it is time we were introspective about everything we seem to hold sacred: our cultural behavior, the ideologies which give rise to the policies we formulate. It is time to reach out and to understand that beneath the differences and despite the differences, there is the supreme commonality of a love of life, the love of family, country, and all things that are familiar to us in our own, separate worlds. It is time to consider that unless we reach out, unless we are willing to see the “enemy” as nothing but a reflection of our own selves, we are doomed to destroy everything we have built and learnt to love. It is time to pay tribute to the spirit of human resilience, time to resist tyranny of all sorts, in all places, amongst all people

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Charity Scribner: Requiem for Communism

Interview by Andrea Hiott.

Charity Scribner’s Requiem for Communism is the first book to address the role of nostalgia and mourning in European art and writing after the fall of communism. The book is a delicate illumination of the ways we sometimes reach truth through our experiences of loss. German philosopher Oskar Negt credits Scribner with successfully combining “sober judgment on communism’s downfall with compassion, leaving room for inconsistent feelings within our collective memory.” From her flat in New York City, Scribner talks with Pulse about losses both personal and professional, the years she spent living in Berlin, and the way mourning might sometimes lead to creativity.

Pulse: How did you begin writing about memory, loss and nostalgia?

Charity Scribner: It started when I was in graduate school taking courses on psychoanalysis. I was interested in gender and identity, and specifically in the idea that a person assumes his or her gender-identity based on some form of loss. I’d started reading Lacan, perhaps looking for a more feminist rethinking of loss and identity, but no one was talking of such things at the time. I remember asking one of my professors at Columbia in the early 90s if she knew about Lacan’s writings: She was very dismissive of my question, very discouraging. I went to Berlin after the fall of the Wall and found these same themes of loss and identity also prevalent there. I kept trying to find a way of discussing them and finally I had the opportunity to talk with the Slovenian sociologist Slavoj Zizek. He found my questions interesting and referred me to some people in Paris who were working on similar approaches. That’s the theoretical part; the other side of it is emphatically personal. I’d actually come to Berlin in 1993 with my boyfriend. We’d been together for more than 6 years at that point and he’d planned to go on a long research trip traveling by motorcycle while I was studying. Just as he started out though, he was in a terrible motorcycle accident which he did not survive. So on a personal level I was also experiencing a great feeling of loss then; in fact I was racked with grief. And I was in Berlin when all of this was happening…

Adjusting to another country already comes with such a grainy feeling of being alone, the vertigo where one realizes how impossible it is to relate to the world in habitual ways. In that sense, I imagine your experience of grief must have felt especially violent in a foreign environment. Though you never mention anything personal in the book, the writing somehow remains very tender. After what you’ve just said, I understand that tenderness better now: the impetus behind it is so raw, so intense.

It was very intense for me, yes. I thought about loss often and I thought about it deeply. In some ways writing that book was a work of mourning for me; it was a way of trying to understand how it is that one is able to part with something, especially something that one has idealized, for better or for worse.

Which leads me to another idea I wanted to talk with you about, and that is the way in which loss and melancholy might relate to creativity. In your writing, memory feels like a very active thing, an activity, as though it were creating something rather than remaining static.

The first thing that comes to mind when I hear you say that is the work of the Bulgarian- French philosopher Julia Kristeva. I studied with her at Columbia, and her writings have been a guiding light in my attempt to understand melancholia. She wrote a book called Black Sun that’s about depression and melancholia in the artistic personality. She talks about how any true art always comes out of some loss or painful experience. Loss causes a person to question and critique everything: there’s something in the displacement of pain which forces one to rethink and recreate oneself and there’s also something about that kind of questioning that can lead to creativity. So in that sense, as I was writing the book, as I was trying to understand the pall of melancholia and nostalgia I saw falling over Berlin in the early 1990s, I guess I was also trying to find some kind of transformative force in there as well.

It makes me think of gaps. In your book, you discuss Christa Wolf and how a lot of her message is in the words or thoughts that she skips or fails to mention –

Right. Up until the late 90s, for instance, she never mentions the Berlin Wall in her writing at all, and yet it remains a kind of architecture around the work she’s done.

That also relates to how creativity can come from loss: one creates new things to fill vacated spaces. It reminds one of the creative energy that’s now associated with East Berlin.

It’s interesting to think of Berlin, or East Berlin especially, as a gap or a space that’s being filled and reanimated, with so many people from other places relocating there. This was also something that came up a lot when I was working on the book: although there were a lot of Germans who took on these themes of loss and melancholia, their interest in this subject was always matched by non-Berliners, people from France or England or the United States who wanted to move into that territory and make something out of it. This kind of rush to fill the gaps also caused some tension: Some of the Germans I knew resented it or saw it as a kind of colonization.

There are still a lot of questions like that in Berlin – questions about the east and the west, about the European Union – questions about the Turkish population, about the Americans. At the same time, this unresolved discussion is one of the things that keeps Berlin dynamic and open to interpretation.

Exactly. You never really know how to define Berlin. Which maybe brings us back to this same idea of truth again. It’s like what Michel Foucault talked about when he said that truth is always an effect of something; truth is always a matter of interpretation. So there’s always more than one perspective from which any one thing can be seen …

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Felipe Fernandez-Armesto: On Truth

WHAT IF WE COLLECTIVELY DECIDED THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS ABSOLUTE TRUTH?

It would be disastrous, but it would never happen. Thank God, agreement is elusive, even on commonsense matters of fact. ‘There’s no absolute truth’ is an absolute statement – all statements about nothing are necessarily absolute – and therefore self-falsifying. Anyone – Cretan or cretin – who denies the existence of truth, invites disbelief. By denying absolute truth, the proposition we confront in the present exercise implicitly endorses contingent truths. But even contingent propositions can only be true if one of the conditions is that there is such a thing as truth.

Absolute truth is ineluctable. Even a truth that implies contingency, such as ‘Swans are black in Australia’ involves the absolutely true adumbration that ‘The proposition that swans are black in Australia is true.’ People who say, ‘It’s true for me’ are either gilding falsehoods or misrepresenting matters of opinion.

If we abandon the search for truth, we shall fall victim to two evils. First, we shall be hobbled in the fight against falsehood. People who deny that Nazis killed Jews, or who justify war by telling us that such-and-such an enemy has weapons of mass destruction, or who ascribe literal truth to poetic texts or self-interested dogmas will get away with their lies and evasions. Secondly, we shall make agreement depend on some other criterion, such as whether a proposition hurts anyone’s feelings, or causes offense, or transgresses political correctness, or subverts society, or challenges the state, or infringes consensus. Some campuses and some seminars are already close to being relativistic Disneylands, in which the nearest you can get to expressing outrage or denouncing lies is to say, ‘I know where you’re coming from.’ Some countries are already realms of newspeak.

To adhere to the search for truth does not mean the abandonment of skepticism. On the contrary: relativism makes us slip our guard. This does not mean that relativism is a useless doctrine. It can be a useful source of inspiration for thought experiments, such as the one we are engaged on in this exercise. In my book on the history of truth, I tried to show that different cultures, at different times, have favored, on balance, different techniques for telling truth from falsehood, and therefore may be said to have had, to that extent, different concepts of truth. In that sense, the predictions of relativism have proved valid. And it is important to remember that truth is elusive. It takes hard work, discipline, and time to approach it. Although the truth is out there we shall not grasp it quickly or easily embrace it whole. Relativism, indeed, can teach us a vital form of wisdom. The same truths look different when viewed from different viewpoints. Truth, as I am always telling my students, is like a nymph glimpsed bathing between leaves. The more you shift perspective, the more is revealed.

– Felipe Armesto

Felipe Fernandez-Armesto is Professor of Global Environmental Hi story at Queen Mary, University of London. He is the author of Truth: A Hi story as well as several popular works on history including Ideas That Changed the World (2003). Pathfinders: a Global Hi story of Exploration (2006). Fernandex Armesto is also the Principe de Asturias Chair in Spanish Culture and Civilization at Tufts University.

Felipe Fernandez-Armesto ist Dozent für Global Environmental Hi story an der Queen Mary University, London. Er ist der Autor des buches „Wahrheit. Die Geschichte. Die Feinde. Die Chancen.“, sowi e anderer erfolgreicher Werke zum thema Geschichte, u.a. „Ideas That Changed the World“ (2003) und „Pathfinders: a Global History of Exploration“ (2006). Fernandez- Armesto ist ausserdem der Principe de Asturias Chair für Spanische Kultur und Zivilisation an der Tufts University, Boston.

Es wäre ein Desaster, aber es wird nie dazu kommen. Zum Glück ist so ein
Einvernehmen schwer zu erzielen, auch bei Tatsachen, die die Allgemeinheit
anerkennt. ‚Es gibt keine absolute Wahrheit‘ ist an sich eine absolute
Aussage – alle gegenstandslosen Aussagen sind notwendigerweise
absolut – und widerlegt sich somit selbst. Jeder, egal ob Kreter oder
Kretin, der die Existenz von Wahrheit bestreitet, ruft Zweifel auf den Plan.
Indem die These, auf der diese Gedankenübung beruht, die Existenz einer
absoluten Wahrheit abstreitet, geht sie implizit von bedingten Wahrheiten
aus. Doch auch bedingte Thesen können nur dann wahr sein, wenn
zutrifft, dass es so etwas wie Wahrheit gibt. Absolute Wahrheit ist unvermeidlich.
Selbst Wahrheit, die Bedingtheit einbezieht, wie ‚In Australien
sind Schwäne schwarz‘, geht mit dem absolut wahren Gedankenentwurf
einher: ‚Die These, dass in Australien Schwäne schwarz sind, ist wahr‘.
Wer sagt: ‚Für mich ist das wahr‘, der verbrämt entweder eine Unwahrheit
oder stellt Dinge, die Ansichtssache sind, ungenau dar.
Gäben wir die Suche nach Wahrheit auf, so fielen wir zwei Übeln anheim.
Erstens würden wir bei unserem Kampf gegen Falschheit beeinträchtigt.
Menschen, die leugnen, dass die Nazis Juden umgebracht haben, oder die
Krieg damit rechtfertigen, dass sie uns sagen, dieser oder jene Feind habe
Massenvernichtungswaffen, oder die poetischen Texten eine wortwörtliche
Wahrheit oder eigennützige Dogmen zuschreiben, kämen mit ihren Lügen
und Ausflüchten davon. Zweitens würden wir unser Einvernehmen von anderen
Kriterien abhängig machen, wie der Frage, ob eine These jemandes
Gefühle verletzt oder jemandem Anlass zum Ärger bietet oder politisch
unkorrekt ist oder die Gesellschaft untergräbt oder sich gegen den Staat
richtet oder gegen allgemeinen Konsens verstößt. Einige Universitäten und
Seminare stehen kurz davor, sich in ein relativistisches Disneyland zu verwandeln,
in dem ‚Ich weiß, wo du herkommst.‘ das Äußerste ist, was man
sagen darf, um seinem Zorn Ausdruck zu verschaffen oder Lügen zu denunzieren.
Mancherorts ist Orwells „Neusprech“ bereits die Landessprache.

Er kann als hilfreiche Inspirationsquelle für Gedankenexperimente
dienen, wie bei dem, das wir hier gerade durchführen. In meinem Buch
über die Geschichte der Wahrheit habe ich darzustellen versucht, wie
verschiedene Kulturen zu bestimmten Zeiten letztendlich ganz unterschiedliche
Verfahrensweisen guthießen, um Wahrheit von Falschheit
zu unterscheiden, und wie man davon ausgehend sagen kann, dass sie
in diesem Maße auch unterschiedliche Wahrheitskonzepte besaßen.
Diesbezüglich haben sich die Vorhersagen des Relativismus als zutreffend
erwiesen. Und es ist wichtig, sich in Erinnerung zu rufen, dass
Wahrheit schwer zu erzielen ist. Es bedarf harter Arbeit, Disziplin und
viel Zeit, um sich ihr anzunähern. Obwohl es die Wahrheit gibt, sollten
wir nicht voreilig danach greifen oder sie gänzlich an uns ziehen. Der
Relativismus kann uns in der Tat eine grundlegende Form der Weisheit
lehren. Dieselben Wahrheiten sehen von unterschiedlichen Blickwinkeln
betrachtet ganz anders aus. Wahrheit ist, wie ich meinen Studenten
auch immer sage, wie eine badende Nymphe hinter Bäumen
und Sträuchern. Je öfter man die Blickrichtung wechselt, um so mehr
kann man sehen.
– Felipe Armesto

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Homi Bhabha, Moving Gun

Is truth a matter of interpretation? 

A discussion about ambivalence with Harvard’s controversial intellectual Homi Bhabha.

Pulse: Is there a way to understand truth without thinking of it as part of a story?

Homi Bhabha: I think it’s very difficult to understand the question of truth without some form of narrative because even if you assume that truth is an innate quality of something, in the same spirit that Keats said ‘Truth is beauty, beauty truth’, then truth is still going to be a form of judgment,and judgment assumes some kind of temporality in which you balance various things, and you need language to communicate that.

In what way is truth always a form of judgment?

In that truth is always a claim. You make a claim when you call something true; you are addressing something. So there is always some medium for our perception, which is a kind of judgment, which is a kind of story we tell? Well, truth always has to be mediated in some way, and narrative is a convenient way of doing that. It takes time for a person to get at the essence of something, to grasp the tree-ness of the tree or the trueness of the tree’s tree-ness, and the time it takes to do that would itself be some form of narrative.

Lately people seem more concerned with truth; at the same time, truth seems more difficult to find. For years we’ve been focused on the claims made about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and yet even now it’s hard to determine who knew what and when. Is truth contingent on whether or not the person speaking believes what he or she is saying?

First let’s go back to narrative: Did people say there were weapons of mass destruction? Yes, they did. Did they find weapons of mass destruction? No, they didn’t. So based on that, you might want to say that people were, as one famous Englishman put it, ‘economical with the truth’, i.e. they didn’t tell the truth. On the other hand, people say that in the moments leading up to the war the intelligence was not good and the evidence was enough to persuade the Blair and Bush governments to believe in it.

So they could have believed it was true?

They could have persuaded themselves of the need for war in just the same way people can persuade themselves that another person is in love with them. They could have believed in it because their desire for it was so strong. But either way, alongside the question of whether people were honest or dishonest about those things, narrative becomes very important. And whether they believed it or not, genuinely, is an issue that is left even more open because of what actually happened.

That’s what I was trying to raise by using the word ‘inertia’ I think. It’s like we relinquish truth to some movement for which we don’t want to take responsibility, and yet we’re still there moving right along with it.

But I think it’s more than just inertia. It’s a particular way of thinking, a particular style of American foreign policy that has had a long history, hundreds of years old, which is the history of pre-emptive action. It’s the idea that you must somehow take control of things before they happen, but when you take action before something has happened,you don’t know if you are hitting the right target.

But depending on whether you destroy that target, the truth might go in various ways

It’s like Michel Foucault’s idea that there is no Truth with a capital T, no transcendent quality. There is always a battle around what is the true, and it’s the function of discourse to stabilize something as true for a certain period of time, whether it’s a particular laboratory method, whether it’s a particular form of medical diagnosis, whether it’s a particular law relating to behavior or a particular norm. Truth is always a negotiation, and it always has a certain authority.

Well in other areas of society, not only politics, it doesn’t seem to be as much of a negotiation. When someone claims to be writing a memoir for instance, we read it in a different way. The meaning becomes questionable if we learn that something the writer presented to us was actually false. This usually leads to controversy, as has happened with writers such as J.T. Leroy, who claimed to be a homosexual, boy prostitute but turned out to be a 40-year-old woman instead. What is it about writing that changes people’s reaction depending on whether the author claims his or her story is true?

That’s a problem concerning different conventions of reading. Conventions of reading are always based on certain structures or conditions of credibility. If you’re looking at a science fiction piece, you expect one thing. If you were reading an allegory where animals stand for human beings, then you’d expect another. And if you’re reading a memoir that’s been presented to you as something true, then likewise you’re relating to a particular convention from the very beginning. Each piece is a different convention. And each convention has a different kind of identification, a different set of codifications.

But doesn’t it come down to interpretation? Does the writer really control it all?

Well no, one can’t control it all, but there is a difference. There is a difference between the levels of interpretation that you establish. When you are writing something that you claim actually happened to you, it’s perfectly possible to describe events truthfully, and it’s also perfectly possible that at some point later your perception of those events might change. This type of change is completely different than saying that you were raped, or that you were a drug addict, when in fact those things never really happened to you. For example, I just read a book by Elie Wiesel about his devastating experiences as a young man during the Holocaust. I hope I’m remembering the story correctly — it would be ironic in the context if I weren’t — but I think that in an early book of his which was published in French, he said that during the Nazi transport of the Jewish people to the concentration camps, there was a lot of sex going on in the wagons.

Then, in the version that I was reading, he says that he’s not so sure that what he’d written about the sex then was really true after all, that perhaps it was only his projection that perhaps he was at a point in his life where he needed some deep, physical comfort and so he may have actually invented it all. Such a situation belongs to what I meant by reinterpretation. You see he WAS in the wagon, and in that wagon bodies were probably very close to one another, lurching around; there were probably all kinds of sounds in that darkness and desperation and loneliness that might have stimulated different interpretations, one of which might have been that the people were indeed having sex. But that kind of interpretation is very different from questioning whether or not Eli Wiesel was actually in those trains and in that situation.

Do you think we create morality by what we write?

Sure. Sure we do. But how else would you create it? I mean, when you talk about writing I assume you mean écriture – you mean inscription — which includes speech, which includes visual signs; it’s not simply what you put down on a piece of paper.

Yes. All of that. Writing a book, writing a film, drawing, creating.

Exactly. Visual signs, visual culture. It’s about a system of meaning. It could be advertising. It could be the Advent calendar. It’s all of this. And how else would morality be articulated?

Articulated or generated? Because I’m talking about generation.

Well, articulated in the sense of made known, made visible, entering into the lives and thinking and speech of people, but also articulated in the sense of an articulated lorry, where what is moral has to be linked, like an articulated vehicle, to a number of other things or vehicles. Language and meaning are the ways one does that.

So being creative can be thought of as being truthful?

Well that’s a very broad thing to state but yes, of course, being creative to some extent is about being truthful to something, truthful to your fantasy, truthful to your desire, truthful to your love of language…

But there are other things to consider too, like the play of power and the desire to please.

Well, what do you mean?

If one wants to create something, he or she then has a basic impetus, but that original ‘truth’ will have to come into contact with everything external as well. There’s always the option that one might become false as a way of fitting in with what is already explicit, isn’t there?

Well, of course you’d be conscious in such a way when you were making something. You’d decide the audience you wanted to approach; you’d decide the theme; you’d decide the form; you’d decide the funding; and you’d decide the institution where you would locate the work and so on. What you would not be able to define is the way in which that work over time, or even in its own time, was interpreted or institutionalized. In different places and in different situations there are things which function as truths, but in each of these situations there is always a place from which those ideas or concepts or norms can be questioned.

There’s seems to be an ambivalence here though, in terms of the tension between what one might feel as his or her truth and how that feeling might change as they interact with the world.

Those two things are certainly at play, but there’s also something else at play and that is that as soon as you write a sentence, as soon as you invest a part of yourself in a work, you cannot be fully aware of how you are transcribing your own psychic state into it. The work is always open to interpretation, even against the grain of the author’s intentions.

In that sense, what do you think of the way your own work has been interpreted? Many of your peers, as you know, often criticize you for writing obscurely. I suppose obscurity can also mean ambiguity, and deliberate ambiguity might be a way of leaving something open to as many interpretations as possible. Do you think your writing is obscure? Do you do that on purpose?

Well I can see how certain things that I write could be difficult. When I’m working on something, there might be a time when I haven’t quite worked out the thought but I know that this gray area is crucial to the argument. In those times, I will still try my best to keep this thought in the text, even if it creates a kind of uncertainty in some way.

So it becomes more poetry than prose, leaving this space open for interpretation.

So it becomes more poetry than prose, leaving this space open for interpretation. Right. I don’t close off the space and say I’m going to stop there just because I’m on stable ground. When I’m writing it’s very often a high-wire act; it isn’t certain.

There are people who would say that the only way to find new answers is to be able to deal with uncertainty but…

Well. Well, I’m sure that’s true.

 

Interview by Andrea Hiott, 2007

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Seth Lloyd & Andrea Hiott: Crazy Molecules

Interview by Andrea Hiott.

It’s a mistake to say that science is true. 

According to quantum mechanic Seth Lloyd, we can trust what we cannot prove. Lloyd was the first person to discover how to build a quantum computer. He is a professor of mechanical engineering at MIT and the author of Programming the Universe, a book about quantum mechanics and how the universe is a giant computer.

Pulse: Science is something people reference these days regardless of their field or discipline. Does this popularization of science bother you?

Seth Lloyd: Not at all. I think it’s natural that this should happen because the thing that makes a piece of knowledge scientific in the first place is that it can be verified by anybody or anything. Science is a uniquely public form of knowledge, so it makes sense that it is popular. It also makes scientists responsible for trying to communicate in a way that others can understand, which I see as a good thing.

Is there any way in which it can be harmful for people to believe that anything associated with science is true?

I actually think it’s a mistake to say that science is true. The normal line that philosophers of science take on this, rather than saying that science is true, is to say that science is falsifiable. That basically means that we can figure out what is false but we cannot prove what is true. The scientific results that we have are actually the ones that have been tested again and again and not proven false.
In that sense, science itself is not dangerous; what can be dangerous is the way that science is used. Which is another reason why people should understand as much as they can about it, because the way science is used is really the responsibility of a society as a whole, not only of its scientists. The people who are commissioning bombs to be built and then dropping those bombs on others are not necessarily people who are scientists; they are people who are using science for bad aims, assuming those kinds of aims are bad ones, which I do.

In school we learn that science is solid, factual, and reliable, but when you really start looking at it you realize it’s not so solid: something can be both a particle and a wave; nothing is ‘true’ it’s only ‘falsifiable’….

Actually, I’d maintain that what you learned in school is correct: Science is solid, factual and reliable. But what people don’t learn in school, and what they really need to know, is that not only is science solid, factual and reliable but it’s also totally insane. Science is crazy and counterintuitive and bizarre at the very same time that it’s solid and factual and reliable.

We don’t usually believe something can be both reliable and counterintuitive. To really understand the way the universe works, do we have to accept more contradictions?

Yes. And that’s pretty mind-blowing isn’t it? Science is crazy and yet scientific knowledge is really the only reliable stuff we have. “If you cut your finger, it will bleed” is an example of scientific knowledge. It’s knowledge everybody possesses because it is falsifiable. But when you then take that same idea and apply it to photons and electrons and black holes and the universe, then you will find that the analogous statement to “If you cut your finger, it bleeds” is “An electron can be in two places at once, and it typically is in two places at once”. It’s profoundly difficult for people to accept such a thing.

You just gave some examples of scientific knowledge. In Programming the Universe, you make a case for how the universe is a giant computer running on information. In such a universe, what is the difference between knowledge and information?

That’s a difficult question, but first let’s just try and define information. Information can be thought of as bits. It represents distinctions between possibilities, like the distinction between “0” and “1” or “yes” and “no”; it doesn’t say anything whatsoever about meaning.

So information is more like food?  

Right. If the cable guy comes to your house and hooks up your cable, his job is to make sure you get 500,000 bits per second coming into your house. His job isn’t about determining whether that 500,000 bits is Masterpiece Theatre or whether it’s pornography. The content doesn’t matter to him; all that matters is that you’re getting your 500,000 bits. The quantity of information can be distinct from the content.

So information is what exists with or without our awareness of it, but knowledge is the interpretation of information, and so requires consciousness?

Our consciousness certainly has to do with how we interpret information, but I’m actually very suspicious of consciousness; I think it’s way overrated. Humans tend to take a lot of pride in ‘being conscious’ and I always want to ask ‘Well, what have we done with that consciousness recently?’
We tend to think we’re the center of the universe, but most of us go around unconscious for the majority of the time, even when we’re awake.

I guess what I mean by consciousness is the extent to which we are aware of the information we use to communicate with one another, because maybe that is connected to how things change. For instance, in your book you talk about how physical systems change their information. Can you explain this?

Since information represents distinctions between possibilities, a change from one possibility to another is what distinguishes change. An electron has a bit – it has a piece of information, or maybe it’s better to say that an electron is a piece of information – which means it can spin either clockwise or counterclockwise. And every time something happens to it, that bit flips. It goes from spinning clockwise to spinning counterclockwise, or vise versa, and when it does this we say that the information has changed.

Is this what you would call de-cohering?

De-coherence is a good example of one of those things that is counterintuitive. The idea that an electron has a bit – that it can spin either clockwise or counterclockwise – is part of a classical picture of the world which is digital at bottom. But the electron is also quantum mechanical, so in addition to having this discrete, digital quality it also has its own weird funky counterintuitive properties, because actually this electron can take on both these things at once: it can spin both clockwise and counterclockwise. It can be both “O” and “1” at the same time, before it de-coheres.

Is this happening in two separate places? Or is there one place and both things are happening simultaneously?

The electron is “0” and “1” simultaneously, but you’re on the right track…

Ok. So is it like feeling happy and sad at exactly the same moment? Or wanting something and not wanting it at exactly the same time?

That’s certainly only a metaphor, and we have to be careful, but let’s pursue that train of thought. De-coherence is a process from where the electron goes from being “0” and “1” at the same time, to being either 0 or 1. When it de-coheres, the world splits in two and “0” goes to one world and 1 goes to another, and those worlds continue but they are no longer the same world. We can think of this in other ways too, to get a better idea. For example, as I discuss in the book, there’s a passage from Kenzaburo Oe’s A Personal Matter where he talks about a woman whose husband has committed suicide and she spends a lot of her time imagining this other world where he’s still alive, to the extent where this other world is as real to her as the world where she is actually living. I don’t know if you’ve ever had anyone close to you die, but there really is this way where a part of your brain continues to still think that person is living. But this is only a kind a way of understanding the idea: I don’t think electrons actually feel this way. (laughing)

It’s magical thinking. But as you say in your book, according to the Many Worlds theory, for every situation that happens there are many other worlds in which it doesn’t. You also quote Oe’s statement that “You can’t make death relative, no matter what psychological tricks you use”. Those two statements seem to contradict one another. Even so, there’s something about taking the two of them together that is useful for dealing with grief. Perhaps contradictions open up possibilities by allowing more than one thing to be true. Is it this same idea that gives a quantum computer more power than a normal one?

In a way, yes. Because when we say that computers interpret information, what we really mean is they treat the information as instructions to do things, so “0” means to do one thing and “1” means to do another. That’s what happens when human beings interpret information as well. So if I take this bit that is both “0” and “1” at the same time and I put it into the computer, the computer treats is as an instruction – “0” tells the computer to do this, and “1” tells the computer to do that. A quantum computer can do both of those instructions at the same time, rather than only one of them. David Deutsch called this quantum parallelism: it’s a matter of doing two or more things in parallel. A classical computer can typically only follow one instruction at a time, but a quantum computer can do many things simultaneously.

So what role does uncertainty play when it comes to computers and computer programming?

Good question. In ordinary computer programming, there’s really only one type of uncertainty, and everybody experiences this kind of uncertainty everyday. It’s the reason why there are bugs in computer programs, or why your computer freezes at times or does all those other funny things you don’t want it to do. The reason there are always bugs in computer programs comes from a very deep expression in logic, Kurt Gödel’s Undecidability Theorem, which shows that if you have any sufficiently complicated logical or mathematical structure, it’s not closed; there’s no finite mathematical system in which everything can be answered. So when you translate that into computer programs, it becomes something called the Halting Problem, which was proven by Alan Turing. The Halting Problem says that the only way to know what will happen if you change the instructions of a computer is to give it those instructions and see what happens.
So you can’t really prove that it’s going to go one way or the other. The only way to know if a computer program is going to work is to try it. You don’t know what is going to happen until you hit “RETURN”. This is something nearly everyone who has a computer has experienced. On top of all that, you also have this other kind of uncertainty that we’ve been talking about, the quantum mechanical one. The cool thing about the universe is that it’s using both of these in a complimentary or parallel fashion. So somewhere everything happens. Which helps us understand why life happened: if the universe is exploring all these different structures, then it’s not surprising that it’s exploring a structure like this as well.

Life is intrinsically likely then, as you say.

And certain to occur somewhere.

So we can’t prove anything is true, and we can’t make any definite predictions?

No. But we can say what isn’t true, and that’s quite a lot already.

 

interview by Andrea Hiott, 2007

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Brandon Boyd & Andrea Hiott: Creativity And Intention

Interview from 2009.

Brandon Boyd, lead singer of Incubus, discusses the ways truth can be a form of liberation

pulse: You’re most well known for your music, but you’ve recently published your second book of drawings and writings, From the Murks of the Sultry Abyss. How is this book connected to the other work you do? To your music?

Brandon Boyd: The intentions I had in making the book are the same ones I have when I’m writing or creating music: I’m doing it because it’s what feels right, creating and expressing, letting my experiences and my individual life come out in whatever form or medium they want to take. When I was really young, it was always in drawing that I found that expression. Then I started playing music and writing when I was a teenager… It’s always been this kind of natural progression.

It sounds like it’s easy for you to trust that creative impulse in yourself?

Yeah, most of the time it is. Which doesn’t mean I don’t second-guess myself. I think that’s sort of part and parcel to creativity though, that vulnerability, that moment before you give it over, where you’re like ‘Ok I’m going to publish it now’ or ‘I’m going to put this out as a record’, that moment where you start second-guessing everything and thinking ‘This might be the worst thing I’ve ever done!’

Taking those kinds of risks seems to have been rewarding for you; your band is extremely successful! How do you think your creative process, or your way of accessing that internal creative place, has changed in the midst of so much fanfare and praise?

I don’t think I ever really anticipated that anyone would like anything I’d created. I really started out doing it for merely self-indulgent  purposes. A lot of it I did because it almost felt like a necessity, especially with writing, I felt like if I didn’t write these things down they were going to consume me and force me into some kind of tough shell that I wouldn’t be able to crack out of. In that sense, a lot of the writing has been therapeutic, me just trying to get my ideas out. When the praise starts to come I try to just look at it as surface flattery; I try not to take it any deeper. I have a pretty good understanding of the fleeting nature of these things, of the fleeting nature of success, and so I understand that our fame is merely a moment in time and soon someone else will take that place.

But have you always had that perspective? Or was that something you had to learn through experience?

Somehow I think I always kind of knew that fame was something temporary. As a kid I was always fascinated by artists and by music; so by looking at these people’s lives it was pretty easy for me to come to the understanding that if fame did come to me it would probably be fleeting. We’ve had so many teachers before us – whether it’s rockstars or artists or authors – these people who’ve gone completely off the deep end believing in the praise and become megalomaniacs in their approach to life. When you look at these people you can see that it’s usually when they start believing in all that stuff people are saying about them that their art, or whatever it is they’re creating, really starts to suck. (laughing)

Right. Sometimes there’s a blurry line between having the determination and confidence to follow your dreams and, on the other hand, that possibility that you’re taking yourself and your whole place in the world a bit too seriously. Is that a harder place to negotiate once you start to get a lot of attention?

Well I guess there are certain people who get involved in creative forms because they want to be creative and expressive and they want to have truth and purity in their lives; people who do it because they want to be able to continually express themselves. Then there are other people who are attracted to creative forms because they want to be famous.

So maybe it’s more about intention?

In my opinion, so much of it is really about what you had in mind when you got into it: was it only that you wanted to be a rockstar and see your name in lights? I never really had those kinds of dreams. I knew I loved music and I knew that when I sang in a certain way it made my chest and my whole stomach tickle and I liked it. It still does that same thing to me; I know I’m doing it right when it makes my core tingle a little bit. I get the same feeling when I’m painting a picture or when I get into that almost hypnotic state of writing – those things are incredible and those are the kinds of things that attract me to creativity. Which reminds me of a second thing I wanted to say in response to your question, and that’s that there are all kinds of psychologies inherent in all of this that play a big role as well. You have to consider the way people were brought up for instance, their birth order or their rivalry with their siblings, because all of these things also matter. They can all add up to either inflated egos or deflated egos. It’s not really ever black and white or one way or the other when it comes to what makes a person creative or what makes a life creative or true.

I just had this discussion with a bioethics professor and he said that about half of our personality is stuff that we’re just born with, then about 25% is environmental and psychological, like you were saying, and then the rest of it is just kind of open, it’s what we make of it.

Which is really fascinating because it’s that whole idea of ‘you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink’. I mean, you could bring a child up in the most creative and wonderfully expressive environment and all signs would point to them being a creative and expressive individual as well, but then there are these certain factors that you just can’t control; there’s always this chaos. So it’s really just a question that’s different for every individual. We have to ask what’s true for our own individual self.

Right. I always wonder how much control we have in that sense. For instance, if I have some kind of gene in my family that says I’m going to be an alcoholic, can I beat that? I want to believe most of us can; but it’s so much harder for some people than for others.

It depends on where you’re at in all those chemical and environmental percentages I guess. And I think that can be said not only about addictive behavior but also about behavior in general. Depending on our environment and our parents and the way we were raised it’s probably more likely than not that we’re going to repeat certain forms of our parents behavior and our parents’ parents behavior and so on. There are certain things, certain very basic psychological precepts, which are true maybe 96% of the time, but that doesn’t mean 100% of the time you’re going to repeat those patterns. You always have the chance to step out on your own and break the chain — sorry if I’m sounding cliché here — but it really is like there’s a chain of events that people usually follow through in their lives without really paying that close of attention to what’s actually happening. But every once in a while there’ll be this rogue who’s like ‘Fuck that’ or ‘I’m not going to let my boyfriend hit me’ or ‘I’m not going to be an alcoholic’ and the great thing is that once that cycle is broken it doesn’t repeat itself again; the kids those people have are going to be much more likely to live without those harmful patterns.

I wonder what it takes to be a rogue though, seriously, because sometimes I think it’s just a matter of information and option. Of course it’s also willpower, but isn’t some of it just being aware there are other options?

Well there are probably a lot of people who wouldn’t behave the way they did if they knew there was another option, if they had access to some kind of creativity, just to a typewriter or a paper or a canvas or some kind of way of expression. If people had more access to those parts of themselves they probably wouldn’t be as full of rage as they are about something in their lives right now. It’d give them another way, which might be all they’d need in the end to get to the truth of things, just a different perspective or some other angle or place where they could take a different look at things…

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Simon Blackburn: No Absolute Truth?

Some think that we have collectively agreed that already, perhaps not unanimously but by a large enough margin. Many of those think the result is a catastrophic relativism: the sort that Pope Benedikt preached against on the eve of his elevation to the throne of St. Peter. Other think it is a good thing: a liberation from a tyranny almost as irritating as that of our parents once was, or that of God, or the Pope. They think that by jettisoning absolute truth, we enter a new kind of liberation, in which a plurality of opinions are allowed to flourish, and all claims to unique authority are finally banished.

My own view is that there is such a thing as truth, and that the word “absolute” is best left out. By saying that there is such a thing as truth, I just mean that various things are true. It is true that Berlin is east of London, that it is further from Frankfurt to Sydney than it is to Delhi, that in cities tigers are best kept locked up, and that steel is better for bridge building than straw. Anyone saying otherwise is wrong.

Are these things absolutely true? Well, they are good candidates for being certain. I would not like to hear that my airline does not believe the first two, the police disagree abut the third, or our road engineers about the last. After that, I don’t know what might be meant by saying that they are not “absolutely” true. If it implies some kind of scepticism, then I would offer philosopher G.E. Moore’s response, that these things, and thousands of others, are more certain than any philosophical argument for scepticism.

So is there nothing to be said for the pluralist or relativist side? Well, not all questions are cut and dried. Some words are slippery, and mean different things to different people, and sometimes our categories feel inadequate (was Mozart a Romantic? Is mathematics an art?) Some questions resist unique answers. Big moral questions and big historical questions can’t be answered shortly, or in just one way (was colonialism a bad thing? Is modernity working?). There are many ways of telling the history of a period, with different shadows and highlights.

All this should give us a proper sense of toleration. Different opinions must often be heard. Our first ways of framing a question may not be the best. But there is a big difference between proper respect for different voices, and “anything goes” relativism. The first is a good thing. But respect must be earned. Nobody would respect my singing voice if I strolled onto the stage of La Scala. To earn respect, different voices need practiceand training, and when we start saying things, that means respect for evidence and truth. Lose that, and the barbarians come back.

– Simon Blackburn

Si mon Blackburn ist Autor des Bestsellers Wahrheit. Ei n Wegweiser für Skeptiker (2005). Er ist derzeit Dozent für Philosophie an der Cambrid ge University. Weitere viel beachtete Veröffentlichungen von ihm sind: Ruling Passions (1998), Denken (1999), Gut sein (2001) und Lust (2004). Blackburn veröffentlicht regelmässig Beiträge auf der Website Philosophy Bi tes und war Herausgeber der Zeitschrift Mind Gesellschaft, wenn wir erkennen würden,

Simon Blackburn is the author of the bestseller Truth: A Guid e for the Perplexed (2005). He is currently Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge. Other notable books of his include Ruling Passions (1998), Think (1999), Being Good (2001), and Lust (2004). Blackburn is a frequent contributor to Philosophy Bites and former editor of the journal Mi nd.

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Stefan Niggemeier of www.BILDblog.de.

Bild blog is dedicated to investigating the articles of the BILD-Zeitung. The BILD-Zeitung is the largest daily newspaper in Europe with a circulation of 3.5 million readers. Its articles influence public opinion on topics ranging from politics to entertainment, yet many feel that the paper contains misleading and exaggerated information. People read the Bild as though it were a tabloid, but they also read it to get their news. This blurred co-existence of truth and fiction can give the Bild an unusual freedom in terms of the slant of its articles. Finding this ambiguity and exaggeration irresponsible,Niggemeier and his colleagues began doing their own investigations of Bild’s articles and then publishing what they found at www.bildblog.de. Since it’s inception 3 years ago, the BILDblog has become the largest blog in Germany, now with a daily subscription of about 50,000 readers. As technology allows for more checks and balances by the masses, BILDblog may be a harbinger of how future media sources will be held accountable for the truth.

Pulse: Was the initial idea of BILDblog to uncover exaggerations and discrepancies? Did you set out to become ‘the watchdog of the BILD-Zeitung’?

Stefan Niggemeier: When we first started, the BILDblog was more of a commentary on the Bild’s practices and articles. It evolved as we began to investigate those articles and compare them with what other news agencies were saying. We also invited our readers to send us tips when they discovered something they thought was wrong. The readers responded in surprising numbers. We get to hear from experts in certain fields or subjects, people who notice things that we wouldn’t necessarily see on our own because we don’t have that specialized knowledge.

So the blog becomes a way for readers to pool their skills and get closer to the truth.

Which is amazing. And it works. Not only in terms of specialized fields, but also with languages. For instance, quite early on we found a story that the Bild wrote about a Spanish woman who had died in a dramatic way. The Bild wrote that she was barbecued, that’s the words they used, and they kind of made this whole story into a joke. We couldn’t find any sources for this article so we went online and asked if there was someone out there who could speak Spanish and who could maybe look into this. Within a really short amount of time, we got emails from people saying ‘Yes I speak Spanish and I found this article and it’s actually quite different from what the Bild has said’. In the end, it turned out that the Bild had told the it the wrong way around, but it was our readers who played the biggest role in figuring out the true story.

By opening yourself to so many voices and perspectives, isn’t it sometimes difficult to call any one thing ‘the truth’? It is. And because there are often many angles to a story, we sometimes have a question of what we should write. We don’t want to criticize the Bild from an ideological point of view; we do that rarely. Sometimes if they are really campaigning for something we get into that, but we try to focus on the facts rather than having to distinguish between opinions. People sometimes write to us saying the Bild misquoted them or didn’t understand them or present their story correctly. This gets quite difficult. We usually don’t write about these things because we’re journalists as well and we know how it works when you interview someone and later they don’t like what they said to you. You might never get to the truth is those stories. What I do know, or what is easier to say, is that there are definitely things which are not true. We’ve become quite good at finding out what is false. Sometimes there are accepted facts and sometimes it’s a matter of having three reliable sources say the one thing while the Bild is writing something totally different. We don’t actually like to use the term ‘truth’ very much; we’re very careful with it because as you start looking into things you find all kinds of contradictions and differing versions. It isn’t always possible to say which is correct, but it is possible to say when something is wrong or distorted. This is what one can easily discuss.

Why do you think the Bild is so prone to distortions or exaggerations? Is it part of a prevailing mood in media, or do you think it’s a conscious decision?

It’s the whole system. I think most often it’s done out of a drive to have a better story. To make it more exciting. To make it bigger. More sensational. To catch your eye. To sell more newspapers by topping the most interesting stories. The stories may be wrong but they sound much more interesting. And of course sometimes they distort things for their own political agenda, which is even worse. One thing that is very specific to the Bild is that they have very obvious distinctions between their friends and enemies. They have people who work with them and cooperate with them and others who they don’t like and tend to disparage. Those attitudes change how they shape the story. It’s very old-fashioned in a way, very black and white.

In many ways, your blog and the Bild are enemies; and yet in another way, you might also be beneficial to one another. You might strengthen each other’s readerships. There is also the fact that the BILDblog quite literally needs the BILDZeitung in order to exist.

It’s a dangerous comparison for me to make, but I think what you’re saying is true only in the sense that the police need criminals in order to exist. I don’t want to compare them to criminals, but you get the point. It’s like trying to say that Greenpeace needs people who destroy the environment. But yes, to be honest, a part of why we’re so successful and popular is because the Bild is so successful and popular. Do you do this kind of work because you want to initiate some kind of change? Do you want to raise the standards of the media in some way?

It always sounds so full of pathos to say you want to change the world but that kind of inclination does have something to do with it. I don’t mean I’m out to change the world in nay kind of revolutionary sense — I don’t have the attitude of I’ll write this and it will save the world — but I do think that every little thing a person writes does influence people. It does have the chance to make them see things that maybe they wouldn’t have seen before. The realizations can be very small; it doesn’t always have to be on some big level. It can be as banal as writing about a TV show and telling people it’s worth their time to watch it. So in those terms, the BILDblog is the most visible way I’ve ever influenced people. You can see it at work. People write to us and tell us that their parents have been reading the Bild for years, and now the children are printing out our articles and their parents are reading them as well. Of course we are tiny compared to the Bild and we won’t make it go away, but we are changing the perception of Bild in some small way. There was a time when people read the Bild as a joke without understanding that there were real people behind those stories. People didn’t realize that what they are reading is not just a funny headline; there’s someone’s life behind that as well.

Are you trying to suggest a more collective responsibility for what is accepted as news? Is teh news becoming more of a democracy?

It works in so many different ways. I think we are trying to educate people to be critical when they read any newspaper and not to always believe what they first read. We want them to have a critical mind. But it’s true, the level of responsibility does change the easier it becomes to get everyone involved and checking on what journalists are doing. I think every newspaper and media outlet has to be accountable and realize what’s going on in those terms as much as possible.

Do you think this changes the role of the journalist?

Yes. Journalists used to have the monopoly on these things. Journalists were the ones who knew what was happening and who were sharing that information for the first time with everyone else. Now there are so many sources that the journalist no longer has the monopoly. If that journalist doesn’t tell you, you’ll learn what happened from somewhere else. This means the journalist has to talk to the audience in a different way, keeping this in mind. But I don’t think it changes the fundametnal things that a journalist does, which is to explain what is happening in the world, to havea background in the subject, to have sources which make him well-informed, to have learned his language so he can get the message across to his readers. None of that has changed. I don’t think journalists need to be afraid of the internet and new technology, of the democracy of it, as you called it. I don’t think journalists have to be afraid because the core of what they do is still as important as it ever was. It’s just the role that has changed. You’re suddenly not lecturing people anymore. You have to talk to with them.

Do you think people also still want to be awed by a story? Do we want drama as much as we want truth?

It’s about the same feeling that happens when there’s a plane crash and no one knows how many people are dead. There’s something exciting there. There’s some kind of feeling like ‚this could be big‘ and even though you wouldn’t wish harm on anyone and you don’t want the death toll to be high, the possibility of that is the reason you’re still watching. I do think there is some kind of longing for excitement on that level. People want to be able to say they witnessed something really big and bad — even if they only witnessed it on television.

Maybe they also want something they can share with everyone around them, something to talk about.

People have always wanted that. A person sees something on the street and they immediately run home to tell their parents or whomever is there. And of course when they are retelling the story, they probably tend to exaggerate. You don’t need media for that. It’s not just the big bad media; a lot of it is just human nature. But that doesn’t make it any more acceptable.

Now that your blog has become so popular, do you ever feel tempted towards that same kind of commercialization or exaggeration as a way to maintain your fame?

We sometimes wonder what we should do to attract more readers, and then we wonder if we should even think in those terms at all. We wonder if we should write the things that we know will be popular with our readers or only write about the things that feel authentic for us, that we find important. We make those decisions every day. We always endlessly discuss everything we write about. Those questions are part of the process. We watch out for each other and stop each other on things like that. In the end, we all know why we’re doing this. It’s about the message we want to get across. And that keeps us grounded.