Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Coderch & Malavi

Spanish sculptors. Joan Coderch was born in 1959 in Barcelona; Javier Malavia was born in 1970 in Guipúzcoa, Valencia. They formed their joint project to explore figural sculpture of the human form "in the footsteps of masters of figuration such as Maillol, Rodin, Marini and Bourdelle." These are mostly small works you can buy copies of for your living room. Lots more at their web site. Above, Galene.



The Great Swan,
and Detail

, and details

Bog Bodies

European archaeologists have published a comprehensive study of all the known "bog bodies," meaning all the corpses and skeletons to have been recovered from peat bogs in Europe. (NY Times, physorg) They counted more than a thousand, the first one a Mesolithic skeleton from 6,000 BC. Some of them were probably poor souls who drowned or died otherwise mundane deaths, but hundreds of them seem to be victims of sacrifice. This is especially true for the Iron Age, from 600 BC to 400 AD. This is the era of the famous bog bodies, like Tollund Man (above) and the Yde Girl.

Of the 57 bog people whose cause of death could be determined in Dr. van Beek’s study, at least 45 met violent ends, and quite a few were bludgeoned or suffered mutilation and dismemberment before they died. Tollund Man, dating to the fifth century B.C. and dredged from a Danish peat bog in 1950, was hanged. Bone arrowheads were found embedded in the skull and sternum of Porsmose Man, recovered from peat elsewhere in Denmark. Seven victims appear to have been slain by several means, a practice that scholars call overkilling. Almost all of the overkills in Dr. van Beek’s study occurred from 400 B.C. to 400 A.D.

Two features recur among Iron Age bog bodies: youth and disability. Many bodies were those of adolescents, at the cusp between childhood and adulthood. . . . The Yde girl had severe scoliosis, a twisting of the spine that meant her growth was stunted and she would have walked with a lurch.

Actually the sample is numerically dominated by the 380 skeletons found at Alken Enge in Denmark, where a whole defeated army seems to have been offered to the gods. But the bodies that look like sacrifices are indeed often young, and several were probably disabled. I have written here many times about the ancient tradition that associated shamanic or other magical powers with physical disability, which endured in folklore into the nineteenth century. So they might have been chosen because people with twisted bodies were considered better messengers to the gods; or, it might be that they were considered dangerous threats that the community was better off without.

"Overkill" is a favorite topic of people interested in ancient sacrifice. Both Irish and Welsh literature have several examples of people who managed to be killed in three ways at once, which scholars as far back as the 17th century dubbed the "threefold death." Merlin is the most famous such victim; in one medieval story he is stabbed with a spear, hanged, and drowned simultaneously, while in a different story his prophetic powers are confirmed when he foresees this end for another. The idea was mooted that this was a memory of ancient sacrificial practice. So when Lindow Man emerged from an English bog in 1984, everyone was very excited that he seemed to have been stabbed in the neck, strangled, and hit on the head with an ax in rapid succession. Sadly these synthetic studies have failed to find much evidence that threefold killing was ever common. There are, however, several fairly clear cases of double killing, usually strangling and stabbing, which makes me wonder if maybe drowning in the bog was the third form.

Why bogs? Well, for one thing, we don't know how many Iron Age sacrifices were done that way, it's just that only in bogs are their bodies preserved well enough for us to identify them as sacrificial victims. But if it was a common part of sacrifice, it must be connected to the ancient fascination with places that are in between. Executions used to be held on the borders of communities, or in the unclaimed lands between them. Peat bogs were in-between places, beyond the community's defined edges, in the vacant spaces between villages and farms. They were also in-between in an elemental sense, part land and part water – which is also what made them dangerous places where people often drowned. So if you wanted to get away from the world of clear definitions and firm boundaries, out to a place where the edges were less hard and the barriers between worlds thin, you might well decide to hold your ritual in a peat bog and let the victim sink into the watery lands between here and there.

Monday, January 30, 2023

John Singer Sargent in Spain

I toured this exhibit with various of my children a few months ago but never got around the writing the review I had planned.

It was ok, but sadly it was missing the real masterpiece that emerged from Sargent's time in Spain, El Jaleo (1882).

There I am.

La Carmencita, 1890

I love Sargent's sketches of medieval architecture.

While in Spain Sargent did several paintings of poor Roma people, which at the time was a liberal thing to do, but now raises eyebrows because he didn't get their consent or solicit their input. So the organizers of the exhibit went out and did it, and these painting come with lots of statements from Roma people about how happy and proud these paintings make them. Such is art in the modern world.

White Ships, 1908

Sunday, January 29, 2023

Jacob Taubes: Liberalism and the Messiah

Jacob Taubes (1923-1987) was a German Jewish philsopher, theologian, trouble-maker, womanizer, befriender of imprisoned Nazis, betrayer of his friends' confidences, expert on sin in both the theological and personal senses, and general wrecker of mayhem both in thought and deed. He is someone I had encountered at the margins of other people's lives (he was a mentor to Susan Sontag and a frequent interlocutor of Gersham Scholem and Leo Strauss) but never knew much about until today. A big new biography has been published, inspriring several interesting reviews. One thing about Taubes is that while he was brilliant in conversation or lecture he was too lazy to publish much scholarship. Instead he became influential mainly by attacking things published by his peers.

Taubes thought the Nazis were right about one thing: that Liberalism is too weak, empty, and self-contradictory to supply either a philosophy of life or a workable system of government. A Jew whose politics were on the far left, he often agreed with critiques of liberalism made by antisemites on the far right. He sometimes called himself a Maoist and praised the nihilistic protetsts of 1968, although he suggested they stop short of burning libraries. He wanted a politics that was forceful, that really changed the world, and that was grounded on absolute philosophical principles, not just people in suits arguing about spending bills.

What I wanted to write about today was Taubes' insistence that Jewish liberals are not really Jews. To be Jewish, said Taubes, means to look forward to the coming of the Messiah. Interestingly he took his ideas about what the coming of the Messiah would mean from the apostle Paul, who described Jesus banishing the evil powers that had been governing this world. The clearest statement of Taubes' thought on this matter comes, according to the new biography, from a series of lectures he gave in 1987:

These lectures were, in many ways, given under questionable auspices. Taubes had been invited to speak on the apocalypse, his area of expertise, for a conference on the theme “Time is Pressing.” He began by informing his audience that time was indeed “pressing, for me, because of an incurable disease.” Given that this would be his last chance to speak to an audience, he would, therefore, talk not so much about the apocalypse as about the Messiah, as understood by a thinker whom, Taubes insisted, exemplified Jewish messianism: Paul of Tarsus. Taubes acknowledged both the presumption of “carrying water to the river” by telling a Christian audience about Paul, the most important Christian figure after Jesus, and the unusualness of claiming Paul as a Jew. He raised the stakes still further by adding that he had been, as it were, commissioned to give these lectures by Carl Schmitt, the infamous Nazi jurist, legal theorist, and Catholic political theologian. . . .

This was not to be a scholarly exercise, but an existential confrontation with the question of Messiah—and of his enemies. The latter, Taubes argued, are those who seek to “hold back” the end of the present world, who believe that it can get along for itself without a “living God” who appears unpredictably into history and into our lives. He calls these people, with contempt, “liberals.” Paul, he argued, was “more Jewish than all the liberal or reformed rabbis” who prayed only half-heartedly for Messiah.

Indeed, Taubes’ lectures represent one of the most powerful critiques of liberalism, understood not only as a political philosophy, but as a spiritual disposition, or rather a spiritual desiccation, by which liberals neutralize the radical promises of faith. His final lectures, published as The Political Theology of Paul, are a challenge both to those of us who, from whatever vantage, claim to desire Messiah, and those—often the same people—who seek to preserve political liberalism in an increasingly illiberal world.  

I certainly don't want to get involved in an argument over who is really a Jew, a subject on which I have no standing speak. But I want to say that I agree with Taubes about what strikes me as the fundamental point: political liberalism is not compatible with most kinds of strong theistic beliefs. They do seem to be compatible in practice, since many people who hold (for example) Messianic beliefs about the coming end of the world do participate successfully in democratic politics. But at a philosophical level I don't think they can be reconciled.

To me, liberalism is a philosophy of doubt. Liberals are tolerant because we don't think anyone knows the ultimate truths of the universe. I am intensely suspicious of anyone who does claim to know them and have no wish to be ruled by such people. I started an argument here once by saying that I do not wish to be ruled by anyone who accepts Sharia law; if you think laws were made by God, not people, I don't want you anywhere near my government. I feel the same way about occasional calls from conservative Christians to base our legislation on Natural Law.

I also distrust all longing for the apocalypse under whatever name. I believe that if our lives in this world have any meaning, it comes from what we do in this world. What we do in this world is full of struggle and suffering; therefore, struggle and suffering are part of whatever meaning our lives here have. I hate the idea that we're just toiling along here but then God shows up and — presto-bing-schmachalachem! — everything is great, no more struggle, no more suffering. No thanks. I don't want to be saved in that way. So I was struck when I read that this was exactly the point on which Taubes attacked liberal religious believers. If you don't actually want the future transformation promised by your faith, in what sense do you really share it? 

I am fully aware that one reason I have no interest in apocalypse is that I have had a very nice life. I do understand why those who have suffered more would be attracted to such promises, and I have no interest in taking anything away from them. But I would say that the goal of liberalism is to make everyone's life so nice that nobody needs to be sustained by fantasies of the End Times. In other words, the goal of liberalism is to make religion unneccesary. Not to ban it, but to create a world in which nobody suffers so much that they only find life bearable by believing that God will set things right in the end.

That, to me, is a goal worth pursuing, worth struggling toward, worth suffering for. I find the notion that God might come along and cut the process short to be sort of insulting. Fortunately I don't believe it is going to happen, so I don't have to worry about it. But if I did think the end was coming, I would very much want to "hold it back" until we had time to find out how far we can get on our own.

Friday, January 27, 2023

South Korea's Fertility Collapse

South Korea has the lowest fertility in the world, with total fertility falling below 0.8 last year; that means each generation would be only 40% the size of the previous one. Birth rates are falling across most of the world, but the reason East Asia nations and South Korea in particular are leading the collapse seems to be miserable relations between the sexes. Korean feminists are full of outrage about their second-class treatment, while Korean conservatives (like the new president) regularly say things about feminists that in the US nobody but misogynist trolls would dare to utter. 

As in Japan, the expectation that white collar workers will put in very long hours plays a part; the demands placed on executives are almost impossible to bear without a supportive spouse, so a marriage between two people with careers has no room for parenthood. Korean women complain that their husbands refuse to be any help with children, so they are saddled with the whole burden.

Hawon Jung in the NY Times:

A 2022 survey found that more women than men — 65 percent versus 48 percent — don’t want children. They’re doubling down by avoiding matrimony (and its conventional pressures) altogether. The other term in South Korea for birth strike is “marriage strike.” . . .

Young Koreans have well-documented reasons not to start a family, including the staggering costs of raising children, unaffordable homes, lousy job prospects and soul-crushing work hours. But women in particular are fed up with this traditionalist society’s impossible expectations of mothers. So they’re quitting. . . .

Discrimination against working mothers by employers is also absurdly common. In one notorious case, the country’s top baby formula maker was accused of pressuring female employees to quit after getting pregnant.

And gender-based violence is “shockingly widespread,” according to Human Rights Watch. In 2021, a woman was murdered or targeted for murder every 1.4 days or less, according to the Korea Women’s Hotline. Women have dubbed the act of ending a relationship without getting a vicious reaction a “safe breakup.”

But women haven’t passively accepted the toxic masculinity. They’ve organized raucously, from Asia’s most successful #MeToo movement to groups like “4B,” which translates to the “Four no's: no dating, no sex, no marriage and no child-rearing.”

“The birth strike is women’s revenge on a society that puts impossible burdens on us and doesn’t respect us,” says Jiny Kim, 30, a Seoul office worker who’s intent on remaining childless.

I suppose one underlying factor here is the extremely rapid economic and technological development of South Korea, which has outrun social change and left many people feeling bewildered.

But I am fascinated by this dynamic: that the richer societies get, the more people feel that they can't afford to have children. It is simply not true that having a child in Korea today is a greater economic burden than it was 25 years ago, and yet people feel this to be true. Part of this has to be that however fast our incomes rise, or expectations rise faster, leaving us always behind. Another part is our placement of the "career" at the center of life; more and more people can't imagine life without one, which means other things have to be shoved to the side.

What good is getting richer if it leaves us feeling less able to afford the things we want to do?

Links 27 January 2023

Anita Chowdry, Fibonnaci spiral in the style of a Persian manuscript

The FBI announces that they and European agencies have broken into the systems of the Hive ransomware group, stealing decryption keys and saving victims $130 million in ransomware payments. (FBI announcement, Reuters) Interesting side note: since FBI agents were in Hive's systems for months they learned about many companies that paid ransoms quietly without notifying the authorities, which is illegal in the US and some other countries, so some of those folks may be getting knocks on the door.

It has become an article of faith in some quarters that colonialism caused famines in India and generally made the economy worse. But this is very much disputed among historians. Here is Tirthankar Roy arguing that British rule did not cause famines in central India and that in fact the famines ended when the British built railroads to the region.

Sun haloes by photographer Goran Strand.

Interview with poet Charles Simic, who loves the town dump. He has written a lot of prose but he says he just did it for the money. But "a little bullshit is fine."

Lots of angst these days. "What I have called megathreats others have called a 'polycrisis' . . . confluence of calamities. . . perhaps its biggest test since the Second World War." Ok.

Japan's PM decries falling birth rates, says "Japan is standing on the verge of whether we can continue to function as a society."

A Vox poll of their readers found that 57% need subtitles to understand tv dialogue; 10 minute video explaining why this is. I think they're exaggerating all the other factors and the real one is that actors mumble.

Wikipedia's Australian Megafauna page is a battleground between people who think most of the extinctions were caused by humans and those who think the Aborigines were good people who didn't do such things.

The competition between Kenya and Tanzania over which country will provide rail access to the Great Lakes region. Nice to see countries competing by building rail lines instead of launching missiles.

Summary of actor Danny Trejo's appearance on Finding Your Roots. He grew up in a rough family "surrounded by toxic machismo" and gravitated toward gangs, and he seems thrilled to discover that his great-grandfather was a respectable man who owned a grocery store.

When asked by pollsters, Americans used to be able to name people who were influential in their communities; now they have no clue. Presumably this is at least partly because most people now live in suburban neighborhoods rather than towns or cities.

Next semester Tyler Cowen plans to teach his students how to write a paper using AI chatbots.

The wonders of Street View. And a curated sample here.

Predators doing what predators do: after swimming out to Alaska's Pleasant Island in 2013, a pack of wolves first ate the local deer and have now moved on to eating all the sea otters.

Meanwhile, river otters keep attacking children and dogs around Anchorage; nobody knows if this is a widespread habit or just one angry gang. Or angry bevy, or angry raft, since those are all names for groups of otters.

Scott Siskind makes a valiant attempt to write about whether we really want a "purely biological, apolitical" definition of mental illness without writing things that sound terrible taken out of context.

Ben Pentreath, photographs of the Dorset countryside in winter.

Florida woman is "rescued" from storm drain but never wanted to be rescued in the first place.

The proliferation of hiring interviews: "There’s no reason why 10 years ago we were able to hire people on two interviews and now it’s taking 20 rounds of interviews." And yet somehow there seem to be lots of reasons for this, since it happens so often. It's basically risk aversion, everyone afraid of hiring the wrong person and being stuck with them for the next decade.

Ukraine Links

Seventeen-minute video from Binkov's Battlegrounds arguing that unless Ukraine can break through to the Sea of Azov the most likely outcome is stalemate followed by a long-term cease-fire followed at some future time by another war.

How Russian tactics have changed, from Blitzkrieg to WW I style infantry assaults.

The US plans to increase production of 155mm artillery shells by 500% within two years, to 90,000/month. That's more than Ukraine is using so presumably some of that is to replenish US stocks and maybe also for Taiwan. (NY Times) This is contrary to stated US doctrine, which is to move away from massed artillery fires toward using only precision weapons, but I guess the Army thinks that era is not here yet. 

Three-minute video of a Ukrainian night raid across the Dnipro to locate a Russian command post.

Modern warfare: after Germany announced that they would allow the transfer of Leopard tanks to Ukraine, Ukrainian social media filled up with pictures of people in leopard print clothes, with the hashtag "FreeTheLeopards."

Interesting interview with Ukrainian national security advisor Oleksiy Danilov: "we are a nation that is part of Europe; Russians are a nation that belongs to Asia."

High-ranking officer of Ukrainian intelligence arrested as a Russian spy. At least 60 members of Ukrainian law enforcement and intelligence have been revealed as Russian agents since the invasion began. I suspect that one reason the Russians were confident of victory last February was the extent of their penetration of the Ukrainian military and intelligence. But, as usually happens, spies are a lot less useful than people expect.

Review of Russia's past strategy and likely strategy in the coming year, long article but interesting.

Reuters reports on the cemetery for Russian prisoners killed fighting with the Wagner Group. They were able to learn something about 39 of the men buried there.

Thursday, January 26, 2023

One-Sentence Character Studies of Mass Shooters

The NY Times is running a long, sad feature that consists mostly of one-line statements made about mass shooters. A typical sample goes like this:

He was bankrupt and had liens on his property.
Eight killed and six injured in San Francisco on July 1, 1993

He was evicted and his wife and daughter left him.
Six killed and one injured in Paso Robles, Calif., on Nov. 8, 1992

His wages were being garnished for child support.
Four killed in Watkins Glen, N.Y., on Oct. 15, 1992

He began hearing voices and talked about committing violence.
Four killed and 10 injured in Olivehurst, Calif., on May 1, 1992

He lost his job and his water heater broke.
Five killed and one injured in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on Feb. 9, 1996

He had schizophrenia and stopped taking his medication.
Five killed and three injured in Bronx, N.Y., on Dec. 19, 1995

He was upset about a performance evaluation at work.
Four killed in Los Angeles on July 19, 1995

He was fired and had sought help at a mental health clinic.
21 killed and 19 injured in San Ysidro, Calif., on July 18, 1984

He was upset that his wife had left him.
Six killed in College Station, Tex., on Oct. 11, 1983

He ranted in his classroom and was suspended from teaching.
Eight killed and three injured in Miami on Aug. 20, 1982

He was in a pay dispute with his employers.
Six killed and four injured in Grand Prairie, Tex., on Aug. 9, 1982

He became reclusive and avoided all social interactions.
Four killed and one injured in Coraopolis, Pa., on July 21, 1980

He began hoarding food and planning for the end of the world.
Five killed and 11 injured in Daingerfield, Tex., on June 22, 1980

He thought his family and co-workers were trying to poison him.
Four killed in Warwick, R.I., on June 17, 1978

The message of the authors is that most of these people were obviously risks to the community, but either nothing was done about them, or not enough, and they call for much more investment in community mental health care. Based on what I know, that seems to be true in some cases but not others. Hundreds of thousands of American men have their wages garnished for child support, and many are mad about it, but most never shoot anybody. Most people hoarding food for the coming collapse of civilization seem pretty harmless, too. Looking backward it is easy to say of many, "he was obviously headed for trouble and somebody should have stepped in," but without knowing the future that becomes very difficult, and in some cases you would have to look much more deeply than this to have any clue that a real crisis was coming.

Red Politics in Rural America

Thomas Edsall in the NY Times, in a piece titled "The Resentment Fueling the Republican Party is Not Coming from the Suburbs":

As recently as 17 years ago, rural Wisconsin was a battleground. In 2006, Jim Doyle, the Democratic candidate for governor, won rural Wisconsin, about 30 percent of the electorate, by 5.5 points. “Then came the rural red wave,” Gilbert writes. “[Republican governor Scott] Walker carried Wisconsin’s towns by 23 points in 2010 and by 25 points in 2014.” In 2016, [Republican Sen. Ron] Johnson won the rural vote by 25 points, but in 2022, he pushed his margin there to 29 points.

In her groundbreaking study of Wisconsin voters, “The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker,” Katherine Cramer, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, prompted a surge of interest in this declining segment of the electorate. She summed up the basis for the discontent among these voters, saying, “It had three elements: (1) a belief that rural areas are ignored by decision makers, including policymakers, (2) a perception that rural areas do not get their fair share of resources and (3) a sense that rural folks have fundamentally distinct values and lifestyles, which are misunderstood and disrespected by city folks.” 

I would say it is absolutely true that most Americans don't pay much attention to rural areas and rural people. There are also real cultural differences between rural and urban people. The things is, there have been cultural differences between rural and urban people for as long as there have been cities, so I don't see how that is driving the changes of recent decades. It is also true that rural areas are declining economically and the government has no new ideas about how to stop this. But it is absolutely false that rural areas don't get their share of government resources; since rural areas are older, they get more Social Security spending, and many military bases are in rural areas, plus there is all the money we pay in farm subsidies, although these days that mostly goes to agribusiness rather than small farmers.

So why are rural areas getting more Republican? I was interested in this point, from political scientist, who wrote that the rising salience of cultural conflicts 

was accelerated when the Clinton administration embraced corporate neoliberalism, free trade and moved Democrats toward the economic center. Many differences persisted, but the so-called third way made it harder to distinguish between the economic approaches of Democrats and Republicans.

Since nobody is economically on the side of rural folks, as they see it, they might as well vote their conservative cultural views. Some people contacted by Edsall also emphasized the rural brain drain, the way college educated people almost all leave to move to cities.

I think it comes down to sense among rural people that they are losing; their population is falling, their economy is not growing, and nobody pays much attention to them; farmers are less culturally relevant than ever before. Of course Trump and his allies don't know what to do for rural folks, either, but by railing against city-slicker values I guess they make people feel a little better.

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Chan Chan

Restored Facade of the Ciudela Tschudi at Chan Chan

Chan Chan is a huge archaeological site in the harsh desert of coastal Peru, near the mouth of the Moche River. The city served as the capital of the Chimu Empire, and around 1400 AD it may have had 60,000 inhabitants. It was built almost entirely of mud, probably the largest city ever built without stone or wood. But it must have been a very strange place.

What we know about the Chimu comes from Spaniards who got most of their information from Incas, the great enemy of the Chimu, so everything comes with a lot of caveats. It was the Inca who destroyed the Chimu Empire, in 1470. According to those same sources they easily took Chan Chan after a short siege by cutting the canal that supplied the city with water.

Basic map of the site

Detail of the center of the site

There are in Chimu two distinctly different kinds of space. Much of the area was taken up by ten huge, walled compounds the Spanish called ciudelas. The biggest of these measures 220,000 square meters, or 54 acres. They included enormous empty courtyards, vast audience chambers, and other extravagant wastes of real estate.

Many of the walls were decorated with relief carvings.

Some people clearly lived within the walled compounds, but most of the inhabitants lived outside them in small, mud-walled dwellings that archaeologists call Small Irregular Aglutinative Rooms, SIARs for short. These were on the order of 3x3m (10x10 feet) and don't look like nice places to live. The contrast is very stark. Our sources confirm the class divisions, telling us that the Chimu were strictly divided into three castes: royalty, who had gold in their blood, aristocracy, who had silver in theirs, and commoners, whose blood was made of dirt. That may have been invented by a Spanish priest who had read Plato, but it does convey the vast inequality of the place.

Why ten huge palaces? Well, the Spanish told a story about that. They said that each Chimu king built his own palace and lived there with his 50 to 100 wives. When he died, his wives were all buried with him and the palace became a temple devoted to the spirits of the king and his consorts. His personal wealth now belonged to this temple compound, used to insure perpetual memorialization of the ruler. A hereditary caste of priests, possibly drawn from the king's children with lesser wives, lived off that property.

Modern archaeologists are not so taken with this view. For one thing there isn't much evidence that the function of the palaces ever changed, and some have imagery that suggest they were devoted to a particular god. Also there are only ten, and the Chimu state seems to have endured for 600 years. So maybe each was the dwelling of a particular elite family. Either way, the elite of Chimu lived in spatious compounds separated from the common, SIAR-dwelling masses by walls up to 10 meters (33 feet) tall. So far as we can tell, most of the commoners were craftsmen who worked for the elite, building and decorating the palaces and supplying them with luxury goods.

The Spanish looted the heck out of Chan Chan; in fact some of Pizarro's men formed a partnership based on Catalan mining law to do a thorough job of it. They wrote of melting down doors coated in gold and silver. Nonetheless a great deal of wonderful stuff has been found there, much of the most spectacular stuff from a series of tombs within the Pyramid of the Moon.

The dry desert conditions have preserved much wonderful art in feathers, like this tabard.

I have to say it changed my imagination of the place to see these feather outfits, basically Chimu bikinis with matching headdresses.

A huge amount of pottery has been found, much of it in effigy forms like this.

More wonders.

Chan Chan is an amazing place, but it also sets me thinking about the vastly unequal societies that created most of the past's wonders, and the suffering common people endured in the shadows of the palaces.

Against Decolonization

The word "decolonization" has radically changed meanings since African nations achieved independence. During the independence struggle it meant throwing off European rule and creating new, African nations. Now it means somehow cleansing the mind and the culture of dubious European ideas and asserting the primacy of African languages, ideas, and institutions. This seems like it might be an extension of the earlier meaning, but I think it demands rejection of the actual words and ideas of the revolutionary generation. Men like Nkrumah, Julius Nyere, Jomo Kenyatta, and Nelson Mandela did not reject European thought. Most of them were Marxists, Nationalists, or both; many at least said they believed in the full equality of women; they all made use of European languages to spread their message across the world; and they explicitly rejected many parts of African culture, such as tribalism and fear of scorcery. What the woke are pleased to call decolonization is actually quite controversial among African intellectuals:

One of the most ambitious counterarguments to this movement is presented by Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò in his provocative new book, Against Decolonisation. Táíwò, a professor of African political theory and philosophy at Cornell University, laments how a concept that once referred to escaping political and economic subjugation by powerful states has come to mean something far less precise. According to Táíwò, “because modernity is conflated with Westernism and with ‘whiteness’—and all three with colonialism—decolonisation (the negation of colonialism) has become a catch-all idea to tackle anything with any, even minor, association with the ‘West.’” Táíwò argues that such undisciplined uses of “decolonization” have a perverse effect, stymieing attempts to understand, let alone improve, the situation of formerly colonized peoples. 

In Against Decolonisation, Táíwò’s focus is on Africa. He traces the origin of a prominent strand of decolonization theory to the writings of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, a Kenyan novelist and author of Decolonising the Mind (1986), a book whose thousands of citations attest to its global influence. It memorably recounted Ngũgĩ’s experience as a schoolboy in 1950s Kenya. Being caught speaking his first language, Gĩkũyũ, anywhere near school resulted in canings, fines and being made to wear signs saying “I am stupid” or “I am a donkey.” Given this history, Ngũgĩ argued that one of the most effective political acts of African writers is to publish in their indigenous languages. When it came to his novels and other literary works, Ngũgĩ had already switched from English to Gĩkũyũ. “This book,” he wrote in Decolonising the Mind, “is my farewell to English as a vehicle for any of my writings.” Henceforward, both his fiction and nonfiction would be available to English-speaking readers only in translation.

Ngũgĩ’s condemnation of Western languages as vehicles of African expression is representative of a larger African decolonization project, which goes beyond Mills’s comparatively mild version, and which sometimes characterizes engagement with Western concepts and values as a form of “epistemicide” or “mental de-Africanization.”

But, of course, writing in a language like Gĩkũyũ cuts the writer off from the huge audience he or she might have in English or French, and from most of the international debate about Africa's future. This review goes on to point out that while Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o has indeed published all his fiction in Gĩkũyũ since 1986, most of his non-fiction has appeared first in English. Trying to earn your living as an intellectual comes with certain burdens.

Táíwò is also irritated by a tendency to see all of African history as dominated by its relations with Europe:

In opposing this view, Táíwò invokes a vast command of African philosophy and history. Against Decolonisation ranges over everything from Africans’ enthusiastic embrace of Christianity in the pre-colonial period of “informal empire” to the Fante Confederacy of nineteenth-century Ghana, whose founding document “ranks alongside the Polish constitution of [1791] as one of the earliest attempts at liberal constitution-making in the world.” These and other details are marshalled to support an alternative reading of African history, one that considers European colonialism “an episode, not an epoch.” Táíwò’s historical framing emphasizes the role Africans themselves have played in shaping contemporary Africa, a theme reflected in his subtitle, “Taking African Agency Seriously.” To exaggerate the influence of colonialism, Táíwò charges, can itself show disrespect to Africans.
But the real issue concerns what we might call modernization. In throwing off colonial chains, is Africa also supposed to dispense with western science, engineering, and thinking about human rights? In some parts of the world we have seen calls to teach native wisdom in parallel with western science, which seems like a dubious path toward modernity. Many activists have also dismissed European ideas about democracy and rights because Europeans did not practice them in the colonies, and they have sought to build free societies on an indigenous basis; but this has failed everywhere it has been tried. 
Táíwò is at pains to distinguish two different meanings of “decolonization.” The first, which he considers illuminating, refers to a colony achieving self-government. The second refers to the goal of avoiding any idea, practice or institution that “retains even the slightest whiff of the colonial past.” This broader understanding of decolonization is the one Táíwò opposes. Where the first definition identifies a crucial step toward African societies becoming fully modern, home to liberal-democratic governments that follow the rule of law, respect rights and ensure the well-being of their people, the second undermines that unfinished project by rejecting modern political goods as artifacts of colonialism.

Indeed African dictators have often insisted that things like elections and a free press are remnants of colonialism that Africa must leave behind, with predictable results. Not, mind you, that I think Parliamentary democracy is necessarily the best system for every African nation right now, but neither is cynical Afrocentrist dictatorship. In recent decades many African thinkers have drawn from European apostles of freedom, from John Stuart Mill to Bakunin, to argue for their own rights.

To me it seems obvious that the way forward for humanity is to take the best from every part of the world, or the parts we like best, and build a future from all those blocks. Rejecting the vast heritage of the west is not going to help anyone move forward.

Tuesday, January 24, 2023

News from the French Neolithic

From INRAP, preliminary reports on the 2022 excavations at a site known as Camp de Sarlier in Aubagne in southern France. The site was a village in the Middle Neolithic,  (4600-3500 BC). Above is the plan of a large building with an area of more than 100 square meters.

And a smaller structure. The hourglass shape is very unusual and I can't figure out what the point would be.

Polished flint ax.

And a pit under excavation; most of what I see is cow bones.

This site was reused in the Iron Age as a cemetery, so there are also a bunch of graves from the 1st millennium BC. Above, a torc, and below, ankle bracelets. This is how I want to spend my retirement.