Monday 31 December 2012

Is literature spiritual in the way that community is?

Caravaggio's painting of St Jerome (1605?).
At this time of year there are many people who celebrate along with families and friends, but there are others who are alone and it's because of all these Eleanor Rigbys that I started to think about ways to describe the meaning of spirituality. When Christians go to church they attend holy communion, and they also enter into a type of fellowship with each other, a type of community. Church could be a saviour for Eleanor if there's noone from her family around during the festive season. But it's not just Christians who find solace from the difficulties and frustrations of everyday life by communing with a Creator. Ceremonies in all religions and sects enable people to get close to the Divine, and even in, say, Japanese Shinto it's the communing with trees, rocks, and streams that rewards the participant by helping him or her to slough off the desperate loneliness of material existence, and gives them an opportunity to establish a more satisfying relationship with the world and everything in it.

I chose a painting of Saint Jerome for this post because Jerome, the man who, in about the 4th century AD, translated the Christian Bible into Latin, obviously had to work mostly alone. And I want to think about this image alongside the logo for the publishing company Elsevier, which was founded in 1880 but which took its name from an older publishing company, Elzevir, which dated from 1580. The part of the logo that is most relevant for me is the motto, Non solus: "Not alone". Because it was the loneliness of the individual scholar, often working in a hostile environment against significant material obstacles, that also typifies St Jerome in his study back in Rome before the Goths invaded, not long afterward.

There's Jerome, in Caravaggio's lovely painting, sitting quietly trying to work out the best way to translate from the Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic into Latin the words of the precious book that lies, immobile and daunting, before him on the desk. His hand is stretched out, and it holds upright a pen. Near the hand is a symbol of mortality, a human skull. It's a bleak image, and one that well illustrates the problem of scholars that Elsevier, the publishing company, acknowledges in its corporate logo. In fact it's problematic, because clearly Jerome is completely alone in Caravaggio's painting, although it must be - mustn't it? - that God is looking down benevolently on his labours from that high perch way up above in the blue Roman sky.

Those who sought community and communion in church certainly would have been unaware of Jerome's work, although at one point or another they would have benefited from it as it allowed them to enter into that precious state of existence under the tutelage of words spoken in their native language. Jerome's job was in media, in fact. He created a text to mediate between God, on one side, and the congregation, on the other. But he doesn't look as though he is participating, personally, in that ritual.

Religious observance is full of rituals. They are the means by which we enter into communion with the Divine, and the place where we enjoy community in good fellowship with out neighbours. And rituals are common to all types of religion. They are designed to facilitate - or to create, you might opine - that spiritual connection that we occasionally seek to establish with the world. They provide for a type of relationship with the world that does not depend on constant, unremitting struggle, which is how daily life usually plays out for us. Rituals are observances that let us enjoy, for a short while, the good things in life along with the people who are most important to us. They take us away from contention and disagreement, and let us enter into that state of communion and community that we all so much enjoy.

Compare the image of a man sitting, reading a book, with one where a thousand young people are standing, listening intently to a rock band and dancing together to the beat of the music. But reading is this unique undertaking that can bring us into contact with another consciousness, another mind. Of course, there is a type of ritual happening here, too. Not everyone can write a book, after all. It takes a writer's discipline and skill to achieve the right balance of novelty and the recognisable; the text cannot go too fast or else the writer will leave the reader behind, nor too slow in case the reader loses interest. But reading is a unique and singular activity that can stand in for the feeling of community that we associate with the spiritual because it allows us to contemplate the world in tandem with another person. So can reading be classed as spiritual? I don't know. I do know, however, that when I see Jerome bent starkly over his massive Bible I think of the rewards that this type of mental activity can bring to the scholar.

It's a conundrum, though. We seek spiritual nourishment by finding community with our fellows in good fellowship, especially at this time of year. For those people who are unable to engage with the world in this way, however, it might just be that reading can provide the kind of spiritual nourishment that others achieve in community with their family and friends.

Sunday 30 December 2012

Conflict and synthesis are embedded in the European psyche

Craig Waddell, The Painter (after Titian), 2012.
Last night I went to bed early but woke up near midnight and came back online for a peek. It was then that I came across a post in which an online friend expressed dismay at a kind of reverse discrimination, complaining that Westerners are blamed for everything that is bad in the world. To counter that unpleasant feeling I suggested that it might help if Westerners could be more aware of what their civilisation had achieved over the centuries, and pointed to my own habit of singling out prominent individuals who lived in the past, for acknowledgement.

Art and literature are two platforms that enable us to acknowledge gains achieved in the past, that have gone on to inspire others to achieve other things and even establish powerful new orthodoxies. So I have decided to single out for notice here a living Australian artist, Craig Waddell, whose works I have purchased in the past because there is something really interesting, I feel, in the way he handles his subjects. The painting inserted with this post illustrates this, showing how Waddell has used the approaches initiated by Modernist masters of the 20th century such as de Kooning and Soutine to render subjects purloined from great painters of the distant past, in this case the Venetian Titian. The layered meanings that inhere in a painting like this one establish a sort of mental harmonics that involves conflict and synthesis, and produces aesthetic pleasure.

Conflict and synthesis turned out to be elements of the discussion online that emerged after I made my comment, when another person suggested that the reason why, for example, the appearance of printing resulted in such innovation in the West while it had not done so in China, where it had appeared earlier, has to do with geographical imperatives. Here's what he said:
The most striking feature of Europe is its segments - Iberia, the British Isles, Italy, Scandanavia - these all form visible chunks (the important exception is the north European plain, which gave rise to the French-German-Polish-Russian struggles). This makes Europe focus on clusters, and when unity has been achieved (Rome/Carolingians) the impact was not politically permanent.
China, on the other hand, is one large landmass. This facilitates an easier unification (as under the Chin).
So conflict and synthesis of different viewpoints is a characteristic embedded in the fabric of Europe, whereas single-law rule and cultural orthodoxy held sway in China. I like this explanation because it avoids the less pleasant forms of European exceptionalism, which can deteriorate and turn into a kind of snobbery. I think that rather than celebrating cultures or civilisations, furthermore, it is more appropriate to celebrate the achievements of individuals, who often worked in antagonistic environments while doing the things that have since made them notable. These approaches can help Westerners, who can be rightly proud of what European civilisation has achieved, to avoid sounding superior, a stance that is sure to result in mockery and dismissal from people who come from other parts of the world.

So then what about China? For their part, the Chinese can be rightly proud of the sheer beauty manifested in their culture, and the strength that this beauty demonstrates. Korea, Japan, Vietnam and other cultures responded at different times to the overwhelming beauty that Chinese artists, scholars, writers, statesmen and artisans produced, and adopted many of its elements in their own ways of doing things. There is certainly something grand and striking about Chinese civilisation, something that indeed embodies the idea of "civilisation" itself. It's just that it's different from ours. And that's probably a good thing. It's in the meeting of different ways and means that we can further develop our cultures and societies so that they more perfectly accommodate the diversity of individuals who inhabit them.

Friday 28 December 2012

Movie review: The Dark Knight Rises, dir Christopher Nolan (2012)

A scene from the movie.
After the interesting opening scenes where a group of terrorists hijack and destroy a CIA plane in mid-air, this film gets bogged down in stodge. A wounded and unwilling Batman has all the cards in the deck stacked against him, a sure sign of a weak script. Massively compounded adversity is one way to describe this phenomenon. Batman's alter ego Bruce Wayne has a bad knee, for a start. Then there's Catwoman who is after Batman, the Gotham police are trying to arrest him, Wayne's butler leaves him, and there's a group of terrorists led by a man with a Russian-sounding name who cause Wayne Enterprises to tank by way of a stock market scam. How much worse can things get for the Caped Crusader? Not much worse, of course, and how he gets out of this mess is supposed to be the best way the filmmakers can think of add some lustre to what must surely be an entirely stale franchise. To me, theirs a mere ploy to elicit sympathy, and it reminds me of how hard John Le Carre worked to elicit sympathy for his dead heroine in the utterly unreadable The Constant Gardener. So this new Batman film stinks. The maudlin replaying of Batman's backstory in the film sucks any life that might remain out of it. I did not watch most of the movie.

Saturday 22 December 2012

Movie review: The Bourne Legacy, dir Tony Gilroy (2012)

Jeremy Renner as Aaron Cross
in The Bourne Legacy.
A leak via Congress of information about a secret US government program causes the authorities to begin killing the agents the program spawned. Using genetic technologies, the program caused the genetic make-up of selected individuals to be enhanced, intellectually and physically. Fear of embarrassment due to the leak causes the shadowy figures in charge of the program to shut it down before an even bigger scandal emerges. Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner), one of the program participants, is due to be eliminated but escapes unharmed.

Meanwhile, at the lab where the gene work is carried out to develop the drugs used to generate the genetic changes the program requires one of the technicians runs amok, shooting a number of people then killing himself. One who survives the rampage is Dr Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz) but her safety is compromised when a posse of CIA agents arrives at her house and try to kill her, attempting to make it look like a suicide. Cross intervenes, despatching the CIA operatives efficiently and going on the run with Shearing. Cross wants Shearing to help him receive an injection to ensure his survival and make the changes that the program had always caused using pills, to be permanent. To get to the drugs Cross and Shearing must travel to the Philippines.

Retired colonel Eric Byer (Edward Norton) and his team assume control of the crime scene that Shearing's destroyed house has become, picking through the rubble to learn who helped Shearing to escape. Using all of the resources of the most secret state Byer and his colleagues track down Cross and Shearing to their aeroplane flight. Not content to rely on the local constabulary, they summon another product of the program, Larx #3 (Louis Ozawa Changchien), who moves in on the fugitives in Manila. A long motorbike chase ensues. The ending is indeterminate, with Cross and Shearing fleeing on a small fishing boat into the hazy distance and to freedom.

With this ending there is plenty of scope for the film-rights holders to produce further episodes in the Bourne franchise. Jason Bourne, who gave it its name, does appear by name only in this film, and it's this ability to evade capture, or worse, at the hands of the US authorities that makes for the franchise's appeal. These rogue operators like Bourne and Cross are given seemingly insurmountable tasks to achieve in open conflict with the secret state, and film watchers eagerly consume the plotlines that result from this scenario. There is something so abhorrent about the secret state, and something so noble about elite men who flaunt its strictures and come out on top.

Wednesday 5 December 2012

Morsi failing in task of drafting a constitution for Egypt

Despite doing so well to help Israel and Hamas reach a ceasefire that seems to have held up over time, Egypt's president Mohamed Morsi remains under international scrutiny due to his efforts surrounding the drafting of a constitution for his country. Weeks of street protests in Egypt by a range of different people, including Muslims, have led to continued attention from outside Egypt - much of it probably unwanted. Morsi has been ruling by decree since the first Parliament convened following the overthrow of Mubarak was dissolved by the courts. The protesters object to a decree from Morsi placing his decisions above the rule of the courts. They also object to the words of a draft constitution that has been drawn up by an assembly dominated by Islamists. Protesters say that it contains provisions that are too close to sharia, and that these provisions will work against free speech. A New York Times story published yesterday contains quite a lot of details.

It's pretty clear that Morsi is acting for the short term. Pushing through a form of constitution that favours one political party over any others is hardly in the national interest. It's also short-sighted. Given this display of power from Morsi, what is to stop a future government of a different political colour from taking advantage of its power to further amend the constitution? A constitution is a statement of parameters, and should not contain words that limit the way people behave. Rather, a constitution should take a form that envisages the maximum amount of freedom to speak, to work, to organise, or to live. It is not a place where you specify how media outlets should be formed - that's to be done through a law specifically for the media, for example.

Morsi is being pushed to alienate parts of Egyptian society by his party platform, and these biases are entering into the creation of a document that must assist - not hinder - the enjoyment of independence of the largest number of Egyptians possible. Morsi's supporters might say that winning the presidential election gave the Islamists the right to take the steps they are taking, but this is untrue. Morsi will always rule under a cloud if he continues to take the avenue he is going down, and for many Egyptians the founding document of the country's polity will always remain tainted by association with one particular political party.

What Morsi should do is to assemble a representative assembly that can objectively draft a constitution that would accommodate the worldviews of the maximum possible number of Egyptians. Instead, it seems that the important task of forming a constitution for Egypt is becoming a political football. This kind of thinking will surely fail in the long term, and Morsi would be advised to step back and think a bit more soberly about the real significance of a constitution in the history of any country. In the current climate, and if ratified, Egypt's new constitution is certain to last only as long as his term in office lasts. Given current popular sentiment, that might be quite a short period of time indeed.

Sunday 2 December 2012

Strong language in the House preferable to street violence

What's with all these headlines about politicians behaving badly? It started yesterday but it's still going on. Look, the kicker for one story on one of the major news websites reads, "The good news for most Australians is that Federal Parliament has risen for another year." And just take a look at the cartoon the Australian has featured for the past two days: Opposition leader Tony Abbott and prime minister Julia Gillard slinging mud at each other on a background made to look like the new, and hated, unbranded cigarette packaging that came into force yesterday. "Warning," the cartoon reads, "politicians may make you sick."

Mudslinging in Parliament - what's new? Is their behaviour in 2012 any worse than it has been in earlier years - I don't think so. These kinds of popular expressions of disappointment in politicians is itself very disappointing. It shows that most people refuse to understand that the public sphere is a highly contested space. Everyone - including you, dear reader - has an agenda. How can politicians be any different?

The battle of "ideas" and of policies must continue - the alternative is death when it comes to the moment to change government. I prefer a proxy battle of words any day to the way that other, less mature polities decide who holds power, and who does not. I dote on the forms of Parliament, the spectacle and the traditions. We all should, because such forms shield us from violence.

When a new Speaker is selected by the government, for example, there are always two sitting members who go to his or her seat, grasp the successful member by the arms - one on either side - and escort him or her to the speaker's chair at the front of the room. An old form, dating back to the seventeenth century in Britain when being speaker in that Parliament could be a dangerous business - in those days the king or queen still had enormous powers, including the power to cause death - but one that lives on, today, because it symbolises the fact that we inherited a successful political system from another country. (Emphasis on 'successful'.) There are many traditions that have relevance at different times during the life of our Parliament, and it is those traditions, as much as any new-minted statute, that cause Australian democracy to be so robust.

Within the weft and weave of parliamentary process in Australia we see  - it's a very open, transparent process, after all - a proxy battle for supremacy every bit as passionate as an armed insurgency or a running street protest. The difference is that there is no violence. Since democracy began to function in Australia in 1856 - with elections for the NSW lower house - the country has navigated through many, many stormy issues accompanied by passionate debates. But there has been little violence. Think about it: Australia's is the fourth-oldest democracy in the world but we have been spared assassinations, riots, bombings and other plots that might cause loss of life. As always, it's in the media that public debate takes place, while in actual fact the person you might most vehemently disagree with lives just around the corner. But you wouldn't know. Our passions and our aspirations are enacted for us bloodlessly in Parliament and in the nation's media. We are shielded from sectarian hatred, physical assault, and casual misadventure by this process of democracy that we then turn around and lambast for being, somehow, unpleasant.

Why are a few angry words in Parliament more annoying than deaths in Syria are dismaying? What's wrong with our domestic form of proxy warfare? Rebels have taken over the major cities in the Congo and we don't care, but let a frontbencher make a fiery speech in Parliament and we talk about nothing else!

Saturday 1 December 2012

Surveillance state Australia?

There's that clicking sound on the line again as you're talking on the phone. It kicks in a few seconds after you make the connection and there are other audible clicks that occur during the phone call. When did it start happening? You can't remember, but it has been going on for months. It could be something quite innocent, of course, but the fact remains that there are thousands of telephone intercept warrants issued to police under federal law in Australia each year. According to the Age there were 3755 telephone intercepts authorised in 2011-12. In total, NSW police have 103,824 telephone intercepts operating now. There are tens of thousands more being managed by police in other states.

A judicial warrant is required to open an intercept but the figures show that once it's on, it stays on. Only nine applications were refused or withdrawn nationally in 2011-12. All renewal applications from police were approved in the same period of time.

Beyond telephone intercepts there are other items of data that you generate all the time and which can be monitored without invoking a judicial warrant, but merely on the command of "senior police or officials". Officials?
The data available to government agencies under federal law includes phone and internet account information, outwards and inwards call details, phone and internet access location data, and details of Internet Protocol addresses visited (though not the actual content of communications).
Such data was accessed in Australia over 300,000 times in 2011-12, meaning that "agencies obtained private data from telecommunications and internet service providers 5800 times every week". Statistics for ASIO are security classified and are not published; presumably that goes for telephone intercepts as well.

The Greens have complained about the scope of this huge data haul - Scott Ludlam is quoted expressing his reservations in the story - but Labor is now pressing to further expand the surveillance powers available to agencies of government including "a minimum two-year data retention standard for phone and internet providers". Agencies who access such data can even include local councils and Australia Post.

So you don't know who's monitoring your internet and phone call data. You don't know if a telephone intercept has been established for your phone. But given the scale of the data access activity that the Age story exposes, it's likely that at some point your communications will be monitored by some agency or other. It could be ASIO, it could be the police, it could be the tax office. Once they start looking at you it's likely that they will continue to look at you. So what kind of country are we living in that government needs to so closely surveil the activities of its citizens?

Further, what kind of reciprocal oversight opportunities do Australians have? Occasionally there's a story in the media like the one linked to in this blog post. But all this does for us is show us something about the scope of data access operations. Stories like this never reveal any details about the kinds of data that is accessed by government authorities nor the reasons why such data is accessed. So how are we to judge whether such data access is warranted? We cannot. It all comes down to trust. We must trust that the government will only request data access when there is a pressing reason to do so. And we must trust that data monitoring will cease once suspicion has abated.

Do you trust the government?