I have this strange, but perhaps not uncommon expectation that my internal life and the analysis of it will be of interest to others. I am genuinely surprised, sometimes even hurt when, occasionally, another person confronts me with the fact that I am of no interest to them whatsoever. But I am never entirely discouraged.
I see myself as a reflection of the world. I see the world through myself, the world in myself. I see myself as a microcosm, an ego-cosm, of the world outside myself. I understand other people as versions of myself, orphaned from the original source. And by revealing intimate truths about myself, I try to describe intimate truths about the rest of the world. Things the rest of the world is too proud or too smart to reveal or too arrogant or too stupid to see. I have made this argument numerous times, drunk and sober, to numerous people. Some buy it, some don’t, but in my eyes, it’s an honest and convincing argument. In my eyes, it is the only honest argument. In my eyes, of course.
But – you see, a bank or a company… breathe[s] profits; they eat the interest on money. If they don’t get it, they die the way you die without air… It is a sad thing, but it is so. It is just so.
… The bank – the monster has to have profits all the time. It can’t wait. It’ll die… When the monster stops growing, it dies. It can’t stay one size.
… But the monster’s sick. Something’s happened to the monster.
We’re sorry. It’s not us. It’s the monster. The bank isn’t like a man.
Yes, but the bank is only made of men.
No, you’re wrong there – quite wrong there. The bank is something else than men. It happens that every man in a bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it.
Explain the Peircean semiotic triangle to someone with little or no knowledge of semiotics in 1000 words or less (excluding title).
A story must begin at the beginning.
And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech… And they said, Go to, let us build a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven… And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded. … And the Lord said… Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.
Arrogance of man. Tower tumbles, Babel burns. A vengeful God takes back the language he had shown to Adam. Afire, people scream at each other in a thousand new inferior tongues, the babbeling of one incomprehensible to the other. The starting point of the philosophy of language.
Not a happy beginning, and it sets the tone for the rest of the story. Two problems which recur throughout the philosophy of language: first, word and thing are non-identical and second, humans are non-identical. The problems of representation and communication respectively. These, moreover, are viewed through a moralising prism, implicit in the fall from a supposedly superior, more pure, state of being. Read more ›
During summer I took some promotional shots of my extremely talented friend Guy (Mute Swimmer) at Tempelhof Airport in Berlin. The idea was to play on his musical moniker (which apparently had no particular significance for him) and place a lost swimmer in a vast waterless expanse. He was a great subject, and there was no particular direction on my part except to get his shirt off and get him wet. You can check out his music here: http://muteswimmer.bandcamp.com/ I strongly recommend that you do. He regularly plays all over northern Europe, particularly Germany, and is a great live act.
The father rolls up his sleeves and gets down in the sandpit with his son. They make things in the sand. The son seems to know what they are, and he bubbles descriptions at his father in proto-language. He gurgles. The father reaches over and points at the mound in the sand.
He gets no response. The boy has noticed something. He reaches out for his father’s arm, looking at it with naive concern, the tottering first steps of empathy. The father looks down. He looks straight through the old familiar wounds in the crook of his arm. Then he realises and he whips his arm away. The boy looks up at him with concern. The father tries to smile.
It’s alright. I’m not doing that any more. I’ve got you.
The father pats his head. The boy looks at him, unconvinced. He reaches for his father’s arm. The father shows him his arm.
See? They’re just little sores. See?
The boy pokes at them and looks up into his father’s face. He sees the tears beginning to roll down the father’s cheeks and looks concerned. Then in his face there is a change, an idea becomes visible in him, begins to glow. He is discovering good.
He looks back at his father’s arm. The boy kisses his own tiny hand and places it on each of the trackmarks, repeating again and again down his father’s arm, scab by scab. The father smiles through the tears. The boy smiles and gurgles.
The father swears to himself. Swears on the life of his son. This promise, he swears, is different. Really.
Two small Chinese restaurants across from the station, one next to the other, one half full, one empty. He watches as a small group stops to look at the menu outside the empty one. The waiter, probably the owner, rushes out to greet them, but they have already walked off and into the next one. He goes back inside and sits back down on his stool, silent, menus still in hand. At the ready.
He looks pitifully at the misspelt nonsense painted in neat lettering on the front windows and thinks, for a moment, that he could help. Sort out the signage, at least.
The train begins to roll off slowly. His head follows the path of the restaurant until it is vanished by the window frame.
The tragedy of natural selection is everywhere. He thinks.
He looks out into nothing, moved. The tragedy of natural selection.
He, too, is that tragedy.
He thinks. He imagines a wildlife documentary – him the subject. That pompous British voice, it follows him around narrating his failures with scientific objectivity.
His failure. The pathetic, wretched creature cast out by the herd. Loitering at the fringes, hoping with dumb animal hope to be adopted by some great generosity, pulled along by some miracle of fortune. But somehow, silently, the collective decision has been made. The tragic ending is already clear.
The voice doesn’t intervene to save him. Just narrates as the tragedy unfolds.
The tragedy of natural selection, of petty competition, is everywhere you look. And it is the ugliest thing in the world.
Sufis belong to a sect of Islam which practices a set of religious rituals aimed at communicating with Allah through self hypnosis and spiritual ecstasy. I spent two weeks scouring Damascus – a city with a large Sufi population – hoping to get an opportunity to see a Sufi chanting ritual, or sema. They were surprisingly hard to find, but after asking around at a number of mosques in central Damascus, I was directed to a mosque deep in the suburbs.
I managed to get myself invited into the ritual, and it was one of the more moving experiences I’ve had. As close to religious epiphany as an atheist can get. I, too, got carried away with the breathy chanting, and was soon jolting my torso back and forth along with a hundred or so other men. I probably looked quite silly, but I didn’t feel it. It was an invitation. A moment of real, bestial human community.
Words aren’t important. This isn’t a story, and it has no characters. Just listen to the file linked above. It is not a great recording, but it is nevertheless unspeakably beautiful. Or at least it was. You can’t record epiphany.
It is a scene dubbed from a pirated copy of Baraka. Even by seven a.m. the sun has already provoked Hlaing Thar Yar bus station, west of Yangon, into an angry arpeggio of discordant activity. The taxi driver takes both hands from the wheel, looks at me in the rear-view mirror and makes an ill-formed rectangle in the air. I have my ticket ready and pass it forward to him with that hopeful smile of a person completely at the mercy of another. He looks at it, looks up, looks at it again. He stops and speaks in Burmese to one of the unofficial-looking official valets. He seems satisfied with the answer and points me in the direction of a small silver bus. I pay and swing my bag down out of the back seat and drag it across to the bus, whereupon a thin, weathered Burmese man speaks to me in Burmese and makes the rectangle. “Chaung Tha”. I say it without offering up the ticket. Without speaking, he takes the ticket from my hand, makes a few exotic marks on it and hands it back, pointing at the silver bus. My stammering attempt at pretending I know what I am doing has already been shot down.
Lord, grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.
St Augustine, Confessions
I just got back from an Explosions in the Sky concert. I feel compelled, for the first time in my life, to use the acronym OMG. OMG! OMG! OMG! This, I assure you, is a big deal.
There’s not much to say about the concert. I’ve heard the band before, a few years ago in Sydney, and I was disappointed. They simply played from beginning to end the album that was current at the time. Tonight they played their best songs from 5 or 6 albums. Including this and this and this. It was was sensational. Ejaculatory.
My post-best-concert-ever euphoria has made it suddenly urgent to write about something else, however: something I can’t quite capture in a simple three word label, something to do with ageing, with the fear of youth passing and with the rediscovery of youth.
Berlin is a divided city. It is not divided by ethnicity – though of course some would say that it is – there is a division between the old and the young, a division which has more to do with attitude than with the slow breakdown of the body.
Berlin is full of 30 and 40 year old teenagers – I am increasingly proud to count myself among them – but there are also a few 20 year olds who, in line with all the clichés about Germanic conservatism, worry about a future which is probably not going to be all that great no matter how well we prepare for it (*nevertheless, fill your basement with cans of baked beans and bottles of water). But the old and the old-young are a minority, and they are probably from Bavaria or Baden-Württemberg anyway. The future, for most, as it is for me, is on hold.
Berlin is a place where, having achieved the requisite level of maturity, you finally come to value your youth, feel the exhilaration and the urgency of being alive as you feel being alive slowly seeping away. It appears, you can be young indefinitely, despite your greying hair and the wrinkles beginning to cluster around your eyes. Perhaps when the skin starts to sag, it’s all over, but until then, it seems that Berlin is the fountain of youth.
At first, it is disorienting, it feels like this. But once you start to get the hang of being young, of being alive again (or perhaps for the first time), it’s really not that hard.
Lord, grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.
Augustiner. Neukölln. Fettnäpfchen. Breit sein. Verkatert sein. Alles scheint möglich zu sein. Graue haare. Scheißdeutsch. QWERTZ. Alles.
I think I understand the man (Hitler),” (film director Lars) Von Trier said. “He’s not what you would call a good guy, but I understand much about him and I sympathize with him a little bit. But come on, I’m not for the Second World War, and I’m not against Jews.
I am of course very much for Jews. No, not too much because Israel is a pain in the ass. But still, how can I get out of this sentence?
Lars Von Trier at a press conference for the Cannes Film Festival
And so, with the response to Lars Von Trier’s rambling faux-pas comments above, the popular outrage machine has created its most perfectly contorted, glisteningly absurd objet d’art yet in a product line with a long history of surreal prototypes. Von Trier’s comments have made headline news across the world, and I have seen a number of people on media websites and on Facebook claim that they will never watch another of his films. But nothing Von Trier says is, or should be construed as, offensive, either to Jews or to those who find the ideology and the ultimate results of Fascism to be among the foulest, most prominent stains on the very dirty cloth of human history. It takes someone very eager to be offended to find ways to interpret Von Trier’s statements as anything other than a sincere (though clumsily expressed) interest in understanding a personality and a part of history which, while horrific, evil and most of all tragic (as Von Trier, an artist who has made a career exploring the horrific, the evil and the tragic, clearly agrees) , are of great importance both as abstract intellectual curiosities, and as lessons in the development of human civilization.
A woman in her early twenties, wearing a full length black dress and a hijab which covers her hair and much of her face, gets onto a public bus in the new part of the ancient city of Aleppo, Syria. She buys her ticket and, searching left and right, walks past a number of free seats near the front of the bus, to an area where the central aisle widens out for standing passengers. On either side of the aisle there is a column of three or four single seats, one behind the other, all of them occupied. The woman stops wordlessly next to a young man of perhaps sixteen or seventeen sitting on one of these single seats. His mind is with his gaze, somewhere outside of the immediate reality of the bus. She does not speak – she seems as if she is somehow prevented from speaking – she simply stands and waits. Suddenly and without a word, the young man comes to his senses and obediently stands up, removing himself to one of the seats at the front of the bus where the other men are sitting. Women do not sit next to unknown men on public buses.
Without a word or even any obvious gesture, this transaction, this silent command issued not by a person but by a disembodied gender, describes the sanctity of women in Islamic society. This is the sanctity that defenders of the hijab and the more extensive niqab and mandil cite as justification for what often appears, to western eyes, to be a symbol and a tool of the repression of women. The veil, the argument goes, is for the protection of women from the eyes and the evil intentions of men. The veil is construed not as an oppressive device which constrains the behaviour of women, but, on the contrary, as a tool of practical liberation which enables women to move around freely in a hostile, sexually predatory world.