Glorious incompetence

July 30th, 2008 § 0 comments § permalink

This may be obvious or false to the historians among you, but novel and interesting to me:

Nothing better illustrates capitalism in feudal-aristocratic drag than colonial militaries, which were notoriously distinct from those of the metropoles, often even in formal institutional terms. Thus in Europe one had the ‘First Army’, recruited by conscription on a mass, citizen, metropolitan base; ideologically conceived as the defender of the heimat; dressed in practical, utilitarian khaki; armed with the latest affordable weapons; in peacetime isolated in barracks, in war stationed in trenches or behind heavy field-guns. Outside Europe one had the ‘Second Army’, recruited (below the officer level) from local religious or ethnic minorities on a mercenary basis; ideologically conceived as an internal police force; dressed to kill in bed- or ballroom; armed with swords and obsolete industrial weapons; in peace on display, in war on horseback. If the Prussian General Staff, Europe’s military teacher, stressed the anonymous solidarity of a professionalized corps, ballistics, railroads, engineering, strategic planning, and the like, the colonial army stressed glory, epaulettes, personal heroism, polo, and an archaizing courtliness among its officers.
[Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, p. 151]

Ahmed Rashid, Descent into Chaos

July 27th, 2008 § 0 comments § permalink

I had high hopes for this (you can tell; it’s the first hardback I’ve bought in years). Maybe my hopes were unrealistic. Rashid is aiming squarely at the Western bestseller lists – which means he needs to cover a lot of background, and avoi frightening his readers with tightly-packed detail. I remember (misremember?) his previous books Taliban and Jihad as breaking new ground and pulling together otherwise-obscure facts. This is more a general history of what is already known – good for what it is, just not the tour de force I’d hoped for.

The focus is very much on high politics and personalities. As Rashid repeatedly points out, he is a personal friend of many key figures in Afghan politics, and his analysis of their foibles is interesting. But by concentrating on people, he downplays how much their actions have been constrained by institutions, economics, and culture. Doubtless this is better than the reverse – personalities do matter in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and many institutions exist only on paper. But in this book, events in Afghanistan seem determined almost entirely by powerful people doing stupid things – we don’t get to grips with why they do stupid things.

ETA: I was probably too harsh here. Some of Rashid’s themes – how deeply the ISI has continued to support the Taliban, how uncontrolled Helmand was before the British arrived – are, if not unknown, at least rarely given this much emphasis

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More books

July 22nd, 2008 § 0 comments § permalink

Jonathan Spence, The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci. Microhistory by this year’s Reith lecturer, the life of a sixteenth-century Jesuit missionary in China. Recommended to me because of my interest in memory palaces, although mnemonics aren’t much more than a framing device here. About European almost as much as Chinese history, which makes sense for a biography, but wasn’t really what I wanted to read.

Andrew Marr, A history of modern Britain. ‘Modern’ here means ‘since 1945′. It’s what you’d expect from somebody in Marr’s position: clear, uncontroversial, making half-hearted attempts to awaken personal memories in his readers. The political history is excellent, especially as the narrative moves into periods where Marr has personal knowledge of what’s going on. But he seems a little lost once he moves into the cultural history: no obvious bloopers, just a sense that he’s reciting the accepted version without passion or deep knowledge.

Anthony Sampson, The arms bazaar: from Lebanon to Lockheed. This is over 30 years old, and was written as a rush-job to catch interest in the arms scandals of the late 70s. But I’ll happily choose quality over being up-to-date, and Sampson’s ability to construct a narrative out of mountains of facts is first-rate. The chapters on the long history of the arms trade are particularly interesting; the detail on the (then) most recent developments less so, except as a reminder of what has and hasn’t changed.

Steven Ozment, A new history of the German people. May objectively be a good book, but it rubbed me up the wrong way. The writing is oddly clumsy – not through density of facts or argument (far from it), just something about the way he structures his sentences.

Fortunately this is the end of the reviews, for now.

Teaching

July 21st, 2008 § 0 comments § permalink

Somadeva Vasudeva is one of the most brilliant teachers I was ever lucky enough to be supervised by. So it’s a real treat to see him explain part of what made every class with him such a mind-expanding experience:

The very best teachers will go even beyond this and try to teach their knowledge as a mode of being (etena kartṛrūpaṃ jñānam upadiṣṭam). This means that the student learns how to “be” a scholar, how to relate to the subject matter. In a sense this always happens, but the best Sanskrit teachers know they are doing this and will therefore instill something that I realize now is perhaps the most important thing one can learn to study Sanskrit: niḥśaṅkācāra, an attitude of “fearlessness,” a “shedding of inhibitions”. I am finding it difficult to find adequate descriptors of this intimately personal experience that does so many things: it lets you pick up and read a text no matter how intimidating it may seem at first, it makes you approach texts with an open mind free of (too many) preconceptions, it helps keep the scholarly ego (abhimāna) in check (for a scholar some abhimāna is not a bad thing), it lets you make mistakes and correct yourself, it puts all else in perspective.

I still regret that, through my own failings, I absorbed only the faintest shadow of what Somadeva – not to mention other teachers – could have offered. But even that was something very, very special; now I have a slightly better idea of how he managed it.

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More books

July 18th, 2008 § 0 comments § permalink

Have some more book reviews, since I’m putting off what I should be doing today

Tony Judt, Postwar: a history of Europe since 1945. Deserves its near-universally favourable reviews. Yes, it’s big – but honestly, this is the minimum size that could get beyond reciting common knowledge. Not that Judt has particularly unorthodox views; his analysis seems mostly what you’d expect from a centre-left American Europhile. So he becomes most passionate attacking the acceptable targets of French critical theory, although he mixes snark with accounts of how history, economics and politics combined to make it that way. Also – something that matters greatly in this kind of ‘encyclopaedic’ history – the index is excellent.

Douglas Adams, The salmon of doubt Posthumously-published collection of bits and pieces, packed out with a prologue, forword and epilogue. The rest of the text is a jumble of interviews, newspaper articles, and fragments, often repeating the same jokes and ideas in different contexts. Adams is still funny and insightful in places, but the book is mostly tedious.

Jon Ronson, Them: adventures with extremists. Ronson mingles with Klansmen, conspiracy theorists, and extremists, and lets their warped logic speak for itself. Hilarious – but there’s also a lot of excellent reporting here. His portraits of the extremists are amused and often horrified, but also sympathetic and aware that sometimes their most ridiculous ideas turn out to have some basis in fact. Ronsons later book, The men who stare at goats, on occultists in the US military, is even better.

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Books

July 15th, 2008 § 0 comments § permalink

jholloway, Cosma and others write monthly roundups of what they’ve been reading. I’m too disorganized for that, and read too little for it to work. But in a similar spirit – and to stop me entirely forgetting about them – here are a few books I’ve recently enjoyed.

Malise Ruthven, Islam in the world. A history of Islam both as a religion and as a political force. This was written 20 years ago by a journalist with a knack for picking out telling details, for tracing currents of thought through centuries, and for telegraphing detail into a paragraph without drying it out. It clarifies many of those names and terms that keep popping up, but tend to be explained only in terms of day-to-day politics.

He’s particularly successful explaining the Islamic world through the eyes of Muslim thinkers. So, for instance, much of the military history is described in terms of 14th-century writer Ibn Khaldun, and his ideas of repeated conquest by close-knit tribal groups (Once in power, these groups become entangled in bureaucracy and urban life, zhence lose their sense of community and so fall victim to the next invaders). Ruthven falls flat only when he turns to modern Western intellectuals for ideas: Marx, Freud and Jung all look ridiculous here.

Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth. Feminist tract from 1990. Powerful as a polemic, fairly convincing as an account of how ideals of beauty are used against women, but almost silent as to why. The ‘beauty myth’ becomes a free-floating malignant entity, causing oppression but itself without a cause.

More economics might have helped Wolf here, especially in the chapter on employment. Are women discriminated against at work because they are female, or because those who are already weak are easiest to exploit? I half-suspect she left out this kind of analysis deliberately, as it would have put off chunks of her audience.

Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine. Market reforms are like torture, says Klein: they’re most effective when the victims are too bewildered to resist. It’s not so convincing as an argument, but serviceable as an excuse to string together analysis of political repression and market liberalisation.

Most persuasive is her account of Chicago School economists as an organised, influential force that took advange of – or created – economic and political catastrohes to advance a neoliberal agenda. Except – she somehow thinks right-wing economists are the only group with long-standing agendas, who wait for crises in which to advance them. What about Marxists with their vanguards, with their dialectic of spontaneity and organisation, their plans to lead the people when they rise? For that matter, in any revolution you’ll find discontent being used to serve ulterior aims. The free-marketeers have won in recent decades because their ideas were in the ascendant, not because they were the first to take advantage of crises.

Islam, beauty, torture and market reform

July 15th, 2008 § 0 comments § permalink

I’ve recently been posting mainly on Livejournal, rather than here. But, since I don’t want to totally kill off this blog, I thought I’d cross-post a few things from there. So, a few book reviews:
Malise Ruthven, Islam in the world. A history of Islam both as a religion and as a political force. This was written 20 years ago by a journalist with a knack for picking out telling details, for tracing currents of thought through centuries, and for telegraphing detail into a paragraph without drying it out. It clarifies many of those names and terms that keep popping up, but tend to be explained only in terms of day-to-day politics.
He’s particularly successful explaining the Islamic world through the eyes of Muslim thinkers. So, for instance, much of the military history is described in terms of 14th-century writer Ibn Khaldun, and his ideas of repeated conquest by close-knit tribal groups (Once in power, these groups become entangled in bureaucracy and urban life, zhence lose their sense of community and so fall victim to the next invaders). Ruthven falls flat only when he turns to modern Western intellectuals for ideas: Marx, Freud and Jung all look ridiculous here.
Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth. Feminist tract from 1990. Powerful as a polemic, fairly convincing as an account of how ideals of beauty are used against women, but almost silent as to why. The ‘beauty myth’ becomes a free-floating malignant entity, causing oppression but itself without a cause.
More economics might have helped Wolf here, especially in the chapter on employment. Are women discriminated against at work because they are female, or because those who are already weak are easiest to exploit? I half-suspect she left out this kind of analysis deliberately, as it would have put off chunks of her audience.
Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine. Market reforms are like torture, says Klein: they’re most effective when the victims are too bewildered to resist. It’s not so convincing as an argument, but serviceable as an excuse to string together analysis of political repression and market liberalisation.
Most persuasive is her account of Chicago School economists as an organised, influential force that took advange of – or created – economic and political catastrohes to advance a neoliberal agenda. Except – she somehow thinks right-wing economists are the only group with long-standing agendas, who wait for crises in which to advance them. What about Marxists with their vanguards, with their dialectic of spontaneity and organisation, their plans to lead the people when they rise? For that matter, in any revolution you’ll find discontent being used to serve ulterior aims. The free-marketeers have won in recent decades because their ideas were in the ascendant, not because they were the first to take advantage of crises.

Pullman, puppets, innocence and death

July 15th, 2008 § 0 comments § permalink

Some things I’ve enjoyed reading lately (and so might you):

This short story I love just for the unashamed flow of the words; the author seems always compared to China Mieville, and I can see why. Via Cosma, whose other short story recommendations are also good.

BLDGBlog on The Akwigran Discrepancy – which should be an indie band or a Robert Ludlum book, but was (maybe) an unintentional No Man’s Land between Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands, overlooked by cartography and diplomacy.

Marionettes (previous post) brought me to Heinrich von Kleist’s essay On the marionette theatre. Philip Pullman mentions this as a view of childhood innocence similar to what he aimed for in Northern Lights (also for the fighting bear). That is, Pullman is one of the few children’s writers who manages to love both childhood and adulthood – unlike, say, CS Lewis (maybe) and most of Hollywood. Here’s how Kleist explains it:

…grace itself returns when knowledge has as it were gone through an infinity. Grace appears most purely in that human form which either has no consciousness or an infinite consciousness. That is, in the puppet or in the god.”
“Does that mean”, I said in some bewilderment, “that we must eat again of the tree of knowledge in order to return to the state of innocence?”
“Of course”, he said, “but that’s the final chapter in the history of the world.”

On that, I’m with Kleist and Pullman.

Marionettes and consoles

July 14th, 2008 §