June 01, 2007

The Computised Caves

Searching for something to write about- I came across this interesting article on the Dunhuang caves in China- the custodians of the caves increasingly worried about the presence of tourists and the difficulties of protecting the caves from erosion, have decided to found a multimedia centre which will show people the images without them needing to examine the caves and damage them in microscopic detail.

Its interesting because of course anyone who owns rare and ancient remains of previous civilisations faces two parallel difficulties at the moment- the first is the difficulty of preserving the actual monuments- as air travel falls in price and the number of tourists rise so does the danger to things that have been preserved for centuries even millennia. On the other hand as the digitisation of material takes place more and more- the Google project with Harvard, the Bodleian and other libraries comes to mind- the entire uniqueness of actually seeing something evaporates- in a sense it leaves these organisations with a commercial dilemma- attempting to control their digital images if that becomes their main attraction instead of the real image that you can't see for fear of damaging the artefact.

But for us as well as individuals it brings some interesting consequences too. I have worked now for too many years on seventeenth century history- part of the excitement of doing that is of course working with the original manuscripts and documents. For those who don't know about it though its worth saying that most historians of that era now also work with digital photocopies of pamphlets which are on the web- for my area the Early English Books Online resource is the leading one but I know that there are others in other areas. For me as a historian that means that finding things becomes much easier- I can look up John Wildman's Putney Projects- an obscure 1647 tract about the Putney Debates in seconds whereas years ago I would have had to find the library with the copy inside it- almost certainly the British library in London and go there. It does have negative consequences though- there is something very special about holding in your hand a seventeenth century piece of paper and scanning it for information- you feel like a real historian not just someone surfing the internet.

It is interesting in that sense because of the way that it will change our relationship and is changing our relationship with the artefact. The mystique of the artefact is drained away by reproduction- what does seeing the caves mean if you have seen the photos of the cave. Its a legitimate question- what the original adds is an emotional fix, an emotional verity but in reality providing the copy is good enough is that all that it adds and should we for the sake of the artefacts themselves snap out of our rather egocentric desire to see and touch everything, to be familiar with it. Perhaps over familiarity through reproductions also leads us to expand our expectations of what we want- if I can see the caves here in pictures on the net- then when I've paid thousands to get to China, I'll want to touch them, feel the atmosphere etc.

Its an interesting issue- one I don't claim to have any expertise upon but I do think that the rise of tourism and the rise of digitalisation is going to change our attitudes to the artefacts of the past- attitudes that given the recent rise of museums and interest in history are hardly hardened but have only been around for the last hundred years at most.

May 31, 2007

Boycotting Israel

Well should you? I've written an article on Bits of News about it.

May 30, 2007

Vivre sa Vie Film en douze Tableaux

Within an enigmatic and brilliant film career, Vivre sa Vie remains one of Jean Luc Goddard's most interesting and popular films. Starring his then wife Anna Karina, the film charts the progress through twelve tableau of the life of a young woman, Nana, who falls through unemployment and prostitution and eventually is murdered by her pimp in an episode of gang warfare. The story, similar to most Goddard films, is stark and bare- what matters is the way that the image of the film reflects the underlying ideas that Goddard wants to get across.

The story is filmed against the background of the Parisian streets and cafes- as in many of Goddard's films like Bande a part or A bout de souffle instantly come to mind as examples, the streets of Paris are a character by themselves in Vivre sa Vie. The cafes of Paris give a kind of casualness to the whole story- its easy to imagine who Nana drifted into prostitution in a world of seedy cafes. The casualness of contact within the cafes where pimps and philosophers sit at the same tables give an analogy to the casualness of Nana's contact with her clients. But its the streets themselves, bustling and commercialised, full of adverts which contextualise Nana's profession more than anything else. Posing beside a series of adverts, she herself is her own advert- a human billboard for her own activities.

Nana though is an interesting creatures all of herself. Goddard doesn't allow us much of an entry into her soul. He attempts to show us the girl as she was- a philosopher in a cafe tells Nana the story of Porthos, a man who had never thought before and thought the moment before his death for the first time. Nana likewise is not a girl who examines herself- until right at the end she doesn't actually discuss her own motivations or her own life- she provides her reasons for doing what she does but she doesn't seem interested in self examination or self scrutiny. To people like myself who dwell in a constant state of introspective indecision, Nana's world where she acts and provides curt justifications of her actions without thinking them through is a revelation. Adrian Danks's intelligent review spotlights the way that Goddard's camera narrows in on Nana's face- her reactions are not thought through but she is assailed by very deep emotions- deep emotions that provide us with clues about the reasons why she does what she does.

The film is layed out in what its title names tableau, scenes which are seemingly unlinked and proceed in chronological order but without connection. Goddard though is trying through these tableau to do something more- because he is by choosing these episodes suggesting that they are significant in some way- hence there is a story, there is a connecting thread which binds together these scenes and its worth for a moment pondering what some of the meanings of Nana's story might be- they are all connected in my view with a version of freedom that Nana adheres to, even though she might not articulate- freedom defined as sovereign non-dependance- the freedom that Goddard beleives is the freedom of the commodity.

Nana desires to be, she tells us herself right at the beggining of the film, loved for who she is. She desires to be special and she breaks up with her husband Paul because he cannot see that she is special. At first she beleives that the camera of a director might make her seem special without her altering herself to become something that is special enough for the camera to illustrate. Watching the film La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc we see something that Nana maybe doesn't. In the brief moments in the cinema, Goddard's camera pans over Karina's face and demonstrates (as shown in the photo above) how much passion that the girl feels for Joan in her distress. Nana feels genuinely about Joan- she loses her status as an equivocal observer, loses her ability to float and actually feels. Such commitment, Goddard seems to be saying, is required for a good cinematic career- and just afterwards we can see Nana withdrawing from it- in a conversation with a photographer she won't make the commitments to a film career that are required. Most critics interpret that tableau as demonstrating that Nana has given up her dream- rather than that I think it more correctly denotes that Nana retains the dream but is unwilling to commit to a film career.

She remains thus emotionally detached from the world around her- and that detachment pushes her into prostitution. Some of the most interesting scenes in the movie are the detached conversations between Nana and her pimp, which take place over a montage of Nana servicing her clients, in which they discuss the employment conditions of the prostitute. These conversations and Nana's interractions with her clients are cold. Dispassionately she smokes a cigarrette over the shoulder of a client as he embraces her. Dispassionately she discusses the ammount for which one might sell one's body and whether one can turn down a client or not. For Nana one gets the sense she has acquired an occupation which promises her freedom from emotionally entangling with and changing through the outside world- she has become in a sense special without changing.

The climax of her career as a prostitute serves to illustrate her role in the profession. She takes a lover- who describes her as a painting, using words quoted from Poe (the film is filled with quotations both from films and books and in many ways that quotability integrates this wild story of criminality into the normality of post war life), Nana in many ways though ressembles a painting- impassive and inert, she has chosen a root to freedom which means that the world does not touch her but neither does she touch the world. She desires so she tells the philosopher she meets in a cafe a life of silence, where people would not interract, but also that love be the ultimate truth- such a truth can only be reconciled through the love that one feels for a commodity, a painting. Such a freedom, the freedom of a commodity impassive and yet strangely passive, ultimately is what she has attained.

But ultimately is that what Nana really wants- its what she goes through the film seeking- but we have a brief moment where we get a chink of light into Nana's soul in her conversation with the philosopher. The philosopher tells her the story of Porthos, the man who dies because he thinks- because he decides to think about putting one foot in front of the other and so lost in the mystery of walking won't run from a collapsing building and so dies. This story is crucial to understanding the whole plot because it is after talking to the philosopher that Nana takes a set of decisions that mean she is not a commodity- she decides to talk and to reject a client- that presages her end- instead of buying a commodity her pimp finds he has a human being and decides to sell her- a sale which ends in shots being exchanged and Nana's body crumpled on the pavement as the camera pans away to the Paris tarmac.

Ultimately Goddard's film is about freedom and the kinds of freedom available in the world- Nana desires to be loved in and of herself- without changing to meet her lover half way. Like a painting she desires admiration and adoration. She finds that through turning herself into a commodity- a commodity can remain impervious to the surrounding world- but what she loses therefore is any capacity to interract with the world. The philosopher tells her and here speaks for Goddard that the only way she can retain herself as a human being is to interract, to talk, to change. But it is that that her proffession demands she does not do- to be a prostitute one cannot reject a client- like a lawyer she must take all customers no matter how ugly or how degrading an experience. Nana refuses and because she refuses interacts with the world and the marketplace of Pimps destroys her.

Obviously this is on one level an anti-capitalist film but it attacks not the actual basis of capitalism but the psychological basis of capitalism the way it turns workers into aspiring to be commodities. Nana throughout the film has a purely capitalist ethos, she desires to be a lonely yet admired commodity- she dies because she starts to think and thinking is a social activity.

May 29, 2007

The Degaev Affair or the tale of the weak willed terrorist.

We often hear about the muscular morality of terrorists today and in the past. Our vision of them is as loners standing outside society and impermeable to that society- advancing without fear in a psychopathy of rage and despair the terrorist commits his crimes like a modern day Attilla against the weak and enfeebled bourgeoise. Columnists like Mark Steyn frequently argue that the West and particularly the liberal west are feeble and incapable of fighting back and project a figure of the terrorist as someone who fights until the bitter end, unchecked by remorse or any personal feelings, the ultimate Neitschean super hero- just fighting for the wrong ends.

That dystopian figure, whether endorsed by Steyn or memorialised in leftwing films like the Battle for Algiers, has a certain descriptive force to it. Terrorists tend to be lonely young men with bombs in hand waiting for the vulnerable to show them their weaker side. They tend to lack empathy for their victims, they tend to be remote from every day society. But that's not all- over the last few years the film Paradise Now has for instance alerted us to the way that a terrorist action maybe a way for someone to assert that they deserve to be part of a community, in Paradise Now the Palestinian boy whose father was an Israeli informer hopes to save his family's honour by going off to bomb a bus in Jerusalem. Richard Pipes's, emeritus Professor of History of Harvard and a noted Russian expert and cold war polemecist, account of the life of Sergei Degaev fits into the mould of accounting for terrorism using an image of the terrorist's weakness not his strength.

Sergei Degaev was a Russian young man of reasonable birth who became attracted to join one of the largest militant terrorist organisations of his day, named People's Will. Pipes beleives that Degaev was attracted into the group because he beleived it represented the future of Russian society. However much to his own rage, Degaev never became a senior member of the group- partly because he was squeemish about violence and partly because as the then leader Vera Figner beleived Degaev was not an original enough man to become a real leader of the revolution. Degaev was eventually arrested in 1881 for holding a press which published comments about the Tsarist government. Taken in and faced with the prospect of over 15 years hard labour, Degaev decided to become an agent for the state and was allowed to escape.

Over the next two years Degaev handed over hundreds of names- including Figner's- to the head of the Tsarist secret police Georgii Sudeikin. Many of these individuals were arrested and sentenced to hard labour. However in the revolutionary movement Degaev swiftly came under suspicion of being a traitor, despite the fact that thanks to his betrayels he was now the most senior agent of the People's Will left in Russia. Through him the Sudeikin was essentially running the revolutionary movement, even censoring articles published in their newspapers. The psychological pressure was too much for Degaev and twice he confessed to other senior leaders of the radical left that he was an agent of the Tsarist state- to save his own life he was told he had to kill Sudeikin. And so he summoned the head of the police to his house to supposedly give him information, shot him in the head and allowed two other revolutionaries to bludgen Sudeikin to death on his toilet floor. Degaev himself escaped days after from Russia- was expelled from the Revolutionary movement- and ended up in hiding in America- where four years later he published a PhD in mathematics- and in a bizarre twist of fate in 1891 became Professor of Mathematics at the University of South Dakota (there is still a scholarship at the University endowed in his name).

What does this say though- well firstly its worth getting rid of the image of the terrorist-hero- Degaev was no hero. More often than not he was pushed into taking the actions that he took simply to save his own skin- finding himself in a revolutionary movement and arrested, he escaped hard labour by becoming a police agent, finding himself under pressure because of the captivities of so many of his comrades, he confessed and finally finding himself under pressure to prove his revolutionary credentials, he assassinated brutally his friend and handler, Sudeikin. Every action was born out of a desire to save his own skin first and foremost- wounded pride and a sense of survival account for most of Degaev's actions. In that sense he may give us indications of the way the terrorist psyche works- rather than being opposed to life itself- terrorists may well be pushed by other things into committing acts of violence- rather than being incorruptible agents of evil, they may in reality be pathetic and fearful human beings.

Its an interesting story and Professor Pipes definitely has gathered some interesting material in his book- lastly and equally fascinatingly its worth thinking about the fact that Degaev very happily became a Professor of Mathematics called Alexander Pell in later life. For many of those within these movements one suspects like Degaev it is not the force of conviction or the force of personality that propells them, but human weakness, a desire to make a name and a desire to save themselves once they are in deeply that propells them along the destructive path. That is worth remembering when we think about how to deal with such movements.

May 28, 2007

Christianity and Poverty: The Early Church

In around the year 400, Christian belief was established on both sides of the meditereanean- thriving throughout the known world, its adherents were influential players both in the Roman Empire, in the Barbarian lands to the north and even influenced some Persian thinkers. Great Christian intellectuals- St Jerome, Eusebius, St Augustine and St Ambrose had codified and were codifying the Christian experience, translating the Bible, creating histories of the church and creating philosophical instruments to decide between heresy and belief.

As Neitsche perceived the revolution in religion within the ancient world brought with it a revolution in the mores of that world- the aristocratic creeds of Greece which various philosophers today following Neitsche like Harvey Mansfield and Leo Strauss have sought to revive and the stoic pride of the philosopher were jettisoned in favour of the humble assurance of the martyr as objects worthy of praise. Christianity switched the focus of the ancient world away from the aristocrat dying for the cause of the Republic or enduring for the world of ideas towards the humble, poor and often female whose mute testimony rendered up to heaven words of prayer rather than to earth words of note. Blessed are the meek Christ proclaimed in the sermon on the mount and his words shattered the ancient world.

Such a change brought about a change in the very nature of charity and charitable impulse. Before the coming of Christianity, as Peter Brown in a recent study demonstrated the citizen of the Roman Empire focused on endowing his own city with goods. In building amphitheatres and fora, in constructing monuments- those sarcophogi of stone which still bear proudly in the desert the names of some ancient Ozymandius raised in his praise and gratitude to the city which gave him birth. The ancient world was a world of local loyalties, where each man was bound within the circle of his city, his loyalty was to Athens or Sparta, Massilia or Syracuse, Alexandria or Rome itself and forces from outside the city were seen as threats unless like the emperor they were divine forces that might also endow the city with fortune. Augustus and his successors followed exactly this creed, endowing the city of Rome with a continual grain supply from Egypt at the public expense- this supply went not to the needy or the poor but to the citizens of Rome. It was a gift to a native town from a son that had outgrown her to seize the reigns of the world.

The coming of Christianity redirected this effort. Christian philosophers and saints argued that there was no city, that the loyalties to the particular place and time might be broken up in favour of loyalty to God. St Augustine in the City of God argued that human loves for a particular state were but as dross and dung compared to the things of Christ. Rather than the city, the native country of the Roman citizen, being important it was the universal condition of mankind that Christians agitated about. Petition after petition to the imperial authorities or to wealthy citizens abjured them to take action because of the suffering of the poor. Christian churches organised vast charitable giving- even organised through the bishops a kind of civil service to administer it- and gifts were given by the Church to the poor. Great houses were set up outside towns to house lepers and wanderers- many endured right into the medieval era and Brown establishes that Christianity laid the groundwork for a new ethos of concern with the poor.

The Church made political claims upon this basis. St Ambrose told emperors to kneel before him in sack cloth and ashes when they attacked the rights of poor citizens. Christian monks rebuked the Byzantine senators who attended the games with stories about the way that anyone seen performing in those games was analogous to Christ. To turn down charity, was citing Matthew, to turn down Christ- any beggar must be yielded to, any supplient acknowledged. The Church's vast system of bureacracy took money from the rich and distributed it to widows and orphans of those who had died- widows were often maintained in something approximating to their former state. We also see the development of a new class of poor- those dependent on the community's charity because of their status within the bureacracy of faith- bishops, ministers and the like whose job was to administer the church on behalf of the poor were now provided for by the charity of ordinary Christian. By 400 bishops had become leading ministers of government within their region- their bureacracy was supplemented with a court and their activities proceeded in tandem with the expanding Roman state.

Always at the back of this system lurked the insight of the Protestant twentieth century theologian Karl Barth that in both their invisibility and their suffering and the hopelessness of aid for that suffering the poor closely ressemble Christ- much more closely than their rich neighbours. The Christian Churchmen of early antiquity fit uneasily into modern categories though despite my analogy with Barthes. They were not socialist- they would not have understood the term though they attempted to organise bureacratic endeavours to aid the poor. But they did not exalt in wealth- they were not the Protestants of Max Weber beleiving that wealth was a sign of Godliness. Rather for these men, wealth was a signifier of sin, a signifier that one's soul was in danger and that to take Christ's words again it would be harder to pass through the eye of a needle than to enter heaven.

Understanding this means understanding the very different world in which the Christians of the late antique world lived. For them there was no state, no King but Jesus to paraphrase the Cromwellian battle cry. Given that all the obligations ran through society straight from God- his vengeance would reign down on those that failed to aid their poor fellow Christians whether countrymen or not. His hatred would exterminate them. Power and wealth could only be held so long as it was given away and followed a Godly manifesto- as in Augustine otherwise the powerful and wealthy risked becoming part of the city of the World and thus eternally damned.

Such threats were needed because another threat hung over the ordinary Christian. Research into the sociological status of Christians in the Roman empire reveals that Christians were normally the middling sort- those who might through a bad winter or a bad year be flung back into the realm of poverty and starvation but who in good years survived well. Such men and women were haunted by disaster- for women the death of a husband- no accident therefore that the Church made a particular care to care for widows. For all the viccissitudes of fortune were incomprehensible and terrifying- the Church now created over this a structure of divine justice and divine care for the poor which explained and threatened the ordinary beleiver.

As Christians began to become more powerful within the Empire, they began to see the state as analogous to heaven- disputes about the nature of the Christian Emperor could be easily confused with disputes about the nature of the divine power. The distance of the Emperor and the familiarity of his humanity were similar to the distance of God and the familiarity of Christ- Brown posits that Christians made analogies between the distance and closeness of Christ and the Emperor. They expanded their sense of the poor- early documents from the third century refer to only the Christian poor, from the fifth its clear that the Church saw itself having a universal message according to Brown. Ultimately the Emperor demonstrated his closeness and legitimacy by being like Christ- by taking upon himself the mantle of the poor and saying that he was one of them, that he might wash their feet as Christ had and that a harm against a poor person was treason both against the divine lord and against the more secular power.

Its hard to reconcile what I have just written with what goes on today in politics. Christian involvement in politics today lacks some of the radical hard edge of what these men fought for- yet all Christians would see themselves as standing in the tradition of Augustine and Ambrose- to some extent that reflects my previous sense of religions as languages- religion like socialism is the language of priorities to miscite Nye Bevan and priorities change with the ways that believers interpret their scriptures. There is something of this indignation on behalf of the weak though in the abortion argument and in the Christian conservative support for aid to Darfur. A Catholic friend of mine recently said that nothing so shocked her like abortion- the murder in her eyes of the weakest citizens of society simply because they were inconvenient- like the Bishops with the late antique poor my Catholic friend and her colleagues want us to see the suffering of the foetus which they deem to be ignored and perpetrated by us.

However one of the interesting things reading these men, most of whom were much closer to the world of Christ, than we are is to recover something that most modern Christian political movements seem to have lost. A sheer indignation against wealth and money- a sense that anyone who holds either sins unless like Carnegie they resolve to die destitute from contributions to charity. The way that the Christian sense of the Lord has changed is fascinating- the fact that many Christians happily oppose socialism is not a surprise but the fact that many identify so much with capitalism and wealth creation shows how far Christianity has come since the days of the early Church.

Returning to Neitsche for a moment, his main line of attack against Christianity was that it was a religion for the weak, for the meek, for those who depended on charity and who were imperfect not for the aristocratic, strong and self sufficient. Neitsche reversed the old Weberian idea and argued that the Protestant worker was better off an atheist than a Christian. Modern movements like the late lamented Jerry Fallwell's seem to me to annex some of that sense of manliness to Christianity in a way that would be very unfamiliar to the religion's founders- the stresses they lay in their language of Christology are upon that manly component and not upon the early Church's moral sense of the outrage committed against the poor.

We often suffer in looking at the past through the eyes of the present- as I've suggested the attitudes of the early Church to poverty were fundamentally difficult to those of the modern conservative Christian movements across the world today. Whilst not being socialist, the early Church directed its fire against those who did not acknowledge the poor as a category, against those who thought in terms of nationality as opposed to in terms of humanity, against those who refused to give to Charity. It set up huge bureacratic machinery- not as vast as our states' but vast enough for the world that the Church was born into- to manage the largesse of Christians.

For the early Christians the monarchy of God was inseperable from that of the world- to attempt to have a secular life and behave secularly was to risk eternal damnation. The idea that every approach by a beggar for change was the approach of Christ and a chance to attain redemption may well have been an ideal more lived up to in the breach than the observance but it was still held and repeated in innumerable sermons and uncountable treatises. Repeated and repeated it can scarcely have failed to gain entrance to the late antique mind- in a world where political structures were collapsing and armageddon seemed nye- the ordinary Christian was faced with the terrifying reality that every time he stepped out of his front door he was tested as to his salvation, tested by a living and resurrected God.

May 27, 2007

Gracchi at Bits

Just posted an article about Steve McClaren and David Beckham- hope its interesting.