Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Angel of Capital

Above and beyond the monopoly of violence claimed by the major states, there has emerged a new kind of command, a monopoly of actuality, exercised on one hand through the power to teletechnology to shape the world in its own image, and on the other by the power of money to decide what deserves to exist. The effective horizon of this control oscillates somewhere between the news cycle and the business cycle; moment by moment it translates everything it knows into the present tense. It seeks to glory not only in ratifying its mastery over what happens today; it meticulously amortizes what used to be and assiduously discounts what is yet to come.
-- from The Bonds of Debt by Richard Dienst.

Monday, September 19, 2011

'Temple of the winds'

Interesting section in Jim Al-Khalili's Hearing the Past, starting about 9 minutes 30 secs in, on the acoustic characteristics of Stonehenge. And he quotes from Hardy in Tess:
The wind playing upon the edifice produced a booming tune, like the note of some gigantic one stringed harp.
Some of the work by Rupert Till et al is explored at Sounds of Stonehenge.

Perhaps archaeoacoustics will, one day, inform an even broader 'archaeology of the senses' in which the deep history of other senses including smell is even better understood.

P.S. 20 Sep: Bill Fontana wants to bring sounds of Chesil Beach to central London.

P.P.S. 17 Feb '12: Did otherworldy music inspire Stonehenge?

Friday, September 16, 2011

The Stalin Prize

I have little to add to Jonathan Steele's commentary on the launch of everycasualty and the issues it raises. Here are a few quick notes:

The dedication and courage of Sandra Orlovic and Bekim Blakaj, Deputy Director and Director of the Humanitarian Law Centre in, respectively, Belgrade and Pristina, and their colleagues is magnificent. There is great nobility in projects such as The Kosovo Memory Book 1998. Both Orlovic and Blakaj emphasized the importance, in the face of considerable opposition, of recording and describing in some detail the lives of all who died in the violence, military and civilian on both sides. By way of reminder that this in itself is not enough, Blakaj noted that 12 years after the end of the war there had been only 12 successful prosecutions for war crimes. No justice, however, was possible without an honest account of what actually happened.

Wissam Tarif of INSAN expanded on this last point. Those documenting the identity of individuals murdered or abducted in Syria and elsewhere were sometimes accused of opening tombs and opening wounds. But that was precisely the opposite of what they were doing.  Tombs and wounds could never be closed without a full accounting for what actually happened. In his own country, Lebanon, people were not fighting at present but there was no peace, only a ceasefire. This was because the Lebanese had to failed to acknowledge facts, to recognize the humanity of all those who were killed and to face their families.

According to the 2011 World Development Report, around 1.5bn people today live under the shadow of organized violence. Much of this violence is criminal. One of the questions at the launch was: should  innocent victims of crime and criminals who were themselves killed also be counted by projects such as everycasualty? One of the challenges in the 21st century, it was argued, is that while war between nations and even 'formal' civil wars are actually less frequent than before, large-scale, inchoate criminalized violence is on a greater scale than ever. This presents a challenge to existing institutional arrangements: agencies such as the Red Cross, for example, cannot act in Mexico even though the scale of the violence (recent small but typical example here) resembles war because the government does not recognize a state of war. [1]

Dan Smith of International Alert said that by making it possible to know who had died in a conflict and how, the charter had the potential to reduce the traction of wild claims (up or down), which were the meat and drink of propaganda. The charter could help us respect the 'fact of war', a continuing reality which is too often hidden behind cliches and euphemisms.

everycasualty, said Smith, was a civilising idea. Like all great ideas it was obvious once stated, but it also subtly challenged the norm. Also, there was something slightly obsessive, unrealistic about it. In this, it shared much with the ideals of the Red Cross at its foundation -- a 'wildly unrealistic' idea at the time of its inception, which acted on nothing but moral authority.

I think this is right. The everycasualty charter challenges the disturbingly plausible observation, misattributed, perhaps, to Joseph Stalin, that one death is a tragedy but a million is a statistic. It aims to make visible and irrefutable the tragedy of the violent death of each individual, including the deaths of those who are themselves killers.

Wissam Tarif told those present at the launch that the previous evening he had talked by telephone to one the volunteers on his team in Syria. The volunteer had said that in the midst of conflict people are completely focussed on what is happening right now. But others not caught up in the conflict -- such as those gathered together peacefully in London -- had the opportunity to think about the future. This was a tremendous gift.

everycasualty is an idea big enough for a version of the 21st century in which there is hope.  It will not of course end tragedy.  Ideals are frequently subverted (it is reported, for example, that death squads in Syria are using Red Cross/Red Crescent ambulances to abduct protestors).  And even a full accounting need not guarantee reconciliation. But it is a start.

A couple of other points: in June the Oxford Research Group published a working paper on The Legal Obligation to Record Civilian Casualties of Armed Conflict. And, drawing on the model of Iraq Body Count, there is now a Pakistan Body Count.

Note [1] My language and legal understanding here are shaky.

P.S. 24 Sep: A blog post by Dan Smith, who was on the panel at the launch

Monday, September 05, 2011

Unacknowledged noticers

Scientists are:
partly poets for they are not merely embellishing with their metaphors, but extending meaning into new domains
-- from a review by Nancy Golubiewski of Brendon Larson's Metaphors for Environmental Sustainability Redefining Our Relationship with Nature.

Sleeping with one eye, like a dolphin

Reverie, writes Raphaƫl Enthoven:
borrows the power of narration from wakefulness and the power of divination from sleep, and keeps them vying to suspend the alternation of day and night. Reverie is how one arrives at immediacy.
After writing Hypnagogia I should be sympathetic. Enthoven has considerable insight, but packages it in prose that -- at least in translation, or for my taste -- teeters on the edge of parody:
Between the sweetness of being and the pain of thinking, between sleep that is opaque to itself and the blindness of one who can’t see the stars because of daylight, lies the talent to glimpse what escapes us, the equivalent of the dawn that threatens at every instant to evaporate into dream or condense into knowing, but in that interval (and pen in hand) replaces something impenetrable with something immaterial and reveals the imaginary foundations of reality...

Because it generously accords the world the absentmindedness it deserves, reverie is light years distant from being a distraction, which does reality the considerable honor of turning its back on it. In fact, reverie celebrates the rediscovery of understanding and imagination, sets free the secret of disinterest which, because it lets you see beauty without your consent and see nature without ego, invests the world with intense interest.