Thursday, October 04, 2007

Things worth reading: post-unification edition

1. One big happy family?

Yesterday was the Tag der deutschen Einheit ('The Day of German Unity', or, as the Babel Fish web translator insists, 'Day of the German Unit') which once again passed us by here with relatively little fanfare.

The Germans, I have come to understand, keep the flag waving generally confined to sporting events (such as at the recent celebration of their world champion women's football team: Wir sind Weltmeisterinnen!) and many even still seem a bit uncertain about whether reunification was even a Very Good Idea in the first place.

But the discontents of German patriotism are a discussion for another time.

However, I'm pleased to see that the German army is so successfully spreading goodwill around the world, as noted in a report from Spiegel International and nicely summarised at Atlantic Review:

Ed H., a US soldier stationed in Kandahar from December 2001 onward (...): "Basically, the Germans were not allowed to do anything," he recalls. "They looked around for things to do. They were incredibly bored." (...) But then the Germans' reputation abruptly changed. A rumor spread among US troops that at least one thing was worthwhile in the German unit -- its supply of alcohol. "Beer was like a currency," says one US soldier, who stocked up on the beverages provided by the KSK troops. "To us, the German beer supplies were Big Rock Candy."

As I've previously mentioned, the (unsung) second verse of the poem that forms the basis of the national anthem might contain a certain recipe for national happiness: 'German women, German loyalty, German wine and German song, Shall retain in the world, Their old lovely ring, To inspire us to noble deeds, Our whole life long.'

Who knows, they just might.

2. Next week on 'Academic Idol'...

There was a point in this interview between David Thompson and Ophelia Benson where I thought it might be interesting to have a TV series that placed the leading lights of Theory on a desert island and posed them with real-world survival problems. At some point the discussion would turn to cannibalism as a 'textual practice' and then the fun might really begin.

David liked the postmodern propaganda party game that The Wife and I developed a few evenings ago and kindly linked to it. I ran across the interview by following the links in his post. The interview is largely concerned with addressing the relationship between the left and postmodernism, and contains a number of good points by both participants.

It seems blindingly obvious that any movement or political perspective that wants to change the world (even in minor ways) is going to have to have a firm grounding in reality (and should have no hesitation in using that term without ironic inverted commas...).

However, this doesn't seem to be at all the case for many.

There's a particularly good passage by Ophelia when it comes to academic idol worship:

But I think the academic hero-worship is a different kind of thing. But what kind of thing; that is the question. And I don't know. I think it's partly (or maybe mostly) to do with not having much (if any) real research or inquiry to do. I think the celebrity worship is in inverse proportion to the substantive heft of the discipline. 'Theory' has to be bigged up precisely because there's not much to it. But what I still have no idea about is what that has to do with the left, and I would still say pretty much nothing. In fact I would even say it's a kind of anti-left, and then I would wonder why that doesn't trouble putative leftists more than it does. Why doesn't the stink of prestige and sycophancy and mutual adulation put them off their food? Why are they happy to cite each other in print with obligatory gold-star adjectives? The brilliant Butler, the powerful Bhabha, the epochal Spivak - why don't they make themselves sick? It seems to me more than a little narcissistic and depraved, it seems stomach-turning - and it certainly drives a lot of people out of the field.

Well put.

3. Despite all our rage, are we still just rats in a cage?

Also worth your time is David Barash's article on 'redirected aggression' at the Chronicle of Higher Education (via A&L Daily). (He refers to responses to inflicted pain and suffering that involve taking them out on someone other than the person who wounded you--typically someone weaker and more vulnerable. If you spent much time on a playground as a child, you'll no doubt recognise the phenomenon.)

Redirected aggression does not simply derive from irrationality or human nastiness, but — along with retaliation and revenge — is entrenched in the very fabric of the natural world, part of a continuum involving nature's response to pain. The biology of redirected aggression goes a long way toward explaining not only its apparent senselessness but its universality as well. It shows up across the ages, as we've seen, across cultures, and across social units, from individuals to communities to nations.

It's not entirely convincing in bits (I'm sceptical that the US invasion of Iraq can be reduced to the collective pain of 9/11 in such a simple way), and it gets a but mushy at the end with regard to religion, but I think the principles it lays out are thought provoking.

It is, of course, difficult to transfer the relevance of other-animal experiments to human beings, but the findings Barash notes are certainly intriguing even just in terms of the behaviour of other animals:

Place a rat in a cage with an electrified floor and subject it to repeated shocks. Not surprisingly, the poor animal will show many signs of stress, at first flinging itself against the walls with each shock. But after a while, it just sits there apathetically, showing no inclination to escape from its painful prison. When autopsied, the animal will be found to have oversized adrenal glands and, frequently, stomach ulcers, both indicating serious stress.

Now repeat the experiment, but with a wooden stick in the cage alongside the rat. When shocked, the rat chews on the stick, and as a result, it can endure its experience much longer without burnout. Moreover, at autopsy, its adrenal glands are smaller, stomach ulcers fewer. The rat buffered itself against the stress merely by chewing on the stick, even though doing so does nothing to get it out of its predicament.

Finally, put two rats in the electrified cage. Shock them both. They snarl and fight. Do it again, and keep doing it; they keep fighting. Yet at autopsy, their adrenal glands are normal, and, moreover, even though they have experienced numerous shocks, they have no ulcers. When animals respond to stress and pain by redirecting their aggression outside themselves, whether biting a stick or, better yet, another individual, it appears that they are protecting themselves from stress. By passing their pain along, such animals minister to their own needs. Although a far cry from being ethically "good," it is definitely "natural."
4. Dulce et decorum est...

Finally, 'A Death in the Family' by Christopher Hitchens, at Vanity Fair (via here) is a remarkably personal and self-searching look at the consequences and responsibilities of writing.

Hitchens recently discovered that his writings in favour of the invasion of Iraq had been part of the inspiration for one soldier's enlistment. He found out after said soldier's death from a roadside bomb attack.

It is particularly interesting to read, as Hitchens appears to be increasingly pessimistic about the war, and -- having followed his impassioned and eloquent (though in my case ultimately unconvincing) arguments for the war -- it is striking to see him write something like the following:

As one who used to advocate strongly for the liberation of Iraq (perhaps more strongly than I knew), I have grown coarsened and sickened by the degeneration of the struggle: by the sordid news of corruption and brutality (Mark Daily told his father how dismayed he was by the failure of leadership at Abu Ghraib) and by the paltry politicians in Washington and Baghdad who squabble for precedence while lifeblood is spent and spilled by young people whose boots they are not fit to clean.


Nathanael said...

Didn't see this on vacation, didya?

J. Carter Wood said...

Nope, but thanks for the link. I'm glad that someone is paying attention when I'm not.