Thursday, February 16, 2012



Everything now is either managed or it should be, including 'the natural environment'. We call it that if we're planning to manage it, and, in Australia, we rarely think 'environmental management' without thinking 'restoration'. There is that image of Australia pre-1788, the native bush before ferals, weeds, clearing, logging, super-phosphate, and all that. It's an image that captivates ecology, pop ecology and romantic environmentalism.

There's a whole culture of ecosystem management — National Park managers, degrees in ecological management, Catchment Management Authorities, assorted bureaucracies, and 'out there in the community' there's Landcare. It's civic society. It's not a media thing though. At budget time you might hear a mention of Caring For Country or some other government program rebranded, or axed. But it's not up there with Tasmanian forests, the Barrier Reef, the Murray-Darling, Climate Change, or bushfires.

Back in 2009 I went to a conference of the Society For Ecological Restoration in Perth, where I sat in on a session on 'novel ecosystems'. Richard Hobbs from the University of WA spoke, so did Eric Higgs, a Canadian ecologist who'd written a book called Nature By Design. It was on the final morning, a time for mild stimulation and slight unorthodoxy. 'Ecosystems are emerging that never existed before. It is impractical to try to restore ecosystems to some “rightful” historical state. ... We must embrace the fact of 'novel ecosystems' and incorporate many alien species into management plans, rather than try to achieve the often impossible goal of eradicating them or drastically reducing their abundance.' That was the session's theme, even though the quote itself is more recent. It's from a June 2011 article in Nature, by the US ecologist Mark Davis and eighteen other authors, including Hobbs.

The stimulation was mild, the novel ecosystem thesis was not quite as novel as I had hoped, and novel ecosystems themselves didn't seem all that novel. I thought of subtropical forests of queen palm and camphor laurel, riverbanks of Madeira, catsclaw and balloon vine, seasides of bitou and glory lilly, even wheat fields, gardens and golf greens, or the minimalism of motorways, and nuclear test sites. I guess now was the time to 'embrace' them and tweak them into something useful or cool or subversive by wedging in a bit of designer biodiversity. But was the thesis any more than just hyping a groovy response to the empirical surprises and philosophical challenges that had puzzled and entertained restoration ecologists and naturalists for ages?

Provide a label and you collect a body of thought, maybe even kick off a discipline. In the 1950s the 'ecology of invasions' was used to gather together a set of ecological ideas that had been around since before Darwin. Origin of Species mentions things like cattle going feral in Australian. Twenty years earlier John Henslow, the Cambridge biologist who had passed his place on The Beagle on to his younger protegé, had formulated a rudimentary theory about competition between natives and exotics. People in Australia have long been doing what, in the 1970s, they started to call 'bush regeneration', restoring the bush to something like its pre-invasion condition by removing exotic weeds.

Now we have the label 'novel ecosystems' gathering together ideas that have also been around in some form since Darwin's day. The ideas inspired the nineteenth century Acclimatisation Societies with their vision of enhancing the flora and fauna of Australia and America. And while bush regenerators have been weeding the bush since the 70s, Permaculture designers have been trying to build self-sustaining ecosystems from encyclopaedias of useful plants and animals. More recently Peter Andrews became a folk prophet of novel ecosystems by sexing up standard on-farm water management with exotic willows and contrarian weed ecology. It was only a matter of time before the novel ecosystem label registered in the media as breaking scientific news. That June 2011 Nature article a summary two page manifesto that relied on references to several other papers to do the ecologywas enough to get the ABC and the SMH interested. They picked it up and ran 'novel ecosystems' as a story.

Meanwhile in America and hence the world there was science journalist Emma Marris with a new book to promote. And by December 2011 Michael Duffy was interviewing her on ABC radio's Counterpoint about Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World. It was clear the Anthropocene — the current epoch, so called because the big ecological changes are anthropogenic — was out and proud, and Marris's 'Nature 2.0' was the new pristine. The header on Marris's web site, a quote from the San Francisco Chronicle's Joe Christensen, leaves us in no doubt that world historical events are afoot: 'Marris is already being compared to the greatest environmental writers and thinkers of the past century, Rachel Carson and Aldo Leopold.'

With a pitch like that it wasn't going to be long before someone noticed the contrarian potential of novel ecosystems, tailor made for taking on environmentalism. I remember the editor of a scientific journal on restoration ecology predicting some such thing way back at the 2009 conference.

Contrarianism is a seductive attitude. It has an unfortunate appeal for self-promoters, because it seems to underwrite radical intellectual originality with owlish scepticism. You can fancy yourself as Galileo against the clergy, plain-spoken amongst the mealy-mouthed. Richard Steele nailed contrarians three centuries ago: 'they can turn what little knowledge they have into a ready capacity of raising doubts, into a capacity of being always frivolous and always unanswerable.' Michael Duffy began an essay in the SMH with the line: 'It's been suggested that passionate environmentalism is a bit like religion. It has its own sense of original sin, the belief that the New World was once a pristine and stable wilderness that was defiled by Europeans'. The rhetoric is a give away: the passive voice, the vague 'suggested', the lines 'a bit like religion' and 'original sin' to rankle those atheistic greens. Create a straw dummy of your opposition before you blow it down

Prompted by Duffy on ABC's Counterpoint, Marris noted the irony that supposedly anti-racist greens tread a fine line between invasion ecology and xenophobia when they apply the native/alien distinction to flora and fauna. Meanwhile in the New York Times she and three co-authors let readers know that 'in fact, humans have been changing ecosystems for millenniums' and 'we have learned that ecosystems are not — and have never been — static entities.' They made it sound as if this were not textbook ecology.

Maybe I'm being too harsh. It's not easy to write one truth after another and be scrupulous about every inference and implication. We all use rhetoric. And it uses us. Me too now. Even the Nature article had the straw dummy trick. When it made the point that 'nativeness is not a sign of evolutionary fitness or of a species having positive effects' was that supposed to imply that all those restoration ecologists had been unable to figure out that invasive species have the evolutionary advantage and that native species are not reliably resilient under a regime of invasions? And there's the claim that 'invaders do not represent a major extinction threat to most species in most ecosystems'. Note the casual proliferation of 'most's and 'major's, the feral 'represents' replacing the native 'is', the implication that those misguided restoration ecologists must think that invaders are a major extinction threat to most species in most ecosystems.

What do they think? Why remove exotic species from native ecosystems? It's a combination of post-Darwinian ecology and aesthetic passion. The science is about how long-term evolutionary processes in the absence of high rates of species invasion — e.g. in pre-1788 Australia — create ecosystems rich in species and varied in structure, even though they might be susceptible to invasions. The aesthetics is in the 'rich' and 'varied'. Restoration ecologists sometimes call the Anthropocene the Homogecene — an epoch when a few weedy and feral generalists dominate lots of ecosystems. It's not a matter of corny primevalism, religious environmentalism or native plant Nazis. The complex organisation of nature fires the great aesthetic emotions of admiration and wonder. Goethe said 'the beautiful is a manifestation of secret laws of nature, which, without its presence, would never have been revealed.' Those secret laws sound like what modern ecology is about.

The Nature article ends soberly bureaucratically. 'We urge conservationists and land managers to organise priorities around whether species are producing benefits or harm to biodiver­sity, human health, ecological services and economies. Nearly two centuries on from the introduction of the concept of native­ness, it is time for conservationists to focus much more on the functions of species, and much less on where they originated.' Environmentalists and restoration ecologists have always argued in the same managerial terms. Environmental politics still has 'to organise priorities around' terms like biodiversity and ecological services, terms that have to do the talking for the aesthetics of nature.

But novel ecosystem ecology has its aesthetic too. It wants to be post-modern restoration ecology — original and avant garde. Defined negatively it's about not restoring some authentic pristine nature. And it's about not simply gardens and farms. The positive is mostly imagined in examples that don't yet quite live up to the dream: theme parks of the early Pleistocene; authentic Anthropocene wilderness weedscapes; bioengineered ecosystems that deliver economic and ecosystem services; meta-gardens that are wild and 'rambunctious', with their own cool, hyper-functionality. There are whole genres out there.

Note however that the old romantic aesthetic about wildness is still at work here: Let nature do its thing, but let it be the new unruly nature of the Anthropocene, and don't try to impose your old Nature on it. Let nature naturally move on. Even that schizoid division of humans from nature seems to persist. But of course it makes things very handy, almost too good to be true. Its efficient — humans can let nature do the work. It's fun — we can tweak and play around with ecosystems if we like. It's liberating — it replaces melancholy with positive thinking. And when it comes to environmental politics it's useful: any excuse for trashing a bit more of the old nature, or winding back the culture of ecosystem restoration and national parks. But the culture is entrenched. It remains to be seen whether or not the novel ecosystem thesis will be a successful invader.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Stories and explanations; or what vs why

Stories and explanations; or what vs why

The wonderfullest things are ever unmentionable.
Herman Melville, Moby Dick

A long way into Ulysses S Grant’s Memoirs, somewhere close to Appomattox, there is a little story about a migraine. The Army of the Potomac has closed in on General Lee’s Confederate Army. Grant is ‘suffering very severely with a sick headache, and stopped at a farmhouse on the road some distance in the rear of the main body of the army’. He has ‘spent the night in bathing his feet in hot water and mustard, and putting mustard plasters on his wrists and the back part of his neck, hoping to be cured by morning’. It is April 9, 1865. Abraham Lincoln would be dead within a week.

In an exchange of letters between the generals, Lee, having ‘set up a white flag’, is talking peace but not surrender, and he has invited ‘an interview between the lines’. Grant has ‘no authority to treat on the subject of peace’ but says ‘the South laying down their arms’ will ‘save thousands of human lives’. Making the rendezvous is complicated by geography, the placement and hostility of armies, and poor communication — with your own side as well as the other. And there’s still that sick headache. Grant’s memoirs make waging war sound like very serious event management. And he seems to be able to deal with contingency after contingency. Methodically. Geography and clear communication are among his strengths. Still suffering from the migraine, and with time running out, Grant gets another letter from Lee, this one by the only route fast enough: ‘through the rebel lines’. Lee now wants to talk about surrender. ‘The instant I saw the contents of the note’ writes Grant ‘I was cured.’

This is one of a handful of little stories I remember from Grant’s memoirs. In another, at the fall of Petersburg, Grant ‘had not the heart to turn the artillery upon … a mass of defeated and fleeing men’. That’s how he puts it years later when he wrote the memoirs. A third takes place shortly before Sherman’s march to the sea and during the 1864 Presidential election. Grant diagnosed the situation: the North was weary, but the South was ‘a military camp’. It’s a story about thinking something. The fourth was a famous scene of the war: the eventual meeting between the generals took place, not as planned in the Appomattox Court House, but in an orchard nearby, where Lee was waiting, leaning against an apple tree. ‘Like many other stories,’ wrote Grant ‘it would be very good if it was only true.’ The fifth is better. Grant, his headache cured, ignored his troops’ suspicions that Lee was foxing, and made for the Appomattox Court House where he finally met the beaten Confederate talent. Lee was wearing a full, new uniform and a sword. Grant was in ‘rough garb’ and ‘without a sword’. There you have it: my take 
on a civil war, far away and in another century.

Years later ex-President Grant lost his fortune in a dodgy financial partnership, was diagnosed with throat cancer, wrote the memoirs he had never wanted to write, published them and died — all between the summer of 1884 and the summer of 1885. Mark Twain, who’d not long started the company that would publish Huckleberry Finn, wrote a contract that would pay Grant 70% of the net proceeds, a lot more generous than Grant’s first publisher had offered. Grant managed posthumously to deliver his family from debt. Of course none of this is in the Memoirs

Other stories not in the Memoirs are one about Grant having once been a slave owner, a similar one about Sherman, and another about Mark Twain doing a stint as a Confederate militiaman.

An essay by Les Murray appeared in the August 2010 Monthly. ‘Infinite Anthology’ it was called: ‘Adventures in Lexiconia.’ The essay began by listing some of the words the poet had submitted to the Macquarie Dictionary. The first was pobbledonk: ‘Scarlet sided banjo frog. Large robust frog common in swamps in coastal Queensland and New South Wales.’

I thought the essay got a few things a bit wrong — including pobbledonk — the sort of things someone might write sic after. I often notice people — especially lexicographers —describe the language I speak and hear every day in ways that differ from my own experience. I guess we can expect this at the close, familiar range of current coinage and usage, where we can all be Humpty Dumpties about what we say and think things mean. It’s why lexicographers get coy about urging their descriptions as prescriptions: they know they can’t get them quite right because there is no just right. Les’s pobbledonk differed from my experience, and from others’ too. It’s often the way with common names of plants and animals. I thought pobbledonk might have been what they called it over in his valley. In a letter to the October Monthly Angus Martin corrected it to pobblebonk, and said the name applied to several related species, not all of them scarlet-sided. He avoided technical clarification by not citing the genus Limnodynastes — specifically Limnodynastes dumerili — maybe thinking that was the sort of thing a snoot would do, like writing sic. Taxonomy is one of the places where lexicography still ventures to the high ground of prescription; it gets the point of making clear lexical arrangements. Still, that’s no reason why you shouldn’t call your frog a pobbledonk. If it’s a mistake, it’s like a child’s mistake, or a poet’s, or someone who collects words like shells on a beach. Between nickname and common name, where idiolect takes on the world, mistakes can have as much right as authorities. Les Murray is the sort of poet who gives the world back its language enriched by his idiolect.

In another essay — it’s ages since I read it, I don’t remember its title — Les Murray made a comment about writing and explanation. It was something like: explanation spoils writing and good writing avoids it. I can’t remember if he was specific about just what explanation was or why it was a problem. Nor can I claim I’m getting him right here in word or spirit. I am really only saying what I remember, not what he said. It’s just a story, my story. And I would add that somewhere — I don’t remember where — Virginia Woolf said ‘explanations are so much water poured into wine’. I guess the point is that explanation is garrulous, strays from the particular into the general, from the concrete into the abstract, and it’s used to make excuses. So leave explanation to philosophers, academics and other cavillers. Let it mess up or water down their prose.

Whatever Les Murray said though, or Virginia Woolf meant, it niggled me enough to make me think about the aesthetics of prose. Or maybe it’s the ethics. Iris Murdoch suspected we think of certain people as good, e.g. Socrates, for no better reason than ‘the simplicity and directness of their diction’. Montaigne was cunning about this and figured that apologising for the rough edges of his prose could win him moral favour. Apologies like this sound patronising — that old mix of humility, and hypocrisy, salted with avuncular irony. Socrates used to try this sort of thing too. So the question really is, when it comes to prose, what are the virtues? And after chewing this over for a long time, I’ve decided at least one thing: whatever its dangers good prose can just shirk explanation.
In the November Monthly Les sort of explained his spelling of pobblebonk. He ‘got the d back to front’. That’s sending acknowledgement on explanation’s errand. It avoids saying why with the barest of hows. As for his authority on frog naming and scarlet sidedness, he cited not his valley but his frog book (not mine, nor I guess Angus’s): Lynne Adcock’s and Ian Morris’s Frogs. Fair enough. But as explanations go, it was maybe not as clear as one of Samuel Johnson’s. Boswell’s ‘Doctor’ was ‘asked by a lady how he came to define’ the word pastern as ‘the knee of a horse’. ‘Instead of making an elaborate defence, as she expected, he at once responded “Ignorance Madam, pure ignorance”.’

Johnson was not always so direct in his writing as in his speech. William Hazlitt thought he was ‘a lazy learned man, who liked to think and talk, better than to read or write’. ‘Others wrote English’; Johnson’s wrote ‘long compound Latin phrases [that] required less thought’. His ‘style of imposing generalization’, long inverted periods, and ‘words with the greatest number of syllables’, all ‘depended on [a] sort of arbitrary pretension’. Johnson used the formalities of style and rhythm to conjure up his words and thoughts — a far cry from Grant’s way of writing: ‘I only knew what was on my mind and I wished to express it clearly.’ When Hazlitt wrote, according to Virginia Woolf, he used ‘strong tea and sheer force of will’. But give him a great day’s experience and he would write it up in an essay like The Fight, a narrative so spot-on you get the impression that, even in raw experience, ‘the fight was a complete thing’. Hazlitt wrote the story so that the friend he went to the fight with might ‘relish it’, and ‘on purpose that such a bit of human nature might not be lost to the world’.

Grant long resisted writing memoirs, and he ended up writing them by ‘sheer force of will’, dying from throat cancer. As a result quite a bit of human nature was not lost to the world. That’s one thing narrative is good for. In a literary war over content, if explanation is barely defensible, narrative needs no defence. It’s hard for an explanation not to tell you what to think. It argues. A story can dish up human nature and let you decide: make your own judgments, read from it whatever plot or argument strikes you. I suppose the plot that most people expect and get from Grant’s memoirs is something that starts with recruiting volunteers in Illinois, and then goes down the Mississippi and through Tennessee to Virginia, Appomattox and Lincoln’s assassination. There is a lot of grinding military detail and names of battles. All those events on which so much depended. But the Memoirs plot for me is about a man who was probably drawn to live a free, easy, mediocre life. A man who liked a drink. Grant does not, for instance, seem as tough as William Tecumseh Sherman. One of Mathew Brady’s photos shows Sherman straight out of the swamps of Georgia, hungry face, chewed hair, all gristle, hardly yet civilised by the new peace, the fresh uniform that’s hanging off him, and the black ribbon tied to his arm in memory of Lincoln. At the start of the war Grant came out of ten years of retirement from the military, ten years of second-rate business dealing. He was almost forty and about ready to go to fat, but he found himself obliged to deal with the events history stuck in his way, to rise to the hard occasion, painstakingly to respect the circumstances he faced. And it is something in itself that he was able eventually to rise to the demand of being the reliable colleague and commander of one tough prick like Sherman, to respect that circumstance.

The memoirs are a story of painstaking respect, an elliptical mention that takes six hundred plainspoken pages. It’s funny that it took Grant all those words to be laconic, and to win praise for writing terse prose. It takes so many words to not say certain things. It’s in this wordiness that terse prose like Grant’s contains the seed of a style of high evasion that instructs us in the eloquence of omissions. It’s a style that contains the germ of its own baroque. Read Hemingway with his repeated phrases and ‘and’ after ‘and’. Like Grant it’s wordy, and plain, but it’s ornamented with plainness. From about Gertrude Stein on the laconic entered a baroque phase. For example, read Cormac McCarthy.

When it comes to writing about war, Socrates argued that a general would be better than Homer. Mark Twain said Grant’s memoirs were ‘the most remarkable work of its kind since the Commentaries of Julius Caesar.’ They made Gertrude Stein weep. History plants the content of certain works — things on which so much depended — deep into the psyche of a nation or culture. I don’t think that Grant’s prose would be so highly regarded, if it had lacked the content he wrote about. I’d say much the same about the prose of the King James Bible. In prose, content is style is content. Grant’s content was all experience and narrative.

Some explanation. Experience is what defies plans and pre-formed explanation, and there’s no story that accounts for it before it happens. That’s why we say it’s the best teacher. It’s not only because it’s hard to ignore what happens to you, and easy to ignore what happens to someone else. No teacher can anticipate it. Generalisations miss the point. Experience demands a story, the special type of argument we use for exposition of the mere, salient detail.

But there is supposed to be something easy, almost pre-digested about narrative: compared to theories and explanations, stories are easy to read and, especially if they are about actual events, easy to write. Though we are ready to blame someone for making up a false story, or praise someone else for a work of fiction, if a writer just tells us what happened we can fail to give due credit because we treat the story not as the writer’s work but as common property given to everyone by the events themselves. Where is the thought in telling it? Or the imagination? As far as facts are concerned, Johnson took it for granted that writing history was easier than fiction because history gives you its stories ready made. And since experience is just history from really close up, it must be easier to write than anything. But it’s not really like that.

While events don’t happen to us as stories, what happens to us is not grasped as experience without narrative somehow getting into the process. We grasp it, sort it and archive it, all by narrative, and when we retrieve it, we retrieve it using narrative again. Memory is a kind of narrative re-elaboration. And any notion we have of the events in themselves, or of the raw experience, can only be given back to us courtesy of the narrative that we conceive or remember them with. Raw experience and events in themselves are abstractions. Narrative is experience thought, perhaps understood. It’s explanation in its minimal form.

Stories are made after the fact but the quality of experience is the quality of its narration — how well thought it is. We have the opportunity to retell our experience, to understand it differently, maybe to get it right. But sometimes when we try to do this — as we well know in the case of the most troubling experience — we can be cursed to relive it. We retell it but only by worrying over it again and again, keeping the wound open. Especially after a war there are a lot of things people just want to forget, leave unsaid. It’s a time to be laconic.

Sick headache is a good old term for migraine, a bad headache that made you bilious. Migraine used to be called psychosomatic when ‘psychosomatic’ meant that getting over your headache was about mind over matter. There is something to be said for Stoicism, but not when it’s just the moral high ground. A small-time migraine sufferer, I can only remember getting over two without taking analgesics, applying a hot water bottle to my forehead, lying down in the dark or all of the above. Both times I was working, and others were relying on me — the same circumstances that can turn a twinge into a killer. Mind and matter are so mixed up in the organ we call the brain (there’s a lot of explaining to do there) we’re inclined to grant the mind a power we might not if we were suffering from arthritis or a kick in the balls. I don’t really think Grant’s story is about mind over matter though, at least not in the Stoic sense of moral will. And it’s not even so much about the big moment obliterating and curing the minor ill. Those are the sort of prefabricated explanations that experience defies. You might want to think Grant tells the migraine story to make one of those points, but he doesn’t spell it out. More than anything, the sick headache story just says ‘I was there, this is what was happening’. Grant was a player but he writes as a witness. Why water it down with an explanation.

A narrative can contain anything. It strings events into a process, tells who, what, where, when and how and, as a rule, draws the line at why. When the woman asked Johnson how he came to define pastern as knee, he was nudged to the end of his tether of English wh-words. Why abandons us beyond the tact of narrative to the hazards of explanation. The rest is science, theory, philosophy or excuses.

Montaigne said we were all historians but we avoid the question of what actually happened by turning our attention to the causes and explanations. We conceal our inexperience, ignorance, or laziness in a blur of generalisation. Whether used or abused, explanation goes beyond what it’s explaining towards other things: towards anything and everything else, to check that what is being explained is consistent with everything else we believe; and towards some general principles, so that the clutter of information in our web of beliefs can be reduced to a neater order. That’s its brief. But there’s more to it than the formalities of consistency and neatness: we check on consistency only to check on truth, and, as a rule, we expect understanding to tidy things up. So there’s the passion of why, the passion for truth and understanding. And that’s the point. Thinking is a passion, the life experience of the mind. Explanatory prose that neglects to be true to that experience degenerates into tedium or, like an excuse, avoids the issue. It just tidies up. It doesn’t do the thinking. By making up some phoney story to say that it has, it explains the last trace of experience away.

I retell stories about minor incidents in a distant war? I quote someone’s ‘pobbledonk’ or ‘pastern’? In general, before being used for proof or authority or due acknowledgement, or for display of erudition, all citations are properly anecdotes brought back from intellectual experience. In my experience am not sure which came first, the stories or the theory and explanation, but they are all part of the story, not an abstract string of events but once off fabric.

One morning in May 1931 Walter Benjamin was in the south of France thinking about Ernest Hemingway — comparing him to a bad writer. An idea came to Benjamin, he expressed it, and he explained it by describing, in general terms, the way he’d thought of it: ‘speech is not so much the expression as the making real of thought’. Benjamin was at great pains to distinguish what he was thinking from the platitude that ‘a good writer is one who says exactly what he thinks’ — the same notion that is behind Grant’s ‘I only knew what was on my mind and I wished to express it clearly’ or Pope’s ‘what oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed’. Still on the same line of thought a couple of years later Benjamin wrote a bunch of little essays he called Thought Figures. He freed his thought from its original context, shed Hemingway and shed the solemn invocation — ‘we must be careful if we are to arrive at any real insight’ — by which he’d had to summon the proper effort of thought the first time round. These were narrative details, the indices of that experience of thinking and writing two years earlier. They left their traces now in the truth of the idea which he retained only in its sharpest formulation. He had lived his experience down to this, a great explanation of a good writer’s talent: ‘He never says more than he has thought.’ She never says more than she has thought.

Gertrude Stein may have wept, but she wouldn’t have been troubled; only a desperate blurb would ever praise Grant’s prose for being ‘disturbing’. There is none of that kind of torment. There are no demons, just event after grinding event. Like reading Caesar it’s distant and reassuring. The headache disappears. Grant has a lot of words but doesn’t say more than he has thought, he says less. It’s a negative talent. There are lots of things that won’t be explained, or that he won’t explain, things left unsaid, for better and worse: mistakes perhaps, and misdeeds; maybe excuses. That’s what laconic has come to: not just words and plain stories, but hidden stories and unspoken thoughts. It longs to unthink thoughts. For better and worse. I wouldn’t say narrative is easy and explanation isn’t, like I wouldn’t say avoid explanations. Someone lives through a war or whatever, and bears witness. Whoever writes an explanation has to live through thinking and writing and the hard part of getting it right: the careful witness of thought.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Heritage Weeds in Latteland

An essay on camphor laurels, coffee, democracy, streescape, tourism and Bellingen
 The essay is also available in pdf
Heritage Weeds in Latteland

Monday, January 24, 2011

Truth and Historical Narrative: Essay 5 of Philosophy Of History For The Time Being

This essay is about the persistent and obdurate misunderstanding of two things that history cannot do without: the concept of truth and the kind of inferential exposition or argument that we call narrative. It is as if people want to make life interesting, or they want to sound original, so they misconstrue truth and narrative. Being wrong is not original, and in the process of getting things wrong they make them dull and predictable. They also forget just how much philosophers have been able to say about truth - this essay is a reminder - and just how important truth is to logic, and logic is to narrative.

Essay 5. Truth and Historical Narrative

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Drawing From The Wrong Side Of Your Brain

 It seems like this is the latest golden age of radio. I heard this fable of Aesop’s yesterday on a download from CBC Canada. Jonathan Goldstein told it on Wiretap. It’s called The Bat and The Weasels:

"A bat was out flying one day when he fell to the ground. Lying on the ground he was immediately caught by a weasel. The bat pleaded for his life, but the weasel refused his pleas telling the bat that he was by nature an enemy to all birds. Hearing this the bat assured him that he was not a bird but a mouse, a flying mouse. And thus the weasel set the bat free. Shortly afterwards, the bat, while out flying again, fell to the earth once more, where he was again caught by another weasel. (This is a completely different weasel) Once again the bat begged this other weasel for his life, explaining that he was in fact not a bird but a mouse. But this time, this other weasel told the bat that not only did he hate birds but he also had a special hatred for mice. Hearing this the bat then assured the weasel that he was neither a bird nor a mouse but a bat. And thus for a second time the bat escaped."

That’s the end? What kind of story is that? When asked what it meant, most of the people on Wiretap were at a loss. First up Jonathan’s colleague Howard ventured that it was like a koan, one of those impenetrable little Zen fables. You know the sort of thing: Two hands clap and there is a sound. What is the sound of one hand? After time to gather his wits he concluded that it wasn’t a very good story. Among others there was Rabbi Popko who saw it as a story about survival versus dishonour. Personally, I like the way the bat does two different things and they both work at least (and maybe only) once. I think maybe the rabbi said something like this too. Before I listened to the download there was something on the Wiretap web page that made me expect that around about now there was going to be something about a Jew surviving by telling one Nazi he was Polish or something and telling another Nazi he was a Jew. But there wasn’t. After the rabbi came a writer, it might have been John Hodgman I think. He trashes the little story. It’s a terrible, terrible fable. To illustrate he retells it as a bad joke. Something like this: Two weasels go into a bar. Bat is the bartender. One weasel says I hate birds. The other weasel says I hate birds and I also hate mice. Bat says good thing I’m a bat. The moral of telling it this way was: Just as the joke fails because it isn’t funny, the fable fails because it has no moral lesson, no take away. This possible John Hodgman said he would not include this fable in The Book.
Jonathan phoned Laura Gibbs, a translator of Aesop, and she said that the fables have been handed down just as summaries. On the page they have been torn out from their context in a living oral story-telling tradition. People like lawyers would have used compendiums of fables as a source for their speeches. I guess the lawyers could adapt a fable to their case. (Jonathan, by the way, was using his Aesop for his insomnia). For the record here’s Laura’s translation from Oxford University Press’s Aesop’s Fables (2008):

"A bat had fallen to the ground where a weasel grabbed her and was ready to kill her. The bat begged for mercy but the weasel refused, since weasels are the natural enemies of every kind of bird. The bat insisted that she was not a bird at all, but only a mouse, so the weasel let her go. Later on, the bat fell to the ground again and was seized by another weasel. The bat also begged this weasel not to kill her, but the weasel refused, since there was a war between the mice and the weasels. The bat denied that she was a mouse, but only a bat, so once again the weasel let her go. As a result, the bat was able to save herself twice by changing her name."

Clearly we must not always stick to the same course all the time since people who change with the times are often able to escape even the greatest dangers.

Gender issues. War between mice and weasels. Changing names. It is always good to see a different version of a fable. The littlest changes remind you that the art and the moral is all in the retelling. Yes it’s got a moral too. A take away. Whose privilege I wonder is it to tack that on? Aesop’s or the reteller’s? Aesop, whoever or whatever he was, is now the product of telling and retelling and retelling. It’s called Aesopica and that’s all Aesop really is anymore. Fables only live in being retold. All of culture’s like that really. It’s like life: it survives and evolves only in reproduction. Cultures that ban their re-imagination annihilate themselves. Versions of these stories have been told here and there all throughout Indo-European culture. The animals change, the morals change and no-one can tell anymore who Aesop was or who the Ur-Aesop was and whether he or she was the same Ur-Aesop who gave the indigenous cultures of Australia and America their versions too. Do we all get our stories from the same Ur-Aesop or are all our stories so similar because they respond to the same human interests?
Laura thought The Bat and The Weasels had now become, if not dead, then decrepit. It had become a kind of cultural dead-end. And Jonathan ended Wiretap by having a go at reviving it. He went for a modern version about a bat, the child of pigeon and a mouse, who discovers its identity as a bat. It is too long for here (you can listen to it on line) too elaborate, and not as good as the joke, which is maybe at least sort of funny and definitely good storytelling. Its brevity gives it semantic leverage. Jonathan’s real contribution to story-telling is the whole beautiful episode of Wiretap.
            Just one other thing about the responses. It was the comfort respondents took in quibbling, things like: this bat was not a good flyer; these weasels weren’t as cunning as weasels are supposed to be; weasels, like everyone else, don’t eat birds because they hate them, they eat them because they like eating them. There must be something important going on here. But maybe that’s another story. I wanted to say that usually these stories go in threes. Three weasels would walk into a bar. What would have happened when the bat fell to the ground a third time? By the way, Rabbi Popko reminded us that the German for bat is fliedermaus, flying mouse. I wanted to say, flying fox is English for bat, at least where I live. Not really quibbles. Footnotes.
            Anyway now I have to say how beautiful this fable is, what brilliant story-telling. No moral tacked on the end could ever do it justice. Of course there is not much point acting like a mouse and being terrified of weasels, when you could just be hanging out like a bat instead, but what is the point of saying that. The fable is a wonderful distillation, so clear people seem to look right through it and see nothing, its spirit and meaning so strong that people don’t get it without watering it down in elaboration. That’s what good fables are: indeterminately short. Like bits of string that you keep in a jar for when you need them.

            I am starting to get some idea of what the take away of this essay might be. I think it’s something to do with the assumption that a lot of people make that this fable rather than being all Zen and Koanic, is just not very good or sort of derelict. Like the West or modernity. The Bat and The Weasels though reminds me of those little stories Franz Kafka told. The maybe-not-very-good ones. Not Zen, more Jewish I guess, or greekjew as James Joyce might have said. Here’s one called A Little Fable:

"'Alas,' said the mouse, 'the whole world is growing smaller every day. At the beginning it was so big that I was afraid, I kept running and running, and I was glad when I saw walls far away to the right and left, but these long walls have narrowed so quickly that I am in the last chamber already, and there in the corner stands the trap that I must run into.'

'You only need to change your direction,' said the cat, and ate it up."

Is this a story or an aborted story? It sounds a bit like The Trial in one hundred words or less. In another one of Kafka’s little stories someone says ‘All these little parables really set out to say merely that the incomprehensible is incomprehensible, and we know that already.’

So I was talking about The Bat and The Weasel with two friends. And the conversation being conversation got around to being about something else. One friend’s mother had wanted to draw so she enrolled in a course called Drawing From The Right Side of The Brain. You know the kind of thing. Creative adult education. Lesson One: The master puts pencil and paper in front of the pupils and says draw this. It was a copy of one of those pictures of a lamp base or a vase that also looks like the profile of a face (or two faces) or something. Whatever it is it is a bit tricky. That’s the point. They use them in first year Psychology courses. A Rubin vase I think it’s called. I think it’s a figure-ground thing. But maybe it’s a right-side/wrong side thing too. (Ludwig Wittgenstein could have used his duckrabbit picture if he’d got the job of drawing master. It’s either a gormless duck or a puzzled rabbit looking into the wind.) Friend’s mother didn’t know where to start. That was why she was doing Drawing From Right Side of The Brain in the first place. Just draw what you see said the master.
As it turned out Lesson One was a replay of one of friend’s mother’s nightmares. It was like when she was a child and a teacher had stuck a pencil and paper in front of her and had said draw a map of Australia, and when she had primal drawer’s block, the teacher just told her again to draw it, anyone can draw a map of Australia. (On its side it looks a bit like a duck or a rabbit, or a cranky drawing master) This is where the story gets terrible. It’s a whole other story. My friend’s mother was pretty upset about having to learn all over again how not to draw. She went out into her garden. She had a beautiful garden. She slipped climbing up a little wall, crushed a vertebra. It was like the beginning of the end for my friend’s mother. The fate of the drawing master is another story. Gossip.

Now while all this was happening I had been thinking about mentors. Mentor was a guy who walked out of the pages of The Odyssey and became a common English noun around the middle of the eighteenth century. By the end of the twentieth he had become a verb and then a gerund, and with that a new institution: the mentoring program.
In The Odyssey Mentor is in loco parentis to Telemachus whose father Odysseus is away at the Trojan War. Mentor is the wise counsellor. Now one thing that is a bit funny about Mentor is that in most of his scenes Mentor is not quite himself. Athena, the wise and bright-eyed goddess, assumes Mentor’s aged form and voice. She or he encourages Telemachus to journey in search of his father, eggs Odysseus on against his enemies back home in Ithaca, and even ends up establishing peace at the end of the whole show.
It’s the wise counsellor role that has come into the lingo. The zeitgeist has it that what we call young people (and probably young men especially) are now peculiarly susceptible to being fatherless. Divorce, the crisis of masculinity, feminist triumph, you know. Happily Mentor was there in the wings of tradition to provide the solution and take the place of the absent father.
Tradition, that revered and obscure father to us all, is partly what mentoring is all about. How better to recapture that now absent father than by the managed folksiness of mentoring. How better to become re-enchanted. The zeitgeist has figured out that education is now alienated from experience. Experience, if you’re young, is disaffected. As for basing education on pop psychology about learning styles — that’s light on supporting evidence and it ends up with the same old alienation affect anyway. Even ‘visual kinaesthetic’ learners are bored with colour and movement. So here we all are longing for those old tribal ceremonies that recognised and celebrated the stages of authentic life. High school isn’t a proper initiation, nor is university, apprenticeships are hard to come by, vandalism and gang behaviour are antisocial, and adolescent circumcision is too drastic. So let’s mentor. We can extend it to life-long learning too. We could mentor drawing from the right side of the brain. And we could have a mentoring task force to fight the war in Afghanistan. In fact we do.
Once the verb ‘to mentor’ appeared with its promise of a society re-enchanted by wisdom and informal but managed instruction, it wasn’t long before the gerund appeared as evidence that a maybe innocent desire had spawned a demented offspring. What was once a happy relation between humans became a manufactured contrivance. Soon there were mentoring programs. Meanwhile, no one sounded entirely comfortable pronouncing the last syllable of mentor. It was too much like the unstressed ‘-er’ ending that English uses to turn a verb into its agent. So no one should have been surprised when the person mentored became the mentee. It had come to this.
I don’t think I ever had much in the way of a mentor, but maybe that was the point of a mentor. It was a pretty informal thing. Maybe you weren’t supposed to realise you’d had one until it was all over. Maybe like Telemachus you didn’t really realise you’d had one at all. Besides, Mentor wasn’t a real mentor anyway. That was Athena. And she wasn’t a proper male role model. Anyway I used to think that a mentor sounded like not a bad idea. It had sounded pretty good in The Odyssey for a good two thousand years.
Today I read a quote from King Lear: Give me an ounce of civet, good apothecary, to sweeten my imagination. It’s in that scene on the cliff at Dover, just after Gloucester jumps. How did Shakespeare just keep on coming up with this stuff. What side of his brain was he coming from. Anyway like the troubled King, I just want an ounce of civet. I don’t really want imagination being turned into consolation, creativity into therapy, Mentor into a mentoring program. I can do without the pitch.
Enough. That’s it, that’s the essay about Aesop, The Wrong Side of The Brain and Mentoring. If I start to explain how they go together, I’ll just complicate it like I did with the thing about King Lear. What’s he got to do with it? It’s like trying to draw a rabbit and ending up with a duck that looks sort of like a map of Australia with two Cape Yorks. I just know they go together. An essay can say anything but it can’t say everything. It wouldn’t want to. Like one of Aesop’s fables an essay is finished when it feels it’s said enough.

But there’s the moral of course and I can’t do better than Aesop for that. A bat falls to the ground and gets caught by a fox. When the bat begs for his life, the fox refuses, saying that he is by nature the enemy of all birds. The bat assures the fox that he is not a bird, but a fox. And the fox spares the bat’s life. Some time later the bat is going somewhere crawling on the ground this time, just in case, and gets caught by another fox. When the bat begs the fox for his life this fox says he hates other foxes. So the bat assures the fox that he is not a fox but a bat. The fox says no your not, you’re a crawling fox, and eats the bat.

OK. So there is more. Of course there is. There is the third friend, the one I tell The Bat and The Weasels to after I think all this is over. First I tell him my version of Jonathan’s version of Aesop’s version. It’s Friday afternoon. He’s just finished doing something meaningless. Anything would amuse him. And he is amused. Or polite. So then I tell him the one about two weasels walk into a bar. He’s even laughing. So now he tells me a joke. Why do Irish scuba divers roll out of the boat backwards. It’s an Irish joke he says. Why I wonder. I really want to know. Because if they rolled forwards they’d end up in the boat.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Writing and History. Essay 2 of Philosophy of History for the Time Being

For history to happen something like writing, which combines durability and replicability, narrative and specific denotation, had to be invented. Of course it’s not just writing as such that is needed, but recorded language, whether it’s in the visual text we call print or the audio ‘text’ of a voice recording. Speech alone is not a record, or at least it’s only a fleeting record written on air. I expect the evolution of media will continue to change the media of history. Essay 2. Writing and History

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Kicking Stones, Acts, Processes and Other Events: Essay 3 of Philosophy of History for the Time Being

The third of seven essays on philosophy of history. Until we start to think about what an event is we don't realize what odd things events are. As soon as we start talking about history we imply some theory of events, but we seldom make that theory explicit. So this is not the definitive theory of events; rather it's a description of a theory of events that lurks in ordinary modern historical consciousness. Accordingly this essay offers a kind of taxonomy of events, which classifies events by how we observe them. It also considers the problems of identifying and differentiating one event from another. Basic stuff. Essay 3. Kicking Stones, Acts, Processes and Other Events