Monday, January 27, 2014

Screenshot. Suits 1x07

Sunday, January 26, 2014

"Needless to say, our fixation on the ideal of happiness diverts our attention from collective social ills, such as socioeconomic disparities. As Barbara Ehrenreich has shown, when we believe that our happiness is a matter of thinking the right kinds of (positive) thoughts, we become blind to the ways in which some of our unhappiness might be generated by collective forces, such as racism or sexism. Worst of all, we become callous to the lot of others, assuming that if they aren't doing well, if they aren't perfectly happy, it's not because they're poor, oppressed, or unemployed but because they're not trying hard enough.

If all of that isn't enough to make you suspicious of the cultural injunction to be happy, consider this basic psychoanalytic insight: Human beings may not be designed for happy, balanced lives. The irony of happiness is that it's precisely when we manage to feel happy that we are also most keenly aware that the feeling might not last. Insofar as each passing moment of happiness brings us closer to its imminent collapse, happiness is merely a way of anticipating unhappiness; it's a deviously roundabout means of producing anxiety. [...]

Why, exactly, is a healthy and well-adjusted life superior to one that is filled with ardor and personal vision but that is also, at times, a little unhealthy and maladjusted? [...] Might not the best lives be ones in which we sometimes allow ourselves to become a little imprudent or even a tad unhinged? [...]

I don't wish to fetishize psychological or emotional instability; I'm aware of the enormous toll it can exact. And I know that there are many people who live under unbearable burdens of uncertainty. But we are mistaken when we interpret anxiety and other forms of existential disorientation as being at odds with a well-lived life. It may well be that they are an essential part of such a life."

Thursday, January 23, 2014

More than 5 years ago, I wrote about my perception of weddings in Pakistani society:

"The ceremony has become more about appeasing the society than about celebrating the union of two people. [The wedding] has lost its purpose in this manner, and hence it is not surprising that the feeling which I have most markedly noticed while attending any [wedding] is that of absurdity.

Weddings have never been enjoyable for me, even as a child. Perhaps because the wedding ceremony appears to me to be the perfect example of the superficialities and hypocrisies of our culture; it has become a symbol for me of whatever I hate about our society."

It is only fair that I should approach my own wedding now with the same marked sense of absurdity. Aside from that, there is also in my own case, a distinct taste of alienation. In a concrete sense, my wedding is about me, but in a larger, abstract and more important way, my wedding is not my own. My presence is a nominal formality, an excuse for the society to do what it does. (I am speaking here specifically of the wedding ceremony, the function, the social customs and traditions, and not about my marriage, regarding which my sentiments are of a more positive and pleasant nature.) How did I end up in a position where I have to allow the society to do what it does, especially when it is steeped in practices I find ethically reprehensible? I know that I brought it on myself, playing a game of give-and-take with this society, only to realize that any victory may well turn out to be pyrrhic. I am not here to whine or complain. This is a record of my last of human freedoms, a small sign that though I may have been subdued, I have not yet been silenced.

Perhaps I despair too much; perhaps I will be able to derive some joy out of this occasion after all.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Interviewer: Do you think of yourself as having a relationship with God?

Anne Carson: [...] reading a lot of mystics, especially Simone Weil, I’ve come to understand that the best one can hope for as a human is to have a relationship with that emptiness where God would be if God were available, but God isn’t.

As Carson talks of a relationship with the emptiness where God would be, it seems she has developed a relationship with another sort of a emptiness... the empty poetic spaces we have in Sappho's poetry, poetry of which we have inherited only fragments. Just like God, those missing slivers of verses are unavailable (while existing in a sense), but the readers and interpreters are invariably drawn into a relationship.

Anne Carson: [...] this is the magic of fragments—the way that poem breaks off leads into a thought that can’t ever be apprehended. There is the space where a thought would be, but which you can’t get hold of. I love that space. It’s the reason I like to deal with fragments. Because no matter what the thought would be if it were fully worked out, it wouldn’t be as good as the suggestion of a thought that the space gives you. Nothing fully worked out could be so arresting, spooky.

Read also in the interview how the mysterious half-verse of Sappho's fragment 31 ("But all is to be dared, because even a person of poverty") leads Carson to a mystical interpretation of the poem. 

Here is a philosophical analysis of the critically-acclaimed film Her, in which a male character develops a romantic relationship with an artificially-intelligent operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). While brilliantly depicting the quirks and pitfalls of human relationships by making them more poignant by this peculiar sort of romance, the film is also an account of the development of artificial intelligence, and how they may evolve rapidly to a state beyond human comprehension. Highly recommended.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

"So what do you think is your diagnosis?"
"I am a human being and I have symptoms of humanity."

(actual quote from a patient)

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

What can be more 'normal' and universal than aging? And yet, what can be more ripe a target for medical intervention? Aging will soon (if it is not already) be conceptualized as a 'medical condition', a 'disorder', a 'disease'. As more and more options become available for us to slow, delay, halt, or perhaps even reverse, the process of aging, aging as we currently understand it will become the outlier of 'normal' functioning. Eternal youth, that is how we see the normal state of health. The modern insistence on maintaining one's social and occupational functioning within the expected norms will see to it that anything outside these expected norms is pathologized and subjected to treatment.

Consider these matter-of-fact statements taken from the web: "Aging is a medical condition because an aged body does not function properly. A body that does not function properly has a disease. A disease is a medical condition." I'm sure it leaves many of you aghast but these conclusions are obvious and inevitable once we accept this notion of a medical condition. It is also inevitable practically... if a pill to stop aging is available, who will not opt for it? Except for a small minority of rebels, the vast majority of humanity would rush for the promise of never ending youth. This is the power of medicine.

The boundaries of what constitutes a medical condition/disorder/disease are not fixed. They are determined by their social context. We have been 'medicalizing' and 'pathologizing' what is 'normal' and 'natural' ever since the beginning of medical sciences. Every age has its own fictions.

Awais Aftab

I wish I were such a poet
who could conjure poetry on request
not just any request
- a love poem,
not of growth pains of relationships
or everyday delusions of intimacy
- a poem of tenderness
long-distance heartache
an I-love-you note
a blow-me-a-kiss
perhaps I could, but
the rose is obsolete, WCW says
(ask me instead to quote Neruda, my darling
'I want to do with you what spring does with cherry trees.')
In the warmth of our embrace
we no longer need the pretext of poetry
and so it would seem
poetry no longer needs the pretext of our embrace

Saturday, January 11, 2014

"In the midst of the serene world of mental illness, modern man no longer communicates with the madman: on the one hand is the man of reason, who delegates madness to the doctor, thereby authorising no relation other than through the abstract universality of illness; and on the other is the man of madness, who only communicates with the other through the intermediary of a reason that is no less abstract, which is order, physical and moral constraint, the anonymous pressure of the group, the demand for conformity. There is no common language: or rather, it no longer exists; the constitution of madness as mental illness, at the end of the eighteenth century, bears witness to a rupture in a dialogue, gives the separation as already enacted, and expels from the memory all those imperfect words, of no fixed syntax, spoken falteringly, in which the exchange between madness and reason was carried out. The language of psychiatry, which is a monologue by reason about madness, could only have come into existence in such a silence."

Michel Foucault, History of Madness 
(Translated by Jonathan Murphy and Jean Khalfa, Routledge 2006)

Monday, January 6, 2014

by Dr. Yuval Noah Harari

Personal Lecture Notes from Lesson #13: The Capitalist Creed

(These are personal summaries and paraphrasings of some of the major points of the lectures that I felt to be important. They are not meant to be comprehensive records nor intended to be reproductions of copyright materials. I encourage you to participate in the course for better understanding. All ideas and examples are by Dr. Harari.)

The most unique and important characteristic of the modern capitalist economy is growth. The total global production of goods and services – ‘the economic pie’ – is constantly increasing and has been increasing since the emergence of capitalist economy. 

Consider a simple example. People deposit their earnings in the bank, and the bank loans out that money to investors. Suppose you want to start a bakery. You go to the bank and ask for the loan. A big contractor has deposited 1 million dollars in cash in his new bank account. The bank takes that 1 million dollars cash and loans it you. You take the money, and hire the same contractor to build your bakery, and you pay him 1 million dollars as fee. The contractor takes that 1 million dollars and deposits it again in his bank account. His bank account now contains 2 million dollars, even though the 'actual money in the account, or the money in cash, is still 1 million dollars. You can extend this scenario further. The cost of the bakery construction rises, and the constructor asks you for an additional 1 million dollars. You got to the bank again, and get an additional 1 million dollars loan in cash, which the bank again takes from the contractor’s account. You give that 1 million dollars again to the contractor, who deposits it again in his account. He now has 3 million dollars in his account, even though the actual money in cash is still the original 1 million dollars. This is possible because the banking laws allow the bank to loan out $10 for every $1 the bank actually possesses. Where does this extra $9 come from? What covers this extra $9 is actually our trust in the future. It is our trust that the investments will generate even more money which will cover the deficit between what exists and what has been loaned out. More than 90% of the money in all the banks of the world in this sense does not exist.

This is why the capitalist economy grows so rapidly. “The secret is a magic of capitalism is that it finances present expenses with make believe money that has no cover in the present and may only may have cover in the future.” (Dr. Harari)

This was not the case prior in history, where most of the money was frozen. It was extremely difficult to start new businesses and to expand existing ones. Capitalist system is based on ‘credit’, which is a special sort of money which represents future imaginary goods. Credit is based on trust in the future. Traditional economies only had trust in the present, because traditional societies did not believe in progress. People believed that the total amount of wealth in the world is limited and static. To get richer was to get richer at the expense of someone. The economic pie was of a fixed size, and taking a bigger piece meant taking a portion from someone else’s piece. This was why money and riches were considered as sinful. But capitalism believes that the economic pie keeps getting bigger, and credit is the difference between the size of the pie today and the size of the pie tomorrow.

As the scientific revolution led to an increase in the sum total of human production, human trade and human wealth, the belief in progress and trust in the future became more and more solid. In 1776 Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations making a revolutionary argument: An increase in the profits of private entrepreneurs is the basis for the increase in collective wealth and prosperity. When business owners have increased profits, they use them to expand their businesses, which opens up more employment opportunities, increasing the overall amount of wealth in the community. What is radical about this argument from a moral-political perspective is that it links individual selfishness and greed with collective welfare.

However, this works, only, if the rich actually use their profits for new investments instead of spending them in ways that do not lead to further productivity. From this realization emerges the ethical code of capitalism: profits must be reinvested in production. This investment can be in many ways: opening new factories, enlarging existing businesses, funding scientific research, etc. This is what distinguishes between wealth and capital. Capital refers to resources that are invested in production. Wealth, on the other hand, is unproductive money.

Science has a close relationship with capitalism, because most scientific research is sponsored by governments or private businesses. The scientific projects that enable an increase in production are the ones that are preferentially funded. Scientific discoveries enable the development of technologies which will create new products and new businesses, fulfilling the promise of economic return on which we had pinned our trust. 90% of the money in the world has been created out of thin air. It is based on our hopes for the future.
“… if these hopes are not realized, it doesn't mean that we stay with what we have now. It means that more than 90% of the money, we think we have now, will just disappear.”

The history of capitalism is also interwoven with the history of imperialism. Credit and capitalism were not unique European inventions, but nowhere else did they enjoy the supports of rulers and governments. While previously in history and elsewhere in the world wars were funded through taxation of the people, the European conquests were increasingly financed through credit and therefore they were increasingly directed by capitalists, whose motivations were primarily to generate the maximum returns from their investments. To a large extent, the English, French and Dutch colonies were created and run not by the states but rather by private companies. The emergence of limited liability companies spread the risk of investment between many investors. A company would be set up to conquest a new colony, it would sell its shares in the stock exchange to a large number of investors generating a large amount of money, which would be used for exploration and conquest, and all investors would share the profits. These companies had their own private armies, waged their own private wars and ruled over conquered territories privately. Examples of these companies include 

* The Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie or VOC), which financed the military conquest of Indonesia and ruled over it privately till 1800 when the Dutch state assumed control.

* The Dutch West Indies Company, which operated in the Atlanic Ocean in order to control the trade on the Hudson River in North America. This company built the settlement called New Amsterdam, which was captured by the British and the name was changed to New York. “The remains of the wall that a Dutch company built to defend its colony against the British and the Indians, are today paved over by the most famous street in the world, it's called Wall Street”

* The British East India Company, which conquered and ruled over India, until 1858 when the British crown nationalized India along with the company’s army.

The nationalizations of the colonies did not sever the ties between capitalism and imperialism because by this point in history the governments in London, Amsterdam and Paris were being controlled by the capitalists and looked after their interests. “Karl Marx famously said that western governments, at least in the 19th Century, were actually the trade union of the capitalists.”

The issue of the relationship between politics and economics is one that has become quite contentious. Capitalists believe in the freedom of the market, and maintain that Government restrictions only stunt the economic growth, and that the markets make the wisest decisions by themselves. This belief in free market, however, when taken to the extreme has led to many terrible consequences.

The business owners can exploit and oppress the workers in the pursuit of profits, for instance by offering very low pay for long working hours. In a free market with competitors, the workers can simply quit to work for someone else who offers better pay and working conditions, but if the business owners have monopoly over the market or if all the competitors cooperate in this oppression, as happens in practice very often, then the workers have no way out. The whole Atlantic slave trade from Africa to America was a consequence of free-running capitalism. “[The slave trade was a] purely economic enterprise organized and managed and financed by the free market, according to the laws of supply and demand.”

A free market capitalist system adopts any means necessary to ensure profits. The outcomes are crimes against humanity such as the Atlantic slave trade and the Great Bengal Famine. Even though the global wealth has increased manifolds, many individuals around the world still work long hours and live in hunger.

Capitalists have two main responses to this criticism. First, they argue that capitalism has created a world in which there is no longer an alternative economic system (following the failure of communism) capable of running the world. Second, they say that capitalism has learnt from its mistakes of exploitation, and if we remain patient, the economic pie would grow large enough that despite inequalities of wealth everyone would receive a satisfactory share. Whether the economic pie can grow indefinitely and whether this promise will ever be fulfilled, only time will tell. 

(For prior posts covering this course, see the label A Brief History of Humankind.)

Saturday, January 4, 2014

3 years ago on this day I gave up on my country. 

The assassination of Salman Taseer and the subsequent reaction of the populace exposed the extent to which the poison of religious fanaticism has percolated to the roots of this nation. These three years have done nothing to change that judgement. The national mindset is diseased beyond healing. I don't even know any more if it even deserves healing.

I have friends who still live in Pakistan, and who will continue to try to reform the society in whatever ways they can. I admire and support their efforts, and wish them well, and I hope that they do not suffer when this society collapses under the collective weight of its self-inflicted sins.

"If this is what has beaten us... the guilt is ours." (Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged)

Friday, January 3, 2014

"Russell sometimes seems to be moving towards the view that how one believes, and not just what one believes, is ethically significant – a view that will be embraced by any reflective religious person."

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Mortality is Christopher Hitchens's account of confronting his own death, hopeful till the end that he may yet escape its clutches but at the same time very realistic about his prospects of failure. Hitchens was a strong-willed man, unwavering in his materialism, deflecting the prayers and condemnations of the faithful, and retorting with jabs of wit and sarcasm, even as the last remaining drops of physical strength in his body were being sucked by the cancer and its treatment alike. It's a short book, you can read it in a single sitting, and its aphoristic quality well-represents the dignity Hitchens maintained till the end. To do so without wallowing in self-pity and without perceiving oneself to be a victim of an indifferent universe, or engaging in dialogue with a cryptic deity, is no mean feat:

* 'To the dumb question “Why me?” the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not?'

* 'It’s no fun to appreciate to the full the truth of the materialist proposition that I don’t have a body, I am a body.'

* 'I’m not fighting or battling cancer—it’s fighting me.'

* 'If I convert it’s because it’s better that a believer dies than that an atheist does.'

"If life were merely a habit, I should commit suicide; but even now, more or less desperate, I cannot but think, ‘Something wonderful may happen.’ It is not optimism, it is a rejection of self-pity (I hope) which leaves a loophole for life… I merely choose to remain living out of respect for possibility. And possibility is the great good."

Frank O’Hara, Early Writing


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