Making the Abstract Concrete

A few weeks ago, I posted the following quip as my Facebook status:

You don’t really get _Civilization and its Discontents_ till you bring up a child.

And then, a week or so later:

Apropos of my recent comment that you don’t really get _Civilization and its Discontents_ till you raise a child: I don’t think you really get Quine’s inscrutability of reference thesis till you start to shepherd a child through the early language acquisition phase.

There is a more general point to be made here, of course: that seemingly abstract academic theories spring sharply into focus when they are viewed through the lens of personal, emotionally tinged experiences. And child-rearing is perfectly designed provide visceral contact with their truths.

Consider then, my first example above. The child’s first contacts with the civilization that is its host come via it parents, those responsible for not just feeding, bathing, clothing, and otherwise protecting it, but also, all too soon, for inculcating it into the ways of the world. It has to be warned–in an appropriately modified tone of voice–not to bite and scratch,  or harm itself; it has to be restrained–again, sometimes for its own safety, sometimes for that of others; it has to be corrected in countless ways from proceeding along its own path, and guided into trajectories more amenable to those deemed more appropriate for its development. And so as I noted:

Sometimes I’m saddened terribly; something wild and primeval is being constantly tamed, molded, channeled, impressed on. Too essentialist, I know, and not existential enough, but still….

This channeling, this impressing, continues as the child comes into contact  with others besides parents, of course, but it is the parent who has most proximal contact with the changes wrought in the child, and is thus most likely to be affected in turn by them.  The changes in one’s child can produce some melancholy as we realize the coming to be be, and passing away, of different identities; while we happily welcome the growing child into the community of language speakers and concept-wielders, we might regret too, just for a bit, the absence of the babyish bundle, all coo and gurgle, that was once ours to hold tight and close.

And then again, as a friend of mine noted in response to the last quote above:

Yeah, but I’m glad they stop smearing their feces on the wall.


Dreams of the “Undiscovered Country”

Hamlet suggested that “What dreams may come after / When we have shuffled off this mortal coil / Must give us pause” and that “The dread of something after death / The undiscovered country, from whose bourn / No traveler returns, puzzles the will.”

The eternally indecisive Danish prince was right, of course: many, if not all, of us have wondered what lies in store for us after death. The more certain among the materialistically minded reassure themselves that oblivion awaits, a blankness and a void like that of the deepest sleep, like the kind that was our lot before we were ejected into this world naked and helpless and conscious. Others–convinced of the claims of some of the world’s great religions–speculate that eternal torment or pleasures of some form lies in store. And perhaps yet others, stranded at some indeterminate point between these viewpoints of spiritualism and materialism, fret that our knowledge of the relationship of consciousness to the material body is limited and that states of being that we have no epistemic access to, and thus no conception of currently, might be our postmortem fate.

Such uncertainty, of course, is an invitation to the very anxiety referred to by Hamlet: Perhaps our consciousness–in some shape or form–might survive the destruction of our corporeal self; if so, what form would it exist in? What states would persist? Would we–perish the thought–remain locked into some endlessly painful or terrifying state of being? One did not have to believe in divinely dispensed heavens or hells to believe that the riddles of existence might have facets to them painful or pleasurable to the remnants of a once thriving consciousness. (You could call this kind of thinking a holdover of a theistic or eschatological way of thinking.)

At times in the past, I sometimes found myself in precisely such a state of mind and found that my greatest fears amounted to two kinds of states. The first was one in which I felt as if smothered by an impenetrable darkness that lay suffocatingly over me, and which could not be pushed away; my movements were restricted by an all-enveloping black veil. I would be conscious of this darkness but unable to move, unable to illuminate it; it was a sensory deprivation tank of sorts but one in which I could sense and see the darkness pressing in on me. In the second kind of state, I imagined myself–without any sense of corporeal being–to be suspended in a realm that can best be analogized with the space we can imagine lying between those imposing maps of gigantic galactic clusters: endlessly expansive and relentlessly empty.

I found both these allusive suggestions of a postmortem persistence of some fragment of consciousness chilling. (In the second case, almost literally so.)

These lost their grip on my imagination when I realized that in both cases, they reflected deeply held phobias and anxieties of a sort. The first was the fear of being buried alive (those childhood tales of immurement had left a mark) and the second was the fear of being lost or left alone (yup, the childhood impress again.)

I had merely transferred my fears from the here and now to the hereafter–so vivid were they that I imagined them persisting endlessly, even after death.


Evicted From The Twenty-Twenty Club

In 1998, I learned I no longer had twenty-twenty vision. This knowledge did not come to me suddenly. On a couple of occasions at work–on the open-plan office floor of an online brokerage–I noticed I could not clearly read the lettering on the ticker-tape that ran across some of the large monitors that hung from the ceilings. And then, a little later, more decisively, out for a walk one night with a girlfriend, I was brought up short by her ability to read street numbers and names off signs well before I could. What, I wondered, was going on? An optometrist quickly put me in the know: I was ever-so slightly myopic in both eyes, with the left just a little worse.

I come from a family of pilots; twenty-twenty vision ran in my family. We did not wear glasses. Well, actually, hang on a second. Toward the end of his flying career, my father developed a cataract in one eye and in the middle of his, my brother was diagnosed with mild myopia (he continued to fly with prescription glasses). Perhaps developing mild myopia at the age of thirty-one was not so surprising.

It was still shattering news though. For weeks after my diagnosis, I moped around, unable to drag myself to the local opticians to order a pair of eyeglasses. It was, I realized, after a brutal ankle injury from a few years before, another disruption of a pristine ordering of my body. My third-degree sprain had left my ankle permanently weakened and unstable, and now this myopia meant a central sensory organ had undergone another irreversible decline. First, locomotion was affected, and then that which guided locomotion. I was no longer whole; I was flawed, damaged somehow. I did not think I possessed bodily perfection before, but I did not consider myself–extremely fortunately–to be laboring under any manner of handicap. Now, they were piling up, radically transforming a self-image ragged at all too many edges. The radical decline promised me as a gift for chronological advancement had commenced.

The day I finally, reluctantly, picked up my prescription glasses and tried them on, I was bemused by the way the world snapped into focus. How long had I not noticed these innumerable blurrings that were now removed, made distinct? The gradual decline had been sneaky and insidious, a hidden fifth column doing its dirty work in my optical corridors. I was overcome by an intense longing for days gone by–when I could watch movies, or distant sunsets, or navigate darkened streets without an ugly prosthetic device sitting on my nose. I was no longer human; I was a cyborg of sorts.

Sixteen years on, of course, I have accepted my altered and corrected vision–in a fashion. I carry my glasses everywhere, though I only put them on when needed. I still envy those in the twenty-twenty club, of course. And on occasion, I still remember  the rising tide of panic that swamped me when the optometrist leaned over and softly said, “How long have your eyes been like this?”

No Atheists in Foxholes, My Ass

Here is vignette #7 from Ernest Hemingway‘s In Our Time:

While the bombardment was knocking the trench to pieces at Fossalta, he lay very flat and sweated and prayed oh jesus christ get me out of here. Dear jesus please get me out . Christ please please please christ. If you’ll only keep me from getting killed I’ll do anything you say. I believe in you and I’ll tell everyone in the world that you are the only one that matters. Please please dear jesus.

No atheists in foxholes, indeed.

This little bon mot, intended to deflate the pretensions of skeptics and disbelievers has a long and dishonorable history; it is often trotted out, a triumphant smirk spreading across the countenance of the faithful as they surmise they have honed in on the Achilles heel of the atheist. The atheist stands indicted: he is merely a fair weather disbeliever. When the chips fall, he will duck for cover under the shelter provided by the Good Lord, just like the rest of us. (There is another, crafty, way to interpret it, of course: that only believers go to war. But I don’t, ahem, believe that.)

I wonder if the faithful ever stop to think–I know, silly question–about how awful an argument for faith this is. It suggests that our true believing nature will be revealed  when shells are cascading down around us, when, in short, we are possessed by extreme fear, anxiety, and panic.

But why would anyone imagine that a psychological state riven by such extreme sensations and affects is one in which we will rationally come to hold beliefs? One might as well just say that in these states, we witness the breakdown of rational decision-making and belief formation, that the beliefs held by those in foxholes are forced upon them by their circumstances.

Similar arguments are made in other domains, and they are just as silly. Consider, for instance, a familiar claim made about reversions to states of nature–as in post-apocalyptic scenarios:

[A] standard moral associated with post-apocalyptic cinema or literature–one proclaimed with varying degrees of explicitness–is, ‘This is what humans would be like if the pre-political, pre-social “state of nature” were to be restored, if laws, the restraints of conventional morality, and all forms of social and political organization were removed’….The apocalypse thus acts as a pretense shredder, showing our supposed social, cultural and moral sophistication to be shallow and superficial, a fair-weather orientation that is only maintained by the force and rule of the law and the comfort of the good times. So long as no desperation is called for none will be shown. But the seven deadly sins will be on ample display once those conditions no longer hold true.


There is an alternative moral to be drawn of course: that the human nature revealed to us in these depictions of an apocalypse’s aftermath is not the ‘true’, ‘real’ or ‘natural’ one at all. Instead what is shown in post-apocalyptic art are traumatized human beings whose responses–to their environment, to each other–are pathological precisely because of the nature of the changes undergone. The death, disease and pestilence of the apocalypse, for one. Post-apocalyptic visions are thus indeed revelatory, not because they show us how we were ‘before’ we ‘became civilized’ but because they show what our response would be to the dramatic, traumatic loss of our political and social orders.

To conclude, let me complete my excerpting of the vignette above:

The shelling moved further up the line . We went to work on the trench and in the morning the sun came up and the day was hot and muggy and cheerful and quiet. The next night back at Mestre he did not tell the girl he went upstairs with the Villa Rossa about Jesus. And he never told anybody.

Note: Italics and capitalization of Hemingway vignette as in original 1986 Scribner Classic edition, pp. 67

Noam Chomsky, My Palestinian Student, and a Gift

A few years ago, at Brooklyn College, I taught a class on the formal theory of computation. We covered the usual topics: finite state automata, context-free grammars, Turing machines, computational complexity. As we worked through the theory of context-free grammars, I introduced my students to the concept of their Chomsky normal forms.  As a quick preliminary, I noted that this form was due to Noam Chomsky, “the MIT linguist well-known for his seminal work on the formal theory of linguistics.” I paused, and then went on, “Interestingly enough, Professor Chomsky is equally well-known for his radical political views and activism, especially regarding American foreign policy, Israel etc.” These quick remarks made, I went on to the business of production rules, non-terminal symbols etc.

Once class ended, I walked back to my office, and began the my usual post-class activities: checking email, drinking left-over coffee etc. As I did so, there was a knock on the door. A student from my class stood there. I had seen him before in class, but he had never spoken up yet. Now, he did so. He introduced himself with an Arab name. (I’m embarrassed to say I do not remember his name.) Then, he spoke again, “Professor, I just wanted to thank you. You brought up Chomsky in class, but you didn’t just say he was a linguist. You talked about his politics too.” Surprised, I said, “Well, I didn’t say that much. Just a quick note really.” My student, though, would have none of it, “Well, professor, too many other professors would simply not mention that aspect of him, as if it was an embarrassment. As a Palestinian, it made me really happy to hear you bring him up.” I didn’t quite know what to make of this, so I thanked him for his kind words. We then chatted for a bit about his background, his family, and that was that. (I remember asking him what passport he carried, a question that always fascinates me when it comes to the modern world’s stateless.)

As the semester went by, my student and I only spoke a few more times. He was unfailingly polite and courteous, and diligent with his work. We might have talked once more about Israel and Palestine, perhaps when some Middle East crisis du année had occurred. Finally, the semester wound down; I assigned the students their final exams, graded them, handed in their grades. Shortly thereafter, one day as I worked in my office, there was a knock on the door again. Once again, it was my student. In his hand, he held what looked like a gift-wrapped item. He thanked me for the class and then handed over the package, saying “This is for you, just a thank-you.” I was a little nonplussed and tried to decline, but again, he was persistent, pressing it into my hands, saying it was just a trifle. Finally, I thanked him and opened my gift. It was a copy of Avi Shlaim’s  The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab WorldHe went on, “I think you might find this interesting.” I agreed.

I lost contact with my student shortly thereafter; I often wonder where he is now. I often wondered too, what he must have felt like, unable, all too often, because of the settings he found himself in, unable to say what was on his mind; I wondered how much he had heard that he couldn’t respond to; I wondered how limited he must have felt his various avenues of expression to be if the mere mention of Chomsky’s activism by a professor in a classroom had felt like an affirmation of a kind.


The Asymmetric Fallout of Operation Protective Edge

Collateral damage‘ and ‘friendly fire‘ seem to be two euphemisms with which we–as a civilization–are doomed to be persistently reacquainted. Especially if war continues to retain its popularity as an instrument of foreign policy or even law and order maintenance.

Which brings me, of course, to Israel, Gaza, and Hamas. Cycle of violence narratives are wearisome, and the Israeli-Palestinian one is no exception. Now again, there is violence against Israeli citizens, and then violent retaliation, which as on too many previous occasions, kills innocent men, women, and children. The discourse triggered by this latest eructation in the Middle East unsurprisingly follows a familiar pattern. Here are Israeli talking points: Israel is locked in an existential battle for its survival by any means necessary; Hamas is committed to the destruction of Israel; no nation can tolerate indiscriminate violence directed against its citizens; Hamas uses civilians as human shields’; the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) does the best it can, scrupulously limiting harm to civilians; the real blame rests on Hamas. The public relations disaster this latest episode seemingly engenders–accusations of war crimes and the use of disproportionate force, the gory images of dead children, the gap between Israeli pronouncements and their actions–mean little to Israel’s minders: they know news and commentary flowing out of Gaza does little to convince or sway anyone. Most minds are already made up on the Israel-Palestine ‘conflict.’

Which is not good news for the Israelis, but it’s worse for the Palestinians. Certainly, there is ample worldwide rhetorical support for their cause, but the material circumstances of their being and the imbalance in the reckoning of Israeli and Palestinian resources–the former backed up by the not inconsiderable economic and military might of the US, and by its reluctance to exert its diplomatic will to bring a halt to the fighting–mean this conflict, and the others like it that will follow, will weaken the Palestinian cause further. If Hamas’ hope is that by firing rockets–remarkably poorly directed and carrying little explosive punch–into Israel, it will provoke Israel into the kinds of actions that will increase Palestinian resentment and find more recruits–worldwide–for its cause, then it has reckoned accurately but perhaps not too wisely. (Its refusal of a ceasefire shows further lack of clear thinking.) There is diminishing support for the Palestinians in Israel, especially among those formerly undecided; Israelis themselves–as the retaliatory lynching of Palestinians and social media evidence demonstrates–are becoming increasingly radicalized and descending into a rhetorical space marked by bloodcurdling calls for genocidal acts against Palestinians. Indeed, they may even count on criticism of Israel as provoking a useful defensiveness and circling of the wagons.

The radicalization of resistance to Israel does not have the same implications for Israel as the radicalization of Israel has for Palestine. Once–perhaps in some mythical time–Israeli liberal and progressive factions could be counted on to mount some rhetorical and active resistance to that nation’s actions against the West Bank and Gaza; now, those same groups have shrunk and have ceded the discursive space to those of Netanyahu’s ilk. For two parties locked in war, extremist tendencies in the polity of the more powerful one can only have worse consequences for the other.

A pox has already fallen on both houses; one bears the brunt just a little more.

My Missing Uncle

The year I turned thirteen, a year after my father’s passing away, I spent part of my summer vacation, as usual, at my grandfather’s home in Central India. The days were long and hot, the afternoons slow and languorous, the evenings warm, the nights short and cool. We–my brother, my cousins, and I–played cricket in the mornings, drank lemonade, went swimming in a nearby river, and hitched rides on my uncle’s mining company’s trucks to visit the mines themselves, where we could see rock faces blown to bits by explosive charges. And in quieter moments, I would read books–picking one after the other from the shelves in our living room–and look through the family’s old photo albums.

The albums in my grandfather’s home had heirloom status by now; they were filled with a black and white photographic record of my father’s family, from their earliest days in this small town, all the way down to the present day. I delighted in examining these photos again and again, revisiting weddings, birthdays, festival celebrations, travels on vacation. A central pleasure in these investigations was that of seeing an uncle or an aunt in their childhood incarnation: there he was, good ‘ol A__, back in the day as a rakish young college student, slim and dapper, moustached, long before he grew heavy and sedate; there she was, our lovely aunt C__, looking almost impossibly glamorous, long before she resigned herself to household duties and bringing up her daughters. Sometimes they were teenagers, sometimes they were even younger.

One evening, while looking through a set of photographs of a family trip to Kashmir in 1950, I came upon a group photograph, posed against the backdrop of a beautiful lake ringed by hills. We chuckled over how callow some of our grizzled elders looked, how slim, how dashing, how innocent. We named them all, exclaiming in surprise at the changes wrought by the years. We were brought up short by a young lad, sitting quietly in the front row, his legs neatly tucked beneath him. Who was this? He looked vaguely like my uncle’s son, my ten-year old cousin–who could he be? We didn’t dwell on the mystery too long; our family was capacious, and it was not too surprising to find out members of it were unknown to us.

A day or so later, I showed my uncle–my father’s younger brother–the photograph and asked him who the lad was. My uncle said he was his younger brother. He had been my uncle’s little buddy, a friend, someone to be taken care of and protected, just the way he had been by my father. He named him. It was the first time I had ever heard the name  uttered in my presence. I had never met him.  I couldn’t have, for he had died a year after that photograph had been taken. He had been set to follow my father and my uncle–his older brothers–to boarding school in Delhi, and indeed, had his baggage packed and ready to go, when he had come down suddenly with a mysterious intestinal ailment. Despite being rushed to the doctors and extended the best care possible under the circumstances–in a small town in Central India in the 1950s–he had passed away. He had been nine years old.

My grandmother and grandfather confirmed the story. My uncle–that little boy–was their youngest child. They had loved him dearly, pampering him in a way they hadn’t their first two sons. They had held him back at home a little longer, not wanting to send him away to Delhi to boarding school as quickly as they had sent my father and uncle. As they spoke, tears welled up in their eyes.  My grandfather, a gruff and stern man, visibly weakened as he spoke; my grandmother, always soft-spoken, murmured in even lower tones.

So I had had another uncle, one who didn’t even grow to be as old as I was when I first heard of him. Had he survived his mystery illness, he would have been twenty-three or so years older than me. Calling him ‘uncle’, conferring upon him that avuncular title makes him sound older; he was just a little kid.Till I had seen that photograph and persisted in my curiosity, no one had ever mentioned him to me. His death was a tragedy that no one spoke of; perhaps it was too distant in time, too many years had gone by; perhaps the memory was too painful. I never learned much more about my father’s brother. My grandparents passed away; my uncle’s memories of him remained limited.

My father, certainly, had never spoken of his little brother. I knew, in the days and weeks and months and years following my father’s passing away that I would find out more about him–that my childhood picture of him would change in many ways unanticipated. I had not reckoned that I would find out that he had once been a teenager, who had received a devastating letter from his parents telling him his youngest brother had passed away.

In the brief time I knew my father, he had been carrying around, somewhere in the spaces of his memories, recollections of a long-dead brother. In some roundabout way, to learn about my uncle was to learn something about my father, about what he might have had in that part of himself that he kept hidden from his children