Amitav Ghosh And Dževad Karahasan On ‘An Aesthetic of Indifference’

In his essay The Ghosts of Mrs. Gandhi (New Yorker, July 1995), Amitav Ghosh introduces the reader to the Bosnian writer Dževad Karahasan and his ‘remarkable essay called Literature and War (published…in the collection Sarajevo, Exodus of a City), which ‘makes a startling connection between modern literary aestheticism and the contemporary world’s indifference to violence.’ Ghosh goes on to quote Karahasan:

Let us not fool ourselves…The world is written first – the Holy Books say that it was created in words and all that happens in it, happens in language first.

and concludes:

It is when we think of the world the aesthetic of indifference might bring into being that we recognize the urgency of remembering the stories we have not written.

Ghosh is invoking here his own long-held silence, finally broken by the publication of his essay in 1995, an account of ordinary citizens’ reactions to the terrifying pogroms conducted in New Delhi against the Sikh community in 1984–as reprisals for the assassination of Mrs. Gandhi, the Indian prime minister, by her Sikh bodyguards.Ghosh interprets this reticence in light of Karahasan’s remark that ‘The decision to perceive literally everything as an aesthetic phenomenon – completely sidestepping questions about goodness and truth – is an artistic decision. That decision started in the realm of art, and went on to become characteristic of the contemporary world.’ He resolves his indecision about writing about the 1984 killings by conducting a form of self-inquiry: Is he a writer or a citizen? Should he write about the riots and his response to it, as the former or as the latter? Should he only write about the violence, or all else that accompanied it too? Write Ghosh finally does, as a citizen, as a human, as a friend, who is a writer too.

In so doing, in recounting tales of terror, cruelty, and bravery, Ghosh depicts a world infected not by an ‘aesthetic of indifference’ but one of engagement and attention. A world created with an aesthetic of indifference would be a bland and colorless one; it would lack the horrors of the world Ghosh describes but also its animating spirit. Karahasan’s remark about the primacy of the word suggests an even more radical fate for the world not written about: it ceases to exist.

The point to be made here, that the writer bears a responsibility to pay attention to the world around him, to make note of it with an unflinching eye, is an old one. Indeed, it is disappointingly conventional: the writer must write; all else is subordinate to this foundational principle; to not write is to commit an existentialist sin.

Ghosh’s own reflections add another twist: that the responsibility to write about catastrophe has a moral dimension; the writer must not seek out an affected, neutral, ‘from on high’ pulpit from which to issue commentary, but must instead introduce his own moral perspective into the words written, that his writing must bear his personal impress. These perspectives introduce into what would otherwise be merely voyeuristic forays into the violence of atrocities, a much-needed corrective: they make human and comprehensible the inexplicable. In a world underwritten by an aesthetic of indifference we look on unflinchingly at the terrible, but our gaze is a banal and bland one. Its sees little; it feels even less. What could be worse?

Samuel Bagenstos On The Mistaken Decision To Jail Kim Davis

Over at The New Republic Samuel Bagenstos offers some spot-on analysis of the decision to jail Kim Davis, ” the Rowan County, Kentucky, clerk who defied a U.S. Federal Court order requiring that she issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples” and concludes:

To many observers…the drama is the point. By making a prominent example of those who obstinately refuse to comply with federal-court orders, they believe, we send a strong message that no individual is above the law. But what is the lesson courts are teaching in these cases: that the constitutional principle of equal citizenship is a basic commitment, or simply that judges are powerful people who, like parents, are not to be messed with? Sometimes, basic constitutional principles cannot be enforced without drama; without the 101st Airborne, the Little Rock schools would not have been desegregated. But federal judges should always be focused on vindicating the rights of those who invoke their jurisdiction. If the judges can vindicate those rights without demanding an ostentatious show of submission to their authority, they should do so.

I agree with Bagenstos: the real issue here is not Davis’ stance, it is the denial of legal rights to same-sex couples. Theirs is the story worth covering; Davis is merely fodder for mockery. (And sadly, too much of it is about her looks, her multiple marriages, and her adulterous life. The hypocrisy of the publicly religious is an old and well-worn joke; the marriage of that brand of humor with sexism and misogyny ensures a deeply unedifying discourse around this issue that only serves to obscure its relevant details.)

Judges cannot be expected to think too deeply about their participation in political theater and how their rulings and orders can be made to perform on its stage. Some, of course, are more self-aware about this possibility for co-optation than others. The judge who jailed Kim Davis was, presumably, not a member of the Left or the Right in his capacity as a judge, and thus cannot be castigated for having handed the Religious Right its latest hobby horse, ridden by its latest hero. But there is a great deal of wisdom in Bagenstos’ claim that from a jurisprudential perspective, one committed to revealing in each ruling the sinews of the legal, political, and pragmatic principles at play, the right thing to do in this case was to affirm constitutional principles of equal citizenship and not the power of the courts to compel obedience.

The former kind of ruling immediately forces a conversation about the rights and claims of citizenship, about the basic promise of a republic–remember, ‘res publica’, a nation of laws, equality before the law, the greatest political and moral deliverance of the modern, post-empire era; the latter merely brings us to face with the oldest, crudest forms of legal positivism, that the law serves as a cloak for the supreme power of a sovereign entity, which can enforce its decrees by crude force, handcuffs, and detainment. A conversation about the former would have shone the spotlight of bigotry and hypocrisy on Davis; the latter let her claim it as her due for heroism.  A tour of the talk-show circuit, and perhaps even a book contract await her.

Handing Over The Keys To The Driverless Car

Early conceptions of a driverless car world spoke of catastrophe: the modern versions of the headless horseman would run amok, driving over toddlers and grandmothers with gay abandon, sending the already stratospheric death toll from automobile accidents into ever more rarefied zones, and sending us all cowering back into our homes, afraid to venture out into a shooting gallery of four-wheeled robotic serial killers. How would the inert, unfeeling, sightless, coldly calculating programs  that ran these machines ever show the skill and judgment of human drivers, the kind that enables them, on a daily basis, to decline to run over a supermarket shopper and decide to take the right exit off the interstate?

Such fond preference for the human over the machinic–on the roads–was always infected with some pretension, some make-believe, some old-fashioned fallacious comparison of the best of the human with the worst of the machine. Human drivers show very little affection for other human drivers; they kill them by the scores every day (thirty thousand fatalities or so in a year); they often do not bother to interact with them sober (over a third of all car accidents involved a drunken driver); they rage and rant at their driving colleagues (the formula for ‘instant asshole’ used to be ‘just add alcohol’ but it could very well be ‘place behind a wheel’ too); they second-guess their intelligence, their parentage on every occasion. When they can be bothered to pay attention to them, often finding their smartphones more interesting as they drive. If you had to make an educated guess who a human driver’s least favorite person in the world was, you could do worse than venture it was someone they had encountered on a highway once. We like our own driving; we disdain that of others. It’s a Hobbesian state of nature out there on the highway.

Unsurprisingly, it seems the biggest problem the driverless car will face is human driving. The one-eyed might be king in the land of the blind, but he is also susceptible to having his eyes put out. The driverless car might follow traffic rules and driving best practices rigorously but such acquiescence’s value is diminished in a world which otherwise pays only sporadic heed to them. Human drivers incorporate defensive and offensive maneuvers into their driving; they presume less than perfect knowledge of the rules of the road on the part of those they interact with; their driving habits bear the impress of long interactions with other, similarly inclined human drivers. A driverless car, one bearing rather more fidelity to the idealized conception of a safe road user, has at best, an uneasy coexistence in a world dominated by such driving practices.

The sneaking suspicion that automation works best when human roles are minimized is upon us again: perhaps driverless cars will only be able to show off their best and deliver on their incipient promise when we hand over the wheels–and keys–to them. Perhaps the machine only sits comfortably in our world when we have made adequate room for it. And displaced ourselves in the process.

 

Parental Rage And Giving Babies The Bird

Rebecca Schuman–who often pisses off many on the Internet thanks to her writing on modern academia–recently made herself the target of a great deal of vitriol thanks to a post on Slate that featured her giving her sleeping baby the bird. The usual avalanche of abuse, characteristic of Internet furores, spilled forth: threats to report her to Child Protective Services, death threats, and of course, the ‘bitch’ and ‘cunt’ endearments that are so well-known to women who write online.

For any not-entirely-clueless parent, Schuman was simply articulating–in jest, with a pair of middle fingers–an emotion that is all too familiar: parental rage, one grounded in frustration with our little darlings, our angels, the loves of our lives. It’s not just ‘go the fuck to sleep,’ it’s also ‘will you please eat your fucking food,’ ‘sit still so I can put your fucking clothes on,’ ‘let’s fucking go; you’re fucking making me late for work.’ The number of f-bombs that have detonated in my cranium over the past thirty-two months would easily stock the arsenal of a mid-sized militaristic nation. And sometimes they don’t just go off in my head. (Earlier this morning, after carefully negotiating with my daughter the terms and conditions under which she would agree to eat her breakfast, I found out the contract had been torn up; but there was no one to turn to report this breach; and no way to convince the offending party that she had attacked the very foundations of a liberal society. Seethe, seethe, seethe; then subside.)

Lack of sleep and the mind-numbing catatonia it induces are to blame in part. So is the basic fact of parenting: a long, sustained encounter with a brand new human being, with all his or her personal vagaries, one seemingly put here on this planet to test your patience and fortitude. Schuman was merely expressing one facet of the emotions that surge through a parent who so desperately wants to sleep but is unable to; things will get much worse when that little ‘angelic’ infant will become a toddler with a louder wail, a fine repertoire of tantrums, and a functioning vocabulary with which to get sassy, talk back, and say ‘no’ an infinite number of times.

Quite honestly, I’m unable to understand the anger directed at Schuman. The folks who so raged at her were, at best, sanctimonious prigs; at worst, they were clearly misogynistic. For Schuman’s biggest mistake was to suggest–and this is not news at all–that motherhood or parenting is not an unqualified blessing. Unsurprisingly, it was a conservative woman twitterer who led one portion of the mob; for that demographic, even humor directed at the institution of parenting is sacrilege. And equally unsurprisingly, as will be evident from the nature of the abuse directed at Schuman, there was ample hypocrisy and just plain old incoherence on display.

Schuman will ride this one out; and when it is all over, she should publish a few photos of her baby giving her the finger right back. That’s what they seem to do on all too many occasions.

Donald Trump And The Art Of The Presidential Deal

Shortly after I arrived in the US in 1987, I began working in my campus cafeteria (at the then minimum wage of $4.25 an hour.) One of my non-student companions at work was a young man who worked on the weekends as a replacement for the weekday staff. He was frivolous and funny and irreverent; he brought a little sparkle to what was otherwise a dreary pair of eight-hour shifts. Among other things, he introduced me to the colloquialism ‘dead presidents,’ telling me that collecting them was his favorite pastime, the hobby that was way more useful and relevant, in this day and age, than philately or lepidoptery. (I realize the latter is not a hobby, but you catch my drift.)

And one fine day, he informed that the person he respected the most was Donald Trump. Who?

I did not know who ‘the Trump’ was. My friend informed me, in a slightly breathless and incredulous tone of voice, that Trump was a ‘go-getter,’ ‘a man who knew what he wanted,’ ‘a leader.’ He knew how to make money; he didn’t put up with bullshit. The evidence was there for all to see: all those buildings he had ‘built,’ the millions he had amassed–he was, you see, a great and accomplished collector of dead presidents.

Intrigued by this transparently sincere account of hero-worship–and still fascinated by the phenomenon of the American businessman as cultural hero, a fact which I had noticed in the adulation directed at Lee Iacocca–I resolved to read Trump’s ‘autobiography’, The Art of the Deal. (I had also read Iacocca’s autobiography, unimaginatively titled Iacocca: An Autobiography, by then.)

Book-length brags by corporate tycoons are not unknown in publishing; Iacocca’s book was a good example of it. Trump took it to the next level. The rest of the world merely put up barriers; Trump destroyed them. The world consisted of bureaucrats and those who would choke the honest, money-making ambitions of good Americans; they stood in the way of all that was good and pure about the American Dream[tm]. Trump fought them all. And he won. It was, truth be told, a curiously thrilling story. There was adversity; it was overcome. There was grime and dirt and squalor; majestic–even if gaudy and architecturally loud–buildings rose over it all. (One of them even offered the cleanest public restrooms in New York City; they had pink walls!.) And money, the thing that seemingly enabled the good life, was made. Lots of it. The Rising Tide of Trump floated the boats of all those who jumped in on the deals he made.

I lost contact with the legend of Trump after that. From time to time, I would receive periodic updates: perhaps a divorce, a television show, an intervention in politics. He never seemed to move too far away from the spotlight. His presidential candidacy was unsurprising; he must have known all along that he excited a curious fascination in the American mind, that his tale of big money and relentless ambition and hustle would resonate with many.

Trump is not a fool even if he is a buffoon. He is wealthy and ambitious; he knows what resonates with those who believe this rigged world is their oyster in potentia. He knows that if he spends enough money, he could win this all. And write another bestseller about the experience.

Confession: I do not know if Trump is serious about his presidency bid or if he is simply angling for a new television show.