Thursday, 27 October 2011

The Gender Disaster

The 11,000-year-old Ain Sakhri Lovers Figurine. If one is female and the other is male, it is impossible to tell which is which: because all who can love must be equal.
Disaster: when hazard and vulnerability collide, bringing loss of life – or worse, destruction of life – and harm to that which gives it function or meaning. But here is a disaster of which we still know next to nothing of what the hazard was, nor of how it warped us; indeed, which we often fail to acknowledge as disaster at all.

The following is an excerpt from an as yet unpublished work of mine: Disgrace – Why humanity can be so much better, first drafted in October 2010, one year before this post.

Sunday, 23 October 2011


Today I make some special acknowledgements.

We live in a perilous age for human society. In Britain alone, it was with shock that I learnt on my path that all too often, substance in the relationship between human and human is absent. Only an image exists, a pretence, a veneer, of formulas of speech and feigned concern. Beneath it, a self calculates to its own advantage, and devotes special disdain to those who do not conform to a vacuous "Normality" by which it judges all who come before it. This, they call "friendship": to play by the rules; to not question; to be Normal – at all costs, Normal.

Britain left me aggrieved that (with a few significant exceptions) this was all there was left: that any true connection between human and human had evaporated in a society drunk on greed, self-regard, and the arrogance that one's own perspective was the only legitimate approach to life, with all alternatives dangerous, meriting categorization with medical labels or destruction altogether.

But here, in barely the space of a month, some of the faith in humanity which our civilizations grinded from my heart over twenty-five years has been restored. From across the wide, wide realms of Earth, I have met legends in the making: human beings whose concern is not to Normalize all that they see, but to make this world the best place it can be for a humankind of diversity: beautiful diversity. Diversity that brings good things to all within it, and harm to none.

Most times, I write to lay siege to the enemies of diversity. But today, at the culmination of a climactic week: I write to salute its friends.

The unstoppable;

The assertive;

The discerning;

The legendary;

The adventurous;


The formidable;

The profound;

The sagacious;

And the courageous, those who have abided through impossible eternities and will yet defy the broken societies which challenge them...

 And of course, all those others I couldn't find photos for >_<

And here's one for the Warcraft crew, past and present. In the spirit of Hallow's End, spot my Yogg-Saron...

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

The UN University

Six weeks of it are not enough to reach conclusions, but so far, this has been a rewarding setting.

The UN University's approach is problem-focused and multidisciplinary: indeed, makes much of the inadequacy of our traditional approach (of segregating our knowledge into a million neatly-labeled but insular boxes) for solving the world's problems. This is good.

In this month and a half, we Masters students have completed two out of the four core courses that make up the foundations of the Sustainability, Development and Peace degree programme: Global Change and Sustainability (i.e. our screwups in our relationship with the Earth), and International Peace and Security (i.e. our screwups in our relationships with each other). Neither have sought to paper over the depressive scale and depth of the mistakes we have made, the horrors we have wrought. Yet concurrently, both have considered the many courageous and admirable steps which humans worldwide dare take to drag us out from the pit. Recognition of both is essential; so this, too, is good.

I have a high impression thus far of the faculty. Most importantly of all, the professors are human: typically with perceptible ethical compasses, and easy approachability. The student-professor hierarchical barrier which often imposes itself in national universities, and in some cases becomes an obnoxious end in itself, has not been an issue here at all. (Though that is not to say there is a shortage of ethical, approachable professors of high integrity in national universities: you know who you are!) As yet, and bearing in mind my limited exposure thus far, I find it hard to envisage the UNU partaking in other dodgy categories of things either. That, too, is good.

And the courses are engaging. Their content is rigorous and topical; and where it might not be, it becomes made so by the incisive scrutiny of students each of diverse and eventful journeys from across the globe, who know what matters to them and have more than enough guts to assert it. This is refreshing: in too much of the world, including Britian, learning becomes about obeying the established and regurgitating their canons, rather than thinking and making original arguments for yourself (and think how much this has devastated fields like International Relations, with so few ready to challenge even the most preposterous of nonsenses!).

Occasionally one senses a bit of content imbalance; for example, not enough attention to climate change mitigation (i.e. rich countries bothering about reducing GHG emissions), relative to the large attention to adaptation (i.e. poor countries putting up with being hit hardest by climate disasters they did the least to create). But for courses in a continuous and active process of growth and improvement, such things are forgivable. The courses themselves are on a journey, and it will be interesting to watch their evolution in the coming years.

Where do our journeys lead?
What I have yet to learn, pending feedback on my main compositions thus far, is whether my perspective on the world's problems has a practical place, and if so, then in what direction that might lie. Here as everywhere I bear the dissonance produced in Britain, which led me at times to question my humanity. Still do the flames rage beneath about chasms which cannot be bridged, doors which once opened never close. Still gnaw that society's twisted judgements of why, conclusions of absolute certainty, and still do they echo, so insufferable as to take on sentience of their own and hunt for every slightest possible resonance.

Perhaps it must always be so. I recall my recent acquaintance with Systems Theory. Inputs go in, and the system transforms them into Outputs. Inputs may be controllable, or partially so. But what if that box in the middle, the System where they transform, runs not on logic but on things which cannot be defined in words? If madness is sanity and sanity madness, who would know? Outputs at times can bear little relation to what you're doing with the Inputs.

I become aware that my approach might seem unorthodox. Some say idealistic, for good or for ill, although I dispute the accuracy of that term, because issues of how we define ourselves as humanity have real, outright practical consequences for how and whether we solve our problems. Nor do I accept that nature or reality in this world are as straightforward as we like to think. How much traction will the wheels of this vehicle of pursuit find on the roads of the United Nations? We shall see.

Oh, and they gave us free UN University mugs. Isn't that nice?

In fact, the outings and thematic excursions have been a marvellous experience – especially in a country perhaps more challenging than most, financially and socially, to outsiders who seek to explore its secrets. For this great credit is due to the IC Secretariat, and partner organizations, for all their hard work in arranging these events.

Of course, this is not a path one treads lightly. It was with shock that I learnt on the opening day that we twelve students were the successful candidates from a international applicant pool of several hundred. I wish no advantage that comes to another person's detriment, so the thought oftentimes weighs heavy. This route is one of obligation: and as such, I am committed to make full use of whatever opportunities exist in this unfolding chapter to drive forth my exploration of what has gone so fundamentally wrong in our world, and to uproot its founts.

The question is not of idealism and reality. It is of how to repair a reality utterly fractured.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Reflections on Guyana 2 - The Bina Hill Institute

See also:
Reflections on Guyana (19 August 2011)

The Bina Hill Institute was my place of work for six remarkable weeks in 2010. It featured in my previous Guyana reflections, but is special enough to deserve its own attention.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

On Kabuki

Kabuki: to outsiders, at least, the iconic face of traditional Japan. It is approximately four hundred years old, taking on form in the Edo period of the Tokugawa shoguns, but grew from a wider range of theatrical styles going back centuries more. While the reserved and sombre noh drama catered to aristocrats and samurai, kabuki became the theatre of the commoners, and burst forth with their brash and vibrant energy.

Thanks to the UNU, I today had my first experience of kabuki: a performance of Kaimaku Kyoki Adauchi Monogatari (A story of 'vengeance on the Ashikaga shogun clan') at the National Theatre of Japan, based on a classic Edo period novel, and performed this month of 2011 for the first time since 1874. Photography was prohibited, so unfortunately I have little in the way of visual aids for you today.

Set in the Muromachi period (~1336-~1573) during the rule of the Ashikaga shoguns, the story tells of how the third shogun, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, successfully unified the warring Northern and Southern Dynasties – then ruthlessly massacred the Southern generals and their supporters to pave the way for his personal rule over all of Japan. The drama follows two descendents of these generals as they seek to avenge this evil, from which unfolds a gripping tale encompassing boatloads of conflict and political brutality, a bandit lord who is more than he seems, a conniving femme fatale, an ancient and powerful forest spirit and a princess-warrior who under that ancient's tutelage developed tremendous power, and much else besides – all played out upon a dynamic stage of breathtaking Japanese artistic scenery.

A traditional tale, packed with timeless tropes. But I recently wrote of the ever-evolving journey of art, and the most profound impression I drew from today's performance was that kabuki, like all forms of art, is still very much on its journey: still travelling, still adapting, still growing and thinking and changing. Potent are the constants: the acting roles and stage assistants, the costumes and rhythms and eruptions of motion, the clappers and drums and shamisen; but blended seamlessly into their flow were technology-assisted acrobatics; the great ancient of the forest mounted on a robotic white wolf and wearing a Lady Gaga headpiece; and with uproarious spontaneity, a shout-out to the Japanese international football team in a roadside inn, complete with uniformed performers, a referee's whistle and a full-pace rendition on shamisen of the FIFA anthem.

Sturdy roots that dig deep to its past; boughs which grow measuredly into its future. Change and continuity. A journey is made of both; cannot forsake either. From their dance comes beauty and meaning.

Statue of Izumo no Okuni, in Kyoto
One thing demands reflection: the absence of female performers. Conventionally, all roles in a kabuki drama – including female roles – are played by men. Responsibility for this lies with the Tokugawas: when kabuki was birthed in the female troupe performances of the seventeenth century, the authorities panicked at rowdiness and prostitiution at these sensational commoners' events and banned women from the stage, citing – as so often – public order. So instead the performances became the affair of boys, who in turn gave rise to the same issues and received the same prohibitions, on the same pretext. In the end kabuki performers were only allowed to consist of adult men with shaved heads; and through all the trials and tribulations of Japan's subsequent experience, this heritage remains at kabuki's core today.

An intriguing irony, considering that we might say kabuki owes its existence to those performing ladies of the early Edo period, perhaps best exemplified by Izumo no Okuni, who danced and sang in Kyoto while wearing her eccentric kimonos and dual-wielding samurai swords. Her word was hedonistic, her song of pleasure, finding a contradiction across the river of time in the princess-warrior of Kaimaku Kyoki Adauchi Monogatari today, whose single-minded pursuit was the dutiful demise of corrupt authority; and she was easily the most elegant and fearsome warrior of the story, with a personal kill count higher than all the other characters combined, and the only person to strike down an army of imperial palace elites, unassisted, with a minimum of movement and maximum of style.

And one cannot forget that magnificent monster, the widow of the reckless lord who meets his karmic fate early on; she who at one point is forced from her newfound "love" by the crime boss who would claim her as his property, and made to watch as they beat that luckless court official to death. Are we to sigh at the tired, gendered trope of women as bounty? No, because she instantly pledges herself wholeheartedly to the bandit boss, and by the very next scene she is not only his smug and lavishly-textiled wife, but more audacious and despotic than the boss himself, to the point of conspiring to kill him for his relative lack of daring, and in due course, duelling to the death with him in melee combat.

To think there are those in our world who care little for gender: who consider patriarchy natural, and believe all defiance of it to be modern – or even (hah!) Western. Complex gender dynamics roar with the resonance of ten thousand volcanoes through every volume of kabuki's story, from the spark that birthed it to the exciting new chapters it plays out today.

The National Theatre of Japan's introductory booklet sums it up: 'Kabuki preserves the precious tradition that has continued for ages, it revives and refreshes things from the past that have fallen into disuse, and it also creates new things that eventually may become a part of the tradition in turn. In this way...kabuki is continuing to be performed actively and to find a new place in contemporary Japanese society.'

In a way, this appears a reflection of the tale of Japan itself. It is interesting to think on how kabuki might look in, say, a hundred years' time; but for now, I feel it has much to celebrate on how far it has come, and much to look forward to as it surges forth on its tide of colour and life. I look forward to the next chance I get to watch it – for nothing else in this world is quite like it.

Among other things, I wonder whether female performers might by then be an integral aspect of the art. My expectation is yes: very much so, for such may be construed as logical whether one looks for its basis in future or past. And if so, would that be a revolution (a fundamental forward change)? Or a restoration (a return to fundamental foundations)? Again, ask the Tokugawas. About the fall of their shogunate in 1868 and "restoration" of imperial rule, the same question is still hotly contested.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Reflections on Humanity - "Corruption"

'Your petty quarrels only make me stronger!' - Yogg-Saron (World of Warcraft)

The United Nations University, in researching and seeking to address humanity's problems, focuses on three broad areas:

a) Global Change and Sustainability;
b) Peace and Security;
c) International Cooperation and Development.

Quite sensibly, it attempts to integrate these approaches: highlighting that the problems are not separate fields but rather interconected challenges to humanity, and so interconnected must the solutions also be.

Condensed, these problems – sustainability, peace, development – are as follows:
a) We wreck our world;
b) We wreck each other;
c) And we conduct our journey in such a way that not only permits this, but establishes it as natural.

"We" here indicates humanity's "prevailing tide". These problems are far from absolute, and in each of our lands we can likely identify people or communities who actually do rather well. Nonetheless, humanity on Earth is now in a crisis on all of these fronts.

Some of the problems we have created are unthinkable in the vast scope of their impacts, such as anthropogenic climate change or the Holocene Extinction Event – yes, the geological-scale destruction of the Earth's biosphere we are single-handedly creating. Some more of the problems are unthinkable in the depth of their sheer depravity: genocide; the drive to dominate others; gender; bigotries like racism or homophobia – of course these are a select few facets of a comprehensive calamity. Many, or most, defy explanation; represent twisted logic, broken sanity; cannot, and should not, be able to exist in the universe.

Human Nature?
Let's think for a moment how we got here. Human nature is something we can all argue all day about until the argument reduces to back-and-forth accusations of idealism or pessimism; but all we need here are the obvious basics. Two relationships define us from the opening to the present:
a) With the Earth: All of us, literally, are made of matter and energy from our planet and its star. They form the only system presently available for us to live in.
b) With each other: We are social animals, with reason and emotion as pillars. Whatever else, we can identify other human beings as somehow like ourselves; and we can rationalize, or empathize, a baseline of commonality, however limited it might be, between their experience of the world and our own.

Rationality is one of our most contentious concepts today, but from just these starting points, it's surely not controversial to conceive that it has an objective core, accessible to optimists and pessimists alike:
-We are supposed to look after the world we have, because if we ruin it, there is nowhere else we can live; and/or because we might care about it for its own sake.
-We are supposed to not harm one another, both because we can think and feel that it is wrong, through identifying with the impacts; and/or because we otherwise drive others to harm ourselves – and that also ruins us as a whole.

So take the universe as it began. The formation of our solar system. The first emergence of life on Earth. And at some point, the emergence of humanity.

Then take the situation now. A humanity that has established unthinking, unfeeling self-aggrandisement as its dominant paradigm, and annihilates itself and its geo-ecological context all the while knowing and protesting to itself that it is not supposed to. A prevailing direction, by which we turn on all that the story of our world has built over millennia – and devour it. If all this is nature, then it is as though nature is committing suicide.

My question is this. Is it conceivable, that in the universe's trajectory from whenever it started to the present time, nature alone could give rise to this situation?

Is nature inherently self-destructive? For the more scientific among you: can reality tend, innately and by way of its normal functioning, to its own unravelling? For the more spiritual: does an artist spend a lifetime constructing a beautiful work, and then – through the same mindset – consign it all to the flames?

What is the answer to that question? Reality balances order and chaos, but every consequence has a cause. Though empirical analysis may fail at the level at which we are looking here – simpy because none of us have eyes quite that big – my gut sense, and the best conclusion I can manage in these mortal circumstances, is No.

Breaking the Universe
The scale is alarming enough. The depth is scarier still.

It is the character of problems, not only their extent, that really provokes.
-Prejudices: nationalist, ethnic, spiritual, against apperances or behavioural traits, or against non-majority sexual orientations. Anyone who's encountered any of these prejudices can attest to the sheer power of hatred, of the unreasoning will to destruction, infused within them. Hatred, we might remind ourselves, of things either of no inherent harm to anybody or completely invented anyway. The tyranny of Normal. Where does this come from? It harms everyone it touches, benefits no-one. And yet it is powerful in every land.
-Gender: The scrawling of a line between male and female, equals who share in common humanity and individual diversity – both things way more tangible than mere difference in sex. The blasting in of grave imbalance, and pitting of the two against each other in a bitter conflict for social dominance, as though male and female were irreconcilable races from different dimensions. And they establish this as normal – as natural. Once more, all are made miserable – male and female – and nobody benefits. What could give rise to this?
-Violence to the Defenceless: The deliberate killing of noncombatants in war. Capital punishment. Rape, in all its manifestations. Torture. Things for which in most societies there are those who would either make pretexts, or defend as necessary, or natural, or inevitable, but for which none can hide the true driver: that people are doing these things because they enjoy it. To take pleasure from inflicting unspeakable suffering on others; to feel good about oneself in doing so; and in so doing, to disintegrate the humanity which gives society its reason to exist.

And this is without even beginning with politics and war. Legalism, the Curse of Qin Shihuang with which the Chinese journey has struggled for two thousand years, and in the CCP era continues to do so. The horror and hubris of Europe's colonialism, unfettered capitalism and wilful ordering of itself in such a way directly conducive to the two twentieth-century human cataclysms – not a fraction of this madness can be evoked on a page. The post-colonial calamities of Africa, and the sanity-defying carnage of some of those conflicts – and for those who hold to a linear view of development, who still remembers the relative peace and prosperity of that trade hub called Mogadishu a few hundred years back? The descent of the Balkans into the unstoppable hatreds of the last twenty years – for when national, ethnic and spiritual diversity does not in itself set us against each other, from where could come such intensity of will to bloodthirst that we saw in those conflicts?

Such things are not only tragic. They are also suspicious.

So again: is this the way things were logically meant to happen? Is this natural? Or did something go wrong?

As one human being contemplating humanity's situation, I cannot conceive of this as a natural outcome. Through reason or emotion, order or chaos, some of the things we have chosen to wreak on this planet come across as simply too broken to be natural. What is sanity in a world of madness? Problems are one thing; but the scale and depth of what we are looking at here penetrate to another level, beyond "problems".

And there is another reason I arrive at this thought. Consider humanity going on like this, indefinitely. Consider the implications if it is nature. The scenario that, despite our species's bravest efforts, there might always be callously-conducted wars, always be rape, always be bigotries that strike death into innocent souls in service of hatred for hatred's sake – and so on.
Compare the ethicality or desirability of that, with another scenario: human extinction.
Horrible; yet also the end of that brokenness, guaranteeting thereafter that the universe, or at least this part of it, will be free from us.
Evidently, not a pleasant comparison. Not a choice anyone should have to make – to me at least, these two are equally terrible, or if anything the former is worse. Yet if the brokenness is not nature, or at least not predominantly nature, it may be fixed: it offers the realistic hope that humanity may one day be free of its worst nightmares.

Not all its nightmares. Black and white idealism? There's a difference between nightmares you can wake up from – as one is meant to – and nightmares that saddle you permanently.

Not nature, but Corruption. Corruption as a term for whatever it is that might have gone wrong. What is Corruption? I have no bloody idea.

It could be anything, really. The universe is not small; and who knows the scale of whatever might be outside even that. Humanity observes and reaches conclusions about reality from an inconceivably microscopic position in space and time; there is far more we have yet to learn than we already have.

Something going wrong suggests agency. Brokenness might connote a breaker. What kind of breaker? A few of you reading this will recognize the creature whose thousand maws I opened this post with – and a few more might be aware of the creative tradition which inspired it. Do we want to know? Could we handle it if we did?

Yes, we could. We would have to. We are already handling its consequences and striving against them despite their soul-shattering twistedness. But for now, how do we locate what drives it? Whatever Corruption is, it must be found, and uprooted.

Deep stuff. But the easy act of dismissing the madness of humankind as simply our nature, as many of our traditions of thought seem so sure of, comes across as at best premature, at worst pernicious. We want better. We are capable of better. And we will only do better with a recognition that the disasters we've wrought over recent centuries and millennia – our lack of sustainability, our rejection of peace, and our distorted development – are neither the logical nor inherent direction of our journey, but a breakdown of it.