New Internationalist

Reviews

Issue 275

Reviews

The NI Star rating system. Music

The Soul of Black Peru
by Various Artists
(Warner Bros CD 9362-45878-2)

The Soul of Black Peru Here’s another David Byrne compilation of music from Latin America that’s little known in the North. Don’t expect pan pipes – you’re more likely to hear the sound of teeth shaken in a mule’s jawbone, or the caioti (a ‘box’ percussion instrument now widely borrowed by other Latin musicians).

The most striking thing about the collection is its range. If you begin with the first track, Susana Baca’s poignant Maria Lando, you’ll not be prepared for the second, the upbeat Yo No Soy Jaqui from Manuel Donayre. Before you get to the end you’ll be hard-pushed not to be moved by Chabuca Granda’s rendition of Una Larga Noche, a lament built around the repetition of the dance’s lyrical name, the Zamacueca.

The emotional force that drives the best of these songs is, however, pain – pain inflicted by racism, set against the playfulness or sorrow of the music. ‘We come from Hell / Don’t be scared of us / Devils! Devils! / With our tails and horns / We’ve only come to dance,’ sing Peru Negro. For this is the music of Peru’s disregarded black people, the descendants of slaves kept in isolated communities along the coast, close to the heart of the old Spanish empire. The pain is not a relic in the words. If you listen hard – and read the sometimes unreliable translation of poetic lyrics – you can hear it in the voices and the instruments.

We owe David Byrne a lot for bringing such wonderful music to a wider audience. His magpie instincts can lead him into mistakes, like his own version of Maria Lando which ends the collection in a jumble of smooth sounds and hideous Spanish. You don’t get much idea, either, of the devastation of Peru, the sharpening of the pain, in recent years. Most of the recordings have been resurrected from the early 1970s.

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Books

When Corporations Rule the World
by David C Korten
(Earthscan ISBN 1-85383-313-4)

When Corporations Rule the World Hitting the nail smack on its head is a rare ability – and David C Korten has got it. With one simple observation he disables the argument that equates free-market economics with democracy: ‘In a political democracy, each person gets the vote. In the market, one dollar is one vote, and you get as many votes as you have dollars. No dollar, no vote.’

Korten is not a left-winger backed by a radical tradition. He is very much a product of the establishment – Harvard Graduate Business School, the Ford Foundation, USAID. But over the course of 30 years working in different parts of world he has managed to keep his eyes and his mind open. His verdict on what the free market and its overlords – the multinational corporations – are doing to the world is unambivalent. We are, he says, suffering from a threefold human crisis: the deepening of poverty, social disintegration and environmental destruction. At the heart of this crisis is the tyrannical dominance of corporations. Unaccountable, polluting and driven by a blinkered addiction to economic growth, they serve the interests of a very small international élite and are harming the rest of us.

Nothing startlingly new about this analysis. What is new is the direction it’s coming from, and the persuasive clarity and authority with which Korten mounts his case. He is extremely well-informed and commands a punchy, personal, writing style that can connect with a diverse readership. He is also well abreast of developing trends. ‘The economic globalization process is creating islands of wealth in poor countries and seas of poverty in rich countries,’ he comments. This makes seeing the world as divided along class lines more meaningful than in terms of ‘rich countries’ and ‘poor countries’.

Korten pins his hopes on the ‘ecological revolution’ that is bound to come. He also looks to an ‘awakening civil society’ and the growth of social movements – drawing quite plausibly on examples from around the world. Korten sets forth an agenda to ‘reclaim the economic spaces... in favour of the small and locally accountable’. It sounds like another example of well-established green ideas entering the mainstream, and being presented as something new. That aside, Korten’s mixture of acute observation, common-sense practicality and vigorous idealism may open more than a few minds.

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Note: States of Disarray by UNRISD (reviewed in NI 270) is now published by Earthscan
(ISBN 185383 3185) and is available from good bookstores.

 

Film

Cyclo
directed by Tran Anh Hung

Tran Anh Hung’s debut feature Scent of Green Papayas was a delicately observed study of female servitude set in a Vietnam still colonized by the French in the 1950s. In tone it was austere but gentle, with only clues of the impending changes that were to convulse the country.

In Cyclo Hung explores the discord. Set in contemporary Ho Chi Minh City, it is an extraordinary, difficult film that challenges the viewer with its abstract range of jarring images.

The title is the nickname of the protagonist who runs a cycle-rickshaw taxi, zig-zagging through the city to earn enough to support two sisters and a grandmother following the death of his parents.

But as the film commences, his pedal cab is stolen, precipitating a series of terrible events as he resorts to crime in order to pay back the woman who rented it to him. In this respect Cyclo follows the narrative of Bicycle Thieves, Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 Italian neo-realist classic that examined the state of post-war Italy through the simple story of a father’s and son’s search for a stolen bike.

But while the film documents the social reality of modern post-war Vietnam, Tran is more concerned to examine the scarred states of mind. Cyclo works on a metaphorical level as a cinematic poem that draws one into the mad confusion inherent in a country that has been put though so many violent upheavals. This is one of the most important and evocative films to have been made about Vietnam.

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LF

Reviews by Lizzie Francke, David Ransom and Vanessa Baird
Reviews editor: Vanessa Baird

T H E[image, unknown] C L A S S I C
Janus: A Summing Up
...being the book that looks both ways

‘To put it crudely: evolution has left a few screws loose between the neocortex and the hypothalamus.’ Thus Arthur Koestler defines his hypothesis of ‘schizophysiology’ in Janus. Written towards the end of his life this book serves as a summation of his earlier scientific writings – among them The Act of Creation, The Case of the Midwife Toad and The Ghost in the Machine. ‘Schizophysiology’ is a condition which Koestler sees as singularly human. It seeks to explain ‘the chronic, quasi-schizophrenic split between reason and emotion’ and does so by an evolutionary argument which runs as follows.

On top of inherited ‘reptilian’ and ‘lower mammalian’ neurological structures, a thin cerebral cortex has developed whose complexity and capacity is unique to humans. The cortex regulates those faculties – language, reason, thought – considered distinctively human. The reptilian and mammalian ‘mush’ below the cortex control those parts of consciousness to do with the instincts and the affections. Koestler’s argument is that most of the catastrophes of human history have resulted from the fact that these two controlling sectors of the brain have failed to work in concert with one another. Where one might expect reason to check aggression, it has more often than not fostered it. The thesis takes on urgency in a post-Hiroshima age in which the ultimate catastrophe has become technologically possible. But Koestler is no pessimist. His intention in writing Janus is to construct ‘An Alternative to Despair’. The divided brain hypothesis is a physiological one, he reminds us, ‘and any condition which can be expressed in physiological terms should ultimately be accessible to remedies’.

The remedies he most rigorously proposes are biochemical ones – and in its whacky belief in a drug-based panacea the book belongs to the decade in which it was published. But Koestler is not at all impressed by the Aldous Huxley or Timothy Leary versions of this argument, which he sees as deplorably hedonistic. What he has in mind is something more mundane that would neither promote nor suppress reason or emotion, but reconcile them to one another. Not only is he optimistic that such a substance can be discovered or invented; he is also rather sanguine in failing to consider that a humanity as schizoid as he says it is might abuse it rather than respect it.

Janus: A Summing Up

I should say immediately that prescribing drugs is only a small part of Koestler’s job in Janus. There is a long, erudite, but compellingly readable central section in which he demolishes Darwinian evolution. This is especially important because the Darwinian theory of random mutation plus natural selection denies the role of goal-directed activity in species development. If a change in the physiology of the human brain will occur thanks only to chance and a favourable environment, we might as well stop striving now. By stressing the once-unfashionable case that evolution occurs where it answers a need of a species, Koestler again gives significance to human choice and purposive activity.

The book’s title derives from the name of the Greek god who is usually depicted as having two faces, one looking to the past, the other to the future. Koestler’s preoccupation with schizophysiology involves him in looking to the past in terms of human, and natural, history. But it also leads him to offer sketch lines for a human future which he assumes will take place. Typically, and daringly, he makes thrilling jumps from the discoveries of quantum physics in the first half of this century to meditations on extra-terrestrial life and parapsychology. Although the seemingly miraculous evolution of the human cerebrum is not explained by Darwinian theory – which demands progress in small steps, and denies that it happens in giant leaps – Koestler reminds us that it would be a mistake to assume that the brain has reached anything like its full capacity. Once we have ‘learned to use our brains’ better we will take seriously psychic phenomena which are currently excluded from proper consideration by the ‘strait-jacket which nineteenth-century materialism, combined with reductionism and the rationalist illusion, imposed on our philosophical outlook’.

I am no fan of projected biochemical utopias, I am rather sceptical of parapsychology, and I believe the search for extra-terrestrial life is rather like looking for a needle in a haystack. Nonetheless, I don’t find myself casting Janus aside the way I would many other books on these issues. For one thing, Koestler’s convictions are strongly underwritten by the intelligence and wide-ranging knowledge with which he explains them. For another, his sense that much of the world is still to be discovered, and that we have still to discover a lot more about ourselves, is a rich resource in an age of seemingly terminal social apathy. Finally, as we settle habitually into the orthodoxies which we allow to regulate our daily lives, we need confident eccentrics to unsettle us and help us to look, like Janus, the other way too. Koestler was as confident and as eccentric as they come.

Macdonald Daly

Janus: A Summing Up by Arthur Koestler is published by Pan Books, 1978.

©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996


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