The publishers present this collection of essays on globalization as ‘an essential source for anyone wishing to understand the dynamic forces shaping our world’. Put more succinctly: ‘Know your enemy.’ The editors, in a dire introductory dialogue, perform a ‘hard cop-soft cop’ routine in which Anthony Giddens waxes enthusiastic about the immense benefits of global markets while Will Hutton utters vaguely liberal demurrals. They end by agreeing that, despite their differences, they are very much on the same side.
With contributors such as the currency speculator George Soros and Paul Volker, former Chairman of the Board of Governors of the US Federal Reserve, it is no surprise that the prevailing mood is so pro-globalization.
There are exceptions: Arlie Russell Hochschild writes a thoughtful piece on ‘global care chains’ and the commodification of family responsibilities; Robert Kuttner contributes a realistically gloomy assessment of the minimal role of governments in the global system. Generally, though, these pieces are paeans to deregulation and the disempowerment of labour, written by bosses for bosses; self-satisfied, myopic and paying scant attention to the protesting voices from the majority world.
It is left to Vandana Shiva, in luminous prose that puts to shame the turgid corporate-speak elsewhere, to point out the human and environmental cost of global capitalism. Her conclusion is stark and unarguable: ‘With no ethical, ecological or social limits to commerce, life itself is being pushed to the edge.’
Dreamer: A Novel
Charles Johnson’s eloquent novel traces the last years in the life of Martin Luther King. It begins in Chicago in 1966 when a man bearing a striking likeness to Dr King steps forward and offers to act as a decoy for the overstretched and underprotected civil-rights leader. The man, Chaym Smith, is seemingly the moral and spiritual antithesis of King. An embittered Korean War veteran, he is a loser, a cynic, possibly even a murderer. Nevertheless, he shares with King a taste for esoteric theology and philosophy and believes that, with better luck, he could have been King.
Almost against his better judgement, King agrees to take him on and instructs his aide Matthew Bishop to coach Smith in his role as stand-in. Alternating chapters contrast the attempts of Chaym Smith to seem like Martin Luther King with King’s own internal battle against self-doubt and the contradictions of conducting a non-violent struggle against a vicious and hate-riven system.
The passages describing the campaign’s chaotic progress are compelling and the portrait that emerges of Dr King, exhausted and forever questioning his own judgement, is entirely convincing. The only weak strand in the plot concerns Smith’s enigmatic disappearance – supposedly spirited away by the FBI – just before King’s murder in Memphis on 4 April 1968.
Finally, though, Dreamer is a fascinating consideration of the gap between image and substance and the appalling human price paid when moral authority challenges brute political power.
Twenty years ago William Least Heat-Moon took to the backroads of the United States and the result was the classic travel book Blue Highways. Now in River-Horse he has attempted a companion piece in which he undertakes an equally ambitious journey; crossing the continent by way of its inland waterways, a trip of over 5,000 miles. ‘I wanted to see those secret parts, hidden from road travellers,’ he wrote. Filling a bottle with Atlantic seawater he sets off up the Hudson River in the 22-foot C-Dory Nikawa (River-Horse in the Osage language), accompanied by his companion for the journey, ‘Pilotis’.
Unfortunately, for Heat-Moon the purpose of travel seems primarily to measure the impact his surroundings have on him. Though this is a long book and the author makes a creditable stab at depicting the landscape through which the boat passes, he seems to have little interest in finding out much about the people he meets beyond their capacity to inspire his artistic musings on life and fate. These frequent digressions soon pall and the reader is left with the impression that Heat-Moon became bored with the journey long before he emptied his bottle into the Pacific ocean.
This is an excellent idea wasted; fewer philosophical asides, less focus on the omnipresent ‘I’ and more attention to the people encountered along the way would have made this a better and a much more likeable book.
Silence is Sexy
The name means ‘Collapsing New Buildings’ and there has never been a band that is as much a product of its city as it is its reflection. The city that Einstürzende Neubauten (EN) has always so poetically and fiercely invoked is Berlin – in all its current reconstructions, intersections and rhetoric. Berlin occupies Silence is Sexy, the album with which Blixa Bargeld and band celebrated Neubauten’s twentieth anniversary on 1 April.
Specifically a band of West Berlin, Neubauten were always hard to pin down. Their first concert involved hammering a motorway fly-over to draw out a brutalist rhythm of its own; they soon progressed to pairing guitars with pneumatic drills, metal-grinders with drums. When one of Berlin’s most famous new buildings did collapse in 1980, early publicity granted EN an eerie prescience.
At their best, EN are an energizing, questioning band and Silence is Sexy — the album is, hardly surprisingly, not silent — has a mature and unswerving gaze. Their battery of found-sounds are marshalled into airy tangos, elemental attacks (‘Redukt’, ‘Alles’), and seduction (masquerading as a love-song, ‘Sabrina’ is, in all its alchemical metaphor, an exposition of loss). But the key work to this album, the one whose sheer focus and drive is utterly compelling, is ‘Die Befindlichkeit des Landes’ (‘The Lay of the Land’).
Like half of the album it’s in German, although full translations are provided. ‘Melancholy floats over the new city/ and over the land,’ goes the English. Taking in the concrete, the ruins, the scarred land and phantom pain, this is EN’s hymn to the new republic and it’s a frightening prospect. A sadness has always infected EN; it’s part of their romance. But there is a real chill here. Like angels passing over, Silence is Sexy is about history and the future, about shining intellect and a broken heart at Europe’s centre. Simply stunning.
The Rough Guide to World Music, Vol 1
A few years’ ago we reviewed in these pages a book entitled simply The Rough Guide to World Music. It was exactly what it said it was – except that the 800-page tome covered music from the entire globe in exhaustive and exhausting detail.
Well now, in what’s already been described as ‘a work of lunatic scholarship’ – high praise, indeed – the book has gone into a second, updated edition into which they’ve packed even more. Published in two hefty volumes, this first one covers Africa, Europe and the Middle East. Containing succinct essays from travellers and enthusiasts – all experts in their field – this new edition differs only in its organization.
Countries are arranged alphabetically, album reviews are stepped up and the authors have worked to a broad remit: world music is classified as all music working within a traditional framework. Purists may object to the country-by-country classification as setting up a spurious sense of boundaries, but it does make it more user-friendly. It’s hard to pick favourite bits: the chapters on North Africa about music in a political climate are informative in their scope, while the European section benefits from a consideration of that continent’s own fluctuating populations.
As a reference aid, or just a browser volume, it’s truly excellent. Readers will have to wait for late summer before the second book is published. Easily the most accessible publication in its field, it’s an essential book for anyone with an enquiring ear to the world.
Not One Less
The films of Zhang Yimou, the most celebrated of China’s New Wave directors, are about power relations. Most, like Judou and Raise the Red Lantern, are about the historical power of men over women. Visually rich, sensual and erotic, they hinge on the struggle of women for love and happiness, and to make their own choices. They made a star of Gong Li.
Not One Less is a departure. The style is documentary, naturalistic. Non-professional actors, many of them children, play themselves or roles familiar to them in their day-to-day lives. The unlikely heroine, Wei Minzhi, is a maladroit, self-conscious, poorly-educated 13-year-old substitute teacher, ultimately redeemed by her tenacity and capacity to love.
She is an appallingly bad teacher. Her sole motivation is the pitifully low wage and the promised bonus if she can keep all 28 children registered at the village school for the month that she’s there. She loses control of the class, led by rebellious Zhang Huike, but is hardly bothered. She lets the children run wild in the schoolyard, or bullies them into copying from the blackboard. When one child runs off she shuts them all in. But when Zhang Huike’s widowed mother sends him to the city to work, which threatens Wei Minzhi’s bonus, she sets off to bring him back.
The film separately follows pupil and teacher, alone and penniless but not quite helpless, in a city where no-one cares or has any time for them. They sleep in the streets, eat leftovers at pavement-cafe tables. It’s a beautiful downbeat film, which never patronizes or idealizes.
Garage Olimpo is set in Buenos Aires sometime during the military dictatorship. Then, between 1976 and 1982, 7,000 ‘opponents’ of the regime ‘disappeared’. Many were drugged and dumped alive from military transport planes into the southern Atlantic. Director Bechis is one of the more fortunate victims of the regime – he escaped abroad. With co-writer Lara Fremder he’s produced a claustrophobic and disturbing political drama.
Maria is a literacy teacher and political activist. She lives with her mother and their lodger, Felix, who works at a garage. Felix is infatuated with her. When Maria is arrested she’s taken to a prison and interrogation centre — the converted Olimpo garage — where torture is routine, degrading and brutal, designed to extract information quickly so that others can be arrested. There she encounters Felix, who is in fact a covert ‘counter-terrorist’ soldier. He is assigned to interrogate her. The film tracks their relationship: he exploits the situation to possess and control her; she uses his obsession as a means of survival.
The portrayal of the torturer, not as monstrous or psychotic, but as spiritually impoverished, a man who is emotionally isolated and imprisoned, resists the dehumanization that is implicit in torture. Maria, meanwhile, parodies the traditional social role of women, but ultimately affirms endurance and enduring human values. Garage Olimpo is well-made, politically complex and hard-hitting. A fine film.
on art & science
Forty years ago, novelist and scientist CP Snow propounded the notion that Western society is fundamentally split between two cultures, the arts and the sciences, neither side listening to the other. Snow triggered a heated debate that rages still, encompassing everything from academic exchanges to partisan abuse. So how did the ‘Two Cultures’ schism arise and where does it stand at the beginning of the third millennium?
Mutual incomprehension between arts and science is a relatively recent phenomenon – Greek and Roman philosophers made no such distinction. ‘Renaissance man’ Leonardo da Vinci would have laughed at the very idea; Benjamin Franklin pursued both disciplines with equal ardour (as well as dabbling in politics!). The beginnings of a division originate with the Industrial Revolution and the advent of a mechanical society. Snobberies arose on both sides; science was dismissed as mere ‘trade’, while artists were accused of ignoring the ‘real world’. William Blake encapsulated the poet’s fear of rationalist science:
For Bacon and Newton, sheath’d in dismal steel, their terrors hang
The fissure widened in the twentieth century as technology became increasingly divorced from people’s everyday lives. Those who talked of Quarks, Dark Matter and Superstrings seemingly shared little common ground with artists attempting to explicate the human condition. Or, as a characteristically pugnacious DH Lawrence put it:
Knowledge has killed the sun, making it a ball of gas with spots… the world of reason and science… this is the dry and sterile world the abstracted mind inhabits.
But surely the big questions of humanity are equally susceptible to valid answers from science and literature? Both, properly pursued, share the common characteristic of doubt. Scientists constantly test and refine their hypotheses. Likewise, artists engage in a ceaseless inquisition of their own nature and environment.
It is arguable that science and the arts, far from being at odds, are complementary and have much to teach each other. One proponent of this view is Richard Dawkins who, in his splendid book Unweaving the Rainbow, argues persuasively that a scientific understanding can be inspirational and liberating for all our imaginations. Dawkins takes issue with John Keats, who famously accused Newton of destroying the poetry of the rainbow by separating light into its prismatic colours. Keats wrote:
There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
Dawkins pleads for a rapprochement between science and the arts, arguing that the spirit of wonder which led Blake to Christian mysticism and Keats to Arcadian myth is the same spirit that moves great scientists and, acting in concert, both might be capable of greater things. What riches might a cross-fertilization have brought, Dawkins asks: ‘Think of the Dies Irae that might have been wrung from Verdi by the contemplation of the dinosaurs’ fate…Try to imagine Beethoven’s Evolution Symphony, Haydn’s oratorio on The Expanding Universe or Milton’s epic The Milky Way. As for Shakespeare…’
The recent trends are encouraging. The booming sales of books by practising scientists such as Steve Jones, Lewis Wolpert and Susan Greenfield, as well as popularizers such as Carl Sagan and Stephen Jay Gould, indicate the huge willingness of the reading public to follow the cutting edge of scientific debates. In literature, authors of the stature of Ian McEwan and William Boyd are incorporating into their fiction themes as challenging as quantum physics and the nature of time.
At a time when scientific discovery is being commercialized at breakneck speed and we face challenges as diverse as GM foods, BSE and DNA patenting, we can only welcome the prospect of new alliances between science and the arts, throwing up fresh thinking on the politics and morality of technological advance. Détente between the two disciplines is long overdue and may just produce startling results. As Dawkins says: ‘A Keats and a Newton, listening to each other, might hear the galaxies sing.’
The Two Cultures by CP Snow (Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0 52145730 0)