Humanities

What’s the word?

From Peter Hessler’s Oracle Bones, which I also mentioned over here and which I’m still reading:

“Peoples of color” sounded awkward if translated literally, so I used the standard Chinese term for minorities: shaoshu minzu. Of course, that was just as odd in English: “small-number ethnic groups.” Perhaps somewhere in the world there was a language that handled this issue gracefully, but it wasn’t English or Chinese.

As far as I know, it isn’t Filipino either, which doesn’t seem to have a similar blanket term for minorities at all. (This observation is just off the top of my head, though, so please feel free to correct me.) I asked a friend who speaks Cebuano, and she also came up blank.

This also brought us to the interesting flavor of the words for “foreigner” or “immigrant”: dayuhan or dayo, which carry connotations of passage and transience that I think are worth probing. When we speak of foreigners, there’s the obvious dimension of “they’re not from here,” but the words we use to refer to them also bear some shades of, “they’re just passing through” or “they’re not going to stay.” I might just be spouting threadbare thoughts here, but I think that makes for some interesting linguistics-inspired takes on how Filipinos might interact with issues of im/migration that have become so prominent today.

Ancient civilizations and failures of imagination

A couple of months ago, the BBC reported new findings on puquios, which  are spiralling holes scattered across Peru’s Nasca region. Through satellite imagery, a team of Italian researchers deduced the purpose of the once-mysterious holes: based on their placement and proximity to settlements, puquios seem to be part of a complex water retrieval and distribution system.

The BBC report carries a standout quote from the lead researcher:

“What is clearly evident today is that the puquio system must have been much more developed than it appears today,” says Lasaponara.

There are a lot of other notable quotes regarding this breakthrough, but that one dredged up a memory from one of the anthropology classes I took in college.

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Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells These Stories: Orlando and Narratives of Trauma

“There are no words.”

There’s also no counting how many times I’ve said that in response to various facets of the Orlando shooting: first, the burst of reports; then the rising death toll; then the slow unraveling of each victim’s biography; and then, the aftermath, the responses — in forms both heartwarmingly compassionate and shamelessly opportunistic.

The extent and range of those responses isn’t surprising. Forty-nine people died and 53 were injured at a mass shooting in Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando. This is the deadliest mass shooting in US history, and the shooter targeted the LGBT+ community, a group that — despite significant progress in recent years — remains a minority in every sense of the term. Many members of the community have already spoken about how jarring, how traumatic this attack has been; many more have continued to speak about how subsequent responses have been disrespectful, exploitative, damaging, or unhelpful at best.

I found myself unable, somehow, to join those engaged in the former. So far, the most I’ve been able to do is retweet messages of support and guidelines for volunteers, because secondhand sentiments are the only things I felt comfortable posting about the matter. Let me be clear: 140 characters, no matter how many sets I retweet, will never be enough to articulate the grief, anger, and despair I feel about this attack. However, shameful as it is to say so right now, 140 characters are more than enough to be a potential breach in the illusion of safety that stems from being a straight-passing, low-key member of the community.  (more…)

On Enid Blyton, David Foster Wallace, and awareness as ethics

I had the pleasure of stumbling upon an article on morality in Enid Blyton’s work (of all things) from Aeon this week. Nakul Krishna looks into the ethical life as demonstrated by the schoolgirls of Blyton’s Malory Towers and comes out with a quote from Iris Murdoch:

‘Love,’ Murdoch wrote in an essay called ‘The Sublime and the Good’ (1959), is ‘the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real.’

[…] The schoolgirl’s hell is not, as a character in Jean-Paul Sartre’s play No Exit (1944) memorably puts it, other people; her hell is the isolated self, incapable of getting outside itself. […] But Blyton, like life, can be brutal: not every character is redeemed by the end of the series, and no character is straightforwardly rid of her vices. There is only the lifelong challenge of acknowledging the reality of other people.

This calls to mind a similar train of thought from David Foster Wallace’s famous commencement speech at Kenyon College, where he cautions the graduates about the dangerous ease with which one can sink into unconsciousness.

Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default-settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing. […] Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation.

Granted, the “default settings” that he describes aren’t limited to a person’s perception of themself, as the castigated examples in Blyton’s work seem to be; DFW’s idea of “default settings” extends to cover all sorts of perspectives one might hold. Nevertheless, these default settings bring about the same kind of objectionable condition found in Blyton: isolation, residing “too tightly in [one’s] own skin” (as one character puts it) that other people cease to be real.

It’s an interesting brand of ethics, particularly in our world of virtual realities, curated feeds, and intangible communications. Faced with a glut of information and an ever-growing toolkit with which to tailor received information according to our preferences, it’s easy to build “our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms.” We can build and expand that bubble of familiarity, all the while narrowing our own perspectives; the catch, too, is that it is easier than ever to lose everything else to the constant noise that surrounds us. When we miss (or choose to overlook) something, it’s often irretrievable.

As Enid Blyton and David Foster Wallace gently remind us, too often that means losing something invaluable to the ether. As we drill down on our own concerns and beliefs and goals, we forget to acknowledge the full extent of other people’s existence. Hence DFW’s alternative:

The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom.

Great care should be taken in how we conceive of this awareness, though. The idea of “sympathizing” with others by imagining them through our experience — by reconstructing their lives through patterns and notions culled solely from our own — can itself be a default setting that erases as much as any other automatic mindset. Throwing ourselves into a careless project of sympathy risks imposing our selves on others, thus invalidating these people’s experiences and identity. Essentially, we end up talking over the very people we aim to recognize and connect with. We ignore their personhood, reducing them to a collection of identified (or invented) points of similarity and choosing instead to talk to this facsimile of them constructed within our heads.

It is not enough to acknowledge the reality of others. Ultimately, it is necessary to arrive at that acknowledgement without filtering it through the lens of the self. We must remember and respect that our personal realities are no more important or essential than theirs; and certainly, that their realities are not mere extensions of ours.

Or, taking from Kenneth Reinhard, too often sympathy is “based on narcissistic identification, on seeing the other as ‘like yourself.'” This can easily lead to a reduction of the other, serving to extend our skull-sized kingdoms in a more insidious (and self-congratulatory!) way.

More difficult, and perhaps more valuable, is the constant effort to “[welcome] the other as Other rather than reducing him to Same.” (Reinhard)

Beer Tales

Two interesting stories popped up on my various feeds this week, and it just so happened that they were about beer.

First, an article from Science Alert about the discovery of the oldest known brewery in China. Two points in particular caught my attention. First, this:

According to McGovern, the brewery processes unearthed at Mijiaya reveal a ritual that has changed little in the millennia since. “All indications are that ancient peoples, [including those at this Chinese dig site], applied the same principles and techniques as brewers do today,” he told Madeline K. Sofia at NPR.

Of course, beer — both its drinking and its brewing — has been a fairly common part of everyday life for a while, but I can’t help but wonder how the craft brewers out there will react to this discovery, if at all. Craft brewing has been in vogue for a couple of years now (the boom started sometime in 2012, if Google search trends are any indication), and its popularity is such that even geek icon Wil Wheaton and local food blogs like Pepper have gotten involved somehow. I’d imagine there are enough brewing communities around now that more-than-passing interest in this discovery might be likely, especially since the Science Alert article goes on to discuss how residue in some of the unearthed pottery reveals a “surprising beer recipe.” As projects like the Inn at the Crossroads and the unique beer brews mentioned in that same article show, the urge to “recreate” things from seemingly unreachable or irretrievable sources is not new, and there’s no reason craft brewing would be immune to it. Should we expect Ancient Chinese flavors on tap soon?

It’s not like the ingredients will be hard to get. The archaeologists behind the discovery highlight the presence of barley in the brewery’s residual stock — a detail which carries some fascinating implications:

“Barley was one of the main ingredient[s] for beer brewing in other parts of the world, such as ancient Egypt,” Wang told NPR. “It is possible that when barley was introduced from Western Eurasia into the Central Plain of China, it came with the knowledge that the crop was a good ingredient for beer brewing. So it was not only the introduction of a new crop, but also the movement of knowledge associated with the crop.”

Aside from ferrying information on how to use the grain, the introduction of barley could also have had profound cultural consequences, with the hip ingredient playing a part in helping to define social hierarchies inside China.

Here we have a fine example of how science and the humanities can mix better than their widespread (and, might I point out, false) dichotomy would have us believe. Too often we’re told to envision an irreconcilable divide between the supposedly pure quantitative work of science and the supposed qualitative work of the humanities, which is a damn shame. There are a lot of ways in which these seemingly disparate fields can and do intersect, as demonstrated by the use of this archaeological dig’s chemical findings to extrapolate cultural history.

This reminds me of another, more recent article from Science Alert, actually. Just yesterday, the site also reported on a scientific study that points to a possible explanation for the Mongol Empire’s abandonment of its attempt to conquer Europe. Climate was likely to blame, claims the study, and the evidence was in the tree rings. As the article notes, the sparseness of primary Mongolian accounts had left many historians at a loss; the study answers that problem by digging up another kind of record. Like the speculation spun from the Chinese brewery discovery, this study serves as a good illustration of the effectiveness of applying the tools and methods of science and the humanities to questions that lie beyond their many sub-fields’ usual purview.

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In less “serious” news, our second beer tale for today comes courtesy of Kotaku and Overwatch fever. TIL that one of the game’s main sound effects was essentially generated by opening a beer.

“Another extremely challenging sound is the ‘hit-pip.’ When you hit someone, you need to know you made contact. The sound needs to cut through the mix but not feel like it comes from any hero. It went through tons of iteration. Finally, one night I thought, ‘It should be satisfying to hit an enemy.’ Just think about what’s satisfying: beer. So I literally opened a beer bottle. Pssht. The sound is reversed and tweaked a little, but that sound is our hit-pip.”

The excerpt above, culled from the Overwatch Virtual Sourcebook, gives us a nice peek into sound design process, especially the kind of thinking that guides the choices that have to be made in that field. Take these lines in particular: “The sound needs to cut through the mix but not feel like it comes from any hero. … ‘It should be satisfying to hit an enemy.'” Sound is a practical element in Overwatch, as in any game, and sound design supervisor Paul Lackey tells us that each sound is crafted to conform to certain specifications, perform certain functions. In this case, the practical requirement: to alert players to a hit, and to do so effectively.

But take a look at that second line, that thought that led to the beer bottle sound: It should be satisfying to hit an enemy. It still implies a function for the sound to perform, but now that function goes beyond the strictly practical (i.e., alert) and goes into the realm of the emotional. Sure, Overwatch might not exactly fall under the same category as “prestige/legacy games” like Mass Effect and Uncharted, but it’s still shaped by the recent gaming landscape that (quite like TV, at least to my barely-a-gamer eyes) envisions games not just as entertainment but as an immersive, if not meaningful, experience.

Games these days want us to be invested — more so, I think, than ever before.

Hence Overwatch laying out its setting’s history and its characters’ background in elaborate animated shorts. Hence Overwatch even having such a rich, detailed setting at all.

And hence, of course, Overwatch using the satisfying pssht of a fresh beer.