Culture

The Sperm Whale’s Brow

Whale

To scan the lines of his face, or feel the bumps on the head of this Leviathan; this is a thing which no Physiognomist or Phrenologist has as yet undertaken…

Physiognomically regarded, the Sperm Whale is an anomalous creature. He has no proper nose. And since the nose is the central and most conspicuous of the features; and since it perhaps most modifies and finally controls their combined expression; hence it would seem that its entire absence, as an external appendage, must very largely affect the countenance of the whale…A nose to the whale would have been impertinent…

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The Children’s Wing of Budhan Theatre

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Towards the end of Please Don’t Beat Me, Sir! there is an interview with two boys who had written a play about the Budhan Theatre library: Harry and Siddharth. They admit how scared they were that someone might forget their lines. We always get a laugh when they reveal that they wrote the mother role in their play just for the girl Nandini because they knew she would be good in the fight scene. Well, shortly after we finished primary shooting, Harry’s father passed away. You might remember Harry’s father from the film. He was the one who was beaten by the police after he tried to “go straight” by opening a store. Once a promising student and playwright, his father’s death forced Harry to leave Budhan Theatre to work at his father’s shop on the main road. Now history is repeating itself as Harry is frequently in trouble with the police. Siddharth, on the other hand, was able to continue with the theater. He is still in school, now in 11th grade and studying arts.

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This strangest of islands

This strangest of islands, I thought, as I looked out to the sea, this island that turned in on itself, and from which water had been banished. The shore was a carapace, permeable only at certain selected points. Where in this riverine city could one fully sense a riverbank?

The water was a kind of embarrassing secret, the unloved daughter, neglected, while the parks were doted on, fussed over, overused.

I knelt, and trailed my hand in the Hudson. It was frigid. Here we all were, ignoring that water, paying as little attention as possible to the pair of black eternities between which our little light intervened.

— Three quotes about New Yorkers’ relationship with the water, from Teju Cole’s Open City.

Where are the Crackpots in Treme?

I love Treme, Season 3 seems to have found a kind of groove that is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before on TV. Narrative as improvisational jazz. David Simon deserves his “genius grant.” But something’s been bothering me about his representation of urban political and social life. Sure, he shows the drugs, the crime, the corruption, etc. but narratively there is no place in his vision for what I’ll call (for lack of a better word) “the crackpots.”

You know what I’m talking about. These aren’t crazy people exactly, but people who show up at a zoning board meeting to talk about some personal bugaboo which they’ve been harping about for twenty years and still haven’t gotten anyone to listen. In online forums and comment boards these people invariably show up and try to take over the conversation and they do the same in real life as well.

Of course you can’t show these people in a TV drama. Just doing so would be to let the trolls take over the story, diverting it away from the central narrative – exactly what these people want to do. But here’s the thing, if you want to show democracy in action, if you want to show diversity and civil society as it is really lived, you can’t pretend these people don’t exist. I don’t know what the solution is, but for me their absence detracts from the gritty realism Treme is trying to project.

This Constant Struggle

I became aware of just how fleeting the sense of happiness was, and how flimsy its basis: a warm restaurant after having come in from the rain, the smell of food and wine, interesting conversation, daylight falling weakly on the polished cherrywood of the tables. It took so little to move the mood from one level to another, as one might push pieces on a chessboard. Even to be aware of this, in the midst of a happy moment, was to push one of those pieces, and to become slightly less happy.

And later in the book:

How petty seemed to me the human condition, that we were subject to this constant struggle to modulate the internal environment, this endless being tossed about like a cloud.

Teju Cole, Open City

Letter from a six year old e.e. cummings

From the Wikipedia entry on e.e. cummings:

The seeds of Cummings’ unconventional style appear well established even in his earliest work. At age six, he wrote to his father:

FATHER DEAR. BE, YOUR FATHER-GOOD AND GOOD,
HE IS GOOD NOW, IT IS NOT GOOD TO SEE IT RAIN,
FATHER DEAR IS, IT, DEAR, NO FATHER DEAR,
LOVE, YOU DEAR,
ESTLIN.

Icelandic Names

Today’s New York Times article about how Swedes are choosing new names for themselves probably belongs in the large folder of non-trend trend articles in the Times. (“Last year, there were 7,257 name changes” out of a population of over nine million…) But be that as it may, it gives me an excuse to link to my favorite story from the Lonely Planet guide to Iceland:

It’s also forbidden to bestow non-Icelandic or foreign-sounding names upon Icelandic children. Even foreign immigrants must take on Icelandic names before citizenship will be granted. The only exception ever made was for conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy (which led a subsequent immigrant to request the new Icelandic name ‘Vladimir Ashkenazy’!).

(Thanks to John Emerson for pointing out the percentages.)

Teaching Anthropology “In The Field”

Re-posted from Savage Minds.

This is a view of the building where I work. The College of Indigenous Studies at National Dong Hwa University, in Hualien, Taiwan.

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And here is a picture of the view (on a more typically cloudy day) looking back, from the balcony near my office.

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Most of the people who live on the East Coast of Taiwan reside in a narrow valley between the Coastal Mountain Range (top picture) and the larger Central Mountain Range (bottom picture). The valley starts in Hualien city, and continues down about about a hundred miles, to the next coastal city, Taitung. About thirty miles south is the village where I did my fieldwork. Apart from the great scenery and the chance to improve my Chinese, that is one of the main reasons I took this job. But it is now four years since I came here and I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve made that thirty mile trip. That’s what I’d like to talk about in this post. I think the reasons give some insight into what life is like as an expat professor in Taiwan, what it means to teach near your field site, as well as some of the unique aspects of my current situation. Read More

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