30 May 2011

盼堉岛

其是易喜 直观月亮
故为窃示 心门曾爽
吾命之愿 歆爚脸笑
夜星海里 邃堉之岛
夏暖和风 云光红晓
吾臂上来 到远拥抱
情理烈乃 念跟内日
到七箛鸣 到光末世
这仆誓也 站天东岸
希随月归 海陆皆安

郭明正, 2011年5月30日

29 May 2011

Pointless video post - ‘Inis Mona’ by Eluveitie


Week’s not complete without a Pointless video post, even with limited access from Beijing! Getting more and more into folk metal recently; I find I enjoy the blend of Gothenburg / Swedish death metal with folk instrumentation, the way Ego Fall [颠覆M] does it with traditional Chinese and Mongolian instruments. Eluveitie’s ‘Inis Mona’ is a sterling example of this blend, with traditional Swiss folk instruments like the uilleann, the bagpipes and the hurdy-gurdy (yes, you read that right); it’s amazing how a song can be both this darkly aggressive and this beautiful all at once. Enjoy, peoples!

More thoughts on Beijing, The end of the revolution and the antinomy of the American Christian


Well, it’s all pretty much coming back to me; I’m getting back into the swing of things here, I hope. I’m home alone here at least for a few days; my housemate is travelling out and about in Hong Kong, but I have a phone and a decent working knowledge of the neighbourhood. I think my Chinese is improving a bit – or at least, I hope so. Also, I’ve gotten past the first bout of traveller’s sickness. The culture is coming back to me too; it took me awhile to recall that the traffic laws in Beijing are more guidelines than actual rules. Drivers cannot be expected to stop for pedestrians, so it behooves one to be a defensive walker, as it were. Thankfully, the bus makes my workplace quite accessible from home; each station is about three to five minutes’ walk away from my destination in both cases. As I said before, the air here is much cleaner than it was the last time I was here, such that I was quite pleasantly surprised. However, around Tian’anmen one can still find very aggressive street salesmen and –women for photographs and Mao watches… the more things change, I suppose, the more they stay the same.

I’m also making some decent progress on Wang Hui’s book, The end of the revolution. Though he is a consistent advocate for an egalitarian form of liberal democracy – he himself does not wish to abandon the term ‘liberal’ to his rhetorical opponents on the neo-liberal and neo-conservative right, for reasons I can quite understand, given the political context – he also has an almost conservative high respect for historical modes of thinking and a unique perspective on international relations theory. For example, he decries the separation of knowledge from moral education, and sympathetically presents Chinese political philosopher Liang Qichao’s [梁启超] Neo-Confucian emphasis on broad education [大学] in a way which reminds me strongly of George Grant’s critique of Western education’s preference for acquisition of technical skills over cultivation of personal potential. Also, Dr Wang critiques the way in which the sciences and social sciences secure a place for themselves in society and exert power by a process which John Milbank calls ‘policing the divine’: erecting inviolable distinctions between fact and value, nature and humanity, matter and mind, and so forth; in this way, they create for themselves a privileged, ‘objective’ viewpoint which separates them from and elevates them above the rest of fallible, subjective humanity. (I also find it fascinating that he ties in both critiques with a deep-cutting deconstruction of modern Chinese nationalism, which he views as an insufficient reaction to the West presuming the universality of Western values.)

He borrows concepts quite freely from the international-relations theory of Wallerstein, but he uses them in quite unique ways. I honestly think he should be in dialogue with theologians like William Cavanaugh and John Milbank (at the time he wrote Theology and social theory); it would be interesting to see how they would construct each other’s arguments. Like Dr Cavanaugh and Dr Milbank attempt to do, Dr Wang’s ability to take two principles, concepts or ideologies supposedly in tension and deconstruct them to reveal their common assumptions and internal contradictions is highly enlightening. Wang Hui also arrives at many of the same conclusions as the radical-orthodox theologians: for example, that the positivism on which the social sciences are founded, despite being a revolt against metaphysics, cannot disentangle itself from its own metaphysical commitments. Ultimately, I think Milbank was right that modern socialists ought to be talking to classic conservatives.

I particularly enjoy the way Dr Wang attempts to dredge up old historiographies; however, unlike an anthropologist who will subject them to a microscope in an attempt to deconstruct them, he will put them on like a pair of old and well-loved shoes, to see what the world looks like through them. Indeed, Wang’s lengthy, historically-inspired exposition on the false antinomy between empires and nation-states, particularly in regard to today’s world, has made me reconsider some of my arguments on nationalism before. Now that I look back on them, they strike me as slightly naïve.

GK Chesterton once wrote something to the effect that being a nation means standing up to one’s equals, whilst being an empire merely means kicking down one’s inferiors – obviously and understandably, his sympathies were with nations rather than empires. This sympathy was not lost on some of his admirers (particularly Mohandas Gandhi), and we can certainly acknowledge the progress that has been made as a result of this distinction. But we can say that, looked at from one point-of-view, Britain of his time was a nation-state. She conformed to all of the principles of the Westphalian system, and at least on paper viewed her fellow European states as equals. But at the same time, she was most certainly an empire, one whose frontiers spanned oceans. She certainly did not view India as her equal, or China, or any of her African colonies. Likewise, America today may be considered an empire – though we have constructed systems wherein our legal standing is the same as that of any other nation-state, no other nation-state has the presumption ours does to station its troops all across the globe, or to take on a mission of global security. As more and more aspects of the nation-state system are subverted, and as more and more aspects of the inequality of nations, of the poverty of nations, are exposed, this antinomy will have to collapse and some other system will have to replace it.

And this brings me to one burning question that has plagued me ever since I was a small child. Is it possible to be a good Christian, and at the same time be a good American (paying respects to all of the requisite idols of civic religion)? Jeremiah Bannister has an article on The distributist review on the topic which I believe approaches the question from a useful perspective. I recognise, of course, that I am American. Don’t let the spelling fool you; I respect and even love aspects of my country’s history, the way in which societies of responsible smallowner farmers banded together and cooperated to forge a living for themselves, particularly in New England, the Middle Atlantic and the Midwest. That’s the way my mom’s side of the family in northern Vermont still lives, for the most part; independence and interdependence, responsibility and fair play all going hand-in-hand. At the same time, I find frustrating the ways in which American history tends to lionise this ideal while at the same time relegating it further and further to the sidelines (along with all of its other forms of face-saving historical revision). I believe it is massively hypocritical for Americans to take their own country as the universal template for what a functional democratic state should look like. I also do not believe America to be in any way more ‘special’, ‘extraordinary’ or ‘exceptional’ than any other political entity – that would be to elevate it to a status of worship which is due only to Our Lord.

It’s a struggle for me – my Radical Reformation- and Tolstoy-influenced anarcho-syndicalist streak still runs deep. All the same, I appreciate Mr Bannister’s attempt to clear a space for a genuinely patriotic Christianity, by pointing to the divine root of temporal power as recognised by St Paul. I suppose it is only from such grounds that abuse of temporal power can be most adequately and most rigorously exposed and criticized.

22 May 2011

Tales of travels, travails and triumphs

This will be my first blog entry from Beijing, so I feel I’d best get my first impressions down quickly. After all, as the expression goes, ‘if you stay a day in China, you can write a book; if you stay a month in China, you can write an essay; if you stay a year in China, you can write a sentence’. I figure I’d best get started on that book, since I’ve already been here one and a half days.

For one thing, Beijing is far greener and far cleaner than I remember it from 2006. There are some beautiful gardens nearby my firm’s office (PlaNet Finance), and many of the streets are lined with flourishing trees and shrubs. In addition, one can see much further into the distance now than one could four years ago – the obscure outlines of great glass towers sparkling in the daylight, and shimmering at night with a thousand red and blue neon lights. I don’t know whether this new clarity of vision is because I’m living in the east side of Beijing rather than the west side (different neighbourhood, different environment), or whether this is a result of an active greening campaign dating back to the run-up to 2008. Busses here seem less crowded now. I don’t know whether this is because I’ve simply gotten used to riding the erratically-timed sardine can that is the Port Authority of Allegheny County’s 71A line, because I’m taking all the wrong busses here, or whether the busses really are less crowded now. It will be interesting to see. I am overcome with the exuberant-yet-melancholy emotion of being reacquainted with an old friend I haven’t seen in many years; a sense of rediscovery and a sense of lost time. (This feeling is very familiar to me. I have recently made a prodigal return to Madison, Wisconsin for my sister’s graduation; I got to see a lot of old friends I hadn’t seen since I was 17 years old.)

I’ve spent the past couple of days mostly recuperating from my thirty-hour flight into Beijing (alternately sleeping and watching old episodes of Star Trek), and what time I haven’t spent resting I have spent exploring my surroundings. I have been put up temporarily in a friend’s home – Han Peng (韩鹏 a friend and fellow student at Pitt) and his family have very graciously allowed me to stay in their apartment near Three Circle Bridge (三元桥, Sanyuanqiao), and have even arranged for me to rent a more permanent residence near Peace Gate (和平门, Hepingmen), within easy subway access of the district in which PlaNet Finance is located. (The reason I found it so quickly was because Han Peng’s mother’s colleague was, upon her request, willing to rent a room to her son’s American friend.) I’m very grateful to the Hans for their assistance – once again, I am quite awed by the power of guanxi (关系, or connexions) in getting things done in China; these kinds of institutions are a communitarian’s dream.

So far, my stay has been very comfortable. I have not been able to access my blog here yet, except from the Beijing Airport. I’m not sure if this is a temporary glitch, if all Blogger is limited-access, or if the powers that be have somehow taken exception to the random philosophical ramblings, rants and YouTube links of a certain articulate Anglo-Catholic aficionado of China and heavy metal. Thus, I’m not quite sure whether I can get the ‘Banned in China’ merit badge just yet. I promise that once I get access, I will begin posting further… though, my gentle readers, be warned that may not occur for another three months (depending on said powers that be).

EDIT: It is actually the case that all Blogger is blocked here. I will be archiving the blog and moving it to another location soon, I hope. I will keep my readers posted!

16 May 2011

On popular culture, state and market

John over at Economics is for donkeys has an interesting article up on the cultural impact of communism on popular culture. In many ways, his approach rings true: the cruelty, crassness, blandness and slovenliness of American popular culture can be attributed more to the appeal to the lowest common denominator common among advertisers and marketers, than it can be to the political attitudes of academics and celebrities.

(A brief side note: among the many reasons I enjoy heavy metal is that it appears to be the one subculture / genre of popular music which has consistently and rigorously upheld and respected its own artists’ visions no matter how weird or subcultural they get, and in a strange, misanthropic way treats them as human beings rather than as mass-market products and slogans. This may be because heavy metal arose largely, as Rob Halford interprets it, as an angry reaction against the societies led by Reagan and Thatcher, which proclaimed their own righteousness while unapologetically steamrolling over the needy. Iron Maiden’s ‘Two Minutes to Midnight’, in which Bruce Dickinson raged against Cold War brinksmanship politics and modern society’s cruelty toward the poor, or Geoff Tate’s angry rants on Operation: Mindcrime against TV preachers and corporate giants with Swiss bank accounts banging secretaries who then go on to pander to Penthouse and Playboy for fame and fortune, very much captured the Zeitgeist. Sadly, both still do.)

However, I think John’s view that ‘social conservatives… miss the fact that it is the business world that creates most of our junk culture, not the government’ – correct in all essentials – might work better for being slightly more nuanced. State and market, though neoliberal ideology places them in opposition to one another, are intertwined and interdependent in all sorts of basic ways; I think it can be argued from a revised Hegelian-Marxist perspective that markets are not ‘spontaneously ordered’ so much as they are institutions which are actively formed in the wake of domination by political actors. So yes, you have teenyboppers, Transformers, Las Vegas (and everything it stands for), Donald Trump, Paris Hilton and Walmart standing as gross examples of our ‘junk culture’ promoted by the business world; but on the other hand, you have a government which has been clearing a space for all of the above, by a.) consistently neglecting or actively cutting its endowments for the fine arts; b.) creating and selectively supporting schooling systems which consistently value ‘business’ education and vocational skills over a more holistic and virtuous civic, artistic and liberal education. In the absence of such an education, corporate marketers will find ways of convincing the public that they want what they do not need, and even what will harm them.

But John’s blog is always worth a thorough read and a thorough think – I find he’s often on the right track.

09 May 2011

Pointless video post: ‘Carnival of disgust’ by Falconer


I have read that Swedish power / folk metal band Falconer is an acquired taste, a ‘grower’ of a band. If so, I seem to have acquired the taste fairly quickly. This particular blend of folk instrumentation with melodic heavy metal (emphasis on the HEAVY) works incredibly well, and Mathias Blad’s soulful baritone is nothing short of commanding, on this song in particular. (I would go so far as to compare him with the legendary Eric Clayton of Saviour Machine.) Both the song and the music video put the lie to the notions that power metal cannot a.) have complex and deep lyrics and b.) seriously tackle modern social issues. The subtext of the video (not subtle, but well-executed – no pun intended – and thoughtful all the same) is that the death penalty is not just dehumanising to the executed, but it also robs the executioner and the complicit culture of a certain level of basic dignity. One note of warning; if you or your workplace don’t much care for blood or graphic depictions of a mediaeval beheading, best give this video a pass.

08 May 2011

Translate for me: what is “freedom”?

Gentle readers, let me begin a story, or perhaps a fraction of a story. It concerns a knight and his liege lady – let us, for the sake of this story, place them both on the British Isles, so as to avoid that damnable practice so common on the Continent at this time of dividing one’s martial from one’s personal loyalties, and assume that this knight is wholly devoted to his liege lady. So our brave knight accomplishes many things in the name of his lady, faces many trials and tests of personal valour and constancy, but his liege lady is not entirely convinced. Thinking to test him further, she casts him out of her presence, relieves him of all his vows and tells him that he is ‘free’ to find another liege lady more suitable to him than she. One may imagine that our knight is slightly miffed. Actually, in Arthurian legends, faced with such a situation often our knight goes completely mad, and is healed of his madness only when he is allowed to return to his liege lady (I am thinking here of Malory’s version of Gareth Beaumains and Lyonesse).

One of the capital claims of Anglo-American representative government and culture is that it allows for a lot in the name of ‘freedom’. Once again, I am forced to question – both from a political and from a personal perspective – what is the meaning of ‘freedom’, rightly considered? I had the good fortune of talking with an elderly gentleman on my bus trip back from New York City who was in no doubt of what it meant: it meant not being told what to do by anyone, and it meant being able to do whatever he pleased with his money. Freedom consisted in the mere existence of the choice, which would give him the most personal satisfaction at any particular point in time.

But I would call into question whether this is what the early English had in mind even before their conversion to Christianity – it certainly had a different meaning to the English who borrowed the term from their Teutonic forebears, for whom all claims were to be considered in the context of family and loyalty ties. To be ‘free’ (freo) was literally to be ‘beloved’ of a clan leader (hence, freond ‘friend’); true, this meant more options were generally open to him, more privileges granted… but it was all dependent upon being beloved. Christianity extended and radicalised these clan linkages by applying them to all of one’s neighbours, as Christ defined the term (up to, including and particularly outsiders and the downtrodden). ‘Freedom’ now consisted in being loved within the context of the community of believers as the body of Christ; its primary dimension was a guarantee of freedom from one’s sins and an assurance of forgiveness extending in perpetuity – though even this was expected to be used in glad heart to extend similar forgiveness of sins outside the community of believers (as in the parable of the two indebted servants).

However, beginning in the Late Middle Ages, this definition began to change. Instead of a king or a clan leader, there arose an impersonal, neutral apparatus supposedly above partiality. Though this had the admirable effect of extending the privileges associated with ‘freedom’ in ever wider circles among the populace – first to barons, then to propertied male commoners, and so on – it also had the effect of diluting the definition of ‘freedom’ such that it consisted of only these privileges. The fact of choice itself became ‘freedom’; much as in the way that the Chinese character for ‘love’ lost its 心字旁 heart-radical in the transition from traditional to simplified (from 愛 to 爱), in modernity the English word ‘freedom’ lost all its connotations connecting it with ‘friendship’ in anything except etymology.

I would argue that the knight in our story, having been turned loose to his madness by his liege lady, is not free, in the real sense that he is no longer beloved by the one person who can truly give him freedom. I would argue that, transposing this personal conviction to a political one, this means that the (modern, post-Norman) Anglo-American idea of ‘freedom’ or ‘liberty’ is severely deficient, and in fact leaves one open to a devastating number of un-freedoms. On these shores we have done away with monarchy completely, yet the social stratification and class divisions of our society are far more extreme than anything to be found in those northern monarchies still clinging to their ancient unwritten feudal constitutions. I find it a remarkable oddity that our American left and right alike treat the British royals with derision, yet somehow manage to provide Donald Trump with all the airtime he requires to propound whatever airheaded and risible views come to his mind. We do pay attention to the good behaviour of the Duke and new Duchess of Cambridge (while at the same time thanking our stars we do not have them here), but we devote far greater attention to the bad behaviour of Paris Hilton; all the while people here and abroad continue to suffer from poverty both physical (want of means to stay alive) and spiritual (want of meaning in life), as the neoliberal / formal-democratic paradigm time and again proves itself ineffectual at addressing either.

More and more I find that ‘freedom’ in its truest sense comes in loving, and being loved by those who are important to me.

04 May 2011

Update

My apologies to my readers – I missed out on my greetings and well-wishes this past 1 May, which I guess makes me something of a poor socialist. My only excuse must be that I have been busy first with finals, and then with preparations for my internship in Beijing this summer (including the rather logistically-formidable task of obtaining a visa). I’m very excited to be going; the firm I will be working for, PlaNet Finance China, looks like a very decent outfit. I’m very much looking forward to working with them, and also being back in Beijing. As I understand, it is very much a different city now from when I last left it in 2007. (For one thing, the Olympics were a major force in changing the face of Beijing even while I was there; subsequent developments may have demolished a number of the neighbourhoods I visited.)

I have just begun reading (Chinese New Left intellectual) Wang Hui’s English book, The end of the Revolution: China and the limits of modernity. From the brief introduction I have had to the body of Wang Hui’s work thus far, it looks to be an illuminating and insightful read, particularly for this laowai who finds himself continually perplexed by the shifts in political and economic direction which the People’s Republic of China has taken over the past 30 years. Also from the introduction I have a suspicion that he is a kindred spirit of the kinds of thoughtful ‘conservative’ socialists in whose work I have been immersing myself of late; though whereas they come from a very British, very Romantic Tory perspective, Wang Hui appears to be influenced more heavily by the revolutionary literary work of Lu Xun 鲁迅 (not to be confused with the general Lu Xun 陆逊 of Three Kingdoms fame). I believe Wang’s critique of economic development as an ideology allied to neoliberalism, particularly with relation to China’s experiences, will be of particular interest to me given my chosen field of study. I also anticipate reading his points of contact with Confucian thinking.

I’ve received some feedback from several casual readers of my blog (notably my girlfriend Jessie, and my friend Tiffany) that my writing style is – well, more than slightly dense. I’m working on making it more accessible; I’d be very grateful for any suggestions. Please post them here in the comments section or on Facebook.