Politically Concrete

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18848753Along with kreativ (creative [n]), it was the curious term politkonkretnost’ (“polit-concreteness”) that received the dubious award of “anti-word of the year” (antislovo goda) from a panel of linguists and literary critics appointed to name both the word and anti-word of the year fro 2007.  Although a close structural cousin to politkorrektnost’, a derivative of English “political correctness”, the term carries a subtle different meaning (and can be translated literally as “political concreteness”), more akin to what some believe to have been the very first manifestations of “political correctness”, now long forgotten, in Mao’s “correct thinking” and the Leninist “correct line-ism”.  In Mikhail Epshteins’s words,

Politkonkretnost’ is when, in politics, everything is determined in advance, such as duma elections or the election of the next president.  Putin comes out in support of “United Russia”, they get a majority, nominate a successor, and everyone votes for him.  It can be added that recently the word konkretnyi has acquired broad popularity in such slang expressions as konkretnyi patsan (real [i.e. genuine] lad) [and] konkretnyi muzhik (real bloke).

Who are these politically concrete? Those who have declared and positioned themselves within the framework of the dominant politics. The chair of the election commission who suggests that “the president cannot be incorrect” (a formula of papal infallibility). Cultural and sports leaders begging the president out of personal love for him). Pedagogues and caregivers organizing a movement of young “bear cubs” (mishki) for the sake of victory for the “all-bear” cause. You sense the difference: in the West—political correctness, in Russia—political concreteness.

On a certain level the English and Russian terms do share a common orientation—one of a certain political or social agenda and cognisant of the powerful role of language in establishing and imposing that agenda. An interesting corollary here is that both terms seem to be employed chiefly by opponents (italics in original text) of the phenomenon they are using it to describe.  While in its earliest days of its use, the label “politically correct” was worn with a sense of pride by those who viewed it as a mark of open-minded, liberal distinction, the term, over time, has taken on a more critical, or at least ironic, colouring.  Few self-respecting individuals would label themselves “PC” without at least a tinge of irony, just as few in the Russian context would willingly don the mantel of politkonkretnost’.  But the objects of criticism are quite different: in one case, Left intellectuals who are themselves largely marginalised in American culture; in the other, establishment players who belong, or aspire to belong, to dominant power structures.  One sees political correctness as an illness of an outgroup and threat to established belief, the other views politkonkretnost’ as a malady of party insiders keen on reinforcing the status quo and thereby buttressing their own claims to its authority.  One challenges the status quo, the other seeks to reinforce it.  And yet the two share one assumption: that language not only reflects but itself shapes perception, identity, reality; that how we name things and call people helps define not only their image and status in society, but our own as well. In their very differences, the two terms also reflect a second important assumption—that language, culture and politics are closely intertwined and mutually dependent on one another for meaning.

Michael S. Gorham, After Newspeak (2014)

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Melbourne coincidences

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One of our volunteers was back in today.  She was gone away for a weekend visit to see family in Melbourne.

It reminded me that a couple of grace notes about Melbourne turned up in my food trough over the last week.

First was the headline Melbourne’s forgotten mansions: Inside stately homes now destroyed.  Both a reminder that architecture, once gone, is forgotten; and these stately homes cast a shadow over lives they once dominated.

And the image Cool in the laneways from the photoblog Melbourne Today.  I started following this blog a couple of years ago from series of articles about virtual cities on the Guardian.  The image was explained to me, when the streets of Melbourne’s central business district are too hot then escape out of the sun into the laneways that radiate off them.  There’s a nice upwards feel to the image.

Cool in the Laneways

Cool in the Laneways

Je suis Charlie

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I have a pen in my pocket. There is always a pen in my pocket. I don’t like shirts without a pocket. I carry my pen in my breast pocket of my shirt. It’s one of the things I carry with me and I don’t like to leave it behind.

It’s a metal pen.  I got it for Christmas about ten years ago.  The ink is a little uneven. I need to replace the ink cartridge. The gloss has rubbed off in places on the stem so it’s beginning to look matted. The nib unscrews and I check it so often to see it hasn’t fallen apart. At the gym I carry in my pants pocket while I exercise and it is prone to fall apart then so I have to be careful.  Once I thought I had lost the nib and spring and it mysteriously turned up in another shirt.  I don’t know how that happened.

It’s a cheap metal pen I got for Christmas. I have held onto it so long it is developing its own character in my hand, its own feel. I like it.

I knew of no demonstration for the Charlie Hebdo victims this week that was local to Dunedin. For a brief moment I took that pen and held it nib upright in the air, a silent salute, to the dead.

Satire has been a part of our culture since for ever.  Ancient Greek comedy writers satirised their gods, the hypocritical cant of the puritans was a stock character for William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, Voltaire wrote Candide.  Religion did not fall over because of it.  Cartoonists have parodied religion as long as I can remember: white bearded god and angels on clouds, hairy Jesus, stuffed suits in church, all stock in trade characters.  Sometimes I liked the joke.  Other times I signed and turned the page. I did not feel I needed to become a Christianist radical and kill in the name of my religion.

I haven’t investigated Charlie Hebdo.  From what I’ve seen the quality of humour I would classify as the second type, in poor taste rather than clever, intended to offend, to push the envelop rather than challenge the viewer.  What ever I think they did not deserve to die for this.  There are empty chairs at the table, empty desks in the office.  Silencing a voice has proved nothing, except that the power of the gun, used to abuse others, is evil, and bad religion.

Maybe there is a hope in this.  I think it is in the hands of Muslims who see that violence and execution is not their witness, not their faith.  Too often people react to an attrocity and say this is not our Islam, or not our Christianity, or not our secular culture.  Attrocity needs to be pre-empted by an engagement in peace and community building because this is our common witness, our civic discipleship. It is unclear if peace and affection will break out between us.  We have to break old habits of thinking, of just reacting.  We have to ride together.  The alternative is a distrust that will lead to destruction.

Doctor Who Series 8

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200px-Doctor_Who_Series_8_boxsetMy treat for Blank Holiday (popularly known as the Day after New Year) was to sit down and binge on Doctor Who episodes from Doctor Who: The Complete Eighth Series.  I saw Deep Breath at the cinema screening, and downloaded Into the Dalek soon afterwards.  The rest I held off watching, and avoided spoilers until the DVDs came out.  I haven’t changed over to digital signal yet and missed them when they played on television.  The last few days I have watched from Robot of Sherwood to Death in Heaven.

Favorite episodes from Series 8: Listen (it felt like themes from Midnight pushed further, and the monsters never appear) and Flatline (Afterwards I picked up the short story Details by China Miéville and read it again).

Disappointments: Kill the Moon (giant bacteria spiders?!), In the Forest of the Night (it felt like a Torchwood episode and didn’t live up the William Blake expectation hinted in the title), and the series finale two-parter (Doctor Who series finales just don’t work for me, I’m afraid).

Thoughts that occured to me during the episodes:

  • Would mirrors be sufficiently advanced to do stage magic in the 1190s?  I know it is a throw-away line, but still . . .
  • It is probably possible for a good fighter to defend against a sword armed only with spoon.  You would have to be very good.
  • If the sonic screwdriver doesn’t work on wood then how did the Doctor manage to blow up archery butt so dramatically?
  • I would like to see a story where selective memory wipe is used for therapeutic healing from personality disorders and phobias than just a plot device.
  • Clara is too easily distracted by the Doctor’s presence at Coal Hill School to be a good teacher.  She will loose control of the kids if she lets him distract her.  A teacher needs strict control of a class to teach, and of their parents.
  • References to previous incarnations: the yoyo; and left alone on the Orient Express the Doctor was beginning to sound like his fourth incarnation; in Flatline Clara was beginning to look like Sarah Jane Smith.
  • Psychic paper is defenseless against a mean-spirited lack of imagination.
  • I was expecting a Krynoid to turn up in In the Forest of the Night.
  • I would have thought that the Doctor has been in enough mythologies to know how to break into an afterlife.
  • There are places where the Doctor cannot navigate the Tardis: the end of time, lost Gallifrey.  Humans can navigate into those spaces.  The Doctor has not picked up on that yet.
  • Gallifrey is in another dimension.  It is not lost.  Missy came from there.  Gallifrey is still waiting.  It’s possible that other Time Lords will follow the same route, perhaps separately; perhaps in large numbers.  What will be their motives?

On “Beauty”

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The World Split OpenAdmiring the cosmos carries certain risks in these contentious times. It sounds like piety. It sounds, more specifically, like an argument for intelligent design. Oddly, great areas of science are closed off from consideration by people who take themselves to be defenders of science, precisely because it is impossible not to marvel at the things science reveals. Controversy has not gone well in this country for some time, and there could be no better illustration of that fact than that, at this moment, when gorgeous hypotheses bloom day after day, when the heavens should be as wonderful for us as to the Babylonians, we refuse to look up from a quarrel we’ve carried on now for 150 years. Anyone who reads an occasional article on genetic research knows that both change and stability are more mysterious than the simple mechanisms of Darwin, championed by writers such as Richard Dawkins, can acknowledge.  On the other hand, anyone who has read a little good theology, or encountered a devout mind, is perfectly aware that religion does not hang on the question of the origin of species. I have read that there are great spiral structures in space so vast that no account can be made of them, no hypothesis made to describe their formation, and they appear somehow to have their own weather, so to speak. to what can we compare these things but to the mind that discovered and described them, the human mind, which, over the centuries, has amassed by small increments the capacity for knowing about them.  Planet earth is not even a speck of dust in the universe, and how uncanny it is that we have contrived to see almost to the edge of what time and light will allow, to look back billions of years and see suns forming.  When I read about such things, I think how my own heroes would have loved them.  What would Melville have done with dark energy, or Poe with spooky action at a distance? Whitman could only have loved the accelerating expansion of the universe. Dickenson probably knew already that our sun is atremble with sound waves, like a great gong.  It is a loss of the joy of consciousness that keeps us from appropriating these splendours for the purposes of our own thought.

Marilynne Robinson, Portland Arts and Lectures, January 19, 2006

What would happen if one woman told the truth about herself?

The world would split open.