A Great Leap Sideways

On Deng Xiaoping and Chinese history…

So I have been slogging my way through Ezra Vogel’s Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China for the last year or so, maybe longer.  It is a tome equal to the import of Deng’s impact on the twentieth and even twenty-first century.  What makes the biography so fascinating is how much access, however controlled, the author had to primary sources of Deng’s notes, commentaries, and Communist Party records.  Instead of being merely a celebrity biography, the work gives you detailed insights into at the very least a sanitized account of the rapid and complex transformations of the post-Cultural Revolution China.  To say that the Cultural Revolution was a tragedy for humanity, not just for China, is still a dramatic understatement.  Thousands of years of history vanished in smoke.  The intellectual and developmental devastation of Maoism continues to haunt the country.  Deng Xiaoping, instead, comes off in this biography as one of the most profound pragmatists of human history.

Reading the story of the failed Taiping Revolution amidst reading this biography also provides an extra level of insight – where Hong Rongan dreamed of modernizing China, giving it a native government focused on industrial development, modernization, and peaceful relations with other nations, Deng in many ways fulfilled those goals, albeit while fostering regimes that killed hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people, on the periphery of the Sinosphere.  Certainly, I do not find Deng to be a truly sympathetic character, however great a genius of leadership.

For a case study of that genius, consider Deng’s approach to foreign policy.  They say only Nixon could go to China, but the cautious rapprochement between the two countries would not have been possible without the influence of Deng and other reform-minded partisans.  One of the lessons that Deng can teach leaders at all levels now is through his efforts to be as forthright as possible, even when it is necessary to conceal ultimate goals for political necessity.  Coming into power as the CCP transitioned from the iron will of Mao and his inner circle towards a very different following generation of cadres, Deng skillfully manipulated partisan ideologues into accepting reforms that prevented Chinese stagnation along Soviet lines, while also dealing with external crises and attempts from “reactionary” doctrinaire Maoists who valued Marxist-Leninist-Maoist orthodoxy above competence, practicality, and realistic solutions to the issues facing a society as enormous and varied as twentieth century China.

Nearly everything familiar about contemporary China can be traced back to Deng’s era of leadership.  In many ways he was a reverse of Franklin Roosevelt, de-escalating nationalization and distributing authority outwards from an increasingly hidebound and doctrinaire central party structure that threatened to trap China in a stagnant, dogmatic system.  I have not finished reading the entire biography, but currently I am at the portion discussing the development of the “one country, two systems” approach to the transfer of sovereignty, reverting Hong Kong back to PRC control from the United Kingdom.  Deng had every opportunity to be a hardliner, and was dealing with Margaret Thatcher, the Iron Lady who successfully pulled her own land back from the tubercular death throes of socialism and stagnation.  His solution, which is still in at least partial effect more than twenty years after the handover of control, was to assure the successful local power elites that they would not suddenly find themselves sucked dry by a corrupt and inefficient Communist bureaucracy along old Imperial Chinese lines, and instead played off of the powerful effect Hong Kong had as an entrepôt between the commercializing and industrializing mainland and the wider world of global capitalism and the developed economies of the West.

Like many of my entries so far, I wish that I had more time to discuss this book and this individual and his place in human history, but I at least want to close this post with a recommendation to check out the book.  If you are interested in the roots of contemporary China as it moves into the more autocratic, centralized era of “Xi Jinping thought” and even want a good primer on why the Mao Dynasty/CCP-era of China runs on the thoughts of its “paramount leaders,” few are as thorough and well-researched as Ezra Vogel’s.  It is an almost impossible task to gain a real understanding of China as it has become, but to learn its history in the highly dynamic time frame of the second half of the twentieth century, this is a good starting point.  The writing, while dry at times, is also peppered with amusing anecdotes about Deng Xiaoping’s interactions with world leaders and is relatively free of heavy doses of overt propaganda, for or against the oppressive reality of the Chinese Communist Party.

My Stories

On some of my own writing projects…

So far I have tried to focus on observational posting – music I like, historical quirks, some experiences of living here in Qatar as an American.  But tonight I want to write a little bit about what I am writing about, fiction-wise.  I have always been drawn to genre fiction as a reader, writer, and consumer of video media.  Mostly that means science fiction and fantasy, but I also have read some horror at the behest of an ex (amicably separated due to my peregrinate lifestyle.)  Thus when I talk about writing, I am usually talking about something along the lines of science fiction or fantasy.

Currently I have been slowly accreting words onto a short story about a priest of gods in a multivariable pantheon who deciphers an odd codex of ancient repute.  He finds in the midst of those volumes a map that suggests that an old, overgrown area of his home continent was once the site of a completely different sort of civilization from his early industrial-era society.

He travels towards a particularly captivating location on that map, drawn by a sense of inevitability and purpose that his life in an idyllic valley of monasteries and temples did not provide.

I will not go into the conceit of the story in this entry, as I have not yet written it out of the pre-writing I have in notes and a general idea.

What I will talk to is a larger idea that I have for a novel or a series.  I was thinking about the currently-popular idea that the universe is not what it seems, but may rather be an enormously complex simulation running on hardware in a higher level of reality.  Then I thought, what if the different complexes of gods and spirits that humans have worshipped over the centuries are in fact different development teams on the larger simulation?  Early ideas of the supernatural are humans’ neural-net simulations interacting on some level with the active efforts of developers on an early phase of our universe, focused on our world at least, and thus also giving an “explanation” for why humans feel compelled to believe in the idea of beings greater than ourselves in power and influence.  Rationally, I have no trouble accepting the more mundane explanation that our sense of the supernatural arises from pattern recognition “circuitry” in our biological thought processes interacting with our social instincts and innate desire to know and control future events for our benefit.  But I think that it offers fertile ground for a work of fiction to subvert that idea towards one wherein humans are, in fact, programmed to be responsive to the developers of our world as a technological project of a higher-universe group of sentients.

The idea is that the Egyptian pantheon represents one of the earliest sets of developers tasked with stimulating a complex, hierarchical society from our base coding, and the Sumerian/Mesopotamian complex that coexisted with it represents a more primitive set of developers focused on machine code that would sustain the processing and expansion of humanity towards whatever end the overall simulation is meant to illustrate or entail.  From there, different pantheons represent different sorts of software development teams.  The Abrahamic religions emerge as a kind of power struggle amongst management of the simulation project outside of our universe, while Japan and its Shinto faith are a subset of the larger simulation added on almost like DLC for the larger game of life, perhaps focused on algorithms designed to operate without external intervention yet to build off of the “basic rules and classes” that power the larger global experiment.

I could even see a side-series that looks at another planet developed by the same beings above our universe, and yet is a world that operates on a wildly different application of the basic physical and chemical laws that govern Earth-based life, etc.  I will need to do a significant amount of pre-writing, but the basic introductory plot line is one in which a human or a small group of humans end up making contact with a developer or development team who do not like the way that humans have deified their fellow coders and designers, and who are able to offer manipulation of the world we know to achieve a set of initially unknowable ends.

This would be a very large writing project, and one that I am not sure I want to begin until I have a chance to hack at some other, earlier ideas that I have had.  But as this blog was intended to be one talking about writing, I figured it only fair to share some of my story ideas.  If you end up using the larger conceit to create your own work, I ask only that if I am successful at publishing mine, you not be shady and claim that I stole your idea simply because I was not as fast as fleshing out my own.

I hope that this was at least food for thought for you all, and that you have a fantastic day or night, wherever on our whirling planet you may be.

You Can See the Battle Scars

I know that I said I would avoid politics in my blog, but this piece, with a media blackout due to domestic US politics and our burden of eight years of a government that thought Chavez’ Venezuela was a model for the United States, I feel the need to share the true outcome of Marxism, wherever it has been tried, since that cancer of a religion/ideology emerged from England in the 1800s.

Longreads

Christian Borys | Longreads | September 2017 | 20 minutes (4,916 words)

Diego

Recklessly driving through the sloping streets of Caracas, Diego blares “Bonita,” the bass-heavy reggaeton hit of the summer. The stock speakers of his tiny sedan pulsate as we pass block after block of buildings, each cloaked with layers of razor wire and electrified fencing. Diego (whose name, as well as others’, have been changed to protect their identity) laughs and looks at me, smiling cynically, when I ask why it seems like no one bothers to stop at red lights.

“Do you want to be kidnapped or something?”

It’s the night of Thursday, July 27. In less than three days, Venezuelans will live through one of the most defining days in their country’s modern history — and one of the bloodiest. A vote nicknamed the Constituyente is scheduled for July 30. If successful, it would be a…

View original post 4,821 more words

Shaping the World

On rituals, large and small…

The idea of rituals as something uniquely human is not a new one in academia – or even in more basic and ancient philosophy.  Myths, authors such as James George Frazer argue, are likely as not explanations for rituals as they are the source for them.  His book the Golden Bough tracks aimlessly through world mythologies looking for an explanation of a single Classical ritual.  Many are the critiques of this idea, but it is an interesting starting point from a literary standpoint in approaching things like people’s belief systems, folklore, “old ways,” and the roots of tradition.  South Chinese rituals of burning papercraft objects to provide ghostly analogs of modern consumer electronics show that just because rituals and traditions are old, they are not hidebound to long-forgotten worlds or ways of life that are, by narrative/historical necessity, lost.

I think one thing that people often overlook when confronting the idea of ritual is that it has to be grounded in some kind of faith in the supernatural, or some larger idea of religion.  Sure, we hear about “sports rituals” or “rites of passage” that are entirely secular, but I would argue that many of us still see in them the same sort of animating spirit as that which underlies animal sacrifice or hanging ribbons with wishes on particularly lovely trees.  But secular rituals, that is, commonly-known and practiced activities that we repeat, are incredibly potent forces for bringing people together.  Whether they are creeds of faith or pledges of allegiance to a national idea, songs about community members past or present, or the repetition of inside jokes meant to simultaneously include and exclude, rituals come in all forms.

On the other hand, it is tempting to define all of human activity in some framework of “rituals,” since any action can become repetitive and nearly any action can bring people closer together or align people’s emotional states in tune with one another.  I cannot claim to offer an objective definition of the term, even though I abhor when philosophical arguments break down entirely into Wittgensteinian semantics and fights over who is permitted to define basic terms.  But ritual is one of those words that truly means something different to different people and in differing contexts.

One thing to think about is how this plays out when you create a world or shape a character while writing a story.  Whether we call them quirks, idiosyncrasies, or habits, most people develop something akin to rituals as almost a kind of emotional scar tissue around the cuts and scrapes of life as they age.  Conversely, in childhood, we seem to develop and dismiss whole theologies of this kind from week to week while we are figuring out who we are and what we stand for or believe in.  That, by itself, can provide the fuel for a dramatic conflagration of plot and development, but when used in conjunction with the many other skills in the authorial toolbox, adds a whole additional level of realism to what we write.

Post-rock

On one of my favorite styles of music…

One genre of music that I have been hooked on for years now is post-rock.  I am not a true music enthusiast, so I will not attempt to make an exhaustive list of the best post-rock bands, or attempt informed commentary on the qualities of the genre, etc.  But post-rock is for me the ultimate music to drift away on my thoughts or to listen to on a neighborhood walk.

Post-rock developed out of shoegaze, and is, conventionally, without lyrics.  It features walls of guitars, rhythmic variations, LOTS of reverb, and most often conveys a sense of open spaces and isolation.  Some of my personal favorites as far as post-rock bands are Hammock, This Will Destroy You, Caspian, and Explosions in the Sky.  I have listened to many others, and many others are also fantastic to listen to.  Hammock is quite possibly my all-time favorite, and they may perfectly typify the genre with their long, flowery song titles, soaring riffs, and simple melodic motifs.

About eight or nine years ago my friend, at the time living in Seattle, introduced me to the genre, and I realized that this was a sound that I had always longed for.  To me, listening to post-rock is like hearing the soundtrack to a slice of life.  Complex, recursive guitars roll like waves of emotion over picked-out basslines that feel like the daily grind.  It is probably no coincidence that most post-rock bands come from the Midwest and Texas, with the premiere European examples coming from the plains of the former Warsaw Pact.  For example, Everything is Made in China… their song “after rock” has one of the most haunting uses of sampled dialogue I have ever heard.)

I recommend listening to post rock when you can give it your full attention, and yet also when you are in a position to let your mind wander and think about other things.  For me, the inspiration it gives is not so much about plots, or acute emotions, so much as a sensation of living a large amount of time in fast-forward, like a music video that makes the mundane into a work of art through montage, or a film sequence that shows the passage of time over a place impersonally and without a lot of cuts or camera movement.  There is a reason that post-rock has been used for soundtracks recently (one example being the indie Prince Sultan, which I have not seen, but has a phenomenal soundtrack by Explosions in the Sky.)

Hopefully this has been an enticing introduction to post-rock.  If you have gone through the Wikipedia article, it has lists of many other bands that represent the genre.  If you swing by this post, feel free to share any band names or songs in this style that you recommend or no, especially if I have not mentioned it here.

Water Falls

On odds and ends of life in the desert wastes…

It rained, yesterday, quite dramatically.  My coworkers and I ran outside to re-enact the Shawshank Redemption scene, but with the rain came a sideways wind, I presume from the temperature differential between the sunny areas and the odd cloud.  It was almost as though the sky at ground level was shocked, SHOCKED! to feel water actually condense and fall through it, and tried to bat it away.  I look forward to the real “rainy season” in the winter, although I have heard that it is mostly violent cloudbursts that flood things, then slink away for another year.  That would certainly explain the flora and their waxy casings and hard thorns, like cacti too uncertain of their next drink.

Besides excitement about rain, I have been reading Charles Stross’s The Traders’ War, which is a great page-turner with some big ideas about alternate timelines, different types of societies, and the overall mean streak that underlies human nature.  Despite the grittiness and drama, it is still a welcome escape into worlds with trees, water, and interesting people to imagine meeting.  Lately I have been having dreams of other lives – not in some mystical sense of feeling as though I were peering into an alternate timeline of my own, exactly, but dreams that have all of the details and foibles of real life.  I can tell that my mind misses trees and water more than my waking self is willing to acknowledge, but overall I seem to be adapting to the new surroundings fairly well.  This is definitely not my first long-term stay in an unfamiliar environment, and, I hope, will not be my last.

A friend of mine here wants to go to Seychelles in February, and I was looking it up today to become more familiar.  It sounds like a real sort of paradise archipelago, albeit with plenty of its own issues.  Certainly fewer, though, than most Caribbean resort islands.

This update is long on chattiness and short on substance.  In the interest of making it somewhat useful, I will share a very tiny tip I have discovered.  I take a fair amount of vitamins, and melatonin to help me sleep, and what I discovered is that you can use the cap of the bottle of pills to measure out the right number (in this case, one of each.)  That way you don’t have to get them in your hand, or worry about them scattering across a surface and bouncing away, but you also do not need any extra equipment.

Currents of History

On a reactionary, yet satisfying film…

I went to see Kingsman 2: the Golden Circle today with officemates.  As a piece of filmmaking it was ecstatic genius – applied technology, taut script, masterfully handled film and comic tropes, and a profoundly coherent design strategy.  What I found very interesting about it was the way that it unabashedly felt like a celebration of values and standards.  In that sense, it is “rebellious” in an age where asking people to maintain personal responsibility, common courtesy, and the cultural mores that allow people to live in harmony have become anathema in most media.  To be honest, I waited for the other shoe to drop, for some wink to the audience that the often over-the-top traditionalism was all part of the act.  What was more interesting, thematically, was that it never did.

Instead, both Kingsman movies, in keeping, I suppose, with their title, are unapologetically reactionary in a very strict sense.  They treat the populist massacres and excesses of the twentieth century in many ways as a wrong-turn detour from a near-Victorian world of deportment and protocol, hierarchy and constraint.  While the film world’s technology, clear from the Bond-ian gadgets, gizmos, and throwaway lines about nanites and augmented reality telepresence, is at a Spykids level of handwaving, is cutting edge, the overall narrative is one of loss and redemption, upholding decency and mercy (though not without plenty of mooks mown down in the process), and venerating tradition for no other reason than it provides an anchor in a time of chaos and turmoil.

But one thing it did remind me of is the way that the “old world” of the pre-WWI, adventurously liberal world of the modernist era has sustained itself fairly quietly under the surface of raging seas of the Cold War, globalization, and the slow, sustained effort to infect the Islamic world with extremism on the part of Saudi Arabia and other neighboring powers.  Europe is still very much a continent of monarchs, aristocrats, and courtiers, even though many of those once-powerful names have merely gone behind a curtain of high-finance, high-speed racing, and high-stakes gambling.  The United States never even had a blip in the hold of power from the “first families” of the Eastern Seaboard, from their Episcopalian fortresses along the rocky shores of Massachusetts, New York, Maine, and riverine Pennsylvania and nestled in the hills and in the un-newsworthy playground cities of the coastal South.  Kingsman as a media property feels like a hyperviolent foray into at least the material trappings of that world, from bespoke clothing to small-batch liquor, from handmade electronics to a drug lord (lady?) indulging her nostalgic Johnny Rockets’ aesthetic grafted viciously onto a hidden Cambodian temple.  Not all elites are immune to the fashions of the times, and, the movie seems to imply, moving too far forward culturally creates some kind of inherent evil.  That echoes the idea of the well-connected all gathering to be blown up in the first film, for that matter.

I am reading too much into what is ultimately popcorn fare, but going off of the intricate detail of the film and the homages that flash past faster than you can say Ralph Lauren or George Dickel, the nostalgia for a bygone era and its society pump through the film like the thickest of blue blood, even when the action travels to an unseen side of America.  The “old ways” of America are, thus, the ways of the frontier and Fifth Avenue, robber barons and rawhide, rather than the currently vilified sorts of tradition surrounding religion and redneckery (as evinced by the slaughter of an entire Pentecostal church body and a bar full of bruisers in the first and second films respectively.)  I do not think it is possible to do justice to the potential complexity that the film implies through subtext, nor do I think that it is always a conscious thing in the minds of the films creators.

At the end of the day, it was a fantastically entertaining movie that will entertain you for more than two hours of intense violence, truly out-loud laughs, and a cameo sequence wholly unexpected and yet incredibly satisfying.  Even though the musical leitmotif is literally “Country Roads,” somewhere beneath it all remains the “Rule, Britannia” and “There Will Always Be an England” that underpinned the first film of the franchise.  I look forward to seeing where Matthew Vaughn and company go with the whole kit and caboodle.