Baby talk is good or back to writing

Continuing on with what has become a frequent – and to me quite enjoyable – exchange on the religious roots of nationalism and many forms of social cohesion, I received an email from BK below that continues where the last post on ‘Let us get back to belief shall we? Again. And memory in writing’ left off.

From: BW

I am thinking that the way we have learned to act is often related by what we read into the symbols that make up written language. That is, Noah is ‘real’ because he can be referenced with some consistency in many places. If I am in Muranga in 1902, Noah is realer than the Kariuki who I have heard lives in Molo and is my cousin – because the reports of him are inconsistent. If we are conversing about Noah, and disagree, I can remove my bible and show; and you remove yours. And we continue to argue – and may or may not reach a consensus – BUT, we have spent time training each other to read similar things into the Noah situation. If we do the same thing about Kariuki, immediately afterwards, we find, soon, that we cannot go far – for I believe one thing based on my interpretations of what I have heard. And you another based on your own interpretations. Our sources and emphasis may be vastly different. So for me, the heart of the growth in the importance of the bible was in its writenness.

Even when most people could not read, there were those who could and could translate or explain it to others. This power of writing, among many others, is allows people to make contracts with greater consistency. If somebody is far removed from you in the way they choose to perceive life and measure the value of physical things, it makes transactions difficult. But a text around which is a measure of consensus allows for both parties to gauge their transactions – and come up with a close result.

Belief – and faith come in because your imagination, which has much power to mimic organisms and the ‘flesh’ and interactions of living – can now solidify reality removed from present action, by constant reference to characters and situations who can be measured against your imagination, so your imagination becomes closer to the reality of the present eye.

“Noooo. You lie. Noah never lived in a fish.”

In the absence of television or radio the daily reading of the bible can make biblical characters have sustained narratives more ‘real’ than distant friends; than yourselves even, in any past. Instead of peppering examples from remembered clan transactions, it becomes more efficient to provide examples from the ‘living flesh’ of biblical relations – because they are now more real than the past.

From: MMK

Nice. That is the thing, the written word creates a canon whether it is the one that forms the basis of a nation or merely the ‘rules’ around which the interaction between cousins can be mediated as you say by an external, ‘neutral’ storehouse of experience and thought. The Bible is THE founding text in so many places, not only of nations but I think of families as well. Just a quick look at some of the stuff that Adrian Hastings and David Aberbach have to say:

Adrian Hastings: For the development of nationhood from one or more ethnicities, by far the most important and widely present factor is that of an extensively used vernacular literature. A long struggle against an external threat may also have a significant effect as, in some circumstances, does state formation, though the latter may well have no national effect whatever elsewhere. A nation may precede or follow a state of its own but it is certainly assisted by it to a greater self-consciousness. Most such developments are stimulated by the ideal of a nation-state and of the world as a society of nations originally ‘imagined’, if you like the word, through the mirror of the Bible, Europe’s primary textbook, but turned into a formal political philosophy no earlier than the nineteenth century and then next to canonised by President Woodrow Wilson and the Versailles peace settlement of 1920.

‘Religion is an integral element of many cultures, most ethnicities and some states. The Bible provided, for the Christian world at least, the original model of the nation. Without it and its Christian interpretation and implementation, it is arguable that nations and nationalism, as we know them, could never have existed. Moreover, religion has produced the dominant character of some state-shaped nations and of some nationalisms. Biblical Christianity both undergirds the cultural and political world out of which the phenomena of nationhood and nationalism as a whole developed and in a number of important cases provided a crucial ingredient for the particular history of both nations and nationalisms.’

David Aberbach: The Hebrew Bible, though generally seen mainly as a religious document, has also provided models of secular national identity. A number of biblical motifs have been revived in modern cultural nationalism: for example, the importance of moral regeneration, attacks on internal and external enemies of the nation, and the unification of disparate groups despite geographic dislocation. The Hebrew Bible also anticipates various forms of conflict in modern national identity: between the individual and the group, chosenness and egalitarianism, the narrowly national and the universal. In the two centuries after the invention of printing, the Hebrew Bible in vernacular translation had a decisive influence on the evolution of nationalism, particularly in Britain. The Bible was essential in the culture of empires but also, paradoxically, inspired defeated, suppressed and colonised people to seek freedom. A number of modern national poets, notably Whitman and the Hebrew poets Bialik and Greenberg, adopt a free verse neo-prophetic mode of _expression. The Hebrew Bible can, therefore, be read as the archetypal, and most influential, national document from ancient times to the rise of modern nationalism.

From: BW

What I am thinking is that your memory needs your imagination to create scenarios; not just new ones but to keep what you saw, heard and experienced fresh and fleshy. Left on their own, the imagination would take control of the memory and run anywhere with it. But, because you share memories with those you live with – and sharing these is central to all your dealings with everybody; they keep you close by sharing back. But this is inefficient because if you are all affected by some sudden outside event or act your memories could all be rearranged – because all memories are a present take on the past. If the present changes dramatically, the past will get rearranged too. And when people gather to renegotiate the memories, it becomes a battle of the dominant, the charming, and the witty – not of the one closer to the events as they happened. Writing made people’s relationships consistent – it offered a third party storage that could always be referred to keep the centre in the same place. So the loss was shifting centers – centers had been shifting for ages…..

So the monopoly is not Christianity to make modern nations. It comes from not Christianities ‘marketing’ of Israel; or the Judeo-Christian innovation of the 20th century nation-state. Sanskrit, King James English – same thing: a fixed centre of’ reality’ could exist for the first time; and the citizenry would now ‘radiate’ to the ‘fixed’ centre and measure themselves against it – and measure the value of things against. This made durable empire – and even more durable citizenry later. So first church is the centre of mediation; of ‘reality building’ and when it is realized that this ‘system can transfer, school becomes where consistency is transmitted. Church was dangerous because power automatically transferred from the military warlord families who controlled Europe, to the pyramid of religious transfers, the priests had more power over individuals than anybody else. The only immovable thing was the black and white of the text; and power became vested in whoever could build consensus most widely around a text that claimed to represent their interests…..who could ally their power, their ideas around a text that could represent it.

So now we gather, completely gaseous against the solid reality of the text. This is what a court case is: all can shift. Fact, history, evidence, perception and future depending on how you can persuade the text. This is a parliament, an exam, a bank form, a text book, a census. A person: a corporation is simply a person composed of nothing but texts; texts talking to texts and people coming to them to mediate reality.

So. A company is realer than a person. You can track everything; and measure everything. This is a person you can do business with from anywhere in any language and you have better trust that he will deliver your maize more than you trust your brother to deliver your maize. There is no inconsistency that a company can provide than cannot be measured – it has no mystery; and mystery is what we have been trying to abandon all along. How come religious epiphanies do not call people to destroy markets or trading monopolies or access? We are all able to believe that a company will behave predictably; we are able to be completely ‘secular; with it – even at the most fever-pitched time. If you kill the Tutsi shop-owner, the shop becomes colorless and a perfectly able to immediately become Hutu.

The mystery of the motivations of those Tutsis: the hidden negotiations; the suspicious genes: unchangeable, unseeable, the larger part of a person is invisible; and so the imagination of the enemy cannot be limited when drastic action is requested….there is not human way to measure the size of their threat, and so in a competition for power, the fastest disseminators of a compelling reason or strategy can win easily.

We are coming to worship the text; it has proven larger and more solid than God. You can make your text, your own one, to fit reality. But where only the bible continues as the overarching text – the war is over who owns it.

From: MMK

Is it the poppers? Is this what they do to a brain: make it spew out surprising and provocative ideas? If, as you say, memory is always new, contingent on circumstance and need, then it requires nothing as much as it does the imagination. But then I started to wonder at how differentiated are the imagination, memory, reality, the written/codified word. Take the imagination for instance which I think is sitting at the heart of your argument. Aristotle argued that the imagination is a kind of phantasm, a mind picture almost, that fused together the inputs of the sense organs. Then the modern era in the form of a Descartes followed mostly in his footsteps thinking of imagination as that which allows us to take chaotic, jumbled sense data into coherence. Hume went further: the imagination through its ability to bundle and categorize sense data leads to the use of specific words for specific impressions. Words then become a part of our empirical interaction with the world and it is this process, this joining of the mind and body that I think we call reality. Because of a shared commonality of experience in regard to sense data – for example when a Stone Age band gets chased by a woolly mammoth – there is probably a drive to standardize words. Our baby world with its constant revolutions of paradigms, perceptions and interpretations becomes a narrower, more externally agreed-upon interpretation of the physical world expressed in words.

The drive to codify develops through songs, children’s stories, etc. It gets to the point when a founding book – often a dictionary written to translate the bible into a vernacular language according to Hastings – which demands that the author choose one word and eliminate another. Language, which can vary wildly even within short distances, becomes standardized and the bible with its narratives popularizes this version of language.

Our imagination meanwhile is getting fed with an infinite amount and variation of sense-data but eventually has an ever more finite and pre-agreed store of words with which to represent a coherent picture when it can form it – it seems to me that words then curtail possibility if you think of it as an infinity of perceptual or interpretive choices. Then comes Kant who goes argues that yes, the imagination is an associative tool but that it is limited to templates that exist in the mind before the ‘entry’ of any sense data. But he has no accounting for where these formats come from; he thinks they are a mystery, a matter of the human soul – God perhaps? He too spurns the odd and perhaps impossible to communicate possibilities of perception and interpretation that we had as non-speakers of a public language but does so more reassuringly by assuring that the source of this limitation is not of this earth, not limited by the senses. I only partly go with Kant as far as the mystery of the soul, which sets me up later to conceive of a basic and essential human drive to be the need for transcendence and of our unavoidable need for a god. (But you, and correct me if I am wrong, have a strong desire to eliminate this god/heaven/beyond the grave thing from the way you conceive of human interaction with the world outside us.)

My question really is whether the imagination can ever see us beyond the sense data of the physical world. Can we as writers conceive of it as a ‘wild’ zone of creativity that is unruled or at least unruly? If so, then it offers the possibility of creating concepts or categories or a paradigm that did not exist previously. It is out of this hope of possibility that I believe the desperate refutation of death, which after all is completely confirmed by our sensory input, emerges; the need for life after death. Surely we need not tax possibility when the imagination as a picture of ‘reality’ allows us to manipulate and operate such that we are able to build systems and methods that prolong life or at least make it more profitable and comfortable. I am possibly being slightly jumbled when I say that the store you set on the memory and imagination as ways of negotiating reality does not go far enough in accounting for the element of possibility and the uses to which human beings put it. As the text becomes God, it narrows possibility. By codifying language so relentlessly we get further drawn into a conception of the world that is ever more empirically based (see the argument between creationism and evolution.) Yes, the text tends toward the solid as you say but we seem to fight this process all the way even as we use it to operate better in the world. Why else would the genocidal killer view his victim as you say, unchangeable and unseeable? Where does the act of killing lie: with the text or with an imagination unhindered by the limitations of standardized interpretations of sense perception?


1st Annual Kaybees – the Kenyan Blog Awards

Nominations are now closed and this blog has been nominated in the best political blog category for which of course I am quite excited and thankful. Unfortunately, while anyone could nominate a weblog, only Kenya Blogs Webring members can vote on the final outcome which strikes me as strange since it excludes readers who are such an intimate part of blogging.

Fasting Diary: The Path (Back) to the Warrior

I have been fasting for the past six hours and cannot think from the hunger. I am delirious with it and cannot imagine that I will be able to maintain it for a week. My stomach after hearing that Head Division had ruled the start of a fast went into full scale battle mode. It immediately initiated a civil disobedience campaign of sharp unexpected intestinal twistings and loud, rumbling cries of ‘no food, no justice’. The sight of a portly man eating a brie and ham sandwich as I walked by him in search of Miso soup made me hurriedly close my moaning mouth just before a gob of saliva escaped. By tomorrow, the odds are that I will be lying on my couch with harly the strength to use the remote control. But with the ever valiant and dictatorial (to the rest of the body) Head Division on duty, I am sure there shall be orders to the fingers to provide periodic updates to you decadent types with your sandwiches and breads and pies, beers, ice creams, steaks…damn you all!

I used to fast occasionally to try and give my ever-working tummy a rest. Does it not sometimes rankle how cow-like eating is, the endless munching and swallowing, the helplessness of needing to eat or die, the boring predictability? Since I have been in London, the training regime I used to have in New York fell apart. I could not find a dojo that I enjoyed and for the life of me cannot get myself to run consistently in the grey weather. My willpower – or the little there is of it – used to be expressed mainly through goals I set myself in Vee Arnis Jitsu. Not anymore. Now it occasionally pokes its little head from its hiding place to will the writing of bits of my thesis and the occasional short story. The bastard can last for weeks without raising the slightest murmur of protest at my procrastinations. Enough I said to my brother last night, enough of this self-indulgence that has turned my body into the soft, spoilt, library-visiting, tiring, weak lump that I used to hold in contempt (and fear). Back to the lean warrior ready to run all night to besiege and lay to waste a city by day. My brother of course laughed heartily and cruelly; he does not think I will last more than a day.

The goal for the week is to limit myself to light liquids. It is to be Miso soup and its brothy equivalents, water, teas and possibly, very possibly given I have business meetings to attend in the evenings, vodka. (Just got some anonymous advice on eating occassional bits of fiber-filled veggies that I will follow.)

Stay glued to this spot for updates as I attempt a return to the path of right, to reclaiming my body from the forces of laziness and weakness. Back to the world of willed pain to build strength and endurance. Back to the jujitsu throw and to the skinned knuckles of Arnis stick training.

In these days of fear-mongering as argument, I expect that some reader will think to chime in with advice about how unsafe this plan may be. Or even how ‘insensitive’ I am being at a time when there are people actually starving to death. But I will only be listening to those who actually advise me how to get through it as planned. Wish me luck.