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the bonobo world 4: more on Rapa Nui

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Easter Island – truly isolated

“These frozen faces … mark a civilization which failed to take the first step on the ascent of rational knowledge.” Bronowski said, “I am fond of these ancient, ancestral faces, but in the end, all of them are not worth one child’s dimpled face”, for one human child—any child—has the potential to achieve more than that entire civilization did. Yet “for most of history, civilizations have crudely ignored that enormous potential … children have been asked simply to conform to the image of the adult.” And thus ascent has been sabotaged or frozen.

The above quote is taken from David Deutsch’s admiring essay on Jacob Bronowski and his seventies science series The ascent of man, and it refers to the statues found on Easter Island (known to Polynesians as Rapa Nui) and to the culture that created them. Deutsch highlights the ‘ascent’ element of Bronowski’s series, and he elaborates further on this in his book The beginning of infinity, the central thesis of which – that humans are capable of more or less infinite development and improvement – I’m quite sympathetic to. However, in dismissing ‘the customary condescending doublethink towards primitive cultures’, of many anthropologists, and supporting Bronowski’s apparently wholesale contempt for the Rapa Nui statue builders, Deutsch makes a fatal error, the same type of error, in fact that Robert O’Hara Burke made in rejecting the advice and help of ‘mere savages’ who had learned, no doubt by painful trial and error, to survive more or less comfortably for millennia on the meagre resources of the desert environment of Central Australia. This example of cultural arrogance led directly to Burke’s death.

Now, to be fair to Deutsch, he fully recognises that he himself wouldn’t survive for long in central Australia’s hostile environment, or that of Saharan Africa, Mongolia, Antarctica or any other forbidding place. But I think he fails to sufficiently recognise that particular cultures, like species, adapt to particular environments, some of which are more static than others – but none of which are entirely static. That’s why I think Bronowski’s statement, that Rapa Nui’s statues and the massive platforms created for them, ‘mark a civilisation which failed to take the first step on the ascent of rational knowledge’ is both dangerously arrogant and false.

In trying to show why this is so, I won’t be indulging in any romanticised view of indigenous cultures. I come from a diverse and dominating culture that has discovered only recently, thousands of exoplanets, gravitational waves that Einstein postulated but never thought could be discovered, and the Higgs boson, a particle that I’m excited by even without having much idea of its nature or vital role in the cosmic structure. I should also mention our ability to create entire human beings from a single somatic cell, through induced pluripotency – and it may be that these astonishing achievements may be overtaken by others more astonishing still, by the time I’ve finished writing this work. But of course when I say ‘our’ achievements, I’m well aware of my non-role in all this. I’m a mere particle caught up and swept along in the tide of momentous events. I had no choice in being a Europeanised human male. I could’ve been born as an Easter Islander, or an Aboriginal Australian. Or indeed, as a bonobo.

The Rapa Nui population, as mentioned, seems to have reduced from its height, perhaps in the 1500s, to Roggeveen’s 1722 visit. However, there’s a more or less total lack of agreement about the extent of that reduction, and therefore, whether it could be said that the population ‘collapsed’. We do, know, however, that the increasingly frequent visits of European adventurers and traders from the late eighteenth century into the nineteenth had a devastating effect on Rapa Nui’s Polynesian inhabitants.

It’s difficult to get clear data on Rapa Nui culture, clouded as it is by the ideologies of different researchers, by the myths and legends of the islanders themselves, by the lack of written records and the difficulties of interpreting and dating remains, tools, ash-heaps and other artifacts. No sooner do I read material about the hierarchical and destructively competitive nature of the population, than I find recently researched material arguing for necessary co-operation in creating and moving their statues from one part of the island to another. As to the deforestation, some have argued they destroyed their trees for canoe-building and also for the purpose of transporting their statues, using log rollers. Others have tried to show that trees were not used for moving the statues as they were created to be transported upright, using ropes to shuffle them along on rounded bases. Others have argued that plant species on the island weren’t suitable for boat-building. It’s frankly hard to believe that these islanders, so attuned to their environment, would have engaged in the thoughtless or ‘irrational’ destruction of it that Bronowski et al accuse them of. The most recent analysis, published only a few months ago, paints a different picture:

During the last decade, several continuous (gap‐free) and chronologically coherent sediment cores encompassing the last millennia have been retrieved and analysed, providing a new picture of forest removal on Easter Island. According to these analyses, deforestation was not abrupt but gradual and occurred at different times and rates, depending on the site. Regarding the causes, humans were not the only factors responsible for forest clearing, as climatic droughts as well as climate–human–landscape feedbacks and synergies also played a role. In summary, the deforestation of Easter Island was a complex process that was spatially and temporally heterogeneous and took place under the actions and interactions of both natural and anthropogenic drivers. In addition, archaeological evidence shows that the Rapanui civilization was resilient to deforestation and remained healthy until European contact, which contradicts the occurrence of a cultural collapse. 

What is certain, as Diamond’s analysis has shown, is that the island was less hospitable than most for sustaining human life, and yet the Rapa Nui people endured, and, as the account left by Roggeveen and his men shows, they were hardly a starving, desperate remnant in 1722.

In the next part, I’ll look at the Ranga Nui people’s activities in providing themselves with the necessities before the eighteenth century, the tragedy of their post-European fate, David Deutsch’s treatment of the situation and … whatever.

References

http://nautil.us/issue/7/waste/not-merely-the-finest-tv-documentary-series-ever-made

The beginning of infinity, by David Deutsch, 2011

Collapse, by Jared Diamond, 2005

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/brv.12556#:~:text=Easter%20Island%20deforestation%20has%20traditionally,precipitated%20its%20own%20cultural%20collapse.&text=According%20to%20these%20analyses%2C%20deforestation,rates%2C%20depending%20on%20the%20site.

Written by stewart henderson

July 30, 2020 at 4:13 pm

the bonobo world 3: other cultures – Rapa Nui

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Writing about bonobo society and what we can learn from it, I’m very aware of, and anticipating, negative responses, much of them, in my view, based on the argument that ‘they’re nothing like us’ which I always find as code for, ‘we’re far more than them…’ – more diverse, more sophisticated, more advanced, more intelligent, more just about everything. So we have nothing to learn from them. ‘Them’, here, I feel, doesn’t just refer to bonobos, but to any species or culture that we’ve decided is less ‘advanced’ than ourselves. It’s worth noting though, that species, or cultures, or even life-forms, don’t ‘advance’, or change, unless they need to. That necessity might involve a changing climate, or threats from other species or cultures. Human life in Europe has undergone massive change over the past ten thousand years, much of it due to rising populations of diverse cultures clashing and competing with each other as well as engaging in cultural intermingling and exchange. In Australia, over many thousands of years before Europeans established a colony here, the population was sparse and much more stable, cultural differences were likely far less radical and cultural interaction much rarer – no horses to ride much less wagons and chariots to allow large scale mobility. As modern ‘Europeans’ transplanted to what we like to call the ‘New World’ we often treat other cultures, even unconsciously, as inferior, as if we personally are the creators of our technologically and politically complex world rather than the recipients.

So I want to look at a topic I’ve stumbled upon often in recent times to see what I, if no-one else, can learn from it. It concerns the success or failure of a culture.

Like many of us, I first heard about Easter Island when watching something documentary on television. Apparently a more or less disappeared culture had created, then abandoned, monumental sculptures on this remote island, presumably for religious purposes, and then they either died out, or abandoned the island, sailing off into the sunset. Or something like that. Again, like many, my attention was aroused for a few instants before the rest of life took over, or until the odd details of these monuments and the people who created them were mentioned again in another documentary or article. In more recent years, I’ve read Jared Diamond’s chapter, ‘Twilight at Easter’, in his book Collapse, published in 2006, and David Deutsch’s very different treatment, apparently channeling Jacob Bronowski, in ‘Unsustainable’, a chapter of his 2011 book The beginning of infinity. I’ve also watched a couple of long-form documentaries, one from WBC TV, the other from a series called ‘Fall of Civilizations’, which have advanced my armchair expertise in various ways.

Easter Island (aka Rapa Nui) was so named by a Dutch explorer, Jacob Roggeveen, who sighted it on Easter Day 1722. It is famously remote, some 3,500 kilometres off the coast of Chile, to which it now belongs, and over 2000 kilometres from Pitcairn Island and Mangareva in the eastern Pacific. What Roggeveen and his men encountered on the island was a mystery that has exercised many investigators since. The mystery, however, also created a myth, or a number of myths, about the original human inhabitants.

The Dutch were astonished at the large statues, known as moai, that these inhabitants had created, many of them mounted on massive platforms with their backs to the sea. They expressed an inevitable puzzlement about ‘savages’ being capable of such monumental and elaborate constructions. And so, over the next two centuries, various ‘theories’ were posited to explain away these moai, including aliens dropping in from a place called ‘space’. In the mid-twentieth century, the Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl promoted the idea that the Polynesian region was explored and settled from South America by a ‘white-skinned race’, and that Hotu Matua, who the Rapa Nui people see as their god-like progenitor, was of this race. Heyardahl was presumably linking Polynesian statuary to the Chachapoya culture of Peru, with their large anthropomorphous sarcophagi, though the differences of design and purpose are immediately apparent. In any case, it has been well-established in recent years that Rapa Nui, the most westerly Polynesian island, was the last island to be colonised in the out-of-Africa wave that began some 60,000 years ago.

The Polynesians, ‘the Vikings of the Pacific’, were ingenious and sophisticated mariners, who built large, highly efficient two-hulled canoes, thus creating the first catamaran design. Their vessels were very stable and speedy, and they used sails to tack against the prevailing winds. They navigated by the stars about which they developed a precise, unwritten knowledge. Though Rapa Nui is only a tiny island in the vast eastern Pacific, the Polynesians’ knowledge of seabirds’ habits and flight paths helped them to zero in on land masses that might otherwise be overlooked. It’s worth noting that later navigators such as Roggeveen and James Cook had no knowledge or inkling of the Polynesians’ skills and assumed that the more far-flung islands must have been found by accident, by castaways or ‘drifters’ – another example of the narrow-minded sense of superiority of ‘advanced’ cultures, which, to be fair, we’re beginning to correct.

It isn’t known precisely when the Polynesians first settled on Rapa Nui, but there appears to have been regular habitation there from about 800 years ago. It’s clear from the numerous moai – we know of at least 900 – carved by the Rapa Nui people, and the great platforms, or ahu, upon which they were displayed, that they had developed a sophisticated, creative culture during the first few centuries after their arrival (building upon eastern Polynesian traditions found on other islands), but it seems this was very much in decline by the time of Roggeveen’s 1722 visit. It’s the causes of this decline that are very much the subject of modern debate.

Rapa Nui is a volcanic island, triangular in shape, and thickly forested in earlier times, as researchers have found through . However, by the early eighteenth century, almost all of the trees were gone. The controversy revolves around whether and how much the Rapa Nui people engaged in self-destructive behaviour, in relation to their natural resources, resulting in population collapse.

Jared Diamond, with the help of scientific associates, examined a number of variables affecting deforestation on Pacific islands. They found that:

Deforestation is more severe on:

1) dry islands than wet islands. 2) cold high-latitude islands than warm equatorial islands. 3) old volcanic islands than young volcanic islands 4) islands without aerial ash fallout than islands with it 5) islands further from Central Asia’s dust plume 6) islands without makatea (coral reef rock) than islands with it 7) low islands than high islands 8) remote islands than islands with near neighbours, and 9) small islands than big islands

Collapse, Jared Diamond, p116

Based on these criteria, and his finding that Rapa Nui ticked 8 out of 9 of the above boxes, Diamond came to this judgment:

In short, the reason for Easter’s unusually severe degree of deforestation isn’t that those seemingly nice people really were unusually bad or improvident. Instead, they had the misfortune to be living in one of the most fragile environments, at the highest risk for deforestation, of any Pacific people. For Easter Island, more than for or any other society discussed in this book, we can specify in detail the factors underlying environmental fragility.

Of course, questions remain, Such as: Why would a culture destroy a resource (its trees) when it relied on that resource so heavily? How, exactly, was that resource destroyed? Was it actually the result of human activity, and if so, what kind of activity? And there are other questions about the Rapa Nui population itself. It seems to have imploded in the period between the building of ahu and moai, and the incursions of Europeans in the eighteenth century. There’s much disagreement about the population of Rapa Nui at its height, though it may have been as much as 15,000. It was reduced to approximately 3000 by 1722, or so the story goes – unfortunately everything about this island’s pre-European history is subject to ongoing debate.

Evidence clearly shows that some 21 species of trees and the island’s land birds had disappeared by the time of Roggeveen’s visit. The rats brought to the island may have been the cause of much of the plant devastation, and the loss of many of the biggest trees may have affected the inhabitants’ ability to build canoes for fishing expeditions. Research has shown that the Rapa Nui people’s diet contained far less fish and seafood than that of other Polynesian Islanders. However, claims by Diamond and others, of a breakdown within the culture leading to internecine warfare and even cannibalism, have been controversial. The obsidian blades found on the island may have been fashioned for farming rather than fighting. More importantly, for my own thesis of the superiority of co-operative societies, (bonobos as opposed to chimps), recent research seems to be converging on a view that contradicts Diamond’s story of increasing competition in the form of ever more monumental statue building in a heavily hierarchical society. We may never know for sure, but anthropologist Carl Lipo had this to say on the research in 2018:

Lipo explained that there is no archaeological evidence for the control of resources or any hierarchical distribution of resources, which is leading to a new narrative about the pre-contact Rapa Nui society: that the island was not dominated by massive chiefdoms, and rather, communities shared resources without any prehistoric warfare.

I’ll have more to say on this topic, and the fate of the Rapa Nui people, in my next post.

References

Collapse, Jared Diamond 2005

The beginning of infinity, by David Deutsch, 2011

http://nautil.us/issue/7/waste/not-merely-the-finest-tv-documentary-series-ever-made

Easter Island Mysteries of a Lost World I WBC TV, documentary video written and presented by Dr Jago Cooper

 Easter Island – Where Giants Walked: Fall of Civilisations, documentary video presented (and written?) by Paul Cooper

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Easter_Island

Written by stewart henderson

July 27, 2020 at 8:27 pm

The bonobo world: an outlier, but also a possibility 2

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Definitely one of the best introductions to the bonobo world is Frans De Waal’s 2006 essay for Scientific American, available online. It describes a species that branched off from its chimp cousin some two million years ago. Although genetic researchers have made it known that humans are equally related to chimps and bonobos, we’re beginning to realise that a basic bean-count of genes shared may be an overly simplistic approach to measuring our connectedness with other species. In any case we still have much to learn from both of our closest living relatives, especially in terms of our social relationships. We have of course developed a culture, or a range of cultures that are much more diverse and dynamic than our primate cousins, which is some cause for optimism. We are, I hope, always learning better how and what to learn.

I believe it is very much worth looking at chimps and bonobos, not as opposites, which of course they aren’t, nor quite as models for humans to compare themselves to, but as two of many possible forms of our species in an earlier stage of cultural development. The fact is, and I should think this is unarguable, early humans, in their territoriality, their aggression, their gender-based division of labour, and their ownership fetishism, have largely developed from the basic cultural outlook of chimps rather than bonobos. Our history is marred by mostly male violence and hubris, and the power of possession, formerly of land, latterly of resources and technological know-how, and their transformation into financial power and influence, leading to systemic inequalities and a cult of selfishness.

But of course human culture isn’t one thing, and it has been subject to dizzying developments in modern times. Most astonishing is the growth of knowledge and its availability and rapid dissemination in the internet age. I’ll be taking advantage of that growth and availability in what follows.

One of the most interesting questions about bonobos and their largely female-dominated society is how that society came about, considering that bonobo females, like chimps, gorillas and humans, are smaller than the males. Clearly, size and attendant strength is an advantage in the kinds of environments early humans and their primate cousins had to deal with. We have no clear answer to this question, though it’s noteworthy that the bonobo diet, being less meat-heavy than that of chimps, would require less aggressive hunting, and strength to overcome prey. This raises the question – did the rise of females lead to a less carnivorous diet or was it the other way around?

First, let’s look at the bonobo diet. They are very much tree-dwellers, and fruit always forms a large part of their diet, but also leaves, seeds and flowers. Animal foods include worms and some insects, and the occasional snake or flying squirrel. This suggests that they rarely go on hunting expeditions. The bonobo habitat is generally more forested than that of chimps, and they spend more time in the tree-tops, harvesting the food they find there. It could be that the physical habitat of chimps, which is relatively more savannah-like, actually led to a more spread-out, competitive culture, compared to the closer-knit bonobos in their denser, tighter environment. If this is true, it’s reasonable to infer that the strength advantage of the lager males might be diminished by habitat. Perhaps, given a few million more years, the size difference between males and females may reduce. I may look at sexual dimorphism more generally in a later post.

Using bonobos as a guide to potential human behaviour often meets with strong push-back. I’ve experienced this myself in a number of conversations, and usually the argument is that we are so far removed from our primate cousins, and so much more culturally evolved, and diverse, that comparisons are odious. However, I suspect much of this is due to an arrogance about our sophistication which prevents us from learning lessons, not only from other primates but from other cultures that we deem inferior, even without consciously acknowledging the fact. Yet we are learning those lessons, and benefitting from them. Generally speaking, we – I mean those from a WASP perspective, like myself – are recognising that indigenous or first nation cultures were far better adapted to their environments than the later white arrivals – and that this adaptation was hard-won over many generations, during which a collective bank of experience developed. In ‘The Teachable Ape’, a chapter of his book She has her mother’s laugh, Carl Zimmer tells the tale of the ‘ill-fated’ Burke and Wills expedition which attempted to cross Australia from south to north in the 1860s. The team was heavily but inappropriately provisioned, even carrying Victorian-era furniture to make their campsites comfortable, but more importantly they weren’t anywhere near culturally prepared for spending long months in the arid landscape of central Australia. A starving remnant of the group stumbled onto a settlement of the Yandruwandha people, who had been living more or less comfortably from the land, in what is now the northern region of South Australia, just south of Cooper Creek, for tens of thousands of years. The Yandruwandha helped the Europeans out, allowing them access to their watering holes and feeding them fish, nardoo bread or porridge, and whatever they might bring back from their hunting trips. But sadly, tensions rose due to the arrogance of at least one of the Europeans, apparently humiliated at being forced to rely on ‘savages’ for survival. The Yandruwandha walked off, leaving the newcomers to their fate. Zimmer ends his tale with these words:

Burke and Wills were celebrated with statues, coins and stamps. Yet their achievement was to have died in a place where others had thrived for thousands of years. The Yandruwandha got no honours for that.

C Zimmer, She has her mother’s laugh, p451

Zimmer, of course, is correct, but it’s doubtful that his words would’ve been written, thought or accepted in the early 20th century, say halfway between the Burke and Wills tragedy and today. We’ve made vital progress, especially in the past 50 years, in recognising the adaptive intelligence of human cultures very different from our own, and even of other species. We can learn from them as we too have to adapt to different human environments, such as the post-industrial, technology-heavy, rapidly-renovating society we associate with ‘the west’. The roles of men, women, children, families and other human types and configurations are up for re-evaluation as never before.

References

https://ielc.libguides.com/sdzg/factsheets/bonobo/diet#:~:text=Honey%2C%20eggs%2C%20soil%2C%20mushrooms,small%20mammals%20(young%20duiker).

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/bonobo-sex-and-society-2006-06/

https://www.britannica.com/animal/bonobo

Carl Zimmer, She has her mother’s laugh: the powers, perversions and potential of heredity, 2018.

Written by stewart henderson

July 20, 2020 at 3:05 pm

random thoughts on progress and culture

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random pic of one of the Andaman Islands, I think

 

I seem to have a mind geared toward progress. I look forward (as I’m just beginning to feel my age) towards electric vehicles increasing market share in the ‘backward’ land of Oz. I look forward to governments here throwing their weight behind renewables without the usual reservations. I look forward to the James Webb telescope finally being launched, learning more about exoplanets, and of course genomics, epigenetics, neurophysiology, human origins, and much more. I look forward to the collapse of the Kim monarchy in North Korea, the demise of the current batch of macho political thugs worldwide, and the continuing rise to power of women in politics, business, science and technology. I’ve read Pinker’s two big books on the virtues of progress and enlightenment, I’m reading David Deutsch’s book on the beginning of an infinity of knowledge and discovery and technological improvement, and I’m wishing I could live at least another hundred years to watch the two-steps-forward-one step-back dance into the future. 

And yet. 

I generally describe myself as a humanist, and I’m drawn to those expressing suspicion and a degree of disdain toward nationalism – but, why is that? Am I free to have those feelings, which have been more or less with me since childhood, or have they been imposed on me by experiences I didn’t choose to have? After all, I’m human but I’m thoroughly localised in time and space. I’m a product, of a particular culture, often described as the dominant culture, white (though my skin is light brown and variable as I tan easily), Anglo-Saxon (though being born in the north-east of Scotland I may have Pictish and/or Scandinavian forebears, and frankly I’m not interested in tracing my ancestry) and protestant (though I’m not religious in any sense). Clearly, if I was born in the same place but several hundred years earlier, I wouldn’t be banging on about progress. I wouldn’t have ended up in Australia and I would likely never have travelled more than a few miles from the town of Dundee, where I was born. Whatever occupation I had wouldn’t have differed greatly from that of my father or my son, if I had one. 

So much for time. Think of place. Had I been born in Australia a few hundred years ago, I would’ve been what Europeans call an Aborigine or an indigenous Australian – but I should get with the program, they’re called first nations people now, presumably because we now know that we’re all actually indigenous to the African continent. In any case, my world would’ve been unimaginably different. Or I might’ve been born to first nation parents, but in the fifties (that’s to say, on my actual birth date), in which case I would’ve experienced a mixture of Aboriginal and Western/European/White Australian culture. Again, an experience nigh impossible for me to imagine. How, in that case, would I think of nationalism, as someone linked to a ‘nation’ with an ancient, resilient culture, or complex of different cultures, but surrounded by an innovative, progressive, dominant culture that I would never quite belong to. Would I want to belong to it? Who can say – I’m mixing generalisations with particular experiences here, and it’s not making sense.   

So it’s perhaps better, or certainly easier, to take the self out of the picture and think of cultures in the way we think of species and sub-species. Some species have found a niche, in the depths of the oceans, say, which has allowed them to survive and even thrive in a basic sort of way for eons, pretty well unchanged. Others, like rats and pigeons, have adapted to a variety of conditions, allowing them to spread across the globe, in tandem with ever-urbanising homo sapiens. Do we value all these species equally? Do we value all human cultures equally? We’re generally encouraged to think positively about biodiversity and cultural diversity. Yet we know that by far the majority of species mothered by this planet are now extinct. Many cultures, too, have been obliterated, by war, climate change, absorption into more dominant cultures and so forth. Which brings me back to progress. There seems to be a tension between the drive to preserve and the drive to transcend. There appears to be room for both drives much of the time, but what if they clash?

I recently had cause to learn a little more about the Andaman Islanders, who have a distinct and clearly self-sustaining culture developed over millenia. They don’t want to be disturbed and they’ve largely been granted that wish. After all, our progressive culture has no great need of their small scraps of land and what, from our perspective, are their meagre resources. However, imagine that something was discovered, via the latest in sophisticated computer technology, not too far beneath the soil of those islands – some mineral with extraordinary properties, valuable beyond measure to the dominant society’s continued technological advancement, but the extraction of which would massively disrupt the everyday life and compromise the spiritual beliefs of the islanders?

Perhaps this is a far-fetched scenario – it’s highly unlikely that, with our multi-faceted ingenuity, we would need to rely on some particular item from a remote set of islands for our juggernaut progress. And yet – I’ve read, in Simon Winchester’s book Pacific – of the fate of the Marshall Islanders in the forties and fifties, as the USA chose to use their region as the site of scores of nuclear tests, causing widespread and more or less permanent radioactive contamination – the price of a particular kind of progress. As Wikipedia puts it:

The testing concluded in 1958. Over the years, just one of over 60 islands was cleaned by the US government, and the inhabitants are still waiting for the 2 billion dollars in compensation assessed by the Nuclear Claims Tribunal. Many of the islanders and their descendants still live in exile, as the islands remain contaminated with high levels of radiation

Mistakes were made…

The ‘new world’ (meaning new to Europeans) and its first nations cultures have paid a heavy price for largely European colonisation, domination and progress. My position, as a somewhat low-ranking beneficiary of the dominant culture, makes it hard to judge the costs and benefits of these developments. We will go forward, but we need to look back at what we’ve done, and to look around at what we’re doing now. Preservation and progress is an uneasy balancing act which we’ll probably never quite master, but we need to keep trying, for humanity’s sake.

References

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marshall_Islands

S Winchester, Pacific: the ocean of the future, 2015

Written by stewart henderson

February 4, 2020 at 2:35 pm

On politics and states – some opening remarks

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‘It takes a village to raise a child’ – Andaman Island girls

One of my abiding interests in life is how to organise society effectively for the benefits of its members. It’s so easy to criticise corrupt and incompetent governments and states, but it seems clear to me that, given the crooked timber of humanity, there’s no ideal form of state or anything close to it. In any case I’m a pragmatist rather than an idealogue, so I’m guessing that the posts I write on this topic will be more about what to avoid rather than what constitutes best practice.

Governments can and should play many roles in trying to provide for an effective society, and these roles often seem to be in conflict. For example, I’ve always been keen on government’s regulatory role in protecting the potentially exploited from would-be or actual exploiters. This would seem to conflict with government’s role in promoting economic success and well-being, in which, for example, traders and producers seek to sell products of highly contested worth. 

Of course one popular view of government is that it should play a minimal role, allowing markets to flow as freely as possible. However the claim that government is ‘always the problem, never the solution’ strikes me as easily refuted. The hands-off approach from government led to the global financial crisis of 2007, in the minds of all but the most hardened libertarians, and in Australia, a recent Royal Commission into the banking sector, which was fought against vigorously by then Federal Treasurer (and now Prime Minister) Scott Morrison, has revealed banking corruption on a massive scale by all of the major banks in the country. Why would anyone think that self-regulation works, given the lessons of history and what we know of human nature?

So I believe that states – that’s to say governments – should have a major role to play in protecting their citizens from exploitation, while providing incentives for industry and capital enterprises to develop and thrive – with certain provisos. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, for example, that I feel that good science, in industrial and other capital enterprises, should be encouraged by government. So good government necessarily entails scientifically literate government. In this respect I believe that good government should be more interventionist than, say, government is expected to be in the USA, where, apparently, pharmaceutical products of highly dubious efficacy can be advertised. Truth in advertising appears not to be a major concern of government in that country, and I thank that’s a mistake.


Looking around the world and reading history, I find the worst governments, in terms of corruption and disastrous consequences for the governed, are those that have managed to avoid being held to account for their actions by those affected. That’s why democracy, bolstered by a free and informed fourth estate, and of course an independent judicial system, has proved to be more effective than its alternatives. But of course democracy is practiced in many different ways in many different states, and it too has its failings.


There’s also the complex role of culture in many states or governing systems. Nationalists tend to exaggerate or manufacture cultural traits, while humanists like myself tend to underplay them or wish them away, but I think the significant increase in globalisation in recent decades has been a benefit overall. Isolationism sees its most extreme examples in North Korea and the Andaman Islands, two very different cases, requiring us to think of culture, its manipulation or otherwise, in complex ways.

I’m not sure where all this is going, but I’ve been wanting to write about this sort of stuff for a long time. I’m currently reading a political history of Korea (north and south) and Russia, in the lead-up to the Putin dictatorship, and of course I’ve learned a lot about the problematic US presidential system over the past three years or so, so there’s plenty to reflect upon…

Written by stewart henderson

January 24, 2020 at 10:43 am

the self and its brain: free will encore

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yeah, right

so long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible – in other words, and from a yet more extended point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.

Victor Hugo, author’s preface to Les Miserables

Listening to the Skeptics’ Guide podcast for the first time in a while, I was excited by the reporting on a discovery of great significance in North Dakota – a gigantic graveyard of prehistoric marine and other life forms precisely at the K-T boundary, some 3000 kms from where the asteroid struck. All indications are that the deaths of these creatures were instantaneous and synchronous, the first evidence of mass death at the K-T boundary. I felt I had to write about it, as a self-learning exercise if nothing else.

But then, as I listened to other reports and talking points in one of SGU’s most stimulating podcasts, I was hooked by something else, which I need to get out of the way first. It was a piece of research about the brain, or how people think about it, in particular when deciding court cases. When Steven Novella raised the ‘spectre’ of ‘my brain made me do it’ arguments, and the threat that this might pose to ‘free will’, I knew I had to respond, as this free will stuff keeps on bugging me. So the death of the dinosaurs will have to wait.

The more I’ve thought about this matter, the more I’ve wondered how people – including my earlier self – could imagine that ‘free will’ is compatible with a determinist universe (leaving aside quantum indeterminacy, which I don’t think is relevant to this issue). The best argument for this compatibility, or at least the one I used to use, is that, yes, every act we perform is determined, but the determining factors are so mind-bogglingly complex that it’s ‘as if’ we have free will, and besides, we’re ‘conscious’, we know what we’re doing, we watch ourselves deciding between one act and another, and so of course we could have done otherwise.

Yet I was never quite comfortable about this, and it was in fact the arguments of compatibilists like Dennett that made me think again. They tended to be very cavalier about ‘criminals’ who might try to get away with their crimes by using a determinist argument – not so much ‘my brain made me do it’ as ‘my background of disadvantage and violence made me do it’. Dennett and other philosophers struck me as irritatingly dismissive of this sort of argument, though their own arguments, which usually boiled down to ‘you can always choose to do otherwise’ seemed a little too pat to me. Dennett, I assumed, was, like most academics, a middle-class silver-spoon type who would never have any difficulty resisting, say, getting involved in an armed robbery, or even stealing sweets from the local deli. Others, many others, including many kids I grew up with, were not exactly of that ilk. And as Robert Sapolsky points out in his book Behave, and as the Dunedin longitudinal study tends very much to confirm, the socio-economic environment of our earliest years is largely, though of course not entirely, determinative.

Let’s just run though some of this. Class is real, and in a general sense it makes a big difference. To simplify, and to recall how ancient the differences are, I’ll just name two classes, the patricians and the plebs (or think upper/lower, over/under, haves/have-nots).

Various studies have shown that, by age five, the more plebby you are (on average):

  • the higher the basal glucocorticoid levels and/or the more reactive the glucocorticoid stress response
  • the thinner the frontal cortex and the lower its metabolism
  • the poorer the frontal function concerning working memory, emotion regulation , impulse control, and executive decision making.

All of this comes from Sapolsky, who cites all the research at the end of his book. I’ll do the same at the end of this post (which doesn’t mean I’ve analysed that research – I’m just a pleb after all. I’m happy to trust Sapolski). He goes on to say this:

moreover , to achieve equivalent frontal regulation, [plebeian] kids must activate more frontal cortex than do [patrician] kids. In addition, childhood poverty impairs maturation of the corpus collosum, a bundle of axonal fibres connecting the two hemispheres and integrating their function. This is so wrong foolishly pick a poor family to be born into, and by kindergarten, the odds of your succeeding at life’s marshmallow tests are already stacked against you.

Behave, pp195-6

Of course, this is just the sort of ‘social asphyxia’ Victor Hugo was at pains to highlight in his great work. You don’t need to be a neurologist to realise all this, but the research helps to hammer it home.

These class differences are also reflected in parenting styles (and of course I’m always talking in general terms here). Pleb parents and ‘developing world’ parents are more concerned to keep their kids alive and protected from the world, while patrician and ‘developed world’ kids are encouraged to explore. The patrician parent is more a teacher and facilitator, the plebeian parent is more like a prison guard. Sapolsky cites research into parenting styles in ‘three tribes’: wealthy and privileged; poorish but honest (blue collar); poor and crime-ridden. The poor neighbourhood’s parents emphasised ‘hard defensive individualism’ – don’t let anyone push you around, be tough. Parenting was authoritarian, as was also the case in the blue-collar neighbourhood, though the style there was characterised as ‘hard offensive individualism’ – you can get ahead if you work hard enough, maybe even graduate into the middle class. Respect for family authority was pushed in both these neighbourhoods. I don’t think I need to elaborate too much on what the patrician parenting (soft individualism) was like – more choice, more stimulation, better health. And of course, ‘real life’ people don’t fit neatly into these categories, there are an infinity of variants, but they’re all determining.

And here’s another quote from Sapolsky on research into gene/environment interactions.

Heritability of various aspects of cognitive development is very high (e.g. around 70% for IQ) in kids from [patrician] families but is only around 10% in [plebeian] kids. Thus patrician-ness allows the full range of genetic influences on cognition to flourish, whereas plebeian settings restrict them. In other words, genes are nearly irrelevant to cognitive development if you’re growing up in awful poverty – poverty’s adverse affects trump the genetics.

Behave, p249

Another example of the huge impact of environment/class, too often underplayed by ivory tower philosophers and the silver-spoon judiciary.

Sapolsky makes some interesting points, always research-based of course, about the broader environment we inhabit. Is the country we live in more communal or more individualistic? Is there high or low income inequality? Generally, cultures with high income inequality have less ‘social capital’, meaning levels of trust, reciprocity and cooperation. Such cultures/countries generally vote less often and join fewer clubs and mutual societies. Research into game-playing, a beloved tool of psychological research, shows that individuals from high inequality/low social capital countries show high levels of bullying and of anti-social punishment (punishing ‘overly’ generous players because they make other players look bad) during economic games. They tend, in fact, to punish the too-generous more than they punish actual cheaters (think Trump).

So the determining factors into who we are and why we make the decisions we do range from the genetic and hormonal to the broadly cultural. A couple have two kids. One just happens to be conventionally good-looking, the other not so much. Many aspects of their lives will be profoundly affected by this simple difference. One screams and cries almost every night for her first twelve months or so, for some reason (and there are reasons), the other is relatively placid over the same period. Again, whatever caused this difference will likely profoundly affect their life trajectories. I could go on ad nauseam about these ‘little’ differences and their lifelong effects, as well as the greater differences of culture, environment, social capital and the like. Our sense of consciousness gives us a feeling of control which is largely illusory.

It’s strange to me that Dr Novella seems troubled by ‘my brain made me do it’, arguments, because in a sense that is the correct, if trivial, argument to ‘justify’ all our actions. Our brains ‘make us’ walk, talk, eat, think and breathe. Brains R Us. And not even brains – octopuses are newly-recognised as problem-solvers and tool-users without even having brains in the usual sense – they have more of a decentralised nervous system, with nine mini-brains somehow co-ordinating when needed. So ‘my brain made me do it’ essentially means ‘I made me do it’, which takes us nowhere. What makes us do things are the factors shaping our brain processes, and they have nothing to do with ‘free will’, this strange, inexplicable phenomenon which supposedly lies outside these complex but powerfully determining factors but is compatible with it. To say that we can do otherwise is just saying – it’s not a proof of anything.

To be fair to Steve Novella and his band of rogues, they accept that this is an enormously complex issue, regarding individual responsibility, crime and punishment, culpability and the like. That’s why the free will issue isn’t just a philosophical game we’re playing. And lack of free will shouldn’t by any means be confused with fatalism. We can change or mitigate the factors that make us who we are in a huge variety of ways. More understanding of the factors that bring out the best in us, and fostering those factors, is what is urgently required.

just thought I’d chuck this in

Research articles and reading

Behave, Robert Sapolsky, Bodley Head, 2017

These are just a taster of the research articles and references used by Sapolsky re the above.

C Heim et al, ‘Pituitary-adrenal and autonomic responses to stress in women after sexual and physical abuse in childhood’

R J Lee et al ‘CSF corticotrophin-releasing factor in personality disorder: relationship with self-reported parental care’

P McGowan et al, ‘Epigenetic regulation of the glucocorticoid receptor in human brain associates with childhood abuse’

L Carpenter et al, ‘Cerebrospinal fluid corticotropin-releasing factor and perceived early life stress in depressed patients and healthy control subjects’

S Lupien et al, ‘Effects of stress throughout the lifespan on the brain, behaviour and cognition’

A Kusserow, ‘De-homogenising American individualism: socialising hard and soft individualism in Manhattan and Queens’

C Kobayashi et al ‘Cultural and linguistic influence on neural bases of ‘theory of mind”

S Kitayama & A Uskul, ‘Culture, mind and the brain: current evidence and future directions’.

etc etc etc

Written by stewart henderson

April 23, 2019 at 10:53 am

On Maoris, heavy culture and political correctness

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a Maori meeting-gate, entrance to a Pa (fortified village). the figure on the left is female, with chin tattoo

Canto: So we spent time at the Ibis Hotel, Hamilton, NZ, which is owned and run by a Maori organisation. Many but not all the staff were Maoris – of course I can’t always tell who is Maori and who isn’t, and I’m ignorant of what precisely constitutes being a Maori (or an Australian Aborigine, or a native American, or a Jew, or an Arab, or a Kurd, or a Romany etc etc etc) – and they were unfailingly friendly and helpful. Many of the guests, too, or at least people milling around at the reception and bar/dining area, appeared to be Maori, including the occasional bloke with facial tattoos associated with Maori culture.

Jacinta: Presumably you didn’t have any doubt that they were Maoris. So I know you’re not a big fan of the tattoo fashion that’s everywhere these days.

Canto: No, this has been a trend for way over twenty years now and I thought it would pass but it seems to have intensified. But as with all things designed or pictorial, there’s the crass and the clever, the subtle and the silly, the banal and the truly tragic…

Jacinta: Okay, but the Maori tattoos that we’ve seen here, in the Ibis and elsewhere, these apparently deeply culturally significant tattoos of Maori identification, what do you think of them? Do you dare to voice an opinion?

Canto: Well I’ll give voice to an observation. I’ve never seen a woman with those kinds of tattoos.

Jacinta: Would you be happier if you saw women with them?

Canto: Not happier. As you’ve said, I’ve never been and never will be a big fan of tattoos – a fact of no major significance of course. Nobody needs to pay the slightest attention to me on these matters. But I like the raw, unadorned human body, the product of many hundreds of thousands of years of evolution. It would be sacrilege to tattoo a leopard, or a lion, or an antelope – their bodies are magnificent evolutionary products…

Jacinta: But you miss the point. Those animals don’t tattoo themselves. We tattoo ourselves. Because we can. That’s our magnificent evolutionary product, a brain that can transform our bodies, not to mention our planet.

Canto: Okay, I grant that, but I still object to tattoos on aesthetic grounds. I just think they’re mostly fugly. And as you know I hate trendiness and groupthink.

Jacinta: Okay, let’s get back to Maori tattoos and women. As you know, women in general are getting tattoos at a greater rate than men, and, yes, Maori women are getting tattoos in increasing numbers. Sacred chin tattoos – so, different from the blokes.

Canto: Hmmm, well as you know, I’ve always been more comfortable with the profane than the sacred…

Jacinta: Well, ‘sacred’ sounds a bit heavy; they seem to be ‘belongingness’ tattoos, but that sounds a bit wishy-washy. In any case there’s a whole history behind Maori ‘skin art’ or Kiri Tuhi…

Canto: Which sounds to be strictly regulated on gender lines – those aggressive ‘warrior’ facial tats for men and the more restrained ones for subordinate women.

Jacinta: Maybe. You’re worried about ‘heavy culture’ aren’t you?

Canto: Heavy and patriarchal culture, which I’ve always been pretty down on. I prefer nature over culture, to be simplistic about it. Or rather, I prefer a culture which questions itself, so deeply as to undermine itself, usually through understanding the nature of culture. It’s binding and blinding nature.

Jacinta: Very good. So maybe we should look at Maori culture in particular, and the way it binds and blinds.

Canto: So what about chin tattoos? Are they for women only?

Jacinta: Well the traditional Maori tattoos are called Ta Moko, and they’re carved into the skin with chisels rather than drawn with skin-puncturing needles. Every tattoo is individualised, and they represent family and tribal history, status and the like.

Canto: You can’t get more heavily cultural than that, to have your cultural pedigree, such as it is, inscribed on your face. I myself haven’t the slightest awareness of my cultural pedigree and I want to keep it that way. Does that make me a pariah?

Jacinta: It makes you just another feature of life’s rich tapestry. Women were traditionally tattooed only on the chin, around the mouth and sometimes the nostrils. All this tattooing faded for a while in the nineteenth century, with increasing assimilation pressures, many of them internalised, but it’s come back with a vengeance with renewed emphasis on native pride and such.

Canto: Hmmmm. I presume Maori culture was very patriarchal? Once were warriors and all that?

Jacinta: Yes, a warrior culture but strongly influenced and supported by women, in maintaining the stories of an oral culture, and in the upbringing of children. The Maori argue that, at the time of the ‘white invasion’, Maori women generally had more status in their society than white women had in theirs. They retained their own names after marriage, they dressed similarly to men, and their children didn’t consider their maternal kinship group as less important than the paternal. I presume the chiefs were male, but overall, Maori culture was no more patriarchal, historically, than our own.

Canto: Yes, I have to say they all look pretty scarily macho, male and female, but they turn out to be so nice and friendly.

Jacinta: It’s good for business. Yes I haven’t seen too many gracile Maoris, they all seem to belong to the robusta domain. Maybe it’s the diet.

Canto: The genes, more likely. Influenced by diet. Kumera’s a pretty robust vegetable.

Jacinta: You are what you eat? But to get back to culture and its binding and blinding, it’s perhaps a good thing that a culture can bind people in a shared history and a collective memory, even if memory often plays false, but one of the problems is that it blinkers them to other connections, other perspectives on the world…

Canto: And it’s often backward-facing…

Jacinta: And it has a reifying effect, making these connections to a shared history – which is often mythical – more real than real, so that a ‘Maori perspective’ becomes entrenched and valorised above a collective, largely progressive, open-ended, human perspective.

Canto: The problem of identity politics. It’s actually a difficult one for those cultures that feel themselves under the gun – oppressed, minority… I’ve said that I don’t really care about my Scottish-Australian cultural pedigree – or is it mongrel-ness – but I suppose it’s because I belong to the dominant culture; white, anglo-saxon and increasingly atheist. That culture is so broad and deep that, although you can easily lose your way in it, you’re rarely ever challenged for being a part of it.

Jacinta: And as part of this dominant culture we get to look at these minority cultures – which of course add to that all-embracing diversity we’re so proud of – with fascination, with condescension, with alarm, with disgust, with starry eyes, with guilt, with humour, with exasperation, with a mixture of some or all of these feelings or impulses, without being called out for it in any serious way.

Canto: But aren’t we being called out for having the wrong attitudes? Isn’t that what political correctness is all about?

Jacinta: Well, political correctness is a fascinating thing, and not such a bad thing. It’s a kind of unspoken, largely unconscious vigilante force to avoid hurt – to old people, fat people, gay people, disabled people, people who look, dress or act differently (in a more or less harmless way) from the norm. So we internalise our criticisms and anxieties, we restrict them to our internal monologues, or to conversations with like-minded others, and we never quite know whether this is civilised or cowardly behaviour.

Canto: It certainly helps us to get along.

Jacinta: Well, more than that, I mean it doesn’t just help us to avoid unnecessary battles, it helps us to reflect on first impressions, to question them, to challenge them, to deepen them. There’s more to political correctness than meets the eye.

Canto: You mean we shouldn’t judge political correctness by first impressions…

Jacinta: Which takes us back to Maori culture. We’ve not just seen the Maoris running our hotel in a professional and friendly way, we’ve been to a traditional Maori ceremony, somewhat ‘westernised’ for us tourists, and we’ve watched their men and women perform for us, in mock-warrior and lyrical mode, with dignity humour and a lot of tolerance for the goggle-eyed, muttering global trade of people shuffling through and holding up their mobile phones and clicking distractingly, while obscuring the view of we polite, politically correct watchers, pathetically torn between appreciating the Maori scenes on the stage, and being irritated at those around us who weren’t being as politically correct as ourselves…

Jacinta: That’s modern life, in the ‘first world’….

Written by stewart henderson

April 23, 2018 at 5:24 pm

Limi girl – part 3

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screen-shot-2016-12-19-at-9-51-30-am

Jacinta: So it’s been a while, but let’s return to that fascinating movie about identity, ambition, entrapment and dislocation, Limi Girl.

Canto: After this poignant moment when Xiumei and Heigo recognise the difficulty of living independently, of controlling the forces around them, Heigo announces his arranged marriage to Shugio – ‘but it’s you I want to marry.’ When Xiumei rather cruelly ticks him off about this, he apologises, says he was joking.

Jacinta: And he clearly wasn’t, poor fellow. He’s fighting a losing battle.

Canto: Men chase, women choose. Desperately, he warns her that going to college is no guarantee of a good future. But she’s resolute in her irresolute way – it’s the closest thing to her dream. She walks off, leaving him to wonder if the chase is off.

Jacinta: In the next scene we see Shugio at home, apparently mixing farm work with school work – first writing on a blackboard (there appears to be a calculator on the table), then sifting some kind of foodstuff, then reading some paper. She might be learning some basic literacy and numeracy. She looks happy, no doubt dreaming of her marriage, till she sees Xiumei go by at the bottom of the hill, followed by Heigo. It’s more like a funeral procession than a chase, though. Angrily, she throws a basin of water down towards him.

Canto: Poor Heigo’s not too popular with the womenfolk. The next scene is quite obscure for non-Mandarin speakers. Heigo’s home with young Gaidi, having cooked her dinner. He finds her absorbed in watching a Chinese TV program with a lot of people staring at the Chinese flag, with a soothing voice-over. I think I hear the name Shifang. Heigo turns away, looking slightly perturbed.

Jacinta: Yes, don’t know what to make of it. But in the next scene Gaidi is in bed with her aunt, and has woken up in the middle of the night. She says she wants to go to school. To college in Szichuan, like Xiumei. To find her mother and father. So presumably the program she was watching has influenced her. Her aunt isn’t sympathetic. Shugio didn’t go to school and is having a good life. Xiumei, on the other hand… besides, she doesn’t have the money to waste on such things.

Canto: So Xiumei is being denigrated, but the more aspirational, such as Gaidi, see her as an inspiration. In the next scene, Xiumei is out with her fellow-villagers,  all female, working in the ‘fields’ (actually tough, wooded mountainsides) digging up fleece-flower roots (used in TCM – traditional Chinese medicine – and therefore of very doubtful efficacy). One of the girls steals a root that she has dug up, leading to a confrontation. Another girl joins in and they mock the ‘college student’, who finally storms off, vowing to go back to college. Clearly there’s jealousy here, and a fear/dislike of ‘difference’, typical of a traditional culture.

Jacinta: I’m interested in these fleece-flower roots. Apparently they’re used for hair growth by ‘increasing blood circulation’, but that was on a beauty site. A google search turns up numerous sites, none of them particularly trustworthy in my estimation. A Chinese site states this, in quite scientific-sounding, if garbled, language:

Modern researches showed that fleeceflower root has effects in lowering blood lipids and sugar, preventing atherosclerosis, immune enhancement [?], expanding blood vessels, promoting adrenal gland secretion and blood cell productions, smooth heart and brain circulations [?], protecting liver functioning, enhancing neural and bowel transmissions [wow?!], promoting hair growth, anti-septic and anti-aging [?].

All of which sounds absurdly impressive, but the reference it provides takes us nowhere. Still, I hope it really is the good oil, for the Limi people’s sake…

Canto: Yes, there are no reliable scientific treatments of this ‘superflower’ on the search list, and Wikipedia merely tells us that ‘fleeceflower’ is a common name for several different plants, so it’ll be a tough job getting to the truth of it all. And the fact that this somewhat marginalised culture is relying, at least in part, on these doubtful TCM products for survival is another worrisome sign.

Jacinta: I like the way Xiumei stands up for herself when she’s mocked. She’s always feisty. So she heads back home with her donkey, but when she stops to drink at a stream, her donkey jogs off, after shrugging off its load – baskets full of plants. Xiumei has to carry the load herself. Meanwhile Gaidi, who recovers her donkeys, sets out with Haigo to find and help her. They find her struggling uphill with her baskets. Heigo chides her for ‘being like this’ – presumably referring to her stubborn independence. Xiumei, exhausted, complains tearfully that everybody, even the animals, are bullying her. Nevertheless she lets herself be ‘rescued’ by her ‘sister’ and her suitor. They ride off on what appears to be the village motorbike.

Canto: Yes, a most versatile machine, now carrying three people and a couple of hefty baskets. Next we see Shugio, again doing physical work – she appears to have a herbal medicine-type business operating from home – together with some kind of study, as she examines papers. She sees Heigo arrive from her window, with baskets, and looks pissed off. Heigo announces that he has come to sell herbs. Shugio’s angry because she knows the herbs have been harvested by her arch-rival Xiumei. She agrees to buy the stuff but – never again! Heigo then returns with the empty baskets to Xiumei and Gaidi, who are hiding round the corner. He hands Xiumei the money from Shugio, then tries to talk her out of trying to earn money for her education in such a piecemeal, grinding way. This time young Gaidi speaks up, defending her ‘sister’ and announcing that she too will earn money by her hard work, so that she can go to college in Sichuan and find her parents. Still Heigo insists on giving Xiumei some money, which she reluctantly accepts via Gaidi.

Jacinta: And these scenes highlight the interconnectedness of village life, where enemies must still have commercial connections, where one person’s actions influence another’s – everyone is in each other’s way, and co-operation is necessary for survival.

Canto: So the trio ride off again on the motorbike, taking Xiumei home, apparently with Shugio’s blessing, though Heigo claims, probably rightly, that she’s only faking civility.

Jacinta: Next we see that Xiumei and Gaidi have been dropped off, and then the two females separate, at a kind of outdoor entrance constructed of wood. I’m fascinated by the depictions of rural life here – everything is indoor-outdoor, a far cry from our constructed indoor worlds. Anyway, it seems the pair live side by side, but not together. Or maybe Gaidi is just seeing her elder ‘sister’ to the door.

Canto: In the next scene we have book-burning, always a bad sign, and a heavy symbol. Xiumei’s father is angrily tearing up her college books and throwing them into the fire. Her mother rescues some of them, then Xiumei arrives and protests passionately. Her father, half-brought to his senses, half-relents and stomps off. Her mother consoles her, defends her tormented husband, and brings news of the village gossip. She shouldn’t be hanging out with the engaged Heigo, and she should reconsider all this college malarky. Xiumei, devastated and tearful at all these forces arrayed against her, sobs out that she ‘will not submit to fate’.

Xiumei pleads with her father to stop burning her books

Xiumei pleads with her father to stop burning her books

Jacinta: It’s another powerful yet low-key moment. I want to shout for her and I want to cry. How well this captures the struggles of the poor. No, not the poor, but those trapped in a web of culture, a culture that understandably wants to maintain itself as it has been for centuries, huddled in a sense with its back to the changing, widening and deepening world around it. We often see these cultures, off-handedly, as lacking, smothering – their shared knowledge of soil, seasons and locality irrelevant to the modern world. Xiumei is half-keen to strip off that knowledge and take on modern clothing, but she’ll inevitably be caught between two worlds and may not succeed or be happy in either.

Canto: Well meanwhile life and the movie goes on. In the next scene, Xiumei’s tormented father visits her as she sleeps in her bedroom, tries to make sense of the schoolbooks there, the posters on her wall, and tucks her in gently. Next morning, Heigo is waiting on his motorbike to take Xiumei to the fields, but she ignores him, saddling up her donkey. As she passes him, she says that his fiancée should ‘watch her mouth’ – presumably it’s Shugio who’s spreading the gossip – and her father later shouts to him a reminder that he’s due to be married (the poor sod), and he also reminds him who the motorbike belongs to.

Jacinta: Yes, but without telling the viewers. Who does that bloody bike belong to? Maybe it’s a community bike. Maybe he’s reminding Heigo of the community values he’s apparently trashing as he chases Xiumei while being engaged more or less against his will to Shugio. The cultural web is doing its ensnaring job.

screen-shot-2016-12-19-at-9-39-04-am

Written by stewart henderson

December 19, 2016 at 9:58 am

Limi Girl – part 2

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Jacinta: So, Heigo takes up the washerwomen’s sad song on the lakeside, and we see the hard, basic work of the villagers, and the beauty of the mountainous countryside. A reality view juxtaposed with a touristy view.

Canto: Right, we’re back with Limi Girl – a long review, or more like one of those chats through the movie that you get on DVD extras.

Jacinta: Or used to get. And it’s by outsiders rather than insiders, so not so interesting…

Canto: But more critical, in a good way. So in the next scene the camera slowly drifts across Xiumei’s bedroom-study, where she’s writing and contemplating and looking melancholy. Above her head is a portrait of a dancer, which she stares at…

Jacinta: My guess is she’s confused, and not at all confident about becoming a dancer, or returning successfully to college.

Canto: So she goes to her father to talk. She explains to him that when she dropped out she decided that she would study hard and re-enrol in a ‘normal college’…

Jacinta: That’s an interesting piece of exposition. What kind of college was she enrolled in before?

Canto: Yes it’s confusing – either she went to the city to enrol in a dance college or she dropped out because she wants to go to dancing school…

Jacinta: It must be the first option. So now she feels like a failure and a disappointment about the dance thing.

Canto: She tells her father it will be cheaper and she might get a ‘national student loan’, but he says this is impossible.

Jacinta: In other words he forbids it.

Canto: She doesn’t respond for a moment, then finally says she has decided….

Jacinta: It’s a lovely scene, in the silence her breathing becomes heavy as if his words have winded her. But then there’s defiance.

Canto: So now there’s an argument, she’s in no position to decide, he told her the dancing would never amount to anything and now they’re in debt. She vows to pay it all back, tearfully saying she wants more than a good village life.

Jacinta: She’s distraught more than angry. Note that after the first day back she’s reverted to traditional garb. She’s caught between two worlds.

Canto: So Xiumei walks off into the night, and a woman comes in and says ‘Xiumei’s father, you shouldn’t treat her that way’. He looks gloomy.

Jacinta: Who is she? Doesn’t sound like Xiumei’s mum. A neighbour?

Canto: Not sure. Next Xiumei is out on the mountainous slopes collecting roots and herbs, working hard. She reaches a high point and looks out over the beautiful wooded mountains and valleys of her homeland. She’s in turmoil. She trudges back home with her donkey and her load of herbs.

Jacinta: Here it might be apposite to speak of the music, which I found very effective in its understated way. Evocative, wistful.

Canto: Heigo walks through the countryside with his mother.

Jacinta: The one who’s supposed to be in hospital.

Canto: He’s complaining about how she set him up with Shugio, while she says that it’s his duty as an adult to marry – he’ll be laughed at otherwise. He mocks the suggestion, and starts to sing another song, but his mother insists he go to see Shugio’s family to make up for his poor behaviour.

Jacinta: So next we have Heigo sitting beside his mother, or maybe Shugio’s mother, discussing the wedding with Shugio’s family over cups of tea. They’ve been engaged for 20 years, she says, and should’ve been married long ago.

Canto: And the others agree, talking over Heigo’s head, as people do in court.

Jacinta: Heigo himself looks barely 20 years old, poor thing. Finally he gets up and asks Shugio to step outside so they can ‘nurture their feelings.’

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Canto: He’s not happy, and Shugio follows him out, trying to keep up with him. He rounds on her, accusing her of luring him back from Guangdong for this ‘trivial matter’ of marriage. And of course Shugio is shocked and annoyed at this reaction. Heigo, it seems, wants to give the impression that all this ‘arranged marriage’ stuff is beneath him, and that Shugio, too, is beneath him. ‘You don’t understand me at all’, he says.

Jacinta: This is one of many moments in the film where so much is revealed in a few words. Here we’re both slightly repelled by Heigo’s arrogant dismissiveness and sympathetic to his unfocussed but intense aspirations.

Canto: Shugio responds well, after consideration. She may not know him entirely, but she has tended and nurtured him, and dreamed of their future life together. But yes, she says, ‘you’ve broadened your horizon and now you are bored’. Heigo seems sympathetic, but insists – this was a match created by their parents, now they’re grown up and free to choose for themselves…

Jacinta: He ignores the fact that she has already chosen him.

Canto: He declares his choice – he doesn’t know how to live with someone who doesn’t know him.

Jacinta: But who ever knows another, or himself?

Canto: Upon saying this he flounces off, and she responds, most heart-rendingly, ‘I don’t know how to live with someone else either’.

Jacinta: They’re both exaggerating their inabilities.

Canto: Next, Gaidi meets up with ‘sister’ Xiumei, still collecting herbs on the mountainside. She has a pair of shoes for her, from cousin Heigo. Xiumei wants them sent back, but softens when she sees Gaidi’s disappointment. So they trudge together along mountain paths, with the gift, and a trailing donkey.

Jacinta: The camera again lingers here on the lush beauty of this landscape. In the previous scene we heard a cock crowing as the betrothed couple disputed under the trees. This play between the physical beauty of place and the nurturing atmosphere of domesticity – where everyone’s a sister or a cousin – and the sense of constraint and even suffocation for these young aspirants, this is so beautifully handled I think.

Canto: In a clearing, Xiumei dons the new red dancing shoes from her cousin, and dances, while Gaidi watches entranced. For a while they dance together, a slow swaying dance, arms akimbo. Then Gaidi takes her turn for a solo, as the sun begins to set.

Jacinta: Note that Xiumei turns contemplative, watching Gaidi. Thinking about dance, the fantasy, the reality…

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Canto: And looks a little melancholic, I’d say. In the next scene Gaidi sheepishly approaches ‘sister Xiumei’, who’s emptying her basket, perhaps as food for some farm animals. Gaidi’s cattle, or the family’s cattle she’s been tending, have run off, and damaged a neighbouring wheat crop. So now she’s afraid to return to her aunt, where she’ll likely get a beating. Xiumei offers to return with her, to protect her, so they head off together. Her aunt is already angry, and tries to get at Gaidi with a broom. She’s angry about the loss of money, as they’ll have to compensate the neighbour. Xiumei steps between them, saying ‘don’t hit her any more’, so this is perhaps a common occurrence, ‘she’s just a kid’. So the argument continues, with Gaidi’s aunt, who’s also Heigo’s mother, asserting her right to beat her whenever she likes, since she feeds and clothes her..

Jacinta: A useful device for bringing Heigo and Xiumei together again, and here’s where we get some more useful exposition.

Canto: Yes, because Heigo appears, tries to calm his mother and tells Xiumei not to interfere, but the headstrong Xiumei won’t have any of that. ‘You wouldn’t let her go to school, and yet you beat her like this’. Not surprisingly, the older woman responds by mocking Xiumei’s school failure – ‘you must’ve done something shameful while you were away.’ Xiumei is stung, can’t think of a retort, and flounces off.

Jacinta: And naturally Heigo seizes his chance to get her alone.

Canto: Yes but before that, we focus briefly on Gaidi and her aunt. With Xiumei gone, and Heigo off after her, Gaidi is ordered inside. Her aunt follows her, picking up the broom, but then she tosses it aside before entering the house.

Jacinta: So Xiumei is having her positive influence. It’s neatly observed.

Canto: So Heigo begins by apologising for his mother, but Xiumei shrugs it off, ‘I’m used to it.’ Then she tells him she will return the shoes tomorrow.

Jacinta: They sure know how to hurt each other.

Canto: Of course Heigo objects. He bought them for her off his first pay in Guangzhou, has been keeping them for her ever since.

Jacinta: They sure know how to make each other feel guilty.

Canto: So Xiumei gives him a speech with obvious similarities to the one he gave Shugio. Things have changed, they’re not kids anymore, it’s water under the bridge, she doesn’t want this kind of life.. But Heigo wonders, understandably, about the change. It’s only been a year – he’s been working, she’s been to college. She can only say, much as Heigo said to Shugio, ‘you don’t understand me’.

Jacinta: It’s the old story of unequal feelings. Shugio loves Heigo, but Heigo can’t return the love, partly because she represents the past to him. Heigo loves Xiumei and she in return wants to transcend the past that he represents to her. There’s a fearful symmetry here. But there’s also in this dialogue, especially from Xiumei, another fearfulness, or a great uncertainty, about how to live, the difficulties of going Outside, to the City, the Great World.

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Written by stewart henderson

July 16, 2016 at 11:52 am

movie review: Limi Girl – part one

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Jacinta: Hurray we’re going to do a movie review.

Canto: Yes and it’s a beautiful, quiet and powerful Chinese movie, co-written and directed by Roy Cheung made in 2014 and set among the Limi people, an apparently rather impoverished tribal group in Yunnan Province, near the Burmese border. The Limi people have their own language, part of the Tibetan group, but the film is in Mandarin, not surprisingly, as Limi is spoken by only around 30,000 people.

Jacinta: It’s certainly an affecting movie about the trials and tensions of a very basic rural life, the generational changes, the lure of the city, the yearning for something more, the pull of home and safety… it’s a universal story of tradition versus change, and the heartache of those torn between.

Canto: So the film, which is available on youtube, starts as the central character, Xiumei (Shi Yan), returns to her home village from studying in the town of Shifang, in neighbouring Szichuan Province, much to the delight of her little ‘sister’ Gaidi. But Xiumei hasn’t returned in triumph, she’s ‘dropped out’, and the village women have gathered to taunt her about her failure. Her humiliated father is forced to apologise and promises to pay back the money he’s borrowed for his daughter’s education.

Jacinta: And when we first see Xiumei she’s in city clothes, unlike the village women and girls, who all wear the same outlandish pillowy head-dresses and navy blue robes. The village huts are of rickety logs and thatch, set in a landscape of rock-strewn hills and streams. Physically beautiful, it’s clearly a tough environment for eking out a living.

Xiumei angrily faces the angry villagers

Xiumei angrily faces the angry villagers

Canto: Xiumei comes to her doorway and confronts her critics. From the conversation we learn that she has given up college because she wants to be a dancer, though it’s confusing – she promises to repay the money, she promises to return to college, she’s defiant and angry. She retreats inside, and Gaidi comes in to comfort her, and to ask if she’s heard any news from Szichuan about her (Gaidi’s) parents.

Jacinta: So Gaidi isn’t actually Xiumei’s sister, but possibly a cousin, who’s in the care of Xiumei’s parents – another burden for this poor couple.

Canto: Xiumei hasn’t any news and can only show the girl a postcard of Shifang, which she stares at sadly. In the next scene, in a beautiful mountain shrine, Xiumei is back in traditional dress, burning incense to the Buddha along with Gaidi and the village women. She asks to be blessed to go to college again, while Gaidi prays to be reunited with her parents in Szichuan. Then we follow a bus rolling along a mountain road. Inside the bus, a young man, Heigo, is returning to the village. His mother is in the local hospital and he’s returning from Guangdong to check on her… or so it seems.

Jacinta: And in these scenes we see again the rugged beauty of the landscape, a contrast to the unhappy yearnings of the humans. Guangdong by the way is a coastal province bordering Hong Kong and Macau, well to the east of Yunnan.

Canto: So we find out about Heigo through another passenger who greets him, and tells him laughingly that his mother has tricked him – she’s just luring him home to marry his ‘childhood sweetheart’, Shugio – as has always been intended. Heigo looks annoyed and asks after Xiumei – he’s heard she’s back. His friend, though only wants to talk of Heigo’s coming wedding to Shugio, and how lucky he is.

Jacinta: So this is how it’s shaping up, an inter-generational contest. The main characters in the film are the young – Xiumei and Heigo, and Shugio, Heigo’s intended, and little Gaidi. Heigo has been tricked into returning, and Xiumei is under pressure…

Canto: Heigo gets off the bus before it reaches the village. He’s clearly thoroughly peed off, but while he sits muttering by a brook, Shugio arrives on a motorbike. A strange sight, in her traditional costume. She’s annoyed that she had to come all this way to meet him, having heard from his friend that he got off the bus early. And Heigo is annoyed too and reluctantly goes back with her to the village.

Jacinta: Yes, he sees Shugio as part of the family group colluding to entrap him. The motorbike, I think, is an interesting symbol. It testifies to the rough terrain, more easily negotiated on a motorbike, but it’s also the only motorised object, the most advanced piece of technology in the movie.

Canto: Along the road to the village, with Heigo driving, they encounter Gaidi, with Xiumei carrying a heavy basket. Gaidi hails Heigo, her ‘cousin’. He greets her happily, but is particularly keen to chat with Xiumei. He follows her up the hill, while impatient Shugio calls him back. Xiumei’s response to him is cool but friendly enough, and she allows him to accompany her, while irritated Shugio drives off with Gaidi as pillion.

Jacinta: He clearly fancies her.

Canto: Yes but her views aren’t so clear. So Shugio and Gaidi arrive at Shugio’s mother’s house – she’s weaving, a bridal costume perhaps – but she’s disappointed to find Gaidi arriving instead of Heigo.

Jacinta: This is a confusing scene. She asks Gaidi, ‘where’s your cousin’, meaning Heigo, and Gaidi says, according to the subtitles, ‘cousin is taking sister Xiumei away on a motorbike’, which is either untrue or nonsensical.

Canto: Yes, there’s only one motorbike in the movie, and Shugio was riding it. If Gaidi is lying, it’s not to keep Xiumei out of trouble. It doesn’t make sense. Anyway, Shugio’s mother scolds Gaidi and tells her she’s not to see Xiumei again.

Jacinta: From this scene we realise that Gaidi lives with Shugio and her mother.

Canto: In the next scene, Heigo is punting Xiumei along in a boat on the river.

Jacinta: Being very helpful – he was last seen carrying her basket for her.

Canto: Their conversation here is revealing. Heigo asks why she didn’t answer his many letters. She says she didn’t want to distract him from his work, and he responds that his work, as a supervisor, is utterly boring. She changes the subject, asking him about his ‘wife’, Shugio, and of course he responds that she isn’t his wife – yet.

Jacinta: Yes and there’s nothing apparently coquettish about this reference. She seems to be reminding him about his commitment.

Canto: Which seems a bit harsh. We don’t know if he’s ever made a commitment, it all seems to be about family assumptions. Anyway, Xiumei next praises Shugio’s cleverness and hard work. Certainly not encouraging his attentions. The scene ends strangely, as Heigo takes up a sorrowful song, cheerfully sung by washerwomen on the bank. It’s a song of lovesickness, and Heigo howls…

Jacinta: So ends the first part. It looks like it’s going to be a long review.

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Heigo joins in the song

 

Written by stewart henderson

June 10, 2016 at 4:28 pm