Wednesday, August 12, 2009


In the span between late-night and sunrise, something strange happened in the world. It was almost as if every physical law governing existence and interaction shifted almost imperceptibly; in fact, it was imperceptible, because nobody really noticed. But they had a feeling.

Gravity pulled every object ever-so-slightly more down to the world. Cohesian mechanics relaxed by a thousandth of a degree, and motor vehicles, while still functioning effectively, seemed to be somehow .. off. It was difficult, if not impossible, for anyone to explain; most people, when they realized it, saw it only on the periphery of their conscious mind. To explain it would have been like explaining their rationale in getting spooked when at home alone and having to leave for fear of something terrible happening - their was no rationality to it, no system of logic, no good reason. But they knew something was wrong, and they were compelled to act upon it.

Yet no one thought to do anything about this shift in the world. Nuclear physicists puzzled over what the implications of increased output in their power plants meant, and how it might affect safety guidelines. Airline pilots felt that they were slipping in between clouds, their oily surfaces pouring over the aluminum casting of the great Boeings of the sky instead of penetrating them as they had the day before. Researchers attempting to harness quantum mechanics into computer power suddenly managed to successfully develop 5-bit states that actually worked, and worked flawlessly - for the first time, they were able to predict exactly where a neutron would be in its orbit. This was most troubling to them of all, but it shouldn’t have been - somehow, the most difficult aspect of their profession, uncertainty, had been removed from the equation.

I first noticed it when driving to a coffee shop from the bank in my home town. While rounding the curve of Court Street in between Center and Ballenger, I noticed the frame of my car diverge, each mechanical component expanding ever-so-slightly, my seat growing wider as fuel efficiency fell. I could see the other vehicles on the road diverging, too, although they were each doing so to different degrees. Bizarrely, this seemed to have no impact on their performance aside from a vague drifting to the right or to the left on the road. I began to wonder if maybe my insides were diverging, too.

I decided that they were. My general anxiety during the mornings was removed, and the standard nausea that accompanies the span between wakefulness and a caffeinated state was removed - for the first time in months, I felt as if everything was right in the world upon waking up. This troubles me greatly - for if I believe everything is right in the world, but know that it is not, how can I attempt to address any of those wrongs? I am still not sure. My edge - my precious, desperate, anxiety-riddled edge has gone missing, and I am filled with a grave fear of the consequences. Will I still be able to function? Will I be able to stoke the flames of hatred deep within me so that I might find success? Will the loss of what separates me from other men begin to show in my diffusion into the crowds, into the faceless masses?

I do not know.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Book Report/Criticism: King Leopold's Ghost

The following is an assignment I had for a survey of African History until 1800 class I am currently taking. The assignment quite specifically stated that it was to be a book about African history BEFORE colonialisation, but, well .. my reasons are explained in the text.

[Publishing infoz:
August 7, 2009
King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild
Mariner Books]

I would like first - and feel it entirely necessary - to explain my decision in choosing Adam Hochschild’s historical survey of the colonization of the Congo called “King Leopold’s Ghost.” Although the assignment requirements are quite clear in stating that the book must have been written concerning the pre-colonial history of Africa, I chose instead to read and work with a text that instead was about the colonization of Africa. This was not decided out of a sense of entitlement of not having to follow the rules, or out of a rebellious, anti-authoritative sense of doing whatever I like, but rather two very specific reasons - one of which is perhaps more valid than the other.

The first reason, and the lesser of the two, is because I had some trouble finding works concerning this period of African history. However, as I spent time looking for publications of pre-colonial Africa, my mind returned to a topic that I spent a great deal of time working with in the last year or so, and one that has been forever lodged in my mind as one of the great evils of human history: colonialisation itself. As an aside, I will forever find it bizarre that regardless of which word-processing software that I use, the word “colonialisation” - regardless of spelling - is flagged as being a non-word. So, moving along.

During the winter semester last year, I took the class that Mary-Jo Kietzman offered that was centered around Tariq Ali - both his fiction and non-fiction - and post-colonial criticism in general. In it, I found an entire breadth of concepts that I hadn’t explicitly encountered before, but nonetheless found to have made a great deal of sense. While the class often focused on fiction - indeed, the majority of book-length reading that was done was on the fictional novels of Ali and Orhan Pamuk - much of the auxiliary reading was on Edward Said’s “Orientalism” and Steven Harris’ “Postcolonial Criticism,” both of which deal more or less exclusively with the real-world implications and consequences of colonialism.

As stated, I am very drawn to this field of discourse. Additionally, I am a student motivated not by letter-grades but by the acquisition of knowledge and the development of understanding about the world. (I recognize that my using the word ‘acquisition’ here may be inappropriate in this context) Given this, I look towards projects and undertakings as means of learning in greater depth things which interest me and which I will find useful in my academic career. As a student of literature, narrative, discourse, dialogue and rhetoric, a solid understanding of the events leading up to and the consequences of colonialism are incredibly important. What I am particularly interested in are the compositional structures used by various authors in a variety of works, and how those structures affect the message that the author is trying to express. I also wanted to experiment, in a sense, with reading a piece of colonial history - written from the perspective of someone with an intense hatred for colonialism - as a piece of Orientalist literature/non-fiction. By which I mean, I wondered if Adam Hochschild was almost guilty of helping to enforce the problem that he hoped to shed light on.

On the Style of Writing Presented in “King Leopold’s Ghost”

Adam Hochschild is a writing professor at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, and has written many books concerning the histories and perspectives of many peoples, so he is not without the proper credentials to write a book such as “King Leopold’s Ghost.” His style is engaging and thorough, providing for a highly-detailed yet easily-readable account of the development of the Congo. He often includes details about the personal lives of the figures he deals with an attempt to humanize them and shed light on their decisions. Unfortunately, this often means that he creates judgments of his own which are then forced on the reader - for better or worse, Hochschild makes little attempt at retaining a more journalistic, objective viewpoint.

This problem first manifests in his descriptions of one of the central players in the conquest of the Congo; the explorer, vagrant, brutal commander and evil-bastard-in-general, Henry Morton Stanley. He charts his life as first a young boy repeatedly rejected by those typically tasked with caring, and one that became a sensationalist, yellow journalist whom characterized the wars the United States had with the western plains Indians. However, he generally describes him in almost benevolent tones; the reader’s first introduction of him is one built on sympathy and a recognition of his intelligence and beautiful handwriting. Although he is later disparaged as being, in general, a terrible villain, Hochschild gives him more initial praise than the other central player of the book and development of the Congo, Leopold II.

Instead of the flowery, almost uplifting narrative that Hochschild provided for Stanley, Leopold II is generally described exclusively in negative terms. As a child, his fixation with numbers above all else and his cleverness - portrayed as a fox - is emphasized constantly, as is his social awkwardness. Although some of these attributes were also applied to Stanley, they were given to him in a benevolent fashion, reasoning that he had a difficult childhood and that his flaws should possibly be seen as charming distractions to the rugged exterior of the man he would become. Leopold II, however, was never illustrated in a positive manner; although Hochschild clearly and repeatedly acknowledges Leopold II’s incredible intellect and deft social maneuvering, his awkwardness at a younger stage of his life was instead used to paint him as a wretched boy, only barely worthy of the title that he would receive.

As an example, when writing about Leopold II’s moves to acquire stock in the Suez Trading Company and in efforts to acquire a colony all his own, Hochschild writes,
“Leopold’s letters and memos, forever badgering someone about acquiring a colony, seem to be in the voice of a person starved for love as a child and now filled with an obsessive desire for an emotional substitute, the way someone becomes embroiled in an endless dispute with a brother or sister over an inheritance, or with a neighbor over a property boundary.” (p. 38)
While this might seem to be merely an author’s mental image and understanding of the reasons why a certain figure did a certain thing, the prose is nonetheless worded in a fashion intended to sway the opinion of the reader. Specifically, I am referring to his use of “badgering,” a word that, when used in this context, is never positive - indeed, it is always a negative connotation. Why Hochschild chose to use a word such as this - and others, as this is but one example of lexical issues that crop up repeatedly - is beyond my capacity to state with effectiveness. That said, it mostly just seems that he has a bias that he is unwilling to go to any lengths whatsoever to provide. I find this a strange stance to take as a professor working for a graduate school of journalism, a discipline that has built its foundation on objectivism.

His attempts at psychology feel, if anything, out of place. While Hochschild may very well have studied psychology while in university, may have even received a degree in it, his commentary revolving around it feels nonetheless to be that of an amateur. I find this almost entertaining given a line delivered in the Introduction of the book; “However, with my college lecture notes on [Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”] filled with scribbles about Freudian overtones, mythic echoes, and inward vision ...” It would seem that amateur psychoanalysis is something of a regular theme for Hochschild.

Which isn’t to say that his conjectures into the discipline aren’t entertaining; they are. They provide color to characters that I imagine would be traditionally painted in shades of grey, and make “King Leopold’s Ghost” a more entertaining work to read in general. I’m just not sure that they really add anything relevant to the dialogue, and I find the forcing of the author’s opinion on me during reading to be troublesome.

On the Question of Orientalism

One of the questions that I had after I had found this book was whether or not Hochschild himself was guilty of Orientalising the Congo - and I believe that the answer is more or less “yes.” It’s a difficult thing for any western-educated writer or intellectual to escape from, and great care must be taken to ensure its avoidance. Orientalism, coined by Edward Said in his book bearing the same name, is essentially the use of language to describe cultures and peoples of the Orient - essentially everything east of the eastern borders of Europe and south of the Mediterranean - in a way that permits the mental palatability of colonialisation. Examples of this from the figures in question are found throughout “King Leopold’s Ghost,” most often when Hochschild is quoting Leopold II or Stanley. Indeed, Said and Harris both actually quote speeches given by Leopold II when he was working towards his colonial prospect.

Leopold II essentially justified his colonial aspirations of the Congo as ones of altruism and benevolence, seeking to make the ‘uncivilized’ of the Congo into good, civilized Christians. An example, given at the first meeting of the organization that Leopold II built for the purposes of justifying his colonialism (initially mapping it), follows;
“To open to civilization the only part of our globe which it has not yet penetrated, to pierce the darkness which hangs over entire peoples, is, I dare say, a crusade of this century of progress.” (p. 44)
This sentence alone is rife with what were really quite clever language machinations; his use of the word ‘crusade,’ which was always an attempt at Westernizing the Muslim east, infers tones of righteousness and divine ordinance. To characterize not merely the people of the Congo but the entire region as having been engulfed in darkness - and to then suggest that white, European powers were the only beings capable of providing that light - was not only a brilliant piece of rhetoric, but an incredibly disgusting one, suggesting that the people of the Congo are utterly inferior of taking care of themselves.

Incidentally, even spelling the name of the country that would become, ironically named, The Free Congo State, as Congo is Orientalizing it - according to the text, even though the people of the Congo had no written language, the sound its inhabitants made when referring to it was much closer to a K than a C. However, it was Anglicized, and made into a word appearing more compatible with the English language in general.

Unfortunately, Hochschild sometimes also slips into these lexical traps. While he never refers to the Congo as being backwards or really even alien, an almost imperceptible flavor of The Other arises whenever he speaks of the region. That one of his only real sources of information about the region was a native of the area - and one removed from the time on conflict by several hundred years - is troubling. Even more troubling is it that this man - the leader of the Congo when the Portuguese first began exploring and enslaving the area - quickly converted to Christianity, and learned to read and write in highly fluent English.

Granted, I cannot imagine that there were a great many voices from the region during the time which could have spoken out; they were being enslaved under the veil of Leopold II’s fraternity and human-betterment. Hochschild does address this early on in his work; “There was no written language in the Congo when Europeans first arrived ... we have dozens of memoirs by the territory’s white officials ... Instead of African voices from this time there is largely silence.” (p. 5)

There is a hero to the story Hochschild presents, however, even though he may be a westerner that was genuinely trying to aid the people of the Congo. Edmund Dene Morel worked incredibly hard to expose the terrible evils which Leopold II’s Free Congo State regime inflicted on the people, and generated international attention enough to Leopold II’s ruse and deception that he had an enormous impact on its development. However, Hochschild returns again to a writing style that is clearly much more favorable to some figures than others. As an example,
“Morel was all of a piece: his thick handlebar mustache and tall, barrel-chested frame exuded forcefulness; his dark eyes blazed with indignation. The millions of words that would flow from his pain over the remainder of his life came in a handwriting that races across the page in cold, forward-slanting lines, flattened by speed, as if they had no time to spare in reaching their destination.” (p. 187)
Instead of the damning language used for an early Leopold II, or the understanding, almost paternal tone adopted when speaking about Stanley, Hochschild instead portrays Morel as something even more than a firebrand - he paints of him the very image of a justified revolutionary, correct in all actions and entire righteous in mind.


I contrast these concepts - of Orientalism, lexical slanting, Othering and so on - with those found in the two textbooks for class. As it would be far too easy to find quotes almost entirely neutral inside of either textbook, I will avoid doing so, as the intent of the texts and of “King Leopold’s Ghost” are clearly different and to do so would be unfair. What I found fascinating about the two texts was a style of characterization and description that I’d never really previously encountered when reading about Africa; they each write about the continent as if it is normal. Not normal to the standards of the west, not normal for the middle east, but normal unto itself simply because it is. While they each sometimes sound almost defensive of Africa (understandably, I think), they portray it in a light entirely alien to that found in Hochschild’s work. Although I think that each perspective is interesting, I believe that I will prefer returning to the text for information about the continent - even if Hochschild’s capacity to incite the reader, to make him feel something - anger, hate, hostility, anything - far eclipses that of the authors of the textbooks for class. Sometimes, I just want the information - sometimes, I want to be allowed to form my own opinions.

Fun With Grammar/The Trouble With King's English

Quick preface: I posted this on my journal over at OK Cupid, and as I feel that it's a pretty important concept, I'm gonna repost it here because, well, it's my blog and I can do whatever I want with it.

Aside from phrases such as, “I don’t know what to put in these things/You can’t summarize a person in a single paragraph,” the most common message that I read in people’s profiles on Okay Cupid is something along the lines of, “If you can’t type/speak/conjugate/hyphenate/etc correctly, then do not message me.” I find this to be very troubling.

In linguistic surveys, people from across the country (the United States, anyway) typically identify people from the Midwest as speaking the most “correct” form of English. Specifically, those people from Michigan. I imagine that folks from the southwest, the UK, and other parts of the English-speaking world (sorry guys, that wasn’t my fault) would disagree with this. And hey, I’m from Michigan and pretty much disagree with this. Just the same, the perceptions of people determine what is correct and what is not.

That last sentence was important; what I mean by that is that degrees of ‘correctness’ change from region to region, and only due to mass-communication and quick-traveling methods can people as widely dispersed as those in the United States even have a conception, on a gigantically national basis, of what ‘correct’ on this level is. Just the same - as bizarre as it seems to me at times - we do. It is known as the King’s English.

The King’s English changes from region to region. It’s different in the UK, in Michigan (where I am from), in South Africa, in China. Note that ‘King’s English’ does not necessarily mean English itself, but rather the form of whatever predominant language of a region is that is spoken by the power base. The actual form of that power base does not matter; in America, that base is generally that of the government and the voice of media on a national scale. Generally, this refers to a specific dialect of a language rather than a specific language.

When people write or say things like, “I cannot tolerate people that cannot distinguish between ‘you are/you’re/your’ or refuse to use them correctly,” what they are really saying is that they are not willing to engage in discourse with people that refuse, for whatever reason, to conform with the language structures of the predominant power base. Ironically, I see this often in the profiles of people that claim they are unique, anti-conformist, original in every way possible, and entirely themselves - and damn what ‘the man’ tells them to do.

Often accompanying this is a bit of explanation; generally, these accuse people that fail to capitalize every proper noun and conjugate flawlessly as being lazy or stupid. In real-life, this is tantamount to racism; Ebonics, as a dialect, is every bit as complicated and nuanced as any of those found in the English language, and follows a similar structure of rules. This is why, although an individual removed from an Ebonics-speaking community may have tremendous difficulty understanding Ebonics, individuals from those communities have no trouble whatsoever understanding each other.

So why is that someone choosing to write in a more Internet-friendly fashion is immediately thought of as stupid, lazy, or unworthy? Although whether or not Internet-speak/leetspeak/etc is a dialect or not is difficult to determine and is a question for another essay, I believe it to still be important to consider. What’s to say that a person that uses “your” to replace “you are” (instead of “you’re,” for those of you keeping track at home) isn’t actually following a system of their or their communities’ own choosing that is every bit as rule-based as your flawless English?

This sort of discounts those individuals that genuinely do not know how to conjugate a verb and lumps them into the “more intelligent than you might like to think” category automatically, and that isn’t fair. It also is not what I am setting out to do. Just the same, I fail to see that people that are incapable, for whatever reason, of writing ‘correctly’ are inherently stupid. Is the failing of a school system the fault of the individual that had no choice but to attend? Is it somehow their fault that the raw lack of emphasis on grammar after middle school allowed them to slip through the cracks of high school without ever mastering the more nuanced bits of the language?

I don’t really think so. Sure, I prefer to read words written by people that can effectively produce King’s English; it’s easier on the eyes, mind and heart, but simply because they cannot doesn’t mean that they don’t have something valid to contribute to mine or your life, or that they couldn’t have a profound influence on us in some other way. John Milton, the guy that wrote Paradise Lost, dictated the entire thing to his daughters; someone that types five words per minute, has no understanding of conjugation or sentence structure, and couldn’t spell ‘cat’ with a dictionary could compose something on their own more effectively than Milton could.

And yet we revere Milton as a visionary.

Were he physically capable of composing the work on his own, could he have spelt everything correctly and kept the pacing/phrasing/grammatical structures found within the text the same? I don’t know. Is it important? Not in the least - because we have Paradise Lost and, honestly, that’s all that matters.

I guess that what I’m getting at is that the next time you receive a message or an IM or something from someone that writes, “Hey whats up” and fails to conjugate what+is correctly, don’t ignore them. Don’t discount them. Consider, at least, giving them a chance. Maybe they are stupid. Maybe they really are profoundly lazy. But hey - maybe just maybe, they’re a Ph.D candidate in particle physics that decided to dedicate more time understanding how existence functions as a whole rather than mastering the intricacies of composition.