Gleanings, 25-31 October 2015.


I read quite a bit day in, day out, and tweet the links a bit, but not everyone shares all of the same social media platforms so I thought I’d offer a few links on the blog, from time to time, that I’ve found to be of value, thereby adding, I hope, to the Interestingness Index of Life!

+ Book Review . . . Routledge Handbook of International Education & Development. I was enticed by the recognition of complexity and the enlarged understanding of what education is & how & where learning happens in this review. One of the editors, Simon McGrath, taught for a quarter century in my home country, Zimbabwe.

Keeping Africa in mind . . .

+ This poignant essay by Mohammed Ademo called “Exiled“, observes that ‘mourning is an exile’s state of being’.

My blessings are many, but this realisation does not take away from my sense of loss and desire to belong, a feeling that the late Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said called ‘the crippling sorrow of estrangement’.

And how. This squeezed me at my core: for myself and all others in this diasporic realm.

Then again, casting strangeness into a more positive (if escapist: why not?) light . . .

+ Book Review . . . The fabulous David Mitchell on Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea (Guardian), mentioning as an aside, along the way, the Seto Inland Sea islands (right off my current shores!). This is a book I discovered as an adult & continue to delight in.

And, remembering life is always larger and stranger than we can imagine, this story emerged from the quantum world (bah dum!):

+ Physicists prove ‘quantum spookiness’ and start chasing Schrödinger’s cat.

 (Watch the videos! ‘True, but not in the way you’re inclined to think . . .’. Very helpful!)

From the quantum to other angles on hidden realities . . . 

+ Book Review . . . at the LARB, of Ryan White’s The Hidden God: Pragmatism and Posthumanism in American Thought. (What on earth is ‘posthuman’? It’s a thing. In the article we’re told that ‘a posthumanist pragmatism would have us remember that language and knowledge, experience and selfhood, are never as transparent nor as complete as we might think or wish them to be.’ I’m down with that. I sense a rabbit hole nearby. Oh, wascally wabbits!)

+ Joe Humphrys is a name with which I’m not familiar — O Serendipity — till now! He writes a column for the Irish Times under the delicious title “Unthinkable” and has a book out which is blurbed as asking ‘fundamental questions about politics, society and ethics, seeking answers from leading thinkers in each field. The answers they give are brought together in one book, offering ideas capable of changing not just your mind but the world for the better.’ In a recent column he engages William Desmond with the question “What makes humans valuable if not God?”

Image: Jacques Adrien Lavieille, ‘Labours of the Field’,  after Jean-Francois Millet. More here. I love the image(s) of the Gleaner(s) and they are, for the time being anyway, season-appropriate and rather fitting for the act of collecting from the vast seas of web info.


Stories: Perception – Creation – Meaning – Experience

We don’t, as the old saw has it, see things as they are but as we are. The neuroscientist Beau Lotto, who specialises in perception, holds that what we see of the world is a version we’ve evolved to perceive. Not so much seeing things as we are, but according to what we need or what is useful for us to see. This I find fascinating.

On one level, all seems tickety boo: our senses tell us stories about the world which we make meaningful and translate into experience. On a cultural and geographical level, though, is where I begin to wonder about the evolution of perception and the influences that time and space have on us. 

I was born on a continent where my forebears had been for roughly one hundred years, a couple or three generations and, since that continent was Africa, was I [who was this ‘I’?] coming home in evolutionary terms? Presently, it is the case that I have spent more of my life on one of the farther edges of the Asian continent: what effects has this on my evolutionary path? What perceptions have altered, I wonder, being here? Does it matter? To whom?

Such are the meanderings of a global soul . . . 

Check out Future of StoryTelling on Vimeo, and Beau Lotto’s Lab

Telling [my] Truth: Ethics, Aesthetics or Space for the Miraculous?

J.M. Coetzee “asks questions about existence that people don’t ask, and should not ask, if they want to simply live a comfortable life. His books are not therapeutic; they are written to discomfit.”

My tastes in fiction generally do not run in the direction of the memoir. Earlier this year, however, I found myself entranced by the late British philosopher, Gillian Rose’s, called Love’s Work. There was so much in it that came so close; there was such brilliance and vigour and devastation in it. It broke open the genre and parts of my own mind. It made me feel kind of small; it showed such courage, such possibilities for expansion. I can hardly begin to describe it or its effects on me except that I continue to pick up its resonances. It, too, asked questions people oughtn’t ask if what they want is simply a comfortable life. But, in a way, I think this is ‘therapeutic’, if by that word one understands not simply ‘feeling better’ but that the struggle with questions and striving to perceive reality more clearly and compassionately, is worthwhile.

I thought of it again when I came across this review of the correspondences between J.M. Coetzee and the British psychoanalyst, Arabella Kurtz called The Good Story: Exchanges on Truth, Fiction & Psychotherapy. (Cannot wait to read it!) Yes, it is a discussion centred on that old chestnut: what is the relationship between truth and storytelling? And, out of that question come several other musings that dance between ethics and aesthetics in self-narrating. [1]

⁃ What relationship do I have to my life history? (This one caused a double take! It struck me in its profundity, surely a very good contemplative, emptying, transitional, autumnal-type question.)

⁃ Stories always come from somewhere. They are derivative & appropriated & there is a tendency to cast the life narrated in a kinder light in the attempt to make sense (softening the rough edges of the real?) and to make selves ‘fit for purpose’. While personal narratives are always purposeful they can also be self-serving and/or self deluding, or both.

– Our cultures enable us to tell certain stories and not others.

⁃ Why do psychoanalysts care about truth if their real job is to make their clients feel better? (Non-spoiler alert: Kurtz takes up the question and responds!)

⁃ What is the relationship between memory & conscience? Isn’t it the case that certain memories are forgotten so that the story appears more coherent and/or consoling and/or convenient and/or amusing or beautiful?

⁃ What are the ethical dimensions (and obligations) of self-narrating? This seems important especially as we seem predisposed to fabricate, and/or unable to tell the (whole) truth, inclined rather to comfort, coherence and convenience, and to need to be – consciously, or not – in control? Are ethics more important than aesthetics, or the other way around? Who decides and when, and how, and why?

– Is truth in narrative perhaps that third thing between myself and the story, a dynamic living thing, a metaxy, a speculative place between immanence and transcendence: something akin to grace? Gillian Rose notes

‘writing is a mix of discipline and miracle, which leaves you in control, even when what appears on the page has emerged from regions beyond your control’ (59).

[1] On aesthetics & ethics, the obvious question: Is Beauty Truth? Phillip Ball, the science writer, says not. See, in the always fabulous Aeon magazine, this article: Beauty ≠ Truth.

[2] This article, also in Aeon, Plot Twist, by Will Storr, concurs. It’s not about writing, per se, but engages the struggle to give expression to the self (and how stories are involved with that). ‘The self’ he writes, ‘is a lie . . . we’re so good at seeing ourselves as consistent and sane, we can underestimate just how many faces we have.’


Just Enough

’We are on the threshold of a new aesthetic shift fed by an altered awareness of our dependence on the environment and the importance of healing and preserving it that will permanently alter our sense of beauty.’

(Azby Brown)

The Edo period of Japanese history lasted a little over two and a half centuries (1868-1603) and most of what you recognise as ‘traditional’ Japanese art and craft has its roots in this period. Though I am no history buff, the Edo period was one of such startling inventiveness and beauty I confess to feeling irresistibly romantic about its particular genius.

I had not made the connection that the impetus for all this creativity arose in a period of great resource depletion and insecurity. In particular, I was struck by the deforestation crisis (which you can read about in more detail in Jared Diamond’s “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed”.) This, of course, had a major impact on infrastructure. It also forced people to think in completely new ways about the use of resources. Hot water, for example, was an extraordinarily precious resource. Two special rituals I’m particularly partial to—tea ceremony and bathing—arose in response to the new, care-filled attention given to the elements of fire and water.

This fine article by Azby Brown entitled “Living with Just Enough” looks at sustainability and the true health and beauty that emerges in concert with it, done right. There are two guiding principles undergirding the long view. The first is the sense of time : ‘How is it,’ Mary Catherine Bateson asked in a recent OnBeing interview, ‘ that we are living longer and thinking (ever) shorter?’ In the Edo period, outcomes were measured in centuries and all actions were undertaken with a sensitivity to effects on the entire web of life. The second principle concerns the sense of value. A ‘maker economy’ (as opposed to a consumer centred economy) certainly aids in this; which is to say that the bond between craftspeople and users is unique, powerful and like no other. It involves a deep trust and responsibility: something humans crave. Further trust was cultivated in the practice of the ‘gift economy’ which not only kept the craftspeople sweet, but on a larger scale ‘surplus goods were circulated as reciprocal gifts until every household had pretty much what it needed.’ An old-style share economy, if you like.

I warmed to the ideas that the young would be ‘trained as multi-competent generalists always aware of the Big Picture’ and that ‘problems [were] defined in such a way that the need for long-term thinking, conservation of energy and resources, the need to work with, instead of against, natural forces, and the importance of providing meaningful work for everyone instead of endlessly seeking to minimise labor, became requirements so well understood that they rarely needed to be explicitly stated.’

The phrase ‘Just enough’ reminds me of a poem of Nanao Sakaki’s:

Soil for feet

Axe for hands

Flower for eyes

Bird for ears

Mushroom for nose

Smile for mouth

Songs for lungs

Sweat for skin

Wind for mind

– Just Enough –

 JUST ENOUGH (juu bun)


Hearing the music

I saw a little girl yesterday in a pod of three, she the youngest and leading the way, looking for all the world like the famed musician of Hamelin. She wore civvies and a traditional, leather, elementary school backpack (hers, not black, but a deep Persephone-red: a maiden, still.) She carried a light green stalk of a paint-brush ended bit of wild grass picked off the roadside as she made her way home. The encounter happened as we were crossing the river on the big humped bridge. I found she was an angel.

It was her hands that drew my gaze. Softly curling at the wrist, they swam in delicate eddies on the air. At intervals they became more energetic and commanding, gentle but firm. Her companions were deep in conversation and paid her no mind. I, in traffic and at a distance, was spellbound. A red light afforded me a little longer to watch the child. She was lost to the world, enrapt with her orchestra, listening and conducting a melody that her entire body was in touch with.

It occurred to me that there are far better ways to getting ‘carried away’ than I’ve been doing lately, and it brought to mind the magical center of the movie Polar Express reminding me of my need to slow down and tune up.