scattered things read today & scattered thoughts

a great & delightfully cogent series of rules on systems theory: I, II, III, IV. one favourite:

There is no “away.” In natural ecosystems, in particular, you can move something from one place to another, you can transform it into something else, but you can’t get rid of it. As long as it is on the Earth, it is part of the global ecosystem. The industrial poisons, pollutants, insecticides, and radioactive materials that we’ve tried to “throw away” in the past have all too often come back to haunt us because people didn’t understand this rule.

A lot of the people and problems Dave writes about came about because people haven’t yet given up on the naive fantasy that there is, in fact, an “away.” We can send the brown and black folks “away,” and that’ll fix it. We can put criminals “away” in jail, and the things they learn there will never touch us. We can send our pollution “away” down the stream, where only the orcas will choke on it. We get in a lot of trouble when we overestimate the size of this tiny blue ball, and start to thinking that there’s anywhere on it that’s far enough “away” to hide our crimes against nature and each other.

out of sight, out of mind, and I’m sure that’s where the phrase “until it bites you in the ass” derives from.

and relatedly, Immanuel Wallerstein’s bimonthly commentaries on world (American) affairs. I first came to world systems theory through Wallerstein. The day I read those unforgettable words, “World-systems analysis offers the heuristic value of the via media between transhistorical generalizations and particularistic narrations” was a happy day indeed for one who is constantly plagued (or rather paralyzed) by the particular and the general, and the troublesome relationship between the two.

Darwin’s God at the New York Times — religious belief as not evolutionarily useful in itself, but rather as a byproduct that facilitates survival of the fittest group, and not just the fittest individual. I have heard a similar argument made somewhere for the evolutionary uselessness of the female orgasm. If I remember where I shall come back to this. [edit: it is from Elizabeth Lloyd’s lecture on Big Ideas, TVO. thanks to oli for the tip!]

also in the NYT, Shinzo Abe denies Japan’s comfort women (the miscreant!) and at History News Network, Alexis Dudden and Kozo Mizoguchi’s scathing take on this. In Malaysia, largely thanks to the efforts of the Secretary of UMNO Youth Mustapha Yaakub, ex-comfort women have been coming out with their stories for over a decade. Historian Nakahara Michiko writes in the Journal of Critical Asian Studies about her visit with one woman, Rosalind Saw, who was interned by the Japanese in Malaya, 1943:

[Rosalind] was taken to a big house and locked in. (The house, which still stands at the junction of Jalan Burma and Jalan Zainal Abidin, is now the Tong Lock Hotel). A sign saying ‘Exclusive Army Use’ was hung at the entrance of the hotel…She was raped continuously, on a daily basis, by Japanese soldiers. Beginning at 8.00 A.M. the soldiers would start coming in to satisfy their sexual needs. At night, officers came and stayed all night. Rosalind was given lunch and dinner. On a busy day, she would be raped by about thirty soldiers. She would just lie on the bed, naked. There was no time to get dressed.

I read this chill, almost sterile account with horror, and an odd sense of dislocation. I’ve been to that part of Penang; I must have walked through the same spaces these soldiers passed through so singlemindedly, ducking under that ridiculous sign into the dingy rooms, which I imagine would reek with sweat and semen and saliva, the air humid with body fluids — and what would the men look like? Were they smiling? leering? glancing about furtively, absurdly embarrassed? How did the queue outside the door negotiate itself? Would the men leer knowingly at each other? or would they shuffle awkwardly, silent? or start stilted conversations to the next man in line, in order to mask the shameful sounds from the other side of the door? or would the door be open? would they watch? How many months did it take her to stop crying?

all this superimposed on the same spaces where today the hawkers peddle steaming bowls of curry noodles and businessmen on lunchbreak yammer into their cellphones. For me this is where history is at its most improbable & most captivating — the collision of times in one space, the richness of present experience contrasted with the aridity of vanishing historical traces. This is my primary impulse towards microhistory.

where was I? oh yes, things read — last one: Historians who use history to be prescient. Ever the source of my envy, and inspiration.


10 responses to “scattered things read today & scattered thoughts

  • robin

    Prosaic and nerdy comment on such a long and interesting blogpost, but — look, I made an RSS feed out of Wallerstein’s commentaries!

  • Kyle

    What you write about comfort women reminds me of one of the few truly fantastic short stories (or perhaps it is a novella) by Gabriel García Márquez, called The incredible and sad story of the candid Eréndira and of her soulless grandmother. It even has a fabulous title.

    The general contours of the story are, roughly and forgiving any lapses of memory: Eréndira burns down her grandmother’s house and is forced to repay her debt by being prostituted all night, every night by her now-itinerant grandmother as they make their way across The Land™. While I don’t remember precisely, I am certain she is frequented mainly by soldiers and politicians.

    It is, of course, an extended metaphor for the “rape” of post-conquest America. Perhaps the worst part of the account you talk about it that it isn’t a metaphor. Metaphors, at least, are productive, even when they are horrifying.

    Also, I think a question equally as interesting as “How long did it take her to stop crying” is “Once it was over, how long did it take her to start?”

  • Darby O'Shea

    I’ve stolen your idea. I’ve started my own study-related blog in hopes of working out a future dissertation topic in some roundabout way. Hope you don’t mind. I did credit you! By the way, I’ve been a fan of idlethink for about a year… found you via the Warwick blogs… it’s a long story. Please pardon my ellipses

  • rAchel

    @ robin: SCORE! subscribed 🙂

    @ kyle: if only ‘comfort women’ were metaphors rather than euphemisms; or even if they were literally, you know, women who provided comfort. a woman Japanese soldiers lined up outside the door to kneel in front of, place their war-torn heads in her lap & cry.

    @ darby: ideas should be viral! thank you for the credit 🙂 I actually have a dear friend here at cambridge who recently started something similar; I mention this because she also chose a german name for it — heuchelei, meaning ‘hypocrisies’ — and the coincidence is interesting 🙂 perhaps I should have called this blog geisteswissenschaft instead. I think there is a certain need for this sort of thing — undrafted thought & no expectations otherwise.

  • oli

    “the evolutionary uselessness of the female orgasm.”
    Perhaps that was from Elizabeth Lloyd’s Big Ideas lecture.

  • rAchel

    yes! that’s the one. you listen to TVO too? — good man 🙂

  • Robin

    I have never heard of TVO — and I grew up in Michigan, which is practically part of Canada! Wait, Rachel, how have you heard of it?

    Sudden idea — sparked by my ignorance here — what about a website that summarized the top five or ten media inputs for people in various countries? Obviously that’s super-fuzzy now with the web, BUT it’s still fair to say Americans get more of their news from CNN than BBC, Chinese more from CCTV than, er, anything, etc. It’d be an interesting exercise in ‘media empathy’ and, perhaps, a mild antidote to rampant echo-chamber-ism.

  • oli

    Robin- does something similar. You can customise the page to show side by side the top world headlines from Canada, UK, US and any other country whose language you can speak.

    By the way if you’re looking for other interesting audio lectures i’d recommend the recordings of Allen Ginsberg teaching at Naropa – finding Buddhist themes in Shakespeare, discussing early 20th century French modernism, and singing Blake to his students. Search for them over at .

  • rAchel

    @ robin: internet citizens do not concern themselves with trivial national boundaries! of course I have heard of TVO — yes, even from miles east of the eastern seaboard 🙂

    @ oli: I love! it is one of those discouragingly infinite things, but I am trying to see as much of it as possible in a modest lifetime. allen ginsburg is on my list.

  • Robin

    I heard a writer here in SF tell a story about going to Naropa as a young man expressly in order to make Allen Ginsberg his lover.

    Apparently he succeeded.


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