Partial review: ‘Hitler’s Circle of Evil’ (2018)

Hitler’s Circle of Evil is a documentary series on Netflix that narrates the lives and actions of Adolf Hitler’s inner circle, leading up to and during the Second World War. This is a partial review because it is based on watching eight episodes, of a total of ten, though I’m confident about publishing because I’m not sure the two remaining episodes will change my impression much.

What worked

After the fall of the Third Reich in 1945, it has been open season around the world to ridicule, denigrate and deride the group of men who tried to set up a pan-European fascist empire on the skulls and bones of millions of people they murdered to realise their grisly ambitions. They were Adolf Hitler, Rudolph Hess, Hermann Göring, Heinrich Himmler, Joseph Goebbels, Reinhard Heydrich, Ernst Röhm and Martin Bormann, among others. Hitler’s Circle of Evil rests comfortably in this notion, that no one is ever going to think highly of these men (except neo-Nazis), and takes a shot at exploring the people, the humans, behind each monstrous visage.

At a time when newspaper editors in the US are pilloried when they attempt to humanise the madmen who pen supremacist creeds and then go on shooting sprees, humanising fascists is a dangerous proposition. But since the credentials of the first Nazis are such that they are quite unlikely to be mistaken for having been good people who did bad things owing to a conspiracy of circumstances, and because right-wing nationalists are finding increasing favour in the most powerful countries of the 21st century, Hitler’s Circle of Evil ends up being well-made (at least in spirit) and well-timed, serving an elaborate reminder that the champions of hate are people too, and by extension that people can be nasty.

Indeed, this is a remarkable series for those who haven’t pored through history books attempting to make sense of Hitler’s henchmen but have, like me, focused instead on the mechanics of the war itself. These men for the most part were sucking up to Hitler, to receive a pat on the back and a sliver of the Führer’s power, and less plotting against Jews and expanding lebensraum. This is what Hitler set up, this was the heart of the Third Reich: if you didn’t jostle, conspire and backstab for power, you would be pushed down the pecking order.

This paradigm often led to ridiculous outcomes – of the lol variety in Martin Bormann’s case and the wtf variety in Rudolf Hess’s. But in the final analysis it is clear that these were all small-minded, weak-spirited, weak-willed men, typified by Heinrich Himmler, who took advantage of the pitiable social circumstances of early 20th century Germany, with a bit of subversion of their own, to animate their innermost insecurities with political, industrial and finally military power.

The show’s vantage point is also interesting because it doesn’t take its eyes away from the inner circle and focuses from start to finish on the interpersonal dynamics of the Nazi leadership. Contrast this with the Second World War in the popular imagination – where it very easily, and therefore very commonly, becomes a grand vision: the dramatis personae are strewn across dozens of countries, mobilising their forces with ships, airplanes, submarines, tanks and troop-carriers, discussing strategies encompassing hundreds of thousands of fighters, billions of dollars and thousands of kilometres.

But according to Hitler’s Circle of Evil, the whole enterprise could alternatively emerge from the lives and relationships among a small coterie of people often to be found in Hitler’s mountaintop retreat in south Germany, that antisemitism was really the populist cloak to hide their venal tendencies and desperate attempts to grab power. As a result some of the war’s more historic moments become flattened, notably the start of Operation Barbarossa, to a few simple considerations on Hitler’s part. On the other hand a lot of what was thought according to the popular narrative to be periods of boring politics or even quietude are brought roaring to life with intimate details of behind-the-scenes action.

What didn’t work

All this said, my principal concern about the show is that even as it holds a mirror to contemporary authoritarian nationalist regimes, and informs us that fascism then and now is the same wine in different bottles, whether the show’s makers traded off the relative importance of each henchman in the pre-war and war years for dramatic effect. Obviously a show that retells events that actually happened to piece together well-documented historical knowledge has little, if any, leeway to take liberties with the truth, but it is entirely possible to distort the picture by muting some portions.

The first sign of this in Hitler’s Circle of Evil comes through with the depiction of Rudolph Hess. Hess goes from being described mainly as Hitler’s groupie, and a smart one at that, who helped the Führer become the Führer and even helped him write Mein Kampf and introduced to him the idea of lebensraum, to being seen as a hypochondriac dolt. Both descriptions can obviously be applied to the same person but it is odd to make only a particular set of traits explicit at different points in the series, almost rendering Hess’s actions unexpected, even contrived.

I concede that expecting to learn everything about the people who shaped 1930s Germany on a single day is ridiculous, but Hitler’s Circle of Evil would have started off knowing this, and it is worth considering what the show could have done better.

Another notable issue is that we learn a lot about Hitler’s henchmen but not enough. The Nazis are commonly associated with antisemitism and a rarely matched propensity for violence, but the origins of these tendencies are barely discussed, certainly not beyond mentioning them as the reason the Nazi Party did X or Y. Hitler’s ambition of European domination, for instance, shows up out of the blue somewhere in episode 5. We know from historical texts why Hitler invaded Europe but the show itself does not do a good job of setting it out.

More broadly, we learn very little about Hitler himself, so there is often haziness about why exactly some decisions were taken or some events transpired, considering Hitler was the ultimate arbiter. By focusing on the ‘circle of evil’, the show bets too much on the henchmen and too little on the tyrant they orbit, and when many of the tyrant’s impetuses are absent from some scenes, they look insipid, even contrived.

Oh, and the kitschy acting. The kitschy acting does not work.


An unrelated note: the Berghof was Hitler’s residence in the Bavarian Alps near Berchtesgaden, constructed under Martin Bormann’s supervision in 1935. In episode 5, Hitler’s Circle of Evil tours through its halls while the narrator talks about the Nazi Party beginning to devote its efforts towards drafting the plan that would come to be called the ‘Final Solution’.

The tour finally ends with views of the alps from the Berghof’s balconies and full-length windows. And here, the historian Roger Moorhouse takes over from the narrator: “There’s a curious paradox and it’s only really made sense of by the fact that there is a new morality, if you like, in inverted commas, within Nazism which allows people to be cultured, intelligent, educated, and at the same time espouse those most radical, hideous, racist ideas.”

This moment in the show is a disturbing one as it implies in an inescapable way that a beautiful sweeping view of verdant mountainsides in the passing embrace of a white cloud might dull one’s suffering, then memories of pain, then the pain of others and ultimately empathy itself. There between the limestone peaks of southern Germany, evil becomes banal.

Review: ‘Paatal Lok’ (2020)

I binge-watched Paatal Lok today, a show on Amazon Prime India about a cynical cop who is all too familiar with how the The System works and who gets a high profile case by chance – to investigate a conspiracy to assassinate a hotshot journalist. I highly recommend it. It is a gritty, neo-noir slow-burner that starts with the flame on high.

This said, you should avoid it if you are averse to violence. In fact, Paatal Lok‘s principal failing is that it is peppered with scenes filled with gratuitous violence – physical, verbal and systemic – especially against women, trans-women and young adults. There is considerable violence by and against adult men as well but I’m not sure that is nearly as disturbing. Most of it could have been avoided, or simply alluded to instead of being enacted in painstaking detail. (If you watch Tamil films: recall the sexual violence scenes in Super Deluxe, 2019.)

A second failing, if only to my eyes, is that Paatal Lok for most of it seems to offer a slice-of-life take on events except in its conclusion, where it wraps up many narrative arcs more optimistically than they might actually have panned out. (Again, if you watch Tamil films: recall the conclusion of Jigarthanda, 2014.) But if you can ignore this criticism or find a way to disagree with it, please do.

Paatal Lok showcases the politics-caste-crime nexus in India’s Hindi heartland, especially in and around Bundelkhand, and its intersection with mainstream journalism. It’s raw, no other way to put it, as it puts on display the primal nature of local politics, life and love where mafia money, caste violence and familial honour intermix freely. Ceaseless heat and dust, loud expletives, the bloated egos of politicians’ and businessmen’s sons, brandished guns set the tone. Mongrel dogs play an important part in shaping the fates of many characters but it’s really a dog-eat-dog world only for the humans, whether in the desolate gullies of rural Punjab or in the glitzy studios of TV news channels.

SPOILER STARTS

Funny thing is the journalist starts off accused of being a left-liberal but in the course of the show sells out and ends in the final scene and analysis as a government shill peddling the “Muslim terrorists are out to get India’s leaders” shit.

I don’t know who this portrayal, by Neeraj Kabi, does or doesn’t caricature but it seems both unlikely and unsurprising. I only hope it never becomes about me.

SPOILER ENDS

There are many things to write about Paatal Lok – and will be. It hit me specifically in two ways: first by taking the viewer closer to the Hindustan in Bundelkhand, and then with the trouble it takes to spotlight, lest it seem too subtle, the emptiness at the heart of Hindutva politics.

Every week you read news reports in the mainstream English press mentioning saffron politics directly or indirectly, based on which you develop an impression of how things are run in the Hindi heartland. (I assume here that you live far away, like I do in South India.) But these reports are too refined. They are either about the big picture or they summarise a few important events, and they almost always leave out the sweat- and blood-stained nitty-gritty stuff. This stuff is a constant presence in Paatal Lok.

The other presence is the other standout feature: political Hindutva’s heart of nothingness. In fact, the show is even a journalistic product: the characters and events may be fictitious but the social forces that shape them are quite real. Which political leader is abusing their power – the non-existent ‘Jiji’ Bajpayee or the very real Anurag Thakur – is as much in the public interest as how they abused their power. And as Paatal Lok peels away these impetuses from the actions of right-wing communalists and saffron-clad, flag-waving thugs, it finds an awkward, tasteless silence. This brand of politics is animated by nothing but opportunism, of Brahmin overlords’ ambitions and short-term ‘arrangements’.

In defence of ignorance

A wooden sculpture of the three monkeys sitting on a bench, under a blue sky with a few wispy white clouds.

Wish I may, wish I might
Have this wish, I wish tonight
I want that star, I want it now
I want it all and I don’t care how

Metallica, King Nothing

I’m a news editor who frequently uses Twitter to find new stories to work on or follow up. Since the lockdown began, however, I’ve been harbouring a fair amount of FOMO born, ironically, from the fact that the small pool of in-house reporters and the larger pool of freelancers I have access to are all confined to their homes, and there’s much less opportunity than usual to step out, track down leads and assimilate ground reports. And Twitter – the steady stream of new information from different sources – has simply accentuated this feeling, instead of ameliorating it by indicating that other publications are covering what I’m not. No, Twitter makes me feel like I want it all.

I’m sure this sensation is the non-straightforward product of human psychology and how social media companies have developed algorithms to take advantage of it, but I’m fairly certain (despite the absence of a personal memory to corroborate this opinion) that individual minds of the pre-social-media era weren’t marked by FOMO, and more certain that they were marked less so. I also believe one of the foremost offshoots of the prevalence of such FOMO is the idea that one can be expected to have an opinion on everything.

FOMO – the ‘fear of missing out’ – is essentially defined by a desire to participate in activities that, sometimes, we really needn’t participate in, but we think we need to simply by dint of knowing about those activities. Almost as if the brains of humans had become habituated to making decisions about social participation based solely on whether or not we knew of them, which if you ask me wouldn’t be such a bad hypothesis to apply to the pre-information era, when you found out about a party only if you were the intended recipient of the message that ‘there is a party’.

However, most of us today are not the intended recipients of lots of information. This seems especially great for news but it also continuously undermines our ability to stay in control of what we know or, more importantly, don’t know. And when you know, you need to participate. As a result, I sometimes devolve into a semi-nervous wreck reading about the many great things other people are doing, and sharing their experiences on Twitter, and almost involuntarily develop a desire to do the same things. Now and then, I even sense the seedling of regret when I look at a story that another news outlet has published, but which I thought I knew about before but simply couldn’t pursue, aided ably by the negative reinforcement of the demands on me as a news editor.

Recently, as an antidote to this tendency – and drawing upon my very successful, and quite popular, resistance to speaking Hindi simply because a misguided interlocutor presumes I know the language – I decided I would actively ignore something I’m expected to have an opinion on but there being otherwise no reason that I should. Such a public attitude exists, though it’s often unspoken, because FOMO has successfully replaced curiosity or even civic duty as the prime impetus to seek new information on the web. (Obviously, this has complicated implications, such as we see in the dichotomy of empowering more people to speak truth to power versus further tightening the definitions of ‘expert’ and ‘expertise’; I’m choosing to focus on the downsides here.)

As a result, the world seems to be filled with gas-bags, some so bloated I wonder why they don’t just float up and fuck off. And I’ve learnt that the hardest part of the antidote is to utter the words that FOMO has rendered most difficult to say: “I don’t know”.

A few days ago, I was chatting with The Soufflé when he invited me to participate in a discussion about The German Ideology that he was preparing for. You need to know that The Soufflé is a versatile being, a physicist as well as a pluripotent scholar, but more importantly The Soufflé knows what most pluripotent scholars don’t: that no matter how much one is naturally gifted to learn this or that, knowing something needs not just work but also proof of work. I refused The Soufflé’s invitation, of course; my words were almost reflexive, eager to set some distance between myself and the temptation to dabble in something just because it was there to dabble. The Soufflé replied,

I think it was in a story by Borges, one of the characters says “Every man should be capable of all ideas, and I believe that in the future he will be.” 🙂

To which I said,

That was when the world was simpler. Now there’s a perverse expectation that everyone should have opinions on everything. I don’t like it, and sometimes I actively stay away from some things just to be able to say I don’t want to have an opinion on it. Historical materialism may or may not be one of those things, just saying.

Please bear with me, this is leading up to something I’d like to include here. The Soufflé then said,

I’m just in it for the sick burns. 😛 But OK, I get it. Why do you think that expectation exists, though? I mean, I see it too. Just curious.

Here I set out my FOMO hypothesis. Then he said,

I guess this is really a topic for a cultural critic, I’m just thinking out loud… but perhaps it is because ignorance no longer finds its antipode in understanding, but awareness? To be aware is to be engaged, to be ‘caught up’ is to be active. This kind of activity is low-investment, and its performance aided by social media?

If you walked up to people today and asked “What do you think about factory-farmed poultry?” I’m pretty sure they’d find it hard to not mention that it’s cruel and wrong, even if they know squat about it. So they’re aware, they have possibly a progressive view on the issue as well, but there’s no substance underneath it.

Bingo.

We’ve become surrounded by socio-cultural forces that require us to know, know, know, often sans purpose or context. But ignorance today is not such a terrible thing. There are so many people who set out to know, know, know so many of the wrong ideas and lessons that conspiracy theories that once languished on the fringes of society have moved to the centre, and for hundreds of millions of people around the world stupid ideas have become part of political ideology.

Then there are others who know but don’t understand – which is a vital difference, of the sort that The Soufflé pointed out, that noted scientist-philosophers have sensibly caricatured as the difference between the thing and the name of the thing. Knowing what the four laws of thermodynamics or the 100+ cognitive biases are called doesn’t mean you understand them – but it’s an extrapolation that social-media messaging’s mandated brevity often pushes us to make. Heck, I know of quite a few people who are entirely blind to this act of extrapolation, conflating the label with the thing itself and confidently penning articles for public consumption that betrays a deep ignorance (perhaps as a consequence of the Dunning-Kruger effect) of the subject matter – strong signals that they don’t know it in their bones but are simply bouncing off of it like light off the innards of a fractured crystal.

I even suspect the importance and value of good reporting is lost on too many people because those people don’t understand what it takes to really know something (pardon the polemic). These are the corners the push to know more, all the time, often even coupled to capitalist drives to produce and consume, has backed us to. And to break free, we really need to embrace that old virtue that has been painted a vice: ignorance. Not the ignorance of conflation nor the ignorance of the lazy but the cultivated ignorance of those who recognise where knowledge ends and faff begins. Ignorance that’s the anti-thing of faff.

Lord of the Rings Day

An artist's impression of the iconic One Ring of 'Lord of the Rings' film trilogy.

A happy Lord of the Rings Day to you! (Previous editions: 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2014)

Every year I pen a commemorative piece about Lord of the Rings, and share something about the books and films that I think about nearly every day week. This year, I don’t have the strength, thanks to the workload due to the coronavirus pandemic, to say anything more than that you should take advantage of the lockdown – and the commute time it has likely saved you – to read more works of fantasy fiction.

It remains the single most rewarding thing in my life, even more than my blog, because fantasy as I’ve said before in quite clumsy terms is fractal. It recapitulates itself, especially its careful – or deliberately and absurdly careless – inventiveness, demanding more answers of the writer than any other form of fiction ever could simply because fantasy brings together three infinities: both what is and what isn’t that are the general attributes of all fiction plus the preserve of ‘are you frigging kidding me’. Reading good fantasy is sure to give you ideas of your own, to push towards (or away from) new worlds and new world-visions.

Fantasy is to my mind ergodic: riding its coattails, I get to visit all possibilities available to visit in the possibility-space of my mind; if I keep reading, I get to solipsistically encompass the worlds and world-visions of my fellow creators as well. Fantasy to me is newness, an endless font of it, in a world that has only been becoming more and more predictable; it is a secret place where goodness still lives, and on occasion even reaches a hand out and nudges me towards the right thing.

If I had been in Faramir’s shoes and stood before Denethor, bearing the full brunt of my father’s derision and being told he’d rather I had been killed instead of my brother, I would have done to him what he did to himself later: set him on fire. But Faramir rode out into a battle that he knew full well he was going to lose. Nothing about it was fair – just as nothing was fair about Anomander Rake’s tortuous, tortuous penance. Ours is a nasty world, and right and wrong aren’t always clear just as they might not have been to Faramir and Rake in moments of profound distress. In fact, the distinction is sometimes so blurry it might as well not be there.

When I’m lost for ideas, when I really don’t know what to do, when I would really like to just be told what I should do instead of having to think it up myself, I often turn to fantasy’s ideas about right and wrong, about what Faramir or Rake might have done, because fantasy is fundamentally empathetic in its alienness: its creations are often apart from this world – just as I feel sometimes, and you probably do too. It’s a place “infused with bright hope now so scarce in the realm of the real,” as a friend put it – a place to go when you don’t like this one (and from there to other places, picking and choosing what you like), and it’s a place that will let you go when you’d like to return, all in peace. The faith it demands is only the faith you’d like to give. What more could one want?

[Takes a break from the typing frenzy]

At least, good fantasy is all I want. And this Lord of the Rings Day, I invite you to take a short dip into a fantastic realm of your choice. If you’d like recommendations, I highly recommend starting with Lord of the Rings itself; if you’ve read that and want to try something more ambitious, try the Malazan Book of the Fallen series by Steven Erikson or Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James. If you’d like something that won’t consume the next three to five years of your life, I recommend Exhalation, a collection of short stories by Ted Chiang that I’m currently reading, or all of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books.

If you’d like even more recommendations – or titles more gender-balanced, say – I also recommend recommendations by the following souls (all on Twitter):

  • @srividyatadpole
  • @thebekku
  • @dpanjana
  • @chitralekha_tcc
  • @notrueindian
  • @supriyan

There are many, many others, of course, but these people came immediately to mind.

I really need to get back to work now.

‘Hunters’, sci-fi and pseudoscience

One of the ways in which pseudoscience is connected to authoritarian governments is through its newfound purpose and duty to supply an alternate intellectual tradition that subsumes science as well as culminates in the identitarian superiority of a race, culture or ethnic group. In return, aspects of the tradition are empowered by the regime both to legitimise it and to catalyse its adoption by the proverbial masses, tying faith in its precepts with agency, and of course giving itself divine sanction to rule.

The readers of this blog will recognise the spiritual features of Hindutva that the Bharatiya Janata Party regularly draws on that fit the bill. A German rocket scientist named Willy Ley who emigrated to the US before World War II published an essay entitled ‘Pseudoscience in Naziland’ in 1947, in which he describes the sort of crazy beliefs that prepared the ground with other conditions for the advent of Nazism.

In Hunters, the Amazon Prime show about Jewish Nazi-hunters in 1970s America, Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s sci-fi novel The Coming Race (1871) finds brief mention as a guiding text for neo-Nazis. In the novel, a subterranean race of angelic humanoids has acquired great power and superhuman abilities by manipulating a magical substance called Vril, and threatens to rise to the surface and destroy the human race one day.

Bulwer-Lytton also wrote that Vril alludes to electricity (i.e. the flow of electrons) and that The Coming Race is an allegory about how an older generation of people finds itself culturally and political incompatible with a new world order powered by electric power. (At the same time, he believed these forces were a subset of the aether, so to speak.) In a letter to John Forster on March 20, 1870 – precisely 150 years ago in twelve days – Bulwer-Lytton wrote:

I did not mean Vril for mesmerism, but for electricity, developed into uses as yet only dimly guessed, and including whatever there may be genuine in mesmerism, which I hold to be a mere branch current of the one great fluid pervading all nature. I am by no means, however, wedded to Vril, if you can suggest anything else to carry out this meaning – namely, that the coming race, though akin to us, has nevertheless acquired by hereditary transmission, etc., certain distinctions which make it a different species, and contains powers which we could not attain through a slow growth of time’ so that this race would not amalgamate with, but destroy us.

And yet this race, being in many respects better and milder than we are, ought not to be represented terrible, except through the impossibility of our tolerating them or they tolerating us, and they possess some powers of destruction denied to ourselves.

The collection of letters is available here.

In Bulwer-Lytton’s conception, higher technological prowess was born of hereditary traits. In a previous letter, dated March 15, Bulwer-Lytton had written to Forster:

The [manuscript] does not press for publication, so you can keep it during your excursion  and think over it among the other moonstricken productions which may have more professional demand on your attention. The only important point is to keen in view the Darwinian proposition that a coming race is destined to supplant our races, that such a race would be very gradually formed, and be indeed a new species developing itself out of our old one, that this process would be invisible to our eyes, and therefore in some region unknown to us.

So this is not a simple confusion or innocent ignorance. Bulwer-Lytton’s attribution of the invention of electricity to genetic ability was later appropriated by interwar German socialists.

This said, I’m not sure how much I can read into the reimagination of technological ability as a consequence of evolution or racial superiority because another part of Bulwer-Lytton’s letters suggests his example of electricity was incidental: “… in the course of the development [of the new species], the coming race will have acquired some peculiarities so distinct from our ways … and certain destructive powers which our science could not enable us to attain to, or cope with. Therefore, the idea of electrical power occurred to me, but some other might occur to you.”

Now, according to Ley, the Society for Truth believed Vril to be a real thing and used its existence to explain how the Britons created their empire. I don’t know how much stock Adolf Hitler and his “shites of the round table” (to quote from Hunters) placed in this idea but the parallels must have been inescapable – especially so since Ley also writes that not just any pseudoscientific belief could have supported Hitler’s rise nor have acquired his patronage. Instead, the beliefs had to be culturally specific to Germany, pandering to local folklore and provincialism.

Without commenting on whether this conclusion would apply to Fascism 2.0 in a world with the internet, civil aviation and computerised banking, and in naïve spite of history’s fondness for repeating itself and the politico-corporate-media complex, I wonder what lessons there are here – if any – for science educators, a people already caught between political anti-intellectualism and a stronger sense of their purpose in an intellectually debilitated society.

Review: ‘Hunters’ (2020)

Just binge-watched the first season of Hunters, the bizarre Amazon Prime original about a covert group of Jews in 1970s’ New York city tracking down and killing Nazis who were integrated by the US government into American society under Operation Paperclip. It’s obvious how this premise could be presented through 10 hours of grit and moral dilemma but instead we get 10 hours of grit mixed with satire and melodrama – a combination that only brings a certain journalist’s words in 2013, delivered as a comment on a prominent newspaper’s suddenly disagreeable design, to mind: “pastiche and mishmash”.

I’m not sure what Hunters is trying to be, beyond a vessel for Al Pacino as its protagonist and patriarch, because its story is weak and the violence is neither realistic nor displays purpose; the only exception that everyone seems to be able to agree on, with good reason, is Jerrika Hinton as Agent Morris. But worst of all, the show gives more than ample screen-time for neo-Nazi characters to air their newly sharpened anti-Semitic and supremacist points of view.

Hunters seems to believe that such views are instantaneously and automatically disqualified by their implicit absurdity whereas the opposite is true. We live today in a world where conspiracy theories have moved from the fringes of society to the centre. So beyond the first time the Nazis are allowed to spew their bile, the show resembles porn for the sufficiently misguided bigot looking for a new language and new methods to assert his dominance. Makes you want to skip forward in cringe. Even the concentration camp scenes are awfully close to being voyeuristic.

Writing itself is fantasy

The symbols may have been laid down on paper or the screen in whatever order but when we read, we read the words one at a time, one after another – linearly. Writing, especially of fiction, is an act of using the linear construction of meaning to tell a story whose message will be assimilated bit by bit into a larger whole that isn’t necessarily linear at all, and manages to evade cognitive biases (like the recency effect) that could trick the reader into paying more attention to parts of the story instead of the intangible yet very-much-there whole. Stories in fact come in many shapes. One of my favourites, Dune, is so good because it’s entirely spherical in the spacetime of this metaphor, each of its concepts like a three-dimensional ouroboros, connected end to end yet improbably layered over, under and around each other. The first four Harry Potter books are my least favourite pieces of good fantasy for their staunch linearity, even despite the use of time travel.

The plot of Embassytown struggles with this idea a little bit, with its fraction-like representation of meaning using pairs of words. Even then, China Miéville has a bit of a climb on his hands: his (human) readers consume the paired words one at a time, first the one on the top then the one on the bottom. So a bit of translation becomes necessary, an exercise in projecting a higher dimensional world in which words are semantically bipolar, like bar magnets each with two ends, onto the linguistic surface of one in which the words are less chimerical. Miéville is forced to be didactic (which he musters with some reluctance), expending a few dozen pages constructing rituals of similes the reader can employ to sync with the Ariekei, the story’s strange alien characters, but always only asymptotically so. We can after all never comprehend a reality that exists in six – or six-thousand – dimensions, much the same way the Higgs boson’s existence is a question of faith if you’re unfamiliar with the underlying mathematics and the same way a human mind and an alien mind can never truly, as they say, connect.

Arrival elevates this challenge, presenting us with alien creatures – the ‘heptapods’ – the symbols of whose communication are circular, each small segment of the circumference standing for one human word and the whole assemblage for meaning composed by a non-linear combination of words. I’m yet to read the book by Ted Chiang on which the film is based; notwithstanding the possibility that Chiang has discussed their provenance, I wonder if the heptapods think a complex thought that is translated into a clump of biochemical signals that then encode meaning in a stochastic process: not fully predictably, since we know through the simpler human experience that a complicated idea can be communicated using more than one combination of simpler ideas. One heptapod’s choice could easily differ from that of another.

The one human invention, and experience if you will, that recreates the narrative anxiety encoded in the Ariekei’s and heptapods’ attempts (through their respective authors’ skills, imagination, patience and whatever else) to communicate with humans is writing insofar as the same anxiety manifests in the use of a lower order form – linearity – to construct a higher order image. Thus from the reader’s perspective the writer inhabits an inferior totality, and the latter performs a construction, an assimilation, by synthesising the sphericity and wholeness of a story using fundamentally linear strands, an exercise in building a circle using lines, and using circles to build a sphere, and so forth.

Writing a story is in effect like convincing someone that an object exists but having no way other than storytelling to realise the object’s existence. Our human eyes will always see the Sun as a circle but we know it’s a sphere because there are some indirect ways to ascertain its sphericity, more broadly to ascertain the universe exists in three dimensions at least locally; the ‘simplest’ of these ways would be to entirely assume the Sun is spherical because that seems to simplify problem-solving. However, say one writer’s conceit is that the Sun really exists in eight dimensions and goes on to construct an elaborate story of adventure, discovery and contemplation to convince the reader that they’re right.

In this sense, the writer would draw upon our innate knowledge of the universe in three dimensions, and our knowledge and experience of the ways in which it and isn’t truthful, to build an emergent higher-order Thing. While this may seem like a work of science and/or fantasy fiction, the language humans use to build all of their stories, even the nonfiction, renders every act of story-telling a similarly architecturally constructive endeavour. No writer commences narration with the privilege of words meaning more than they stand for in the cosmos of three dimensions and perpetually forward-moving time nor sentences being parsed in any way other than through the straightforward progression of a single stream of words. Everything more complicated than whatever can be assembled with two-dimensional relationships requires a voyage through the fantastic to communicate.

Peter Higgs, self-promoter

I was randomly rewatching The Big Bang Theory on Netflix today when I spotted this gem:

Okay, maybe less a gem and more a shiny stone, but still. The screenshot, taken from the third episode of the sixth season, shows Sheldon Cooper mansplaining to Penny the work of Peter Higgs, whose name is most famously associated with the scalar boson the Large Hadron Collider collaboration announced the discovery of to great fanfare in 2012.

My fascination pertains to Sheldon’s description of Higgs as an “accomplished self-promoter”. Higgs, in real life, is extremely reclusive and self-effacing and journalists have found him notoriously hard to catch for an interview, or even a quote. His fellow discoverers of the Higgs boson, including François Englert, the Belgian physicist with whom Higgs won the Nobel Prize for physics in 2013, have been much less media-shy. Higgs has even been known to suggest that a mechanism in particle physics involving the Higgs boson should really be called the ABEGHHK’tH mechanism, include the names of everyone who hit upon its theoretical idea in the 1960s (Philip Warren Anderson, Robert Brout, Englert, Gerald Guralnik, C.R. Hagen, Higgs, Tom Kibble and Gerardus ‘t Hooft) instead of just as the Higgs mechanism.

No doubt Sheldon thinks Higgs did right by choosing not to appear in interviews for the public or not writing articles in the press himself, considering such extreme self-effacement is also Sheldon’s modus of choice. At the same time, Higgs might have lucked out and be recognised for work he conducted 50 years prior probably because he’s white and from an affluent country, both of which attributes nearly guarantee fewer – if any – systemic barriers to international success. Self-promotion is an important part of the modern scientific endeavour, as it is with most modern endeavours, even if one is an accomplished scientist.

All this said, it is notable that Higgs was also a conscientious person. When he was awarded the Wolf Prize in 2004 – a prestigious award in the field of physics – he refused to receive it in person in Jerusalem because it was a state function and he has protested Israel’s war against Palestine. He was a member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament until the group extended its opposition to nuclear power as well; then he resigned. He also stopped supporting Greenpeace after they become opposed to genetic modification. If it is for these actions that Sheldon deemed Higgs an “accomplished self-promoter”, then I stand corrected.

Featured image: A portrait of Peter Higgs by Lucinda Mackay hanging at the James Clerk Maxwell Foundation, Edinburgh. Caption and credit: FF-UK/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.

Review: ‘Parasite’ (2019)

In 2011, the Dalit rights scholar and activist Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd (then only Kancha Ilaiah) addressed a room of 150 or so students of the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai. In the first 20 minutes of his speech, he spoke about how there would be a lower-caste revolution one day when upper-caste people – including most students in the room – would be summoned out of their houses into the streets, where they would be separated of all their wealth and their homes, have their jobs taken away and generally rendered entirely powerless in a new social order.

The whole room was visibly shaken. I, and perhaps many others as well, quietly groped for any excuse for a defence, to reassure ourselves that perhaps everyone else would be rendered powerless but surely not me, not my family. Obviously I haven’t managed to find this exculpatory reason.

Some days after that lecture, rumours emerged around campus that one of the other lecturers had given Ilaiah the idea to get us to sit up and pay attention, presumably instead of treating with political thought as an exercise in the abstract. Irrespective of its truth value, I tend to think Ilaiah was right: even if his imagined social order isn’t imminent, it has often seemed like the most plausible social endgame and certainly the only one it makes sense to work towards. It was also what was playing through my mind as I watched Parasite, the Korean hit film about class aspirations, especially the second half.

The advent of right-wing nationalism in India and its unabashed criminalisation of Muslim and Dalit identities (most visible in the spate of lynch-mob deaths) may have amplified the plight of minority groups in the country and the need to stand up for them, as well as rendered their demand for better social conditions and rights more pronounced. But at the same time, one thing is clear: as the Hindutva juggernaut bears on and continues to disempower non-Hindu, non-upper-class citizens, members of the minority communities are finding themselves increasingly at the mercy of the powers that be to ensure they continue leading peaceful, dignified lives.

Without the favour and benevolence of those who already wield power in our increasingly Hinduised India, without collective social action such as is happening in Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh but at much larger scale, and with the capitalist nexus between state, industry and the media, it’s silly to assume the ‘revolution’ in whatever form is only a matter of time. In its caricature of – but not necessarily fictionalised – need and its consequences, Parasite brings the more discomfiting side of this truth home: it’s easy to keep the poor and marginalised down and forgotten by keeping them fighting each other for food and survival.

SPOILERS AHEAD

No other scenes in the film highlight this better than two: when Kim Ki-woo (a.k.a. Kevin) stops on the stairs leading down to his semi-basement home to notice, as if for the first time, the amount of water washing through the streets under the downpour; and his father Kim Ki-taek’s reaction to seeing Nathan Park close his nose in disgust as the latter tries to retrieve his car keys from under the skewered body of Geun-sae.

The fragility of poverty is often under-appreciated as a threat to one’s wellbeing as well as to one’s ability to capitalise on chances. Being wealthier, especially in third-world nations, often simply means being able to suffer multiple accidents without loss of income or opportunity. A daily-wage earner falling prey to something as mundane as the common cold means losing a day or two’s worth of money as well as making do with even less – minus medicines if necessary – for the rest of the month. As Parasite demonstrates, living in a ‘imperfect’ house means losing all your important possessions to a single night’s rain.

Some people also believe the poor are poor because they make bad decisions, but a groundbreaking study published in August 2013 reported that ‘poverty impedes cognitive function’, introducing stresses related to the unpredictability of rewards. As Ki-taek says to his son Ki-woo when they wake up the following morning in a gym crowded with hundreds of other people rendered homeless by the rain, “The only plan that works is no plan at all”: to take things as they come, to live in the short-term. To quote Derek Thompson writing in The Atlantic,

As Andrew Golis points out, this might suggest something even deeper than the idea that poverty’s stress interferes with our ability to make good decisions. The inescapability of poverty weighs so heavily on the author that s/he abandons long-term planning entirely, because the short-term needs are so great and the long-term gains so implausible. … What if the psychology of poverty, which can appear so irrational to those not in poverty, is actually “the most rational response to a world of chaos and unpredictable outcomes,” he wrote.

Where in this mess is the time, energy and freedom to rise in protest?

Recognising how little can derail one’s daily-life has to my mind been the surest argument in favour of quotas in education and government for members of minority groups and marginalised communities: when inhabiting an existential condition in which things could swiftly go irrevocably wrong, reservation ensures fewer things need to go right to ensure individual betterment and preserve chances for course correction.

As if also an example of seemingly alien psychologies, the other scene that captures the gross imbalance of power between the haves and the have-nots is when Ki-taek notices Nathan Park, his boss and patriarch of the wealthy Park family, repulsed by the sight of Geun-sae’s blood smearing his keys. Ki-taek is enraged by Park’s reaction; and in that flash of a moment, you discover Parasite‘s story has been sneering at its pejorative title all along, and seems to animate Ki-taek to pick up a knife and stab Park through the heart.

Neither Park nor his family is likely to understand how an ostensibly natural gesture (to hold one’s nostrils) could have led to murder but Parasite lives entirely for that moment: the élite’s seemingly inadvertent creation of insectile creatures (that director Bong Joon-ho makes impossible to miss with his depiction of Geun-sae crawling through the subterranean tunnel like a cockroach) that scuttle deferentially out of sight once their work is done, and the élite’s own parasitism – to bank on the poor to do their dishes, cook their food, organise their parties, clean their trash and, of course, wash the blood off their hands.

Once Ki-taek realises his mistake, he runs out into the street only to see a panicked crowd running away from the scene of the massacre. He is not sure what to do until he turns to see the garage: “I knew what I had to do then,” he thinks to himself, and locks himself in the secret bunker under the house where Geun-sae had been living for many years. What he thought he had to do was stay out of sight – a rational decision whose logic many of us may not understand until we inhabit his exoskeleton, until we look out on life through little cracks in the wall with no knowledge of how and when the acche din will come.

Where – again – in this mess is the time, energy and freedom to rise in protest?

SPOILERS END

I watched Parasite with a friend, and when we walked out of the movie hall at the end she asked me what I thought of the film. It struck me then that I was feeling guilty. The best I can describe it is class/caste guilt, as if I desired to be stabbed through the heart without fully understanding the inherent immorality of the act but knowing at the same time that nothing else could ameliorate what I was feeling, without properly knowing – insofar as such things can be known – if my ‘caste death’, as laughable as the idea is, would have any effect at all.

I was also feeling guilty because my friend’s question seemed to invite me to comment on a film that had, over the course of 140 minutes, effortlessly transcended its boundaries as a film and melded with a similarly painful, saddening reality. What was there for me to say?


Miscellaneous: Tamil cinema producer P.L. Thenappan is not happy that Bong Joon-ho’s script copied from the 1999 film Minsara Kanna, which Thenappan financed. If you’re not Tamilian as well as are unhappy that Parasite‘s story was plagiarised, I suggest you consult with a Tamilian who has watched the film first. Minsara Kanna is Kollywood’s usual tripe nonsense; even the alleged similarity between a part of the two stories is barely nominal.

The potential energy of being entertained

Netflix just published a report drafted by its Sustainability Accounting Standards Board, estimating – among other things – its environmental footprint for operations during the year 2019. According to the report, as The Guardian columnist Arwa Mahdawi writes:

Binge-watching Netflix doesn’t just fry your brain; it may also be frying the planet. The streaming service’s global energy consumption increased by 84% in 2019 to a total of 451,000 megawatt hours – enough to power 40,000 average US homes for a year.

This is staggering but not surprising. Through history, the place at which energy is consumed to produce a product has been becoming less and less strongly associated with where the product is likely to be purchased. The invention of sails, the steam engine, the internal combustion engine and then satellites each rapidly transformed the speed at which goods could traverse Earth’s surface as well as the speed at which consumers could make more and more informed – therefore more and more rational – choices, assisted by economic reforms like globalisation and foreign direct investment.

The most recent disruption on this front was wrought, of course, by the internet and a little later the cloud. Now, with industries like movie-making, gaming, digital publishing and even large-scale computing, nothing short of a full-planet energy-accounting exercise makes sense. At the same time economic power, inequality and effective governance remain unevenly distributed, leading to knotty problems about determining how much each consumer of a company’s product is effectively responsible for the total energy required to make all products in that batch (since scale also matters).

Such accounting exercises have become increasingly popular, as they should be; private enterprises like Netflix as well as government organisations have started counting their calories – their carbon intake, output, emissions, trade, export, etc. – as a presumable first step towards limiting greenhouse gas emissions and helping keep Earth’s surface from warming any more than is already likely (2º C by 2100).

There is a catch, of course: it’s difficult to affect or even estimate the relative contribution of one’s operations to the effort to restrict global warming without also accounting for one’s wider economic setting. For example, Netflix likely displaced the DVD rental industry as well as stole users, and their respective carbon ‘demand’, from cable. So Mahdawi’s ringing the alarm bells based on Netflix’s report alone is only meaningful in a stand-alone scenario in which the status quo is ‘memoryless’.

However, even in this contextually limited aspiration to lower emissions and its attendant benefits for human wellbeing, joy, hope and optimism don’t seem to feature as much or, in many cases, at all.

Knowing Earth is already headed for widespread devastation can certainly smother action and deflate resolve. But while journalists and researchers alike have been debating the pros and cons of using positive or negative messaging as the better way to spur climate action, their most popular examples are rooted in quantifiable tasks or objects: either “Earth is getting more screwed by the hour but you can help by segregating your trash, using public transport and quitting meat” or “Sea-levels are rising, the Arctic is melting and heat-waves are becoming more frequent and more intense”.

It seems as if happiness cannot fit into either paradigm without specifying the number of degrees by which it will move the climate action needle. So it also becomes easily excluded from conversations about climate-change adaptation and mitigation. As Mahdawi writes in her column,

Being a conscientious consumer does not mean you have to turn off your wifi or chill with the Netflix. But we should think more critically about our data consumption. Apple already delivers screen-time reports; perhaps tech services should start providing us with carbon counts. Or maybe Netflix should implement carbon warnings. Caution: this program contains nudity, graphic language and a hell of a lot of energy.

If Netflix did issue such a warning, it would no longer be a popular pastime.

One of the purposes of popular culture, beyond its ability to channel creative expression and empower artists, is entertainment. We consume the products of popular culture, nucleated as music, dance, theatre, films, TV shows, books, paintings, sculptures and other forms, among other reasons to understand and locate ourselves outside the systems of capitalist production, to identify ourselves as members of communities, groups, cities or whatever by engaging with knowledge, objects – whether a book or the commons – or experiences that we have created, to assert that we are much more than where we work or what we earn.

Without these spaces and unfettered access to them, we become less able to escape the side-effects of neoliberalism: consumerism, hyper-competitiveness, social isolation and depression. I’m not saying you are likelier to feel depressed without Netflix but that Netflix is one of many sources of cultural information, and is therefore an instrument with which people around the world gather in groups based on cultural preferences – forming, in turn, a part of the foundation on which people are inspired to have new ideas, are motivated to act, and upon which they even expand their hopes and ambitions.

Of course, Netflix is itself a product of 21st century capitalism plus the internet. Like iTunes, YouTube, Prime, Disney, etc. Netflix is a corporation that has eased access to many petabytes of entertainment data across the globe but by rendering artists and entertainers even less powerful than they were and reducing their profits (rather, limiting their profits’ growth). The oft-advanced excuse, that the company simply levies a fee in return for easing barriers to discover new audiences, doesn’t always square off properly with the always-increasing labour required to create something new. So simply asking Netflix to not display a warning about the amount of energy required to produce a show may seem like a half-measure designed to fight off all of capitalism’s monsters except one.

We have a responsibility to iteratively replace the most problematic ways in which we profit from labour and generate wealth with practices that improve economic equality, social dignity, and access to education, healthcare and good living conditions. However, how do we balance this responsibility with a million people being able to watch a cautionary documentary about the rise of fascism in 1930s’ Germany, a film about the ills of plastic use or an explainer about the ways in which trees do and don’t fight global warming?

Binge-watching is bad – in terms of consuming enough energy to “power 40,000 average US homes for a year” as well as in other ways – but book-keepers seem content to insulate the act of watching itself from what is being watched, perhaps in an effort to determine the absolute worst case scenario or because it is very hard to understand, leave alone discern or even predict, the causal relationships between how we feel, how we think and how we act. However, this is also what we need: to accommodate, but at the same time without being compelled to quantify, the potential energy that arises from being entertained.

The fascist’s trap

The following lines appear in the opening portion of G.S. Mudur’s report in The Telegraph about government opposition to student protests:

“The people protecting our democracy are the people in JNU. They’re taking beatings on our behalf,” K.S. Venkatesh [a professor of electrical engineering at IIT Kanpur] told the assembled group [of students and faculty members]. “We’re sitting here comfortably. Look what the people in JNU are taking — and (at) some other places too.”

Don’t these lines sound familiar?

A popular right-wing narrative in the media these days has evoked images of the precarious conditions in which India’s soldiers apparently protect the country’s borders from the Islamic hordes that would overrun us while armchair activists and journalists squander their hard-won peace with protests against their own government, thus disrespecting the soldiers themselves. This way, the fascist inverts the relationship between a country and its army: instead of soldiers existing because there is a people worth protecting, the people exist because there is a solider worth protecting.

Ultimately, the soldier’s body and the body’s war become the cause itself – the ultimate excuse to deploy whatever means necessary to maintain internal order and homogeneity. And the citizen who deviates from this is condemned and punished with social sanctions that are not privy to judicial scrutiny. The heterodox agent becomes the perfect anti-national because she has not conducted herself ‘worthy’ of the soldiers’ ‘sacrifice’. Indeed the BJP has tied such misconduct with the actions of India’s neighbours, especially Pakistan and China, and increasingly Bangladesh, to create a self-fulfilling, self-justifying prophecy.

This is why Venkatesh’s words, that “we’re sitting comfortably”, are unsettling. It’s perfectly okay to sit comfortably – at least, it should be. Yes, JNU, and Jamia and Aligarh and so many other universities and their students, are fighting and we are in solidarity with them. We will also take to the streets (and other fora), express our support as well as objection loud and clear. But we will also not do this because our compatriots and comrades in JNU are being thrashed by the police. We will do this because we want to.

Second, we will not be guilty to sit comfortably either – which, in Venkatesh’s speech, likely means students and teachers discussing in classrooms, students and teachers conducting tests in labs, students and teachers engaging in conversation and debate. It is for the right to do all of these things that we also protest, as well as the right to think peacefully, to engage in civil conversation and to enjoy the commons. If we forget this, and erect the bruised body as the motivation for individual political action, we fall into the fascist’s trap: that we must not sit comfortably because we offend our protectors (the students of JNU or whoever).

The chrysalis that isn’t there

I wrote the following post while listening to this track. Perhaps you will enjoy reading it to the same sounds. Otherwise, please consider it a whimsical recommendation. 🙂

I should really start keeping a log of different stories in the news all of which point to the little-acknowledged but only-evident fact that science – like so many things, including people – does not embody lofty ideals as much as the aspirations to those ideals. Nature News reported on January 31 that “a language analysis of titles and abstracts in more than 100,000 scientific articles,” published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), had “found that papers with first and last authors who were both women were about 12% less likely than male-authored papers to include sensationalistic terms such as ‘unprecedented’, ‘novel’, ‘excellent’ or ‘remarkable’;” further, “The articles in each comparison were presumably of similar quality, but those with positive words in the title or abstract garnered 9% more citations overall.” The scientific literature, people!

Science is only as good as its exponents, and there is neither meaning nor advantage to assuming that there is such a thing as a science beyond, outside of and without these people. Doing so inflates science’s importance when it doesn’t deserve to be, and suppresses its shortcomings and prevents them from being addressed. For example, the BMJ study prima facie points to gender discrimination but it also describes a scientific literature that you will never find out is skewed, and therefore unrepresentative of reality, unless you acknowledge that it is constituted by papers authored by people of two genders, on a planet where one gender has maintained a social hegemony for millennia – much like you will never know Earth has an axis of rotation unless you are able to see its continents or make sense of its weather.

The scientific method describes a popular way to design experiments whose performance scientists can use to elucidate refined, and refinable, answers to increasingly complex questions. However, the method is an external object (of human construction) that only, and arguably asymptotically, mediates the relationship between the question and the answer. Everything that comes before the question and after the answer is mediated by a human consciousness undeniably shaped by social, cultural, economic and mental forces.

Even the industry that we associate with modern science – composed of people who trained to be scientists over at least 15 years of education, then went on to instruct and/or study in research institutes, universities and laboratories, being required to teach a fixed number of classes, publish a minimum number of papers and accrue citations, and/or produce X graduate students, while drafting proposals and applying for grants, participating in workshops and conferences, editing journals, possibly administering scientific work and consulting on policy – is steeped in human needs and aspirations, and is even designed to make room for them, but many of us non-scientists are frequently and successfully tempted to address the act of being a scientist as an act of transformation: characterised by an instant in time when a person changes into something else, a higher creature of sorts, like a larva enters a magical chrysalis and exits a butterfly.

But for a man to become a scientist has never meant the shedding of his identity or social stature; ultimately, to become a scientist is to terminate at some quasi-arbitrary moment the slow inculcation of well-founded knowledge crafted to serve a profitable industry. There is a science we know as simply the moment of discovery: it is the less problematic of the two kinds. The other, in the 21st century, is also funding, networking, negotiating, lobbying, travelling, fighting, communicating, introspecting and, inescapably, some suffering. Otherwise, scientific knowledge – one of the ultimate products of the modern scientific enterprise – wouldn’t be as well-organised, accessible and uplifting as it is today.

But it would be silly to think that in the process of constructing this world-machine of sorts, we baked in the best of us, locked out the worst of us, and threw the key away. Instead, like all human endeavour, science evolves with us. While it may from time to time present opportunities to realise one or two ideals, it remains for the most part a deep and truthful reflection of ourselves. This assertion isn’t morally polarised, however; as they say, it is what it is – and this is precisely why we must acknowledge failures in the practice of science instead of sweeping them under the rug.

One male scientist choosing more uninhibitedly to call his observation “unprecedented” than a female scientist might have been encouraged, among other things, by the peculiarities of a gendered scientific labour force and scientific enterprise, but many male scientists indulging just as freely in their evaluatory fantasies, such as they are, indicates a systemic corruption that transcends (but not escapes) science. The same goes for, as in another recent example, for the view that science is self-correcting. It is not because people are not, and they need to be pushed to be. In March 2019, for example, researchers uncovered at least 58 papers published in a six-week period whose authors had switched their desired outcomes between the start and end of their respective experiments to report positive, and to avoid reporting negative, results. When the researchers wrote to the authors as well as the editors of the journals that had published the problem papers, most of them denied there was an issue and refused to accept modifications.

Again, the scientific literature, people!