HI

... this is an expanding selection of pics and of some of my shorter pieces of writing ... and other bits and pieces ... in German and mainly English ... and other strange languages ... COME BACK AND CHECK IT OUT ... COMMENTS WELCOME

Friday, November 11, 2016

A LONG KOAN FOR LEONARD COHEN



Now I drink to your awful truth
That I will hear from you
Long after you’ve gone
Dead and gone
You said you were ready
Except nobody ever is
For the great beyond
Dust to dust
That was that
The living left behind listen to you
Digitally remastered
Longing for clues when you sang
Democracy is coming to the USA
But all that came was Trump
Taking Manhattan and maybe Berlin
So long ago, we listened to you and your Spanish guitar
First in Munich, then in Auckland
You took us down to the river
Letting love flow
The past before us, the flowers and the garbage
The murderous future behind us
Words like honey and salt into the wounds of
Christ and hell to come
You were the bridge across the river Styx
Now the bridge is gone
We never have to cross it again
Hineni, you said you were here
But look what you have done
You have gone
To the other side
Never to return as great
As a Zen Master of song
As Leonard Cohen



Wednesday, November 2, 2016

A review of DECODING CHOMSKY (2016) by Chris Knight



A review of DECODING CHOMSKY (2016) by Chris Knight (Yale University Press)

---------------------

Chris Knight sent me his Decoding Chomsky Ms., unsolicited, presumably in the knowledge that I am one of the great defenders of Chomsky. I replied, having read the preface, with a brief message of what I thought was wrong with it, mentioning that I might do a proper review on my blog and/or submit it to Biolinguistics. He replied saying that it would be a good idea. In the event I did this longer review and sent him a copy for the right of reply. He never did. Recently I also got an unsolicited message from Philip Lieberman who encouraged me to read his articles refuting Chomsky, again presumably because I might react, which I do in the article below as well (as opposed to Chomsky himself who has no time to engage at length in such negative enterprise1).

----------------------

One of the best German grammars, in my humble opinion at least, is the (1981) Grundzüge einer deutschen Grammatik by Heidolph et al., published by the Akademie Verlag, Berlin, DDR  (the former GDR). In their foreword the authors make the following point (my translation):

The system of language should not appear to be an isolated description. It is therefore important, based on a Marxist-Leninist concept of human language, to at least point to a language-theoretic framework.

Chris Knight would approve while detractors can point out that above assertion was only mentioned once or twice (but not even in the ‘index’) in the 1,000 page compendium, adding insult to injury by perhaps being jocular, like in the TV ad, ‘they would have to say that, wouldn’t they’.

Personally, I too think it’s a nice idea that good science is done by good people, the definition of good being something like ‘socialist’ or ‘syndicalist-anarchist’, something that the political activist Chomsky espouses, something that Chris Knight approves of. Chris Knight however seems intent to prove the point that a good man like Chomsky can do bad science by claiming that the study of language is ‘value-free’, when according to Knight, language evolved from humans being social and egalitarian. What other permutations are there? Bad people doing bad science like in Nazi-Germany, like Mengele? Can you have bad people being good scientists? What about all the Nazi rocket scientist that were taken to the USA to make major contributions to NASA, like Wernher von Braun? What about all the great Soviet scientists who like our German friends above always credited Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism as their main inspiration? Chomsky who is no friend of Soviet-style totalitarianism, at least in the vein of Orwell’s Animal Farm, after all coined the term ‘intellectual commissars’ but of course given universal application inasmuch it also applies to servile American intellectuals like Alan Dershowitz.

Chris Knight is however doing more than just accusing Chomsky of bad science: he is accusing Chomsky of doing bad science that in turn supports the class-enemy, namely the American military industrial complex. His contention is that Chomsky willingly and knowingly accepted the ‘bad-mad’ science idea promulgated by the likes of  Warren Weaver, i.e. coming up with a universal language that would allow the implementation of a translation machine – with American English as the ‘universal’ language of course, being able to get into the heads of all American enemies and defeat them before they can put their bad thoughts into action. That MIT at the time was in part funded by the Pentagon is no secret and Chomsky knew as much as anybody else. So did Chomsky sell his soul for a fat salary package? Did the powers-to-be allow Chomsky to operate a sideline as political activist highly critical of the powers-to-be because he was useful in concocting a linguistic science that served them well?

Let’s briefly consider the evidence for this proposition. Machine translation has certainly made much progress but certainly not based on the Chomsky paradigm. But what about the wider implication of Chomsky’s perceived ‘value-free’ linguistics that allowed successive American governments (and their great allies in the UK) to operate without any limitations? Did the Chomskyian concept of a ‘universal grammar (UG)’ aid an abet American capitalism and imperialism? When Chomsky famously critiqued Skinner’s behaviourist model of human language as a potentially ‘fascist’ enterprise, he did save linguistics from bad science but obviously failed to stop behaviourism to take centre-stage in the ‘social’ sciences of education, marketing (advertising) and business in general, to this very day. Note that Chomsky never attacked Skinner ad hominem, he just disagreed with his bad science, perhaps giving some credence to the proposition that even good men can do bad science. Obviously Chomsky never doubted his own brand of linguistics but, as Chris Knight points out, Chomsky on occasion did have doubts about the whole academic enterprise in which he was immersed. Chris Knight seems to have a particular measure in this regard: you must get yourself arrested in order to prove you have made the transition from value-less scientist to scientist with a social conscience, à la James Hansen and of course according to Chris Knight himself who was fired from his East London university for being a political activist (and later having been arrested as well). Knight should therefore not forget that Chomsky was arrested several times and at one stage was facing a long prison sentence, and then landed on Nixon’s notorious list of enemies of the state. Knight also singles out Charles Hockett and Marshal Sahlins as ‘champions of unified science’, both academics in the mold of Noam Chomsky (but were, as far as I know, never arrested for anything, the former not notable for any political activism while the latter is indeed one of the good guys). So, Chomsky wins on that count alone. Obviously one must admire political dissidents who risk jail if not their life to stand up for their beliefs. Contemporary whistle-blowers like Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange and Edward Snowden even receive praise in the mainstream media (cf. The Guardian). Should Chomsky have taken up arms and joined the Black Panthers? Should Chris Knight leave the Labour Party and join a South-American revolutionary cadre like Regis Debray did (or at least teach social anthropology at a university in Cuba)? Should we all be brave like Orwell and rush off to the next civil war in Spain or Syria?

How come former American academics like Barack Obama and Samantha Powers achieve high political office? Is it, was it Chomsky’s fault? Sure, there is a lot of tokenism one can criticize even though Chomsky never actively engaged in it. Yes, he accepted many academic honours from prestigious (and some not so) universities but he never sought or in the slightest wanted the kind of celebrity status that would launch him into the world of political and corporate elites (à la famous linguist Steven Pinker and the aforementioned Dershowitz, both of whom got much more than they bargained for, cf. Bryant 2015). He could have easily attained high office at MIT or elsewhere, seek admission to influential think-tanks or seek political office. Chomsky, after all, as an ordinary ordained academic, was called upon to speak before the UN where it is normally de rigueur to have high political connections.

What does Chris Knight want from him? That he dress in rags and live in a hovel like the oppressed masses in the shanty towns of our global village? Should he, like Tolstoy, take to wearing peasants’ clothes to show his solidarity? Above all, what should Chomsky do to live up to Chris Knight’s idea of a good scientist? Is it just to adopt a new paradigm that fits the one Chris Knight adheres to?

There is simply no evidence at all that Chomsky’s linguistics have somehow contributed to or collaborated with the political, military and corporate establishment of the USA. While there is nothing inherently wrong with the Popperian obsession of wanting to falsify Chomsky’s scientific theories (Chomsky after all came to prominence critiquing Skinner), there is everything wrong with the obsession to falsify his theories on account of a misconstrued political motivation, which in Chris Knight’s case is doubly hard to understand as he actually supports Chomsky’s politics. Maybe – and I’m only joking -  Chris Knight is a double agent, an agent-provocateur who follows the long line of infiltrators who keep up the illusion that the worst enemy of the left is the factional left.

It is much easier to understand how reactionary linguists malign Chomsky in order to diminish his political impact, for if they can only falsify Chomsky’s theories, can they bury the political animal as well. In fact, these are the ‘scientists’ Chris Knight should attack: they are subservient to the establishment first and foremost, and secondly their science may also be bad: they are the intellectual commissars Chomsky speaks about.

Chris Knight the social anthropologist – who admits to having no technical knowledge of linguistics – nevertheless makes a big deal in his book about Chomsky’s take on the evolution of language, which even if it was wrong, would not amount to much in his overall work on linguistics. Chomsky, as all other evo-devo writers, Knight included, have no empirical evidence of what language evolution is based on, so educated guesswork (called theory by some) must suffice. Chomsky (and his co-author Berwick in their most recent work on this subject – which I did review in Biolinguistics, causing much consternation amongst certain Chomsky critics, cf. Sperlich 2016) defend the theory that human language ‘evolved’ from some sort of genetic mutation in the brain that allowed language to develop, possibly in a short time, say from 80,000 BC, based on what Chomsky famously calls MERGE, i.e. the ability to merge two language tokens (like words) and conceive of them as a new category (like a phrase or a component of a phrase) and iterate up the ladder of complexity until we arrive at what language constitutes today: a finite system to creates infinite output, allowing a Shakespeare to use some 23,000 different words in his opus. Chris Knight thinks this a lot of nonsense and somehow part of the Pentagon conspiracy to reverse the Tower of Babel scenario: Chomskyan ‘universal grammar’ being the main ingredient. I am not sure why Knight dwells so much on this Tower of Babel myth even though it was a pet idea of Warren Weaver. Knight actually comes close to believing the myth himself, which is strange for a self-confessed socialist who should not believe in proverbial old-wives tales that make up the Bible. The Tower of Babel is a utterly pointless story when considering possible scenarios for the evolution of language. On the more scientific side Chris Knight, as the social anthropologist does of course favour the theory that language evolved from human social interaction, noting that the hunter gatherer period of human evolution would make for a good starting point because hunter gatherers were a band of egalitarian comrades that depended on cooperation to survive. It’s a nice idea popularized by the likes of EP Thompson and other Marxist writers like Engels2 with a view on the origins of human language. As an anthropological linguist myself (and having been arrested once too in the concrete jungles of London), I sympathize with the view that egalitarian, social interaction should condition language that in turn reinforces egalitarian, social interaction in a progressive feed-back loop but, alas, I have seen little evidence of this in the remote islands of Vanuatu where I did my fieldwork. Language, unfortunately appears to be a neutral tool, used in every which way, from quasi-religious rituals to progressive action. Language as an organ does not determine our thoughts and actions any more or less than our digestive system: the biological limitations are what they are. Even our ever increasing knowledge about such biological systems does not enable us to change the system (in medical terminology such advanced knowledge does not seem to help much to maintain such systems in good working order for the common good). We interpret the world through language but we seem unable to change it for the better even within that narrow range of what is humanly possible. Different languages do not give rise to different world views either, as some deluded linguists claim. I also studied the language of Niue which is typologically ergative, meaning roughly it is the reverse of an accusative language where typically the actor is the subject and the object the ‘patient’, in other words, an ergative language is somewhat similar to the passive voice of accusative languages (‘The cat chased the mouse’ versus ‘The mouse was chased by the cat’). The language relativist might suggest that Niueans are much nicer people than the English because their language seems to empathize with the ‘patient’, more than with the ‘actor’. That is of course total nonsense. What struck me most working as an anthropological linguist – acting somewhat reluctantly in the tradition of the Western anthropological tradition that investigates cultures that are not as much advanced as the West (now politically incorrect to say ‘primitive’) – was that all the people I have come across (and I have travelled all around the globe as well) are all the same, analogous to the language diversity conundrum that Chomsky solved by saying that if a Martian came to earth he/she/it would immediately figure out that all the human languages only differ on the surface, i.e. have a common baseline (called ‘universal grammar’). In other words the diversity of cultures and races is only a surface feature however much such notions are abused by racists and cultural supremacists. Chris Knight’s nice idea of the hunter gatherers being a nice bunch of people who developed language and the concept of ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’ also seems to be contradicted by some recent scholarly (sic) research, sensationally entitled ‘natural born killers: humans predisposed to, study suggests’ as published in The  Guardian:

“From the empirical figure of 2% of deaths by lethal violence in primitive hunter-gatherers, different historical times have had different levels of lethal violence,” said Gómez.


Note that the 2% is supposed to be some sort of historical average. Note also the terminology of ‘primitive’. It seems OK to use the term historically but not synchronically – perhaps Chris Knight can write a rebuttal to remind Dr Gómez above that if anyone is ‘primitive’ it must be modern man who has apparently evolved to practice mutually assured destruction – MAD, i.e. one cannot but help to point to contemporary, extreme ‘lethal violence’ perpetrated in places like Syria and the use of ‘lethal force’ by terrorist states (which includes the USA, according to Chomsky, and no doubt in accord with Chris Knight). What has language (as a biological system) to do with all that? Nothing much as far as I can see, quite apart from what Chomsky calls ‘language performance’, namely the use and abuse of language to serve the interests of the intellectual commissars, as so well described by George Orwell in his 1984.

When medical experts study the respiratory system they are subject (hopefully so) to research ethics that precludes butchering people, just like when linguistics experts study language. We cannot drill holes into the brain to find out where language resides. We can speculate that mirror neurons enable us to match real world objects with linguistic labels, as much as the cooperative ‘heave-ho’ is some sort of mirror image of the actual physical work done. We can do all sorts of advanced brain scans to see what areas of the brain ‘light up’ with electrical nervous energy when we say ‘good morning’ or ‘stop that insane violence in Syria’. In fact another detractor of Chomsky, one Philip Lieberman (2015), introduces his article as follows:

Language evolved over millions of years by Darwinian processes, and its primary role is communication. Speech is the default mode by which we share our thoughts with others. The communicative role of language is apparent in that the neural structures that code a word’s meaning in the brain are activated by the sound pattern of its name.

In the first instance it may be worth pointing out to Lieberman’s ‘speech is default mode’ that sign is as readily available as speech and that sign languages are even developed by deaf communities without linguistic input, indicating that language is modality-independent with regard to externalization (Chomsky, pers. comm.). I certainly concur with the notion that ‘speech is the default mode by which we share our thoughts with others’ but notice what it is we share: ‘thoughts’. If we equate thought with language (as I do) or at least in Chomsky’s sense of ‘the language of thought’, it becomes a logical thought (excuse the pun) that thought precedes speech. Even more to the point is that by introspection alone, I can claim, sadly perhaps, that many if not most of my thoughts never get put into speech (or writing) and thus communicated to others. Sure, communicating thoughts to others can confer an evolutionary advantage (however, in present times this communicative ‘performance’ as practiced by the likes of Clinton and Trump in American politics seems more of  a evolutionary disadvantage if not outright disaster), as also noted by Chomsky. Lieberman’s second point that neural structures light up when words match meaning, is nothing but a truism. Sections of the brain also light up when we think (and not speak). There is plenty of evidence that we can even influence or even direct our physiology by thought alone. Maybe it is time for neuro-linguists to determine if neural structures need to be activated to produce thoughts before further neural motor action is put in place to translate thought into speech. In any case it seems to me that detractors like Lieberman and Knight provide plenty of evidence that defeats their own theories (see also Note 1).

Still nobody, Chomsky included, has the slightest idea how the mind arises from the brain – if there is such a thing. In the same vein nobody has the slightest idea how language competence is embedded in our brains, how it is acquired and how it has evolved. Chomsky and many other linguists have devised interesting theories that seem to match the rules and ways we generate language but as Chomsky says, linguists now are only at the stage of Galilean physics, and by way of another analogy: scientists (linguists included) are like the drunks who look for the lost car keys under the lamp post because that’s where the light is. To accuse Chomsky – in this light – of a corrupt science, as does Chris Knight, is nothing short of insulting. It is more so because Chris Knight is, by all accounts, a progressive thinker in his political domain. I would not sink so low and accuse Chris Knight of practicing his version of a corrupt science just because I disagree with his scientific point of view, and based on an unwarranted suspicion that as an established academic he willingly derives his income from questionable sources. Chris Knight’s current employer being UCL, which has ties to the British military complex via its Department of Electronic and Electrical Engineering – sounds a bit like MIT – what with various departmental academics attending a nefarious London conference entitled Military Radar (2016).

Notes

1            Knight in his ‘acknowledgements’ does make the point that he had sent Chomsky his Ms and that Chomsky had briefly replied which Knight summarized (which according to Chomsky is stretching the truth, pers. comm.) with commentary as follows:

I sent Noam Chomsky the uncorrected proofs, mentioning that I was concerned lest my criticisms of his linguistic ideas might provide ammunition for the political right. Chomsky reassured me that having read through my book, he couldn’t detect any criticisms of his linguistic ideas! Chomsky always situates himself to the left of his critics, and so is not used to criticism from that quarter. Following his usual political instincts, he described my misunderstanding of the relation of the Pentagon to MIT, and to advanced research in general, as a mistake common in mainstream ideology and in right-wing economics. Secondly, he insisted that there wasn’t even a remote connection between his notion of Universal Grammar and fantasies about a universal language, thus confirming my impression of a modular mind.

Not sure if Knight fully appreciated the presumed Chomsky riposte of ‘not detecting any criticisms of his linguistic ideas’ – apart from adding an exclamation mark! That’s really quite hilarious! It’s like Knight replying to my review, saying he did not detect any criticisms of him and his book!

2            Engels’ famous quote ‘Comparison with animals proves that this explanation of the origin of language from and in the process of labour is the only correct one’.


REFERENCES

Bryant, N. (2015) Flight Logs Put Clinton, Dershowitz on Pedophile Billionaire’s Sex Jet.

Lieberman, P. (2015) Language Did Not Spring Forth 100,000 Years Ago. PLOS Biology, February 13, 2015


Sperlich W. (2016) A plea for Why Only Us? (Berwick & Chomsky 2016).


Friday, October 14, 2016

LOL, NO SIREE BOB, LITERATURE IT AIN’T



“Half the time I write to find out what I think” (Tim Winton)

Nice quote
Stumbled across on the day
Bob Dylan got the Nobel Prize
What a terrible joke
Not that Tim Winton should have won either
But at least he’s an Australian writer I don’t know
So what do I think about it all?
I don’t know
I write without thinking
I don’t write when I think
When I talk to myself
Inner dialogue
Freudian tripartite, id, ego, superego
OMHS (oh my holy spirit), a Christian faux-pas
Triangulate
Ménage à trois
What am I thinking?
Words merge into phrases and green Chomsky trees
Random associations in Latin
Cogito ergo sum
Cogito ergo scribo
Chinese cat sits on my lap
Not thinking just purring
Half of the time I read what I write for free
For cat and me
And you and nobody else
NB once met Bob in Kathmandu
He kept looking in the mirror to see what he could see
Sure he wrote two or three good songs when he was still innocent
And to his credit did a cover of The Universal Soldier
A long time ago, and to no avail (drone soldiers keep a-killing)
 And now Bob’s an old cowboy celebrity
Getting prizes for neither thinking nor writing
Selling his soul to American gods and empire, OMG
Like Rod Stewart, OBE, to William the Queen
There ain’t no fool like an old pop star
BTW that’s what I think about literature
Quoting Sartre when he refused the Nobel Prize
"A writer should not allow himself to be turned into an institution"
Would an equally discerning Arundhati Roy say ‘herself’ the same?
But then again, who I am I to think so when half the time I write?

Sunday, August 7, 2016

TERROR




Terror is as old as warfare – they go hand in hand, or worse: warfare equals terror. Nevertheless when claiming a dichotomy, the protagonists on both sides prove the point that they are engaged in a just war but having to break the rules of warfare (as for example enshrined in the Geneva Convention) because the terrorist combatants don’t follow the rules. Terrorists cannot be considered ordinary criminals because they have political and religious motivations that threaten the ideological status quo. Interestingly terrorists from the fascist right, like Breivik and more recently the guy in Munich, are more likely to be rebranded as ‘running amok’, presumably because the ideology of the political and religious right-wing is sacrosanct while the ideology of the (atheist) left is to be abhorred even in its mildest manifestations, as currently experienced by Corbyn of the UK (how dare he propose to scrap the nuclear weapons capable Trident submarines). Modern jihadists are considered terrorists despite their seemingly fundamentalist religious (read ‘extremely conservative’) ideology, for what is lurking below this façade is a primitive socialism that is absent in the otherwise equivalent Christian fundamentalism (which is Calvinist to the extreme, i.e. beholden to an aggressive capitalism). Just like the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood was a threat to the capitalist West because they advocated a type of socialist fraternité (minus liberté and égalité) that ran counter to corporate free-market doctrines and was subsequently removed from the chess board by the Egyptian military with tacit support from the Western powers, the even more radical Islamic State must also be squashed by all means and therefore branded as the most evil terrorist organisation known to mankind. Of course the Baathist Syrian regime must be removed as well because it is ‘socialist’ in name if not exactly in practice. In this context, note that Christian liberation theology with its leanings towards Marxist socialism has also been extinguished where it once seemed to take root, i.e. in Central and South America. That the Islamic State fighters turn out to be such an obstinate enemy is of course a well-known reaction to the even more obstinate counter-terrorism practiced by the US and their allies. Slavoj Žižek in his article ‘Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange: our new heroes’ in the Guardian puts it thus:

We all remember President Obama's smiling face, full of hope and trust, in his first campaign: "Yes, we can!" – we can get rid of the cynicism of the Bush era and bring justice and welfare to the American people. Now that the US continues its covert operations and expands its intelligence network, spying even on its allies, we can imagine protesters shouting at Obama: "How can you use drones for killing? How can you spy even on our allies?" Obama murmurs with a mockingly evil smile: "Yes, we can."

What with France and Germany currently bearing the brunt of these so-called terrorist attacks, it is no small wonder that the media of these countries are instructed by their respective owners to shape public opinion accordingly. In Germany DER SPIEGEL is often considered one of the most influential mouthpieces of ‘liberal democrats’ (Freidemokraten), espousing a quasi-rationalist ideology that equates roughly with what goes on politically, socially and above all economically (free-market) in Germany. While the right-wing neo-fascists all over Europe decry the current refugee and migration policies and practices, accusing Germany of wholesale sell-out, the liberal democrats use this sentiment to disguise their own economic motivations as humanitarian sainthood of sorts, the fact being that Germany (and France for that matter) benefit enormously from the current migration in-flows to boost the manufacturing sector with cheap and compliant labour – just like Germany did in terms of its Wirtschaftswunder in the 1960s and 70s by importing millions of southern-European and Turkish Gastarbeiter. So how do we sell this as a humanitarian gesture in the face of terrorist attacks that fuel the ire of racists and neo-feudalists? For one, we must employ the Orwellian newspeak that muddies the waters of a rational discourse. Take a recent op-ed from DER SPIEGEL:

… was die Terroristen des IS erreichen wollen … Ihr Ziel ist es, die Gesellschaft zu spalten und aufzuhetzen. Die unbeirrte Menschlichkeit ist die stärkste Waffe, die wir gegen sie haben. Nur mit ihr können wir diesen Kampf gewinnen.
(Eng. my translation): what the terrorists of IS want to achieve … their aim is to split society and spread hatred. A relentless humanity/humanitarianism is the strongest weapon we have against them. Only with it can we win the war.

The oxymoron of ‘humanitarianism as a weapon’ is as woeful as the notion of ‘winning a war against terrorism/IS’. It might be understood as a sort of appeasement of the extreme rightwing who want to see blood and revenge but that would mean to overestimate the intellectual integrity of the writer. Neither is this approach aligned to the idea of radical (Marxist/Liberation – as mentioned above) Christianity which offers the enemy the cheek to strike, as some of the German and French Protestant heretics propose. My contention is that this use of Orwellian newspeak is exactly as described by Orwell, i.e. a propaganda tool devised by the political, social and above all economic elites of the countries in question. After a while it becomes ingrained and everybody repeats it. That such neo-feudalist despotism breeds medieval scorched-earth movements like Islamic State is no surprise. As the brutality of the ‘war’ increases on both sides (note that the ‘humanitarian’ police forces in Germany and France now shoot to kill the terrorists) we sink ever deeper into the quicksand of an age that glorified pillage and rape as a means to economic success. Germany as such must put up with terrorist attacks lest she shoots herself in the foot by stopping the inflow of cheap labour that aids and abets the current German Wirtschaftswunder. The EU’s policy a free movement of labour is a center-piece of its economic free-market strategy, emulating the USA where it would be absurd to propose to limit the freedom of movement between states. Mind you, Donald Trump and his ilk are getting close to this idea by wanting to barricade the borders to Mexico and other terrorist countries, so if a majority of a state like New-Mexico vote for Hilary instead of the winner-takes-all Donald, then Donald may close the border to New Mexico as well. The utterly brutal, neo-feudalist wars fought in Syria and Iraq must spill over more and more into neighbouring countries and into Europe and the rest of the world if the slaughter continues unabated. Strongmen like Erdogan in Turkey and Sisi in Egypt will clamp down on any signs of dissent and hold the fort for a while for Europe in return for a free hand to commit their own brands of oppression. May and Johnson in the UK, and so-called leaders in Poland, Hungary, Slovenia and Slovakia will also tighten immigration and strengthen the fundamentalist and anti-Muslim Christian factions, even against the advice of their free-market comrades. Hollande of France, embattled economically and politically, will have few options to respond apart from continuously declaring war on IS, which is as farcical as the word is French. The US, as a terrorist state – as noted by Noam Chomsky – engaged in indiscriminate drone warfare against so-called terrorist targets and with ‘special’ forces on the ground in many parts of the world to carry out targeted assassinations, bears the greatest responsibility for the current upsurge in counter-terrorism. As this is not likely to change – or is even more likely to intensify – the rest of the world will have to live with the consequences. Naturally, as long as the collateral damage is kept in bounds there will only be clamour for more war, emulating the Israeli formula that for each Israeli citizen 10 Palestinians must die. That the provision of cheap labour remains paramount is nicely expressed in a Guardian opinion piece (the Guardian being the UK equivalent of the German Spiegel):

It will be no consolation to learn that western Europe is actually safer now than it has ever been or that the number of deaths from terrorism is now far lower than through much of the 1970s and 1980s.

In other words, current terrorist activity is only so much more in focus because so-called social media has overtaken the fourth estate, forcing its hands in terms of sensationalist reporting. Of course the fourth estate is as active on social media as are the millions of Facebook, Twitter and WhatHaveYou apps subscribers who produce ‘raw’ sound bites as fast as they can, allowing to be there while the crazed terrorist cuts the throat of the priest. At the same time the drone pilots watch the explosions on their internal media networks, giving high fives when they hit something (anything). Sooner or later a disaffected pilot will leak a video or two, ending up on WikiLeaks or on WhatEver, ensuring that such sources will either be incarcerated for ever (e.g. Chelsea Manning) or be sort of imprisoned (e.g. Julian Assange) or be exiled a la Edward Snowden (as via Žižek above).
While the Guardian does occasionally publish voices like Žižek and Chomsky, the editors take great care that, like the German Der Spiegel, the status quo must be maintained and supported by more subtle Orwellian newspeak. Witness the article ‘Terror and rage: what makes a mass murderer different to a terrorist?’ by Jeff Sparrow who at first seems to make a valid point with saying that

The current insistence on entirely separating ideological and non-ideological rampages seems rather perverse.

But then goes off the rails by suggesting that the urge to kill is somehow a result of the boring life that entails peace on earth, quoting mad authors like Sebastian Junger:

                  That’s why, as he says, “for many people … war feels better than peace.”

And coming to the conclusion

… ending the carnage may require more than simply ending the wars (as necessary as that remains). We need also a more profound discussion about constructing a different kind of peace.


So what does this mean? Is it the pathetic maxim of ‘to keep the peace we have to prepare for war’ or is it some kind of peace that preempts sociopaths, warmongers and terrorists to take up arms by allowing them a kind of virtual warfare ad finitum and ad nauseum? Or can he possibly mean that such a ‘different kind of peace’ is a political manifestation of a genuine socialism that is the real enemy of the corporate world, the one percent, the power elites, the monarchists, the religious maniacs, the war lords, the fascists, the racists, the patriarchs, the governments – in short, the ideological status quo? As we move towards a neo-feudalism with attendant state terrorism based on the latest technologies of warfare and surveillance, the reaction by ever more primitive and brutal counter-terrorists will be a sign of the times, at least until a socialist peasant-prekariat revolution gets underway. History will repeat, hopefully not as a farce this time round but as turning point in the history of the human species that until this point perfected an Orwellian nightmare whereby the 99% of the populace gladly submitted to their own oppression. Those who will spark the revolution are scattered around the globe like escapees from the human zoos described in Huxley’s Brave New World. Perhaps this revolution will be perfectly peaceful as a result of a genetic mutation that will compel the 1% (and their armed forces) to act like lemmings and jump off the cliff. It is not that the meek will inherit the world but the new normal people who will live in a socialist world-village in harmony with a universalist nature, free from the terrors of the past, free from the bizarre dogmas of religion and Westminster politics, free to express love and sexuality, free to be good and altruistic – having switched off the gene that in the past eons might have been responsible for being bad and selfish and thus having terrorized those who were good. So, good night, sweet dreams! Tomorrow morning may be the same but not like this!

Saturday, June 25, 2016

BREXIT

BREXIT

Received wisdom has it by now that the 52% of Brits who voted to leave the EU are working-class punters who are dissatisfied with EU-style migration and subsequent lack of jobs for themselves. The more sophisticated 48% lot on the other hand recognize the economic benefits that a corporate Europe bestows on the UK, hence voting for remain. The problem with this scenario is that the 52% were mobilized by a far-right conglomerate of lunatics that make the EU/UK political party machine look like saints who in fact are also wolves but in sheep’s clothing. As such it looks like a fight between two factions of a corporate elite who use the electorate for their nefarious purposes. Reduced to Gibbonesque personalities, Cameron and Johnson/Farage – and with a Corbyn not knowing whether to look left or right – the outcome was not a great surprise. The oratorical puns to seduce the electorate were always going to be with the great communicators, what with dire warnings about hordes of Muslim immigrants, German Huns and French Frogs taking away control from honest and hard-working Brits. If you’ve got Merkel as a friend, who needs enemies?

A critique of the EU from a benign left-wing point of view, as for example à la Yanis Varoufakis, entails the idea that the EU is worth saving from itself. We just have to get rid of this insane corporate overlay, and voilà, we have a Europe that is founded on the principles of the French Revolution. Brexit forestalls this solution, for Brexit entails a another French solution, namely the Ancien Régime, or as the Sex Pistols equivocate for the UK: the Queen and her fascist regime. If a Nigel Farage (with a little help from a renegade Tory) can get his way this way, we have a long list of continentals to follow in his footsteps: Le Pen, Wilders, Petry, Klaus, Grillo, Michaloliakos and so on.

Then those on the hard-left also feel that the EU is a lost cause, precisely because of its inherent capitalist ideology, hence we have to wait, not for the French Revolution but for the Russian Revolution (or is it the Cuban Revolution?). Or what about the Bernie Sanders US-style semi-socialist movement grinding to a halt while we wait for Brexit-fan Donald Trump to take over and really suck it to us?


Is Brexit history in the making? Are the clouds gathering again over Europe and the rest of the world? Is it just a storm in a tea cup as the Brits are fond of saying? Will we need another Gibbon to give us a fantastic run-down of the movers, shakers and shape-shifters that shaped the History of the Decline and Fall of the World, sub-titling the first volume, as he did  The Turn of the Tide?

Sunday, February 21, 2016

HUMAN ROBOTS


The problem is not that robots will become more intelligent than humans but that humans will become as stupid as robots.

Current debates on robotics and associated Artificial Intelligence (AI) focus on either the low level issue on how robots may replace human factory labour, or the high level issue on how AI endowed robots may become even smarter than (extra-)ordinary humans (witness the latest GO-game program that beat a champion player but note that simple rule-based games like GO, while able to generate billions of possible moves, can nevertheless be analysed and subjected to predictive algorithms).
On the low level issue we have known ever since the industrial revolution, that machines are supposed to make our lives easier in that they perform tedious and/or dangerous tasks. With regards to the latter, the military applications excite the fancy of many a militarist even if it takes away the number one reason for staging a war, i.e. to die for a cause. The robot that cleans the house, cooks and serves the meals, changes nappies and generally replaces the domestic slave is of course a nice idea that excites the middle classes who lack the means to employ their own service workers – in the knowledge that they ought to be able to mimic the upper classes in this respect. Of course they are respectful of the machinations employed by the oligarchs, monarchs and other super-stars of the cleptocracy, admiring their vast celebrity resources from a virtual distance.

Ever since Descartes quite sensibly declared that humans are nothing but biological machines, however sophisticated, scientists have sought to design and build machines that edge ever closer to the human model – but as Feynstein says ‘if I cannot make it I cannot understand it’. The main stumbling blocks are, one, quantum-biology and two, language. Of course the two may be intimately interlinked as for example studied in the field of bio-linguistics, and whilst there is almost no empirical knowledge about how language can arise from the brain, there are other far less discerning attempts to model language by machine.

The most advanced of these attempts is so-called machine translation which is based on statistical models of language use. Simply put, the program will search for previous translations of the word(s), phrases, sentences that serve as input, and voilà, you have the translation (and every time somebody uses the translation machine, more data is added). This works fine for metropolitan languages that have accumulated very large data bases for such purposes. It comes down to the truism that many if not most ordinary speech events (especially in written form) have been uttered again and again. As such it’s no problem to convert the English sentence ‘what’s for dinner?’ into German within a fraction of a second – faster than a human translator could do. Even so the permutations of even simple and often repeated utterances can confound the translation machine. Cultural relativism is not easy to program – just think about the cultural baggage the term ‘dinner’ has. Equally the rules of complex syntax confound all computational algorithms, hence practically all reasonably sophisticated sentences will be translated into syntactical gibberish (just try to input this very sentence into a translation machine, say for German, and then input the German to arrive back at English, and see what the results are!)

There is however a time honoured way around all this cultural and linguistic diversity, namely to apply a heavy dose of cultural and linguistic imperialism. If we all think, speak and act the same, the statistical probabilities will be very high that translation and knowledge transmission can be programmed successfully – i.e., we all will behave like a robot. The German language has a nice word for this process: gleichschalten (which Google Translate renders as ‘to force in line …’). Nazi-Germany, by applying brutal force, tried but failed. Now it’s the English world’s turn, using more subtle devices. No wonder ‘dinner for one’ is one of the most watched English-language comedy clips in Germany. Many a German speaker will simply adopt ‘dinner’ as a German word just like the French accommodate ‘le weekend’.

English as a modern lingua franca is the medium of globalization, comparable perhaps to how Latin was the scholastic lingua franca in pre-industrial Europe. The consequences are clear: if all the world’s scientists program AI in the English medium, progress will be rapid. As with many science applications, the outcomes can be either beneficial or more often than not turn out to be weapons of mass destruction. At the lower level we can look forward to applications as described below (Johnson et al. 2016):

A researcher from Ryerson University in Toronto studied the use of playful robots in language practice for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). After recording interactions between the learners and robots, the researcher concluded that robots enable children with ASD to communicate because of their low stimulus levels and predictable behaviors.

Note the advantage of ‘predictable behaviours’. Applied to higher levels this should have alarm bells ringing, à la Chomsky who debunked ‘language as behaviour’ comparing it to fascist practices we just described in German as gleichschalten as (to force in line …). As such the danger of AI is not that robots installed with AI will outsmart human intelligence but that the human intelligence of the masses will be reduced to AI, as predictable human machines that operates on the level of Pavlovian stimulus and response – the dream come true for the advertising industry and associated demagogues. Wilhelm Reich explained all this very well in his seminal Mass Psychology of Fascism. The AI programmers will become science nerds that will create an Orwellian nightmare in which the billions of human robots perform tasks at the pleasure of a few human masters – who themselves remain aloof of AI. All the same there will also be quite a few genuine robots that perform all the tasks even human robots are unable to do, like assembling precision machinery that can land on comets and do genome testing in three seconds flat.

The only hope is that the human masters themselves will engender a group of revolutionaries who will liberate the masses from oppression and restore their human intelligence to the level of shared social justice and common wealth. That the human robots will rise up, Spartacus-like, is an ever diminishing scenario exactly because AI is such an effective weapon to control and subjugate vast masses of people. Just ask yourself why the proverbial 99% remain utterly despondent in the face of an ever widening gap between the very few super-rich oligarchs and the billions of the ‘prekariat’ (a term invented by a German sociologist in order to up-date the ‘proletariat’). Only human intelligence can defeat the pseudo-intelligence that makes up the 1% who use AI as well as age-old primitive violence in equal measure to maintain the status-quo. Of course, in the meantime, there will be many a success story à la Orwell’s 1984 whereby the lone revolutionary reads The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism only to find that such works are written by agent-provocateurs in order to catch people who might harbour criminal thoughts against Big Brother. Note that in 2016 ‘Oligarchical Collectivism’ is a very apt term to describe the global madhouse, or is it not?


Johnson, L., Adams Becker, S., Cummins, M., Estrada, V., Freeman, A., and Hall, C. (2016). NMC Horizon Report: 2016 Higher Education Edition. Austin, Texas: The New Media Consortium.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

THE LAST CLIMATE CHANGE

I posted this story before on my blog, then under the title THE ENGLISH DISEASE (you'll see why when you read it). I took it off my blog as I submitted it as an 'unpublished' story in a competition. It never got anywhere even though Noam Chomsky liked it. Now when reading George Monbiot in the Guardian on his take of the recent UK floods and the incomprehensible stupidity of the UK government not to deal with even basic remedial action like planting a few trees, I thought I would re-publish my little story in terms of 'climate change', just with minor changes in the dates/names used.



THE LAST CLIMATE CHANGE

The following text fragment is on display at the Museum of Humans. It dates from approximately ten planetary years before the final demise of the human species. In the interest of authenticity the text was reconstructed in the dominant language of the time, namely English. The text, in digital format, was found in an area then known as New Zealand.

“New paragraph … as mentioned before when in 2015 a psycholinguist from the University of Auckland published a paper called The Consequences of Language Obsolescence in an obscure academic journal, there were only a few fellow travelers who nodded wisely. Yes, they had read it many times before, the dire warning of language species extinction, analogous to biological species extinction. Yes, they knew the simple analogy: while it might have been very economical to have just one species of tree for economical exploitation, there is the danger of some unknown disease wiping out the global plantations of Pinus radiata. Ipso facto, no more trees. Apso ficto, no more languages. Full stop.”

Now wait a minute, the uninitiated said. Scaremongering, the anti-climate and anti-language change proponents screamed. Not possible. How could a language like English disappear? Languages do not get affected by viruses (well, computer languages might!). Next you crazy lefty greenies telling us that degenerative TRUMP English ISIS the cause of all this non-existent climate change. In any case, in Orwellian 2015 it was considered a laughable proposition by new-speak, even by those who thought it quite possible that climate change might affect the earth adversely. Sure, the Maori language had been nearly wiped out, but weren’t there signs of a renaissance? Plus there were all these community languages in New Zealand. And English! English everywhere. The language of globalization. New Zealand was blessed to have native speakers of English, hence providing a sizable pool of teachers of English for those billions of people unlucky enough to have been brought up with a lesser tongue. Teaching English was a major industry. Worth millions if not billions. English as an ass-et.

When in 2019 there was a sudden and dramatic increase in the incidence of a variant of Alzheimer’s Disease in the English speaking world with ageing populations, a noted Chomskyan neuro-linguist from MIT (not the one in Auckland) came up with the thesis that the disease was caused in part by a degeneration of the language capacity (an organ in the brain) which in turn was caused by English mental stresses which in turn were caused by modern life styles, etc, which in turn, etc, etc. Case studies seemed to provide evidence for the proposition. Most worrying of all was the high incidence of variant Alzheimer’s in English speakers in their thirties. For a while the mass media picked up the story and there was a popular debate on whether or not medical science had shot itself in the foot. Do we live longer only to lose our English minds faster? Even the old joke reappeared whereby English-speaking men, young and old, maintain erections with vast supplies of Viagra but cannot remember what for. Soon, of course, the debate was overtaken by other weather news. A gigantic tornado had wiped out large parts of Kansas City. Hundreds of thousands died. The drought in Australia had become so severe that a state of emergency had been declared and vast tracts of land were placed under the command of the military forces that regulated the remaining water supplies on behalf of water corporations. In the UK a 200-year flood event arrived first with a 10-year frequency and lately as an annual event. In New Zealand a 1,000-year flood covered most of Northland for weeks on end (the commonality of hundred year floods had necessitated upping the ante exponentially). 2019 was a bad year alright. Most people blamed it on the accelerating climate changes. Governments around the world scrambled to halt the decline. The New Zealand Parliament formed a grand government coalition and banned the use of private cars below 1,000 cc, private boats and private jets below 1,000 cc for private use. It became a national past time to define, refine and redefine ‘private use’. The working classes were forced to use scarce public transport, having to get up two hours earlier to go to work, waiting in long queues at bus and train stops. Public air traffic quadrupled. Air taxis became the favoured mode of transport for those with disposable incomes. Drunk flying and carnage in the skies became a bit of a problem. In 2020, however, there were hardly any new natural catastrophes of note, and the world and the transport and knowledge industries sighed a collective sigh of relief. Only the ongoing drought in Australia led to large-scale riots in the major cities which were forced to drastically reduce their water consumption. Civil unrest and civil wars continued at their usual level of intensity. The United States government and its armed forces, as usual, were fighting evil insurgencies in various vassal states and the mimicry of the Roman Empire extended to a Nero-type president incinerating a large part of Washington DC. The president blamed a barbarian group of evil extremists with headquarters in Barbados. All and sundry were nuked out of existence. It was later claimed that the president and his women had confused Barbados with Bavaria (both beginning bith b). The whole spectacle was a fantastic opportunity for a start-up interactive Internet service called Inferno.

As we all now know now, the first signs of the oxygen fluctuations were reported from Christchurch in the same year. A bizarre confluence of cosmic and local events indeed: a spot of extreme ozone depletion coupled with the Christchurch Föhn and an electric storm served as a catalyst for oxygen in the air to form allotropic ozone. This went on long enough for people and animals to suffer respiratory difficulties leading to some 50,000 items of collateral damage in humans. Scientists assured us that this was a one in a billion year event. Ha, in 2027 we knew new now better semi-colon.

It’s hard when you cannot breathe. Like an asthma attack of asthma. You suck air into the lungs but you cannot expel it. You feel like exploding. Sure, just about everyone was running around with inhalers and a bottle of oxygen and stuff. Like, like way back when people, like, ran, like, around with bottles of water. In the beginning it was status symbol. Oxygen bottles in many fashion colours. Like, a cool accessory. Clean green oxygen from New Zealand sold well all over the world. Cynics like you and me pointed out that oxygen is oxygen all around the world makes the world go around. A severe oxygen fluctuation in 2029 around and around Shanghai killed 10 million people. There was not enough oxygen to go around go around. Even mild oxygen depletion affects the brain. Or is it the mind, English or otherwise? It affects your language exclamation mark. You become incoherent. You tend to babble like Bertrand Russell who became my English mantra:

After ages during which the earth produced harmless trilobites and butterflies, evolution progressed to the point at which it generated Neros, Genghis Khans and Hitlers. This, however, I believe is a passing nightmare; in time the earth will again become incapable of supporting human life, and peace will return.

                                                                                    [1950, Unpopular Essays]

In moments of doubt and sufficient oxygen I caught snippets of Wittgenstein. What did he say? Quardle ardle wardle doodle? No, know, now not that one! It’s on the tongue of my tip. It’s all a game. I never felt so happy as never before. It’s a game. It’s really funny. Shame on the trilobites. What a word. In the beginning was the word. You see. English words like word. Crazy Germans have a funny word for that: sich totlachen. I can hardly breathe.

Today looks like a good oxygen day. Our Coromandel commune is waking up to the latest news that Auckland now looks like a scene from Quiet Earth. One of our scouts had tramped there and returned to tell the tall tale. I remember this from my English lessons. No, no, nothing to do with Smith’s Dream or Bruno. There’s a name for it. A row of words all beginning with the same consonant. I know it but I cannot remember it. I know a lot of things. Lucky I don’t remember. But Auckland, how could I forget. I lived there all these years ago. Taught English. Brought up a family. Had a mortgage. I can still recite the poem ‘the farm’s still there, mortgage corporations couldn’t give it away, and quardle ardle wardle doodle the magpies say’. See ‘say’ I say to my students, bloody brilliant, present tense, you see. They don’t, never learnt no English grammar. They think I’m mad. So does the management and I lose my job, never to get another one. Yes, how could I forget when the bubble burst, as foretold by my father-in-law. We had signed an unconditional agreement to buy this lovely 10 acre persimmon and olive lifestyle block in Katikati to get away from it all. We borrowed and paid the ten percent $74,900.00 deposit. It all depended on us selling our she-sells-sea-shells-on-the-sea-side home in Gulf Harbour and the flat in the city. It was just a matter of weeks, said our nice real estate man, especially if we meet the market, he said with a twinkle in his eye. It would sell, but it didn’t because it was a leaky home and then the bubble burst and it was too late to meet the market. Deposit gone. Noah’s Ark flooded. Timber not treated. No job, no income. Market collapsed. Yes, I remember. Bloody disaster alright. Great depression followed. I shall – future is not a tense – now not now remember now what happened now next. I cannot remember. Member. Me.

Today smells like a bad oxygen day. There is a fly around in my brain. I try. Breathe, baby breathe. Tihei mauriora. Kia kaha. Excuse my relapse, te reo pakeha, the language of darkness.

Pen-ultimate paragraph (sic, sick). The sun did not rise today. I rage against the darkness. The journey north. Soulless souls. Unable to even speak in tongues. Ethereal English. Devoid of all alliteration, allusion, antonym and anality. Blank. Blank. Spacebar. Battery very low. Close down. Computer speaks English for the last time.


We have reached Cape Reinga. Hip-i-ti-hop hop-it-i-hip, oh what fun, we all jump.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

A review of THE MASTER AND MARGARITA by Mikhail Bulgakov



I was alerted to Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita by a Russian-speaking student of mine. I did a bit of on-line research and found that I should have heard about the novel, if not have read it. Various bits of pop trivia whetted my literary appetite: Marianne Faithful (whom I like as a singer – and having been associated with Mick Jagger, whom I also sometimes like as a singer, and having been associated with Heathcote Williams, whom I like as a poet) was supposed to have read the novel and then concocted, with Mick, the Rolling Stones lyrics of Sympathy for the Devil (a song I like). There is also a long list of other popular culture influences the novel is supposed to have had. And then there are claims that the novel is one of the best of its century, or even of all time: how come I had never heard of it (not that I am the great arbiter)? A cursory review of reviews suggested that the novel is a critique of Soviet life in the 1930s, in particular of Soviet-style atheism, as the novel’s theme seems to be of the Christian sort, what with Pontius Pilate, the Devil with his bizarre retinue and various Russian literati (not to mention the Master and beautiful Margarita) as protagonists. That the novel was published in the Soviet Union in the late 1960s was therefore somewhat surprising to me, given that the author is commonly portrayed, in the cursory reviews I reviewed, as a dissident not unlike Solzhenitsyn. And apparently the novel was a great success in the Soviet Union at the time. Something does not compute here, so I bought the book (the Penguin Classics version) and read it.

Now I understand several things and some I don’t.

  • ·      It is indeed not surprising to me now that the novel has reached some sort of cult status, as well as being hailed as major novel of our time; it is very well crafted and has that Russian literary charm and wit displayed by many of the great Russian writers
  • ·      I don’t think the main purpose of the novel is a critique of Soviet life at the time; in fact in some ways it is an affirmation of sorts; that the Soviet literary censors passed it for publication is thus much less surprising; if anything the novel is a clever satire of Soviet life at the time and can be compared to any other time in human history, like that of Pontius Pilate’s (his secret police is as efficient as that of the Soviets), and note that Pontius Pilate (and his dog) is given a divine pardon for having wanted to save Jesus from execution (thus somewhat unfortunately perpetuating the miserable myth that the Jews killed him and deserve all the punishment for it); the story is about the eternal Muscovites and not about the Soviets
  • ·      In fact, Bulgakov should have considered the involvement of the Woland and his retinue in Jerusalem to balance it with what happened in Moscow (that he didn’t makes the Pontius Pilate interludes somewhat less satirical and could thus be misunderstood as some sort of religious endorsement by Bulgakov)
  • ·      The novel is not anti-atheist either, at least in the sense that religion is not a topic in the novel; the author’s masterful treatment of magic realism simply makes use of some major Christian/Judaic/Roman figures that may or may not be mythical; Bulgakov pokes fun at the suggestion that all phenomena must have scientific explanations, including the idea that supernatural delusions can be caused by mass hypnosis; anyone driven ‘insane’ is treated humanely with injections at the modern psychiatric clinic (not much different from today); I suppose what Bulgakov is trying to convey is to say that if you see the devil and a black cat flying through the air, why not? There is no point in locking people up who are deluded (when in fact the vast majority of people generally are); when in the 1960s psychedelic drugs set a few minds wandering (and wondering) the reaction was the same: lock them up.
  • ·      It is not a novel of ‘good versus evil’ as well understood by Faithful/Jagger in the song Sympathy for the Devil, i.e. it is exactly that: the devil is quite a nice guy who shows up cowardice and greed while in the end providing the Master and Margarita with a peaceful afterlife; Margarita in particular has lots of fun with the Devil and his retinue; her maid even selects to be a naked witch for eternity rather than returning to a humdrum existence
  • ·      The retinue: Bulgakov cleverly transforms the Biblical behemoth into a big black cat and has lots of fun with it – another sign that he has a quite subversive attitude towards the whole Christian-Judaic (or any religion that paints the world back and white) idea of the ‘unclean powers’; in some reviews the Germanic sounding Woland (the devil/Satan) is strongly connected to Goethe’s Faust but I cannot detect any such connection: there is no Gretchen, there is no Faust; the Master is not a Faustian character as on the contrary he accepts his salvation to ‘rest in peace’ from Woland; Bulgakov’s Woland is an outlandish, all-powerful magician with a philosophical bent, just what Moscow and any other metropolis needs (the character of the Joker in the Batman movie industry is a pale imitation)
  • ·      The literary goings-on in Moscow in the 1930s are as bizarre as in any era in any place on earth: all the literary wanna-bees (excuse the pun) are on top of their game making sure that only very occasionally a good writer/playwright/poet passes through the cracks of the literary fortress: the idea that a writer has to have an ID to be admitted is ridiculed by the black cat and Koroviev when they say that Dostoyevsky would never have gotten an ID, and anyhow how does anyone know who is a writer and who is not; that the Soviet literary machine was as corrupt as any Western one can hardly be disputed unless one is a propagandist on either side; that Bulgakov survived as a writer under the Soviet regime is testament to the fact that it wasn’t all doom and gloom
  • ·      How a ‘writer’ is recognized as a true master, is however a main theme in the novel: it takes a beautiful woman who reads the novel backwards and forwards
  • ·      Margarita saves the Master only by becoming a lusty witch (I understand that earlier versions of the novel contained quite a bit of ribald sex while the current version is very tame even though any amount of beautiful naked young women scurry across the pages); Woland and his male retinue are strangely sexless in the presence of their naked ‘maid-witch’ Hella
  • ·      The scenes of greedy women getting pretty dresses at the Variety show only to be magically and justly disrobed afterwards in the street and thus are made the butt of jokes, is of course in tandem with getting ‘free’ rubles only to be turned into ‘foreign currency’ – which at the time was a major crime to have (and why not?); showing up greed and deception (and receiving appropriate punishments when exposed by the all-knowing evil retinue) has lots of comic effect but is a bit overdone in my opinion
  • ·      All the scenarios involving magic realism, i.e. all the scenes with Woland and his retinue, can become a bit tiresome after a while as the reader is left hanging in the air, as it were, not having the slightest idea as to what would happen next – as anything can happen (flying through the air seems a favourite activity and is often described in great detail, including the shocking disbelief it evokes from those left on the ground); magic realism as a literary device should be toned down so as to allow the reader some leeway; when in the end the Soviet investigative authorities put it all down to mass hypnosis, the joke is not very well carried
  • ·      The ending is a bit sad as the message seems to be that really good ‘citizens’ like the Master and Margarita can only live in peace after death, even if death is described in rather romantic phrases.


In the end I am not quite sure what the proverbial moral of the story is. Given the clever novel structure of a Russian doll, the interpretations can be equally manifold. It is not at the level of a phantasmagoria with Faustian themes, a la Goethe, lacking the leaden Teutonic weight of a Wagnerian opera. It is not straight-out comedy or even tragicomedy a la Shakespeare. Neither is it a Satyricon a la Fellini. The novel is much lighter than those of his much quoted Russian heroes: Gogol, Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy. Bulgakov never mentions any of the political figures of the day. Apparently he once wrote a letter to Stalin complaining about being sidelined as a playwright – and Stalin arranged for him to get a job (apparently Stalin quite liked his work). There are many ambiguities. Some reviewers suggest that Bulgakov’s attendance at the notorious Bullit (the US ambassador) party gave him the ideas for his Walpurgisnacht scene. Well, the only unnamed ‘foreigner’ in the novel is a fat customer in a ‘currency shop’ who is made fun of by the black cat and his companion. This is not a political novel. This is a literary novel dealing with the age-old dilemma of the true writer/philosopher (masterful and Christ-like) being in the way of the corporate establishment which will go to any length to extinguish dissenting voices, knowing well enough that the dissidents are right and they are wrong, like the Pontius Pilate character. Life seems dedicated to the all-powerful Caesars of this world, exercising their wretched power on the backs of the mostly deluded citizens. What would real power look like? Consider an all-knowing black cat that talks and walks like a common man. That would be truly amazing as the black cat would transform the world in a minute or two. Bulgakov gives it a go, knowing full well that it’s just a nice delusion, a nice fantasy, like dreaming of beauty and wine, drifting off into another world when this old one is done. One wonders what Marianne Faithful and Mick Jagger think of all this as they approach their twilight years. Did they really understand the whole idea by interpolating “allow me to introduce myself, I’m a man of wealth and taste … what’s puzzling you is the nature of my game”. Certainly the second part of the refrain sounds true for Woland but not the first one. Bulgakov quite correctly paints Woland and his retinue as somewhat slovenly characters who have not the slightest interest in wealth (and taste). Wealth after all is a human folly now enacted again in a neo-capitalist and neo-feudalist Moscow that Bulgakov would also view with great literary disdain.