Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The riddle of the anarchist watermelon

The anarchist movement is, by its own definition, an extremely composite and heterogeneous entity. Still, one can trace certain broad currents as they developed and differentiated along its roughly two century old history. Some political analysis and historians of the workers movement then like to talk of "Anarcho-communism", "Anarcho-syndacalism", "Anarcho-primitivism", "Anarcho-feminism", and the like. A coarser, and possibly more fundamental, distinction can be made between "green" and "red" anarchism, which essentially separated between those anarchist movements that put their emphasis, in many different ways, around ecologism and environmentalism, and those who view their roots and their ideology as more closely tied with the history of the socialist and (some versions of) communist ideology. Separating these two tendencies out does not do justice to the complexity of the anarchist archipelago, naturally, where often these components coexist and combine in intricate patterns. However, a distinction clearly exists and it is so deeply rooted as to have brought about the existence of a separate anarchist flag, with the same black diagonal half, but with the red one replaced, naturally, by a green area.

An old saying in my country of birth has it that the environmentalist movement is like a watermelon: green on the outside, red on the inside, and everywhere spotted with the black seeds of anarchy.

My sympathy naturally goes primarily to the "Red Anarchy" variant, that which is more closely tied up in its history to the workers movement, the socialist and communist tradition, and the industrial society. Abandoning industrial society not only does not seem in any way feasible but also not in the least attractive. We do live in an advanced technological world and our way of confronting society and our dreams of transforming it must be measured against the fact that technology is going to play an increasingly prominent role in the lives of people all over the globe. What we can and we must try to influence is how the interaction of human beings and technology does and will take place, not if. But at heart I am a communist and communism is a creature born of technological society and forever entangled with its destiny.

I am also a scientist, and as such I am especially concerned about the attitude towards science that the various forms of anarchist thought have taken.

If we take a step back to the early history of the anarchist movement and ideology, we find a very interesting text, written in 1903 by "the Anarchist Prince" Pyotr Alexeyevich Kropotkin, called "Modern science and Anarchism". It was written at the turn of the century, when in fact science had just started on the way of the great revolutions of quantum theory and relativity, which, however had not yet percolated down to the general public. So the "modern science" talked about in the text is eminently the mid to late 19th century science of thermodynamics and electromagnetism, the science that seemed to promise a nearly complete and entirely deterministic vision of the world. Imminent change of paradigm notwithstanding, the main point of Kropotkin is to reiterate the pledge of alliance to science of the anarchist thought. Kropotkin identifies the scientific method of inquiry used in the physical sciences as superior to the "dialectic materialism" approach favored by the orthodox marxists, which he sees as marred in preconceived ideas derived from idealistic philosophy and never realistically tested for effectiveness. Science works, science gives us a reliable way of looking at the world, of making predictions and testing them against data and facts. Kropotkin advocates an anarcho-communist thought based upon the results and the methods of the hard sciences, and subject to adjusting its ideology to the results of scientific inquiry, modifying what is proved wrong and confirming what stands the test of scientific inquiry. He admits, naturally, that when it comes to the realm of the social sciences it is difficult to apply the same level of rigor of the deductive scientific method as one can maintain in the hard physical sciences, but in his mind the goal is to model the social sciences on the hard sciences, and in that way eliminate the element of prejudice based on the tacit unquestioned assumption of a class based society that marred the general viewpoint on issues involving economics, social studies and similar disciplines. Within a few years of his writing, it became clear to everyone that even the hard sciences themselves where much more intrinsically complex in their view of the world than the late 19th century triumphs of physics appeared to imply and the new wonderful triumphs of 20th century physics opened the door to a fascinating view of modern science, but one less prone to adapt to dreams of reductionism. Nonetheless, the main point of Kropotkin certainly stands the test of time: that progressive political ideology stands hand in hand with scientific progress and scientific thought. This would seem to be an unshakable pillar of our philosophical history. And so it was, for quite a long stretch of time across the 20th century.

Enter postmodernism. Much of the theoretical foundations of left wing ideology was swept away by the postmodernist wave of the eighties: a flood of "soft thought" and aggressive relativism that started to look at science as an enemy instead of an ally. One can understand historically how some of the hostility against science grew out of well grounded concerns over its role in the service of the military-industrial complex, in decades of Cold War, and an equally justified concern over the looming specter of an environmental catastrophe, caused by an accelerated industrial development that seemed to care little for sustainability and preservation of the natural resources. In addition to these valid concerns there was another perfectly well justified reason for criticizing the sociological makeup of the scientific community, which appeared to be excluding from its ranks certain groups of population like women and ethnic minorities. However, the response to all these reasonable concerns was completely unreasonable and it had the overall effect of severely damaging leftist ideology and completely undermining many of its major achievement, gained as a result of long and painful struggles across the history of the 19th and 20th century.

Let's be more specific: the postmodernist "left" accuses science of being intrinsically a patriarchal construct of male domination, a discourse with no intrinsic validity other than the task of perpetuating its prejudices and suppressing other forms of thought, which are equally valid but more intrinsically feminine and based on essentially unverifiable systems of primitivistic beliefs. This type of claim essentially destroys completely two centuries of had won achievements of the feminist and women liberation movement, which struggled precisely against this type of idiotic prejudice according to which there is a male thought and a female thought and that rational thinking is the exclusive property of the first and the latter is relegated to the domain of wishy-whasy nonsense. Try as you may to flip the coin around and pretend that rational thought is bad and wishy-washy nonsense is all we should be aiming for (which is a completely moronic point of view, contrary to anything we, as progressive left-wing people had always believed in), you will still be left with the same discriminatory association of one type of thought to men and one to women. How on earth did anyone manage to brainwash people into believing that a point of view of this sort could be called progressive?

One of the basic tenants of socialist (and with it anarchist and communist) ideology was always defending reason against superstition. We traditionally opposed organized religions because they used supernatural beliefs to subjugate people, in the service of the ruling class. We opposed them because they prevent people from thinking rationally about causes and effects, we opposed them because they opposed science. Yet, the postmodernist "left" has no hesitation in supporting all types of nonsensical superstitions, from New Age baloney to astrological crap, to a revival of witchcraft and magical thinking. Who is calling this "the left"? Why? How did anyone manage to propagate the idea that promoting superstition against rationality is anything we would accept to call progressive?

I am sorry neo-primitivist, nature seeking, horoscope reading green anarchists, my dear comrades, I stand by our red flag of progress and reason!

I submit that one of our greatest struggles today is to regain science, to claim it back as our own! We live in a technological world where all the more those who control science control the world. If we choose to turn our back to science, we will be simply accomplishing a self fulfilling prophecy, leaving behind us a scientific community that will become all the more conservative, male dominated, in the service of the capitalist system of exploitation and tied up to the military apparatus. It need not be so, however, for if we claim science as our own, as it always was in the history of our ideology, we can turn the tide towards a scientific community that is inclusive, conscious of the needs of the environment (and with the knowledge needed to actually do something about it), that helps

Already, fortunately, despite the twisted portrait that the postmodernist "left" (which has never actually seen a real scientist in close quarters) tries to depict, the scientific community is already generally very left-wing and progressive, and if we (the left) don't screw that up, it will continue to be so in times to come. The underrepresentation of certain groups is still real and worrisome, but not due to an intrinsic nature of science itself, but to the residual existence of an order of things in our society at large (not in the scientific community itself) that creates impediments to its enlargement and broader inclusiveness. It is the traditional society we must fight, with the help of science, not the other way around. One should also point out that the postmodernist attitude of the "left" itself contributed to making the scientific community even more unbalanced in terms of its composition, thus perpetuating the exact same prejudices it should supposedly be fighting against.

Anarchists, communists, socialists, let's reclaim science as our own mode of thought as Kropotkin advocated. Let's return to that progressive rational view of humankind our long struggle for a society of equality and justice was always based upon.

Monday, June 21, 2010

The ashes of memory

In the late spring of 1945, a group of resistance fighters watch the Brenner Pass, hidden in the forest, on the steep mountain range dividing occupied Northern Italy from annexed Austria. A long column of military convoys is heading north: a defeated army on the run, a heavy march of infantry, armored vehicles, artillery. A human mass in disarray, the tentacles of conquer hastily retreating, the invincible army that terrorized Europe finally crushed. Hour after hour, they watch the German army go by, the mass of tired soldiers, the acrid smell of defeat, the metal rattling of tanks, the shouting. They watch for an endless time, until the human river begins to dry out. Fewer soldiers now pass and the noise dies out in a shower of faint echoes bouncing around the mountain tops. It is cold at this altitude in the Alps, even that late into the spring. Silence. The partisans keep watch. The Brenner Pass is empty and silent, as if all that immense retreat had been but a passing dream in the much larger river of history. Then silence is broken once more. A single military vehicle advances on the same road. A different color, a different flag. American. The end of World War II.

One of those partisans was my father. He was fifteen at the time. During those five years of war he saw the sealed trains heading slowly north along that same route, that cut through the majestic wall of dolomitic rock. The trains carrying their human cargo to the furnaces of Birkenau. They fought a guerrilla war, barely more than children at the time, against the most powerful and technologically advanced army of Europe. They fought in the name of that Socialist future they were hoping to create... "to conquer our red spring, where the sun of our radiant future rises". Songs, memories, words transmitted and repeated. My father passed away some ten days ago. With his ashes we bury a part of our memories, of our connection to the defining moments of European history.

Memory is the most precious possession of human civilization. We keep historical records, we create literature and art, to the purpose of maintaining a link to our collective and individual past, preserving human history near and far, recording, whenever possible, not only the facts, but a sense of the feelings that went with them. Memory fades away slowly, until it passes suddenly into nothingness, in that transition of substance from alive to inanimate. What stays behind are not the improbable afterlives depicted by religions, but the gestures that enriched the lives of others, and a few scattered thoughts, collected in writings and in whatever other forms of artistic expression we leave behind when we depart. Ultimately, all human acts are transitive and impermanent, but the larger texture of history, to which they all contribute their part of the thread, grows on and transforms.

There will be still, one day, young guerrilla fighters watching powerful invading armies from the mountaintops. They will not be the same men and women who fought the resistance war against the Nazi back in 1945, as my parents did. Whoever and wherever they will be, they will share similar songs and similar thoughts, and will pass on their memories to their next generation. Meanwhile, we, the descendants of those partisans, who knew the postwar Europe they helped to create, will continue their fight in whichever way our time permits.

... Con lo stesso impegno che si chiama, ora e sempre, Resistenza
(Piero Calamandrei)

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The filth and the fury

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked ...
(Allen Ginsberg - Howl)

In the academic year 2007-2008 I used to work for a research institute in Germany, trying to take care of eight graduate students, along with my own research, which was just about to hit full speed against a wall (of which too much has already been said in this blog). That was the time when I first reached that breaking point I have by now permanently sunk into. I owe madness in equal parts to my former friends and collaborators of many years (enough said on that) and the other half to the German University.
Here comes their share!

... who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy among scholars of war, who were expelled from the academies for crazy & publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skull ...

If you've never fallen through the rabbit hole into the world of Alice in Wonderland, and you've never really seen what absurd means, you should take a quick tour of the graduation procedure for students of the German University. Here's a quick comparative anthropological analysis of the same procedure in the Californian Institute and in the German University. Student A is a graduate student of, say, mathematics, in the Californian Institute, while student B is also a graduate student in the same subject, and with the same supervisor, but in the German University.

... with dreams, with drugs, with waking nightmares ...

Around October-November of the year X, both students, having nearly completed their PhD thesis, apply for postdoctoral jobs. Typically a postdoctoral job that starts in July, August, or September of the year X+1 is advertised in the fall of the year X, with a deadline usually around December. Offers are made out during the spring of the year X+1. Since students typically defend their PhD thesis around May or June of the year X+1, the offers come a few months before graduation. At the time when offers are made and the student signs the job contract, the student's advisor more or less formally guarantees to the postdoctoral employer that the student will defend the thesis and complete the PhD by the starting date of the postdoctoral job. Should the student not finish by the established date, not only the student risk losing the job, but, since postdoctoral jobs in mathematics typically come with teaching duties, the employers will find themselves with a missing instructor and classes that need to be covered and with the enormous difficulty of finding a last minute replacement. Thus, for the whole system of postdoctoral jobs to function smoothly, it is necessary that the assurance the PhD supervisor gives at the time when job offers are made out, that the student will graduate in time, is considered reliable and dependable. PhD supervisors put their reputation on the line when they give assurance to postdoctoral employer regarding the predicted graduation dates of their students.

... who wandered around and around at midnight in the railroad yard wondering where to go, and went, leaving no broken hearts ...

Coming back to student A and student B, they both go through the job application procedure and both secure a good postdoctoral employment, for which their supervisor promises that graduation will take place in time. What does graduation consist of? Well, to begin with, the final manuscript of the PhD thesis has to be submitted to the appropriate office of the university. This is what is required:

- Items required in order to submit a PhD thesis to the Californian Institute:

(1) - The electronic file of the PhD thesis.

- Items required in order to submit a PhD thesis to the German University:

(1)- Five typed and printed copies of the PhD thesis, including a CV of the student, signed by the PhD supervisor.

(2)- A separate copy of the student's CV.

(3)- A notarized copy of the student's passport and birth certificate.

(4)- Five copies of any published paper authored by the student, related to the thesis content.

(5)- A police clearance report.

(6)- A signed application formula with one passport photograph.

(7)- A separate abstract of the thesis.

(8)- Official proof of enrollment for two terms at the German University...

and so on.

Assuming that student B can promptly and timely produce all these documents and takes no more time than student A to submit the thesis, we come to the next step.

... who howled on their knees in the subway and were dragged off the roof waving genitals and manuscripts ...

After the thesis is submitted one needs a thesis committee.

- In the Californian Institute a thesis committee consists of at least four faculty members:

(1)- Any of the Institute faculty including postdocs can serve on the committee.

(2)-The committee can be formed, its members changed or new members added at any time until the moment when the thesis defense takes place.

(3)- The only thing thesis committee members have to do is be present at the student's talk on the days of the thesis defense.

(4)-Only one week of time is needed between thesis submission and thesis defense.

- In the German University the thesis committee consists of four faculty members with the following regulations:

(1)- The first member of the committee is the thesis supervisor who has to write a thesis report, and give a numerical grade to the thesis.

(2)- The second member of the committee has to be a permanent professor in the Pure Mathematics Department of the German University. There are only six or so of those and if all of them say no, everything stalls.

(3)- The second member of the committee also has to read the thesis, write a report, and assign a numerical grade.

(4)- If the numerical grade of the second member differs from that of the first member the graduation SIMPLY CANNOT PROCEED, until the committee reconvenes and agrees on a common grade.

(5)- The third and fourth member of the committee have to be permanent professors in the Applied Mathematics and Physics Departments of the German University, respectively. Again, if all the eligible candidates decline, the graduation cannot take place.

(6)- The appointed third and fourth members of the committee have to read the thesis and the reports of the first two members and transmit their approval to the university.

(7)- A period of FOUR WEEKS has to pass between the time when both reviews (with matching grades) AND the approvals of the remaining two members of the thesis committee are transmitted to the university and the time when the actual thesis defense talk can take place.

... who demanded sanity trials accusing the radio of hypnotism & were left with their insanity & their hands & a hung jury ...

Student A at the Californian Institute goes through the process of submitting the thesis, appointing the thesis committee, scheduling the thesis defense talk and completing his thesis defense in less than ten days, with no foreseeable obstacle and with no need of any particular intervention from the PhD supervisor. Here is, instead, what typically happens to student B at the German university. (I say typically because, in the period between 2006, when my first PhD student graduated from the German University, up until now the experience I am about to describe happened NINE TIMES.)

... who created great suicidal dramas on the apartment cliff-banks oh the Hudson under the wartime blue floodlight of the moon & their heads shall be crowned with laurel in oblivion ...

After having submitted the thesis well ahead of the graduation deadline agreed with the postdoctoral employer, student B goes through the list of all the faculty members of the German University eligible to be second member of the thesis committee, showing them the thesis and the thesis report written by the advisor and already submitted to the university. All of the eligible members say NO, on the ground that they have better things to do. (Being in a thesis committee evidently does not seem to be a normal part of their academic duties: one wonders whether they apply the same conscientious attitude to, say, their teaching duties.) At that point the process stalls. Time passes and the graduation deadline approaches. The advisor intervenes and begins to contact the faculty members, begging, threatening, teasing, shouting, until someone agrees to be the second member and write the second report. Time keeps passing and the second report does not materialize. Again the advisor sends several reminders, pointing out clearly the fact that the student will lose the postdoctoral job if not graduating in time by the agreed date. Finally, after a humiliating process of many requests in increasingly desperate tone, the second report is submitted to the university. Time passes and nothing happens. A few days later, when inquiring on why things are not moving forward, the advisor finds out that there is a discrepancy between the grades assigned to the thesis in the two reports. Typically, the second report intentionally gives a grade that is about one decimal point below the grade assigned by the supervisor, so as to be sure to stall everything. A long discussion begins between the supervisor and the second referee, until an agreement is reached on a common grade. Meantime several more days have passed. At this point, with the thesis and both reports, student B starts to go through the list of all the eligible faculty of the German University who can be third and fourth member of the committee. Once again the same pathetic scene repeats itself, with people refusing to be on the committee, or formally accepting and then not sending in their reports. Time passes and the agreed graduation date approaches even more. When finally, after repeated interventions from the supervisor resulting in very stressful confrontations with the faculty members of the German University, all the members of the thesis committee have been appointed and the reports and approvals have all been transmitted to the university, one STILL NEEDS TO WAIT FOUR WEEKS before the thesis defense can finally take place! SEVEN TIMES over the past years this process resulted in the student being able to defend AT THE VERY LAST POSSIBLE MOMENT BEFORE LOSING THE JOB! Each time, this was possible only at the cost of an immense amount of stress on both the student and the supervisor. The remaining two cases of student-B-type experience are still ongoing.

... with the absolute heart of the poem of life butchered out of their own bodies good to eat a thousand years.

Of course, someone may ask at this point, yes but why, knowing that the graduation procedure is so hazardous and unpredictable, the students don't submit their thesis several months ahead of the graduation? After all, at the time when they apply for jobs they already have the results of their thesis, and one can surely speed up the writing process to leave a safe margin of time before graduation. Ah, no! Because the German University has thought of this possibility as well, and they included an additional regulation stating that, if the thesis defense does not take place within three months of the time of the thesis submission, then THE THESIS EXPIRES! This is a very interesting concept in itself: the idea of scientific results that are no longer valid after a period of three months challenges even the most relativist of postmodern philosophers. In other words, the graduation procedure of the German University has been explicitly and carefully designed to be a no-win situation and a byzantine maze with no exit route.

Ground where mere survival
a desperate struggle,
where without
a desperate struggle
we perish,
that is
Death ground.

(Sun-Tsu, The Art of War)

In the fall of 2007 I realized that I was breaking down completely, partly due to the traumatic experience of having to ram several PhD students through the graduation procedure of the German University and partly due to the stress of trying to take care of one of the students who suffered from a severe psychiatric condition, for which the German University (unlike its overseas counterparts) provides no support structures (psychological counseling, student health insurance covering psychiatric care), so that the full burden falls entirely on the advisor's shoulders to do damage control and try to prevent the worst from happening. So I decided to escape and seek refuge in the Californian Institute. I thought I managed to escape barely in time to avoid a major collapse and breakdown. Unfortunately, precisely at that time my dear former friends and collaborators decided to deliver their blow and, even more unfortunately, the ghosts of the past came back and the remaining students who still need to finish their PhD with the German University forced me to a continued exposure to the same impossible nightmares, magnified by the additional difficulties of dealing with them at a distance.

On death ground,

(Sun-Tsu, The Art of War)

Postscriptum: When it comes to the point where a student, after finishing his PhD thesis two months ahead of the deadline required by his postdoctoral employer, faced with the impossible task of getting it through the graduation procedure of the fucked up German University in time not to lose his job, is brought to the point of attempting to take his own life, the grotesque obtuse stupidity of the German bureaucratic establishment acquires much more monstrous proportions, and begins to echo of that same stench of rotten authoritarian fascism that has been lingering on everywhere in its academic establishment. When it comes to the point where, knowing that the student in question is still in critical conditions in hospital, and nonetheless asks to be allowed to complete his thesis defense by a videoconference link (which would be a completely standard procedure in any overseas university), the dean of the German University does not even bother to speak in person to the head of the thesis committee who is asking for the official permission to proceed with the thesis defense by videoconferencing, and finally refuses to proceed on the ground of "maintaining their standards", then the medieval barbaric and idiotic procedure devised for the promotion of graduate students begins to stink of that same horrid stench of the rotting corpse of fascism that permeates the environment of German Universities... and someone had the guts to call this sewer a "center of excellence"?

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

¡Qué viva México!

Off to Mexico for five days... out into the thin polluted air of Mexico City... the Periférico, usually loaded with the evening commute, is flowing steadily on a Wednesday afternoon. Out at Insurgentes, South and West, past the mountain rim, and down the green slopes towards the city Alexander von Humboldt called "of the eternal spring". Luxury tropical vegetation and swimming pools, Diego Rivera's mosaics, tropical birds, and the sweet smell of the night. The Institute on the hill, seminar room in an outdoor bungalow, just missing a round of cocktails served to the merry crowd. Old friends who surprisingly still remember me. Lectures, long, intense. One gets quickly into a semi-hallucinatory dream, conjured up by the heat, the intensity of the spices, the altitude air, the abundant flow of cervezas and tequilas.

And all of a sudden everything begins to make sense: the thin layer of volcanic ashes deposited on my laptop keyboard, flying away into the clash of new hopes and old despairs that mixes in with the lectures, two new and one old. Finally sawing together again the gaping hole torn in the texture of my existence. Finally whole, like the Earth trembling beneath us. And now for the first time I understand why Mexico is the final refuge and exile of all tired revolutionaries, a place for troubled beat poets on the run to lose themselves into a nameless crowd, and at the same time a rumbling echo of a power enormous and suppressed, like that towering volcano overlooking the city, like the old pyramids of Tenochtitlan, smeared with human blood. Heat and immobile agave stems: am I dreaming the thoughts that form inside my mind? Curfew in the evening, the army rolls into the city on tanks and armored convoys. Life returns the next morning in the street markets of Tepoztlan, under dark mountains shaped like human hands. One can understand how Eisenstein couldn't stop filming, until he lost himself inside the gigantic movie he never made. Here I am, eating fried grasshoppers in market stalls. Here I am, giving a lecture series that finally, for the first time, is really about what I am.

Off to the City again, a short bus ride away. Ciudad de México is a gigantic living organism that stretches from mountain range to mountain range, filling in entirely the land between. The 22 million megalopolis, counted by some as the most liberal and left-wing city in the world, is a treasure trove linked by a network of subway systems. I pay a respectful visit to Trotsky's house, comme il faut, and to the nearby Frida Kahlo museum. I never felt any particular affinity to her paintings before, but now for the first time I fully understand what it was all about, and I see the impressive beauty with which she was able to give form to the same kind of suffering I have now become so familiar with.

Two paintings in particular caught my attention at this time: in her "Love embrace of the universe", the much loved much hated Diego Rivera appears very significantly characterized as the child wanting to be at the center of the universe, while the artist, in her co-dependent role, accepts to act as the mediator between this repulsive solipsistic ego and the double embrace of Earth and a distant, more impersonal, Cosmos. In another equally powerful painting "Without hope", Kahlo, lying sick in bed is force fed a cocktail of nightmarish monsters. Not only I now finally understand perfectly the meaning of these paintings, but I can also see why Kahlo refused the label of Surrealist: what she was painting was merely an excruciatingly realistic account of life.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The battle for the future is worth fighting

Despair is typical of those who do not understand the causes of evil, see no way out, and are incapable of struggle. (Lenin)

I had forgotten how hard the way up can be. The literature on bipolar disorder repeatedly stresses how the moment when the mood vector turns and begins to point upward again can be one of the most dangerous: energy returns much faster than thoughts and feelings can start to move away from the bottom of the pit. It's a hell of a ride this heavy lift off.

It comes at a good time though, to give me a fighting chance to meet some deadlines: ICM talk to write, nice and very patient collaborators rightly expecting to see some answers (unlike those two former collaborators who'd rather see my obituary ... you won't get it, you hear me, not so easily: I am still alive!), long stalled projects to jump-start again, new ones that need to get going. Four months of hibernation to catch up with, and quickly.
Life again, in short, life on the fast lane.

Struggle is the key word. We are born with it, raised and educated in the glorification of struggle as the only existential state worthy of consideration. Who knows? Maybe all that Leninist propaganda of our youth did pay off in the end. Maybe it really taught us to never let go, to accept that struggle is, after all, a way of life.

So I am at it again, climbing up the well, gaining ground slowly night after night. With the decreasing need for sleep that accompanies the rising mood phase, I have been giving a good push at finishing writing some papers, including the text of my talk for next summer's International Congress before the March submission deadline.

There are not all that many occasions for reward in the life of a scientist. Most of the time it's a constant struggle (yes, there we go again, comrade Lenin, back to your favorite occupation) lashing out blindly at an incomprehensible universe, trying to bring it down to the size of the human mind. A struggle against our own limitation, against ourselves, in the attempt to reach beyond the boundary of human nature and intelligence. To go one small step further, to push back ever so slightly the frontier of the unknown. The scientific community creates, among its rituals, that of providing occasional gratification to its practitioners. These officially sanctioned rewards are few and far between, and they all consist of highly symbolic gestures, which would have no meaning at all outside of this strict circle of adepts, but around which too much attention seems to coalesce among those who belong to the relevant community. So it happens that quite a bit of anticipation builds up around certain especially prestigious conferences that take place once every few years and are supposed to present the state-of-the-art in our international research community, therefore inevitably sanctioning with a much coveted stamp of approval the inevitable arbitrariness of the selection process.

In my field, or what is considered to be my field (not that I feel any particular sense of belonging there), the last such event was the European Congress two years ago and the next, broader and more grandiose in scope, the International Congress that will take place next summer in Hyderabad. Thanks to my mind getting finally unstuck from the marshes of desolation it got marooned into four months ago, I could somehow manage to put together the text for what should be my ICM talk of next summer, and even submit it in time before the deadline. It wasn't exactly smooth. Given how a good part of the work I have been doing over the past few years got inextricably entangled with the painful breakdown of human relations with my former collaborators, my first attempt at putting down some kind of a text for my future lecture nearly landed me in the emergency room. That taught me two very important lessons: the first is, indeed, that one should never underestimate how rough the coming up from the bottom of the pit can be, and the other, perhaps more important, is that one should teach oneself how to avoid the continuous sliding down of thoughts and action into the same repeated memory traps.

I cannot help thinking of Max Ernst's painting "Garden, airplane trap" as a powerful symbolic view of those memory traps lying in wait, ambushing passing thoughts, like airplanes trying to catch flight, caught in a web of entangled memories, holding them down. The oppressive perspective of a landscape with no access to the sky, the obsessive thoughts that keep returning to the mind, keeping it from freeing itself, from taking off on new voyages: the portrait of a mind forever trapped into the labyrinth of painful memories that refuse to let go.

So I started all over again and tried a different approach. Just as with dream analysis in psychotherapy one always approaches the unconscious dream images from the point of least resistance, I tried the same strategy applied to the preparation of my lecture. I chose as my center focus a paper I wrote a couple of years ago, no coauthors, a limited amount of entanglement with painful memories. I slowly built context around that focal point, moving backward in time to less painful periods of work I can talk about without suffering too much, then forward again to new things in the making, again hopefully free of pain. In between, I even managed to give a balanced account of some of those aspects that are more closely associated to now painful memories. In the end I tried to focus on the future more than on the past, on the assumption that there is a future worth fighting for. If this extremely painful experience with my former collaborators managed to largely spoil my experience of the European Congress two years ago, I am determined not to let it destroy this coming ICM experience as well. I am not overly thrilled by the resulting fifteen pages or so of text I managed to put together now - I could have produced something better in other circumstances - but at present the fact itself of having made it to the end in a single stretch of two days and one night of uninterrupted writing, without getting too sick again in the process is a success. Moving on, moving away from memory traps. Moving to safer ground.

Wer noch lebt, sage nicht: niemals!
Das Sichere ist nicht sicher.
So, wie es ist, bleibt es nicht.
Wenn die Herrschenden gesprochen haben
Werden die Beherrschten sprechen.

(Bertold Brecht)

There is something about that old idea of struggle as the focus of life. We were indeed taught never to let go, no matter how hopeless the future looks. That was an ideological standpoint designed for the "wretched of the earth", whose future did look bleak in the world then as it does in the world today. Even in the most desperate circumstances, the idea was, the battle for the future is worth fighting. We scientists of today live generally in very comfortable material conditions: interesting jobs, good salaries, a lot of freedom to pursue our interests. Nothing that can possibly compare to the hardness of the struggling working class. The lesson, however, is still useful as a guide through the debacles of life. There is still a battle for the future worth fighting. It is not unrelated to that same old struggle for progress of our communist upbringing. The sense of despair does come ultimately from the same sources of oppression that are at work in the society at large: authority, patriarchy, conservative societies. My own breakdown had its origins primarily in the oppressiveness of German society and the toll it took over a few years of nearly continuous exposure to it, witnessing day after day its load of xenophobia, of overt sexism, the mistreatment of anyone who is in a more vulnerable position, like the systematic ethnic discrimination towards those foreign students who had come to work with me there. That at the crucial time, when I was holding myself together by a very narrow thread trying to make my escape to a more stable and comfortable environment, I was also forced to face the collapse of a human relation I had hoped would help me through that moment, was indeed what made the collapse happen in the end. Perhaps without that last traumatic event I would have made it to my new life without having to go through all this, but the fact remains that the struggle for the future is primarily the struggle against those same oppressive forces that still mold our societies.

Our best struggle is in the strength of vision. To maintain the capacity to dream, to enjoy the beauty of the science we are doing, despite of the ugliness of the human beings involved with it. There is in what we are doing something which belongs to all humanity, something which lives on beyond the monsters that created it and acquires a life of its own, a beauty of its own. It becomes the collective consciousness of humanity at large, delocalized, international, common heritage of all. This is what science truly is. This is the future worth fighting for.

In den finsteren Zeiten
Wird da auch gesungen werden?
Da wird auch gesungen werden.
Von den finsteren Zeiten.

(Bertold Brecht)

Monday, February 15, 2010

Year of the Tiger

It's the eye of the tiger, it's the thrill of the fight
Risin' up to the challenge of our rival
And the last known survivor stalks his prey in the night
And he's watchin' us all with the eye of the tiger

(Survivor - Eye of the Tiger)

Chinese New Year is coming, one of the biggest festivities here in California: the golden dragon parade will soon be welcoming the Year of the Tiger in the streets of Los Angeles. New year celebrations are meant to be rites of passage and this new year is a good moment to mark the end of what has been far too long a phase of passive suffering. There's no better symbolic image than the rising of the tiger to prepare oneself for the challenge of rising up again and getting ready to fight back. I've been always a fighter by nature and I know in essence no other way to deal with life.

Risin' up, back on the street
Did my time, took my chances
Went the distance now I'm back on my feet

The chemistry is changing, the tide is turning. Once again I have survived to the other side. There is nothing like the surge of power that accompanies the crossing of the critical point, the change of sign of the derivative: it's a unique feeling, this sudden upward drive. Getting through the lowest point becomes more and more difficult with time, especially when some of the people you turn to for help at that crucial time do their best to ensure you will not make it. And yet, there it goes, once again: the swing turns, the energy returns. I am back on my feet and ready for the fight.

In the old days people believed that there is destiny written in names. My real life name is the name of a warrior, who in the years 1092-1095 lead the largest army of Europe against the emperor of the time, twice defeating him in battle and changing the course of European history forever, opening up the new era of city-states that would herald, in the centuries that followed, the whole cultural blooming of the Renaissance. Like her I am getting ready for battle, and if the challenge is to bring down an emperor, then so be it.

Don't lose your grip on the dreams of the past
You must fight just to keep them alive

This fight is indeed primarily about keeping a dream alive, despite all the attempts made at murdering it. Finding again the motivation to go on, to hold on to the ideal that got me through all these years. It's an act of willpower that requires recovering the right amount of strength. If I have come so close to abandoning the fight, it is only because I came under attack at the time of highest vulnerability. It served some purpose to hit rock bottom: it forced me to see the truth about the people who surrounded me, tell friends from foes. Went the distance, now I am back on my feet, with the rage of the will to survive.

I am regrouping my scattered forces into an army of growing size: old thoughts are starting to live again, all dreams return with renewed strength, connections are being drawn, alliances formed. I am testing the ground, laying out tactics and strategy, choosing my terrain. I will bring the fight to all fronts, from the open camp down to the smallest alley, to every single one of the ideas that were once a shared fruit of a paradise lost, and far beyond. I am coming.

Risin' up, straight to the top
Had the guts, got the glory

Went the distance, now I'm not gonna stop
Just a man and his will to survive

Untenured Alabama professors notwithstanding, the present setting of human civilization prevents us from fighting back against our enemies with the brute force of weapons, as people used to do in the not so distant history of mankind. No duel outside the city gates at dawn. Our fighting, today, is a fighting of ideas. The sharpest sword is in our words, and that duel is fought, no less fiercely, with the creativity of our minds. The modes of expression have changed through the ages, but in the end it is that same powerful surge of our primordial instinct for survival that guides the more refined and sophisticated parts of our mind to live up to the challenge and engage in the decisive battle.

Face to face, out in the heat
Hangin' tough, stayin' hungry
They stack the odds, still we take to the street
For the kill, with the skill to survive

It's the eye of the tiger
It's the thrill of the fight
Rising up to the challenge of our rival
And the last known survivor
Stalks his prey in the night
And he's watching us all
With the eye of the tiger

Friday, February 12, 2010


I am at the other end of the world once more, heading back home in a couple of days, heavy snow storms permitting. Here in the silent heart of the Schwartzwald, the black forest that covers a good part of the South West of Germany, a former secret military research facility was converted, at the end of the second world war, into a more innocent use as a conference center for mathematicians. The location stayed the same: an isolated elegant glass and steel building surrounded by thick, once impenetrable, conifer woods. At this time of the year, encrusted in a shiny glass of frost and snow, they make a suggestive view. Darkness, slow moving descend of fluffy snow flakes, forest, and games of cozy indoor lights in libraries and lecture halls.

I was afraid of showing up here, on the ground of how painful my last visit to this place had been, a good three years ago. I refused to come to a meeting last fall, just to avoid incurring in more of the same pain. At this point, I only wanted to throw in the towel and stop going to any conference at all, stop having to fight, stop trying. I just wanted to prevent the pain from getting every time worse, by now nearly impossible to control: an immense unbearable pain now forever associated in my mind to names of places like Baltimore, Nashville, Bures-sur-Yvette. Nevermore, says the raven, nevermore.

What made me come here, in the end, was the promise I made to my co-organizers, to help them arrange this workshop, to give it a try. Surprisingly, for the first time in so many years, despite my fears coming from the bad memories of this place, I was able to breathe. I was able to sit in talks and listen. I was able to think about what was being said, instead of just trying all the time to control my immense desire to run away. I was able to give a talk and not feel sick while doing so. I hardly remember the last time it felt like that before.

And yet, every few hours and without warning, I still get into one of those fits of despair when I just collapse under the weight of too much pain. It comes less frequently though, it is starting to be bearable again. The dark pine trees encased in a crust of bright white snow are cast like an army of skeletons against the milky background of the sky. Those dark lines draw the shape of mountains. Snow keeps falling in slow motion over the frozen stillness of this landscape, while indoors we conjure improbable images of quantized spacetimes.

I leave one last message to the master of incommunicability, signed on the inner cover of our book in the institute library:

Ibitis Aegeas sine me Messalla per undas.
O utinam memores ipse cohorsque mei.

I was sixteen years old last time I thought of this elegy of Albius Tibullus. In the year 28 BC, the poet joined his best friend, commander Marcus Valerius Messalla Corvinus, who was sailing to the East with his entourage of mercenaries and lackeys. Somewhere along the way, Albius Tibullus falls sick, and his "best friend" promptly abandons him to die on the island of Corcyra and sails on. The hexameters and pentameters of the poem cry out the poet's deepest anguish, as he lies dying on the shore of Corcyra: "you will go on sailing without me, Messalla, on the waves of the Aegean sea. Oh, I wish that at least you and your entourage will remember me". Yet Tibullus does not die. He recovers and finds a way to return to Rome, and in the end all that went down in history about Messalla is that he was the one who left his best friend for dead and sailed away. The elegies of Tibullus, on the other hand, remained, preserved across the centuries among the finest heritage of the Latin literature.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Quartz pillars for the guardian of forever

I am flying out of Los Angeles once more, heading half a way across the world for just a week. Every time I come to the gates of this city, beautifully represented by the powerful symbolic presence of the kinetic installation of the pillars of light in the LAX gateway monument, I cannot help thinking of the "guardian of forever" in that old and very quaint Star Trek episode, "the city on the edge of forever". The gateway to the turbulent stream of time, with all the interwoven strands of past and future histories, with their parallel and interlocked courses, is a passage back to our past and the opening of our future.

There is no better choice than Los Angeles for a city on the edge of forever. Geographically, there is no sharpest edge on earth than the shore of the Pacific Ocean, the ultimate frontier of human habitat beyond which 170 million square kilometers of water surface cover 46% of the globe. This is the last shore upon which all dreams come to rest before the immensity of the ocean.

The 1990 book of Mike Davis, "City of quartz: excavating the future in Los Angeles", provides a deep analysis of the history and sociology of the city, from a Marxist perspective. A city of utopia and dystopia, of extreme class warfare, of urban sprawls stretching in the night like a shining lava flow from ocean to mountains. The policy of real estate across neighborhoods, the disappearance of public spaces in favor of a collection of private hidden gardens, the dismantlement of the railroad system, the tense race relations and brutal police repression, all contributed to make Los Angeles the vanguard of assault capitalism, and yet at the same time there is a sense of something undefined, which makes the struggle for the future worth fighting, something that makes the fortress of displacement impossible to conquer. Its undefined structure can become fertile ground for a very different type of undergrowth, the spontaneous clustering of a myriad of identities, an anarchist's paradise of loosely associated collectives, of actions, insurgencies, rebellions and acts of creative invention and revolt.

There is full scale war in Los Angeles, with armies counting tens of thousands of foot soldiers facing each other in urban battlefields. A lucid historical analysis of the gang wars is given in another seminal book dedicated to our city on the edge of forever, "Street Wars", written by a main figure of American political activism, Tom Hayden. From the bloody wars of the 1980s to the truces of the 1990s, Hayden describes the parabola that can lead from a spiral of increasing violence to the transformation into peacemaking and community rebuilding. Stressing constructive solutions and prevention against the myopic punitive law-and-order approach generally favored by the American public, Hayden's book illustrates how the creation of opportunities, rather than the ballooning inflation of the punitive structures, can stop the course of violence.

Both Mike Davis' "City of quartz" and Tom Hayden's "Street wars" featured prominently at the recent annual Anarchist Bookfair in West Hollywood, along with all a full display of the high browse philosophical collection of Semiotext(e) and a whole kaleidoscope of smaller anarcho-socialist Californian publishers. The rich underground of political movements here in LA is less openly visible and concentrated than in Berkeley. It has no obvious center of aggregation in this large delocalized urban structure, where space and time lose their intrinsic coherence. Yet this fluid nature makes it more mobile and transformative, and if we are indeed looking at a history of our future, that history carries within itself strong currents of change and revolution.

Friday, January 22, 2010

The last scattering horizon

(In memory of Andrew Lange)

In cosmology, the surface of last scattering is the "wall of light", the last horizon from which the CMB, the cosmic microwave background we measure today comes to us from the depth of cosmic time, when the photons of the microwave background radiation decouple from matter. In more metaphorical terms, people too have their own last horizon, a boundary of the observable universe, beyond which one cannot directly probe and which represents that external surface from which all information we can access is collected, shielding away a core destined to remain forever out of reach. One tries to guess shapes and structures hidden beyond the horizon through the feeble signs that emerge, inscribed on that last scattering surface.

Some of the most exciting discoveries that brought cosmology to a central role at the frontier of science have come from probing the cosmic microwave background. We recently learned that the global geometry of the Universe is flat, or nearly so. A natural question that scientists and philosophers have pondered about at least since the times of Giordano Bruno, but which, until so very recently, appeared to be completely out of reach of any experimental verification. Now, for the first time in history, we know. This amazing piece of knowledge came to us through the so called Boomerang experiment (Balloon Observations Of Millimetric Extragalactic Radiation and Geophysics, that is). The suborbital balloon flights of the telescope in the Boomerang experiment provided a precise measurement of the angular diameter distance to the surface of last scattering. Combined with data on the Hubble constant, these sufficed to pin down the constraints on the geometry of the Universe. A most beautiful story.

I have never known much about cosmology. It was only in the past year that I made a first attempt at wandering about this glorious landscape, with small uncertain steps. A case of peer pressure probably, given where I am now working. I still know very little, naturally, I am just a silly mathematician borrowing other people's toys and foolishly playing around with them. I enjoyed it, though: it gave me an excuse to begin to learn something completely new to me, and also a way to begin to feel somewhat more at home in my new surroundings, to start creating that sense of belonging I had missed so much for so long. On a more personal level, engaging in the act of learning something new and different from anything I had been doing before was also a way for me to try to get out of a creepy depression I have been trying to come to terms with for several months.

When I first got here last year, to my new job, to the tragic beauty of California and its morbidly sensuous breathtaking landscapes, one of the first people to welcome me into the local scientific community was that same cosmologist responsible for the Boomerang experiment and the discovery of the flat geometry of the Universe: Andrew Lange was also the head of our division, in charge of the Physics, Mathematics, and Astronomy section of Caltech. I was not a close friend of Andrew's, I did not have the time to get to know him well enough, but we exchanged thoughts several times, on mathematics and theoretical physics, on mundane matters of everyday concern, hiring, such things. I told him one day that I was thinking of submitting a grant proposal on some admittedly very weird mathematical thoughts about cosmology: I felt awkward about it, as if I had been in the process of trespassing on someone else's territory. There is always that fear we carry around in our work, of publicly exposing our inadequacy. And yet, he listened to me and he was very encouraging. Not much came of my work, one new paper, big deal. No major breakthrough to write home about, I know, but the encouragement that he offered at that time did matter a lot to me, when so many things had seemed suddenly so difficult to cope with. It helped.

Andrew killed himself last night. We were all informed today during an emergency faculty meeting. He, we learned, had been struggling with mood disorder and a severe depression. And yet, all along, he was always there: for his research group, for the pressing demands of his administrative job, for all the needs and duties. He had nice words to offer, thoughtful scientific comments to make. Helpful, considerate, understanding. How much did it cost him, I wonder, to maintain all that intact until the very last? I know something about those dark psychological spaces, of what it feels like inside: it is the growing weight of the soul that drags you down, the endless pain that keeps exploding in the mind and never stops, the shadow that walks with you, and yet every day one needs to find the strength to live another day, to appear as the world expects you to appear. To act as your role demands. To live up to all the expectations, to be better and more efficient than ever until all the inner strength and resilience is consumed. In truth, I know nothing about what happened to him, I was not close enough to know. We only ever saw the smooth reassuring appearance of his last scattering surface, beyond which we could not probe. Perhaps, we should have paid closer attention to the feeble warning signs inscribed on that horizon: we should have searched it for clues to the inner core of suffering, to the hidden geometry of that very personal universe.

Andrew Lange's Segre Lecture: How did the universe begin? Berkeley, November 9, 2009.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The raft of the medusa

"No time, no space
another race of vibration,
the sea of the simulation
(Franco Battiato - "No time, no space")

There are strange moments in life when, all of a sudden, one finds oneself writing a paper about loop quantum gravity. No, not even that. Mostly I am just drifting along the currents of the open sea, waiting for an improbable sighting of a distant shore or a passing ship. With no goal at hand, time passes in a mesmerizing dilation of slow movement and thoughts fail to coalesce around any solid object. Like the survivors portrayed in Théodore Géricault's "Le Radeau de la Méduse", I feel like I am ready to resort to cannibalizing my own work, just to get going with one apparent step in some random direction, while waiting for the shipwreck to run its course, back to firm land or to the ocean depths. So I am trying to get by these days, by reformatting in the language of loop quantum gravity some old thoughts. What for? Nothing, letting time pass.

In the loop quantum gravity approach, space-time is quantized by a procedure that encodes it in a discretized structure, consisting of spin networks and spin foams. A spin network consists of an oriented embedded graph in a 3-dimensional manifold with edges labelled by SU(2) representations and edges labelled by intertwiners between the representations attached to incoming and outgoing vertices. These representations relate to gravity in terms of holonomies of connections, and the formulation of Einstein's equations in terms of vierbein, or tetrads, and dual co-tetrads. Thus, to a spin networks, or the 1-skeleton of a triangulation by tetrahedra, one assigns operators of quantized area and volume, coming from counting intersection points of a surface, or 3-dimensional regions, with the edges or vertices of the spin network with a multiplicity given in terms of the spin representation attached to the edges and the intertwiners attached to the vertices.

This quantized version of embedded graphs and tetrahedra of a triangulation, developed within loop quantum gravity, gave rise to very interesting topological applications, such as the Turaev-Viro invariants of 3-manifolds. A spin foam is a 2-dimensional simplicial complex, which gives a geometric transition amplitude between two spin networks, and provides a "sum over histories" approach to loop quantum gravity. Like spin networks provide a formalism for quantized versions of 3-dimensional geometries, spin foams are the discretized version of 4-dimensional spacetimes. A "sum over geometries" weighted by the Einstein Hilbert action, as in a semiclassical Hartle-Hawking approach, becomes in this point of view a sum over spin foams, weighted by a "group field theory" type of action.

So far so good, and then what? I mean, what am I doing with all this other than trying to keep the raft afloat? I still don't know, mostly just playing around with it. I'll see where the flow goes, whether it is rip currents or peaceful stream. For those who seek a milder type of entertainment with the ideas of loop quantum gravity, there is always Greg Egan's novel "Schild's ladder", an action-adventure story of quantum gravity vacua and dynamical triangulations. Not a typical sci-fi bestseller, and sufficiently unusual to be genuinely entertaining.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Man and history

"It is man and man alone who creates history" (Jyoti Basu, 1914-2010)

It is appropriate to pay respect to the departed comrades: Jyoti Basu, who passed away yesterday in Kolkata at the age of 95, was a historic figure of the communist movement worldwide. I will not be getting into an analysis of what his tenure as the longest serving head of a democratically elected communist government achieved in West Bengal. There are people who are more expert and closer to the local reality to judge. It is clear, however, that the fact itself that a state with a population of over 80 millions, which makes West Bengal larger than any single one of the main European nations, had been governed for half a century by a democratically elected communist party, is a fact of crucial significance in world history. Too often the dominating Cold War propaganda, which dragged on, in Europe and elsewhere, well beyond the end of the Cold War era, had tried to persuade the general public that a Marxist version of Communism would be strictly incompatible with a political system based on an elective democracy. Well, perhaps the biggest contribution of Jyoti Basu to world history lies in having proven that this claim is simply wrong. Basu served as Chief Minister of West Bengal from 1977 to 2000, the longest-serving Chief Minister of India, and a record time in office compared to any democratically elected leader worldwide. What made the fortune of the Communist Party of India (Marxists) and its Left Front government coalition was a mixture of massive land reforms, the general support with the population gained after the difficult experience of West Bengal in the 1970s, torn by the experience of war, of the refugee crisis and of the Emergency. The two states of India with the strongest communist tradition, West Bengal and Kerala, have also the highest literacy rate, the lowest incidence of communal violence, and the best profile on issues such as women rights. West Bengal has additionally retained its leading role in culture and the arts, as well as a rapidly expanding presence on the scene of the current Indian scientific blooming. The CPI(M) has its opponents, to the right and to the left: among the latter, most prominently, a very composite archipelago of Maoist movements. Nonetheless, Basu has been highly regarded as a political figure by supporters and opponents alike.

The historic heritage of communism around the world is very diverse and very fragmented. Perhaps the most serious criticism that communist intellectuals can raise against what they would regard as their own political culture is this tendency to continuously split along the fault lines of ideological differences: Marxists-Leninists, Trotskyists, Maoists, Anarcho-Socialists, and so on. The label of "Revisionist" has been thrown infinitely many times at one or another target, akin to "traitor" or worse. In the end, these endless cracks opening up in the body of the international workers movement have only had the effect of weakening it, diluting it to an impotent homeopathy of ideology. The reaction, which efficiently created all the monstrous European and South American Fascisms of the 20th century, all finding their "justification" of existence in the need to stop the advancing of Communism, does not waste time in debating subtle ideological differences: they just go in straight for the kill, while we waste most of our energies deciding whether an already minuscule communist faction in this or that country should further split into two even more ineffective groups over a difference of interpretation of a line in the Grundrisse. The communist leaders who really make history are only those who have the intelligence to adopt an inclusive viewpoint on ideology. This is not the much feared "revisionism", comrades, it is reality knocking loudly at the door!

The international workers movement has a rich tradition which encompasses Anarchy, various version of 19th century Socialism, Marxism and all its historic derivatives throughout the 20th century, as well as the practical, empirical, experience of trade unions, women rights activism, the civil rights movement, the students movement of 1968. We come from very far and if we want to have a fighting chance to keep going very far, we better accept that all of these experiences are with us to stay and they do not have to form a water tight package of ideological consistency in order to be effective. There will always be contradictory stands anyway, there is no way to avoid it, except the repressive one which does not lead anywhere. Our strength is in unity, but "unity in diversity". The experience of India can hopefully teach something to the rest of the world, which is struggling with the burden of being unaccustomed to diversity. This is why the Indian experience of Communism is so relevant to the world. There is no perfect solution, no silver bullet, not even the Revolution and the "final struggle" our fathers sang about. The Bengali solution is also, like everything, a compromise, one that works and doesn't work, one that has good sides and bad ones. We are not building a workers paradise, nor are we seriously changing the deeper nature of humankind, not as our culture had once hoped to do. The youth of ideology is a landscape of dreams, but the struggle that matters in our everyday life is the one that diminishes exploitation of the poor by the rich, that contributes to give to all human beings equal dignity, regardless of their race and gender, that broadens people's access to good education, to good medical care, it is the act of standing up against wars, against brutality and oppression wherever they manifest themselves. These are not secondary tasks, this is the essence of what makes us "progressive", a progress conquered step by step, with the burden of all our contradictions.
The struggle carries on.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Golem XIV

This is a continuation of my previous blog Welcome to the machine. I decided to stop that blog and restart it under a new heading to mark the turning point I have come to and restart my cybernetic life again as a blank slate. I should have given it a phoenix inspired title perhaps, so why Golem?

When Stanislaw Lem wrote "Golem XIV", collected in English as one of the stories in "Imaginary magnitude", he envisioned a sentient machine that grows to transcend the human nature. Built by humans with warfare applications in mind, Golem quickly dismisses its intended task and moves forward, gradually increasing its own intellective capacity, until it loses all possibility of communication with human beings, evolving into an entirely new life form. Just before disappearing out of the cognitive range of humanity, the machine delivers a series of lectures, in which it philosophizes upon human nature, evolution, and intelligence. Golem is the self consciousness of our scientific and technological world, which speaks about itself, its origins, its future. We are there to listen. I called my new blog here "Listening to Golem" because there are times in life when one reaches a profound state of disillusionment about the human nature and, at those times, one should pause and listen. The shortcomings of human hubris and pretension slowly disappear, when projected against the larger landscape which is the greatest of human creations: our science, like Lem's Golem, takes up a life of its own and, dismissing the base motivation of self gratification that guided the human beings who initially attended to it and transcending their smallness, it takes on a cognitive life beyond the reach of any single individual. Our science, our golem, lives on as our collective consciousness, and we the human, the scientists, listen on. Like the golem of Prague legends, our collective golem also bears Emet, truth, written on its forehead. What will restart in us the process of creativity and guide us safely back to the road of life is the awakening of our creature of stone and mud, its capacity to take on life and awareness.

Listening to Golem is what I will be doing in the near future. The capacity to listen is the key to human sensitivity, but nature, which as Heraclitus pointed out loves to hide, talks to us mostly in whispers. A golem is not a large frightening monster, it is a creature of stone alright, a creature as old and slow moving as a geological phenomenon, echoing into the depth of the world's past existence, and yet the golem is a stone that comes alive and moves forward into the future. A metaphor of evolution, slow in its process but of marvelous complexity in its outcome. So is Lem's Golem whose final evolution brings it to disappear into the distant future of humanity: from the stones to the stars, a path precluded to individual human beings but walked upon by our collective endeavor, which we call civilization.