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.