Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Humanitarian Crisis in North Kivu, DRC

Though not extensively covered in the Western media, the world’s deadliest armed conflict since WWII occurred in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), with an estimated 4 million dead between 1998 and 2003. That conflict has simmered on in North Kivu (a Congolese province bordering Uganda and Rwanda), with full scale war threatening to break out once more between the official army of DRC and the dissident troops of General Laurent Nkunda, a conflict that could end up involving foreign troops as well.

Humanitarian crisis doesn’t loom so much as it is already present. This from a recent article in The Economist (“A humanitarian disaster unfolds,” November 17, p. 54): “Making comparisons between humanitarian crises may not always be fair or useful. But those dealing with the emergency in Kivu are starting to do so. ‘The situation at the moment in North Kivu is worse than Darfur,’ says Sylvie van den Wildenberg of the UN mission in the province. More people have fled their homes this year than in Darfur.” As the same article reports, approximately 500,000 (out of the province’s population of 4 million) people have been displaced in the past year or so, 160,000 just in the past two months. Violence is common, and rape is being commonly used as a weapon of war.

See “More Clashes in DRC North Kivu Will Harm Civilians,” from New Zealand’s Scoop, for a general description of the situation. See “The Blood Keeps Flowing,” from AllAfrica.com, for a description of the effects on one town.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Aging and Culture

A story in a recent issue of the news commentary magazine The Week (November 16), “Mr. Immortality,” reports on the ideas and research of “maverick biologist” Aubrey de Grey. While some of de Grey’s ideas are pretty far outside the current mainstream (e.g. he thinks it possible for humans to routinely live for centuries, if not a millennium), his basic starting point is sensible – to treat the aging of human cells and body parts as the set of physiological processes that it is and to intervene medically in this process as we would with disease. In other words, de Grey doesn’t so much imagine a magical fountain of youth as much as the continual preservation of life through routine maintenance over very long stretches of time.

De Grey’s ideas are of anthropological interest in at least two ways. First, they call into question the naturalness of aging. Even a cursory awareness of cross-cultural ethnological data makes clear that the ways in which we age is no more purely natural than much else that humans do. Being a young or middle-aged or elder member of a society is strongly influenced by cultural context, and cultural patterns pertaining to physical activity or nutrition play important roles in the aging process as well. Still, in every society up until now, the fact that we age has been inescapable, and de Grey’s ideas potentially challenge this inevitability.

Second is to consider the potential social consequences if aging is no longer inevitable. De Grey imagines a number of consequences that are probably spot on. For example, a rise in risk aversion strategies – if you can live forever unless you die in a violent accident or incident, you’d probably take things easier (as a child reading Tolkien’s Middle Earth works, one thing I always had trouble accepting was elves – immortal unless physically killed – willingly throwing themselves into battle). He also imagines a rethinking of retirement. It’s one thing to retire in one’s mid-sixties when one expects realistically to live just a decade or two longer than that, quite another if one expects to live several centuries. (For that matter, a variety of factors are already gradually leading to an upward shifting of retirement age anyway, with probably the most important factors being the potential insolvency of social security, but also expectations of longer life – even though not on the scale imagined by de Grey.)

In other ways, I find de Grey’s predictions limited, in large part because he is a utopian. He clearly sees the drastic expansion of human lifespans as something extended to all. For example, when asked about the consequences of such longer life and anti-aging maintenance, he replies, “If we want to hit the high points, number one is, there will not be any frail elderly people.” I find this much harder to imagine than the possibility of humans living a thousand years. Barring a complete transformation of global political and economic realities (something that could always happen but which I don’t at all foresee), the more realistic possibility is an extreme exacerbation of social inequalities, both between the developed and developing worlds and within specific nation-state contexts, with inequality encompassing not just differences in material prosperity but lifespan. (This too would be an exacerbation of an already existing pattern. According to data from The Economist, fifteen states [or similar entities] have populations with average life expectancies in excess of 80 years [Andorra, Japan, Hong Kong, Iceland, Switzerland, Australia, Sweden, Canada, Macau, Israel, Italy, Norway, Spain, Cayman Islands, and France], while six, all in Sub-Saharan Africa, have populations with average life expectancies lower than 40 years [Swaziland, Botswana, Lesotho, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Central African Republic].) I, of course, prefer De Grey’s imagined world, but I find it easier to imagine a small economic elite with access not just to fabulous wealth but also effective immortality, while in much of the world “frail elderly people” remain normal, and perhaps a middle group with partial access to greatly enhanced lifespan.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Research, Teaching, and Music Performance

The other day I had a very nice conversation with a graduate student I work with. This particular student is just beginning field research for his thesis, a thesis which, in a nutshell, will address issues of booth rental and wage labor in hair salons, a topic that taps into debates in political economy going back at least to Ricardo and also rich with interesting ethnographic detail. This student, like a lot of, probably most, ethnographers is using a combination of participant observation and flexible, open-ended interviews.

He noted that he was pleased by how his first interviews had gone, also noting the highly flexible quality of the interviews, with interviewees often taking the conversation in interesting and unanticipated directions, but also that he felt confident in working in this highly flexible and even improvisatory setting because of a significant amount of preparation for his field work that he had engaged in along with me and other members of the committee.

I drew an analogy to certain aspects of teaching. Specifically, there is a performative quality to research methods like participant observation and flexible, open-ended interviewing that has something in common with the performative quality of some teaching, e.g. leading an effective class discussion. Effectively leading discussions requires preparation and organization – you have to know your stuff, but I find that the most effective discussions are true conversations that can often lead in unexpected directions. There is improvisation, but based on sufficient organization and preparation that I’m confident enough to set aside preset plans and follow an interesting lead. (This doesn’t mean that anything goes in class discussion – or open-ended interviewing – some comments are outside the domain of relevancy, are too tangential, and require reigning in, though it can sometimes be difficult to tell in the moment what is too tangential and what not.) Not all teaching works this way, though. Sometimes a thoroughly preplanned lecture is the best and most efficient way to communicate information to a class – there can always be room for questions and clarifications, but within a plan.

Then, another analogy struck me. Some research (in this case, participant observation and flexible interviewing strategies) and some teaching (e.g. leading class discussion) is analogous to jazz performance, while other research (e.g. more controlled interviewing or survey research) and other teaching (e.g. delivering a preplanned lecture) is more analogous to classical performance.

Jazz performance is highly improvisatory. When performed well, though, jazz is not chaos or noise, but based on thorough preparation and practice that allow a skilled musician to dispense with rigid adherence to formulae to play freely. The same is true with skillful performance of certain research and teaching strategies.

With some exceptions (typically highly delimited and occurring either in music from the baroque period or earlier or from very recent classical composition), classical performance is highly scripted rather than improvisatory. The musicians follow a definite score. Something like survey research tends to work similarly, with attention paid to following a scripted questionnaire and attempting to control as much about the research environment as possible so as to limit as far as possible the number of variables that might contribute to the production of the different question responses.

In both cases here, classical performance and survey research, though, even within the highly scripted context, there is nuance and interpretation to performance. Different performances of the same classical works can sound quite different based on subtle differences in interpretation and performance of the music’s details, producing highly different results. With something like survey research, there is an art to getting people to respond to questions, and doing so without either inhibiting or overly influencing respondents’ replies through the details of posture, facial expression, or a wide variety of vocal qualities. (As an aside, the film Kinsey presents several examples of such things to be avoided by interviewers in a formal research setting. In the film, we learn about Alfred Kinsey as a person via several scenes in which he trains students in interview techniques by having them interview him. It’s an innovative way of delivering exposition about the subject’s life in a biographical film without slipping into the clichés of biopics. Along the way, it’s the only movie I’ve ever encountered that seriously explores social science research methods.)

Monday, November 5, 2007

Mythic Music: Stockhausen, Davis and Macero, Dub, Hip Hop, and Lévi-Strauss

It’s not particularly news to say that much contemporary music, popular or otherwise, is constructed through assemblage, put together from pre-existing pieces in what Lévi-Strauss called bricolage (and which he associated especially with mythic rather than scientific thinking) – creating something new out of assorted odds and ends of things already there. This is especially clear with hip hop and its heavy use of sampling previously existing music and sounds, though the use of sampling and re-mixing is not confined to that genre.

To say this is to neither praise nor criticize – it is simply to make a comment on a key quality of much if not most contemporary music. Such musical bricolage can be highly creative (to pick just one example I’m fond of, System of a Down frontman Serj Tankian’s “Bird of Paradise (Gone)” from Bird Up – the Charlie Parker Remix Project uses Parker’s “Bird of Paradise” and other musical odds and ends as source material for something that’s really less a remix than a truly new piece of music), tedious (with many hip hop and pop songs, the most interesting thing is trying to remember which previous bland pop song it is that’s being so obviously sampled), and/or an attempt by record labels to cash in on back catalogue material with remix projects (the Bird Up album I mention above is overall pretty good – but it’s also a crass attempt by Savoy Jazz to make more money from a catalogue that’s been marketed many times over).

Musical bricolage didn’t start with hip hop. One of the key antecedents of remixing and sampling in hip hop is Dub, which in the 1970s essentially involved reformulating the elements, i.e. early remixing, of reggae songs.

One of the earliest instances of music produced through bricolage in a popular genre was the work of Miles Davis and producer Teo Macero on albums like Bitches Brew and A Tribute to Jack Johnson. What they did on these albums in the late 1960s and very early 1970s was, of course, not completely unprecedented. Structurally, what they did was anticipated by the composer Karlheinz Stockhausen – an influence Davis explicitly acknowledged at the time.

What made their work at the time quite different from most everything else done in jazz up until that point was the way in which the final songs appearing on the albums were constructed from multiple takes of different tracks recorded in the studio (as opposed to the standard jazz practice of releasing whole takes, even if multiple takes of a song were recorded, with the best take being the one released).

Even before this, there had been much use of overdubbing in the production of pop and rock recording. Also, in classical music there had been instances of taped material being incorporated alongside conventional instruments in the performance of a musical work. What Stockhausen and Davis and Macero were doing was structurally a bit different.

Conventional overdubbing allows for a finished recording to be constructed from elements recorded in separate instances. However, this isn’t bricolage. The piece of music is pre-planned, a structure is designed and then carried out – i.e. this is an instance of “engineering” (to invoke Lévi-Strauss’ contrast between the engineer/scientific thought and the bricoleur/mythic thought). Overdubbing simply allows a designed structure to be implemented by breaking a task down into constituent parts (a classic “scientific” maneuver) before putting each in its proper place. Earlier classical pieces that incorporated taped material tended to be of the same sort of “engineered” music.

What was different with Davis recordings beginning in the late 1960s was that the tracks that were recorded were not constituent parts of a designed piece. Instead they were freely improvised works in their own right that were recorded with the sole intent of serving as raw material (something that has by no means kept Columbia records from cashing in on all these recordings by releasing them recently in a series of massive box sets – and frankly, much of the material is well worth listening to in its own right, even if it was never intended for release as is), as previously existing odds and ends out of which finished songs were constructed out of bits and pieces from here and there in a true process of bricolage. (If one wanted to qualify, this could be called engineered bricolage, insofar as the oddments for assembly were themselves intentionally designed to serve as such, unlike the found odds and ends of dub producers or more recent remixers.)

There are numerous partial examples of musical bricolage from earlier periods. That’s essentially what musical quotation is, but such wholesale bricolage, where entire works are constructed of previously existing material is fairly new in the history of Western music.

In a variety of his works, Lévi-Strauss drew parallels between the structure of myth and music. One parallel is the co-dependence of the synchronic and diachronic in both myth and music. Myth narratives and musical pieces unfold through time, and without this diachronic element, there is no narrative, whether mythic or musical, but all the while, the experience of the unfolding chain of events is filtered through synchronic structure – there is not simply a random unfolding of events, but things happening in relation to what has happened prior and expectations of what will happen now and in the future, without which there is only noise.

At the same time, Lévi-Strauss strongly associated mythic thought with bricolage. Mythic thinking involves understanding the world through taking the already there and reassembling it. (He was also rightly aware that even at our most “scientific,” we never impose structure on the world without constraint or without precedent.) But here (until recently, at least) a full parallel with music breaks down. For several centuries, western music, especially western art music, worked in an engineering mode. For example, think about the sometimes mechanistically imposed structure of canon or sonata form, or later serialism.

In Myth and Meaning, Lévi-Strauss made an interesting conjecture. He noted that western art music rose to prominence at roughly the same time that mythic thinking was more and more giving way to scientific thinking in scholarship and western discourse generally. He conjectured that some of the organization of experience typical of mythic thinking was transposed onto thinking through music with its new prominence.

Regardless of the value of that conjecture (I’m not sure how to go about proving it one way or another), I think it’s important to note that music and myth are structurally similar in some ways (e.g. the organization of the experience of time), but until recently, the quality of bricolage so typical of myth has not been characteristic of music. What’s new about Stockhausen, Davis’ and Macero’s experiments in the late 1960s and 1970s, dub, and hip hop is the creation of music in a fully mythic mode.

Friday, November 2, 2007

An Appreciation of Dizzy Gillespie

I just ran across an interesting appreciation of Dizzy Gillespie (on what would have been his 90th birthday) by Doug Levine in Contacto magazine. I encountered it serendipitously: I was doing a news search for articles on the Middle East, including Tunisia, and this article popped up because of its mention of the Gillespie song “A Night in Tunisia.”

For what it’s worth, I’d like to add my own appreciation of Gillespie. He’s certainly not a forgotten or unappreciated figure in the history of jazz or western music in general – with his chipmunk cheeks and distinctive 45 degree trumpet bell, his is one of the most recognizable images in jazz history.

Still, I think an argument could be made that his significance has been underappreciated, and that he’s been taken a bit less seriously than some of his contemporaries.

He was an important jazz innovator, particularly for his contributions to the creation of bebop in the 1940s and Afro-Cuban jazz in the 1950s, though here his reputation is often overshadowed by that of bebop co-creator Charlie Parker or later innovators like Miles Davis and John Coltrane. He was important in maintaining the vitality of the jazz big band in the 1950s, though here he’s often overshadowed by Duke Ellington, who continued to be the biggest name in big band, or the collaborations between Davis and Gil Evans. He was an important jazz songwriter, though here often overshadowed again by Ellington, but also Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, and others. Where he’s gotten the most due credit is with regard to his individual virtuosity on the trumpet (other names may be mentioned as equals here, but rarely have I encountered arguments to the effect that so-and-so was a more virtuosic talent than Gillespie) and as a popularizer and ambassador for the music.

What’s most amazing about Gillespie is that he was all these things at once and at the height of his career – an important innovator, band leader, songwriter, virtuosic soloist, and popularizer and good will ambassador for jazz.

What his career lacked was a touch of the legendary or a heavy dose of pathos – and it does seem that jazz legends are supposed to be tragic figures. While the quality of their music speaks for itself and is in little need of elaboration, Parker, Davis, or Coltrane are jazz legends in large part because of the narratives associated with them, the personal battles of each with drug addiction, the too early deaths of Parker and Coltrane, the at-times prickly personality of Davis, etc. Gillespie was, as far as I can tell, a universally loved figure, but given a general lack of pathos and the tragic in his public personal narrative, alongside his stage persona as affable (and admittedly at times corny) entertainer, he’s treated less seriously by many jazz fans than Parker, Davis, Coltrane, and others.

Thursday, November 1, 2007


The chimpanzee Washoe has died. Probably one of the most famous non-human individuals, Washoe, along with several other individual apes, played an important role in ape language and communication research.

Washoe learned around 250 American Sign Language word signs. Though there is debate about the extent to which Washoe could be regarded as using language, the research involving her helped clarify commonalities and difference in human and chimpanzee communication, as well as the qualities of chimpanzee cognition.

An article about Washoe can be found here.