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Wednesday, April 1, 2009 -- 5:16 am

Now that the little one is almost three weeks old, I probably can't avoid commenting on her arrival much longer. I doubt that much of what I could say isn't already a matter of general knowledge. Although it would be easy to say that I've learned a lot about myself in the past few weeks, that isn't really true -- I could predict the frustrations, insecurities, and moments of calm and confidence we've seen so far at least in general terms. My patience has been put to the test a little more than I expected. But then, I was interested in having children in part because of the experience of interacting with developing minds and personalities, with whom I would ideally have some common point of reference thanks to heredity. (Heredity assuming some importance, aside from a desire to influence the gene pool, because it's been my limited understanding, derived from observation as well as personal experience, that there is sometimes a vague mutual understanding that runs along genetic lines; and I'm enough of a black sheep in many regards that that genetic tie could make the difference between enjoying one another's company and complete alienation. An extreme extravert, lacking patience for foreign languages or any of my other pursuits, would really suffer, I think. In other words, I suspect that children related to me would be somewhat more likely to flourish under my care because of traits that have some tendency to be inherited.)

But what I have at the moment is not a child, really, but a nocturnal little bundle of screams, feeding cues, and messy diapers, through which the germ of personality is visible only in the vaguest of outlines. We're starting to get a sense of her temperament, but little in the way of personal preferences at this point. I'm not complaining, though trying to calm a screaming little beast through the fog of sleep deprivation when she's clawing at your eyes and throat is an interesting experience; I assume I was at least this much trouble, and I never once thanked my own parents for their forebearance in deciding not to abandon me in my infantile ingratitude. This tends to balance an interesting source of insecurity -- the infant's so-called "quiet alert" phase, when she's attentive and most receptive to learning. That indigo gaze invariably cues an instinct that I should be teaching her something -- reading, perhaps, or sitting with her at the piano, or talking, or reviewing the most immediately relevant gestures of American Sign Language. And so my most immediate source of panic is that I lack a well-thought-out lesson plan at this point. All of which is irrational, as I fully realize. At under three weeks of age, she gets fussy and weepy from exhaustion six pages into a board book, though until that point she'll stare attentively at the pictures, and I've read that sign language is best begun around six months, with rudimentary interaction beginning at perhaps eight months. And the education she needs at the moment is more emotional and physiological than it is intellectual -- knowing that she's safe and her needs will be met quickly; learning how to swallow,lift her head, and control her arm and leg movements; calibrate her vision so she can discern edges, surfaces, and contours, and the like. So the enrichment she needs at the moment is probably substantially simpler than that required, say, by the average zoo inmate.

And honestly that's probably the best rule of thumb -- to pace things according to her own apparent readiness, and not to forget that, especially at these early stages, what's important is attending to her animal needs -- sleep, nourishment, burping, getting in an hour of crying each day until she finds more productive outlets for her energy, being held and rocked and spoken to so that she knows she's cared for and isn't alone. Her human needs are just a subset of those.

Monday, March 30, 2009 -- 4:49 pm

I wonder how difficult it would be to set up a wikipedia-style forum for group translation projects. I suppose the original text and the tentative translation(s) would appear side by side for a line-by-line comparison, there would be options for commentary and footnoting, and so on. I'd like to see a couple of additional features to take advantage of computing power: a dictionary that would supply provisional translations on a word-by-word basis, subject to idiomatic correction; a grammar checker that would would make a preliminary evaluation of issues like conjugation, declension, and syntax (this may be unrealistic); a search-and-translate function that would allow you, once you've settled on the interpretation of a word, to have it suggested as the/a possible translation throughout the rest of the text; an option for putting two or more working translations side by side (say, French and Manchu); and a text reader that would allow you to upload an image of the text to be translated, and have the computer convert the image to digitized text in whatever script. Additional features would provide for annotations, critical editions that cross-reference discrepancies between different versions of the text, and notes to explain literary allusions and cultural references. I wonder how difficult it would be to do the programming for such a project.

Monday, March 30, 2009 -- 4:26 pm

The internet will have almost earned its keep today, if I manage to download the complete Arabic text both of the 1001 Nights and the Travels of Ibn Battuta without a hitch. (I'll reserve judgment until then.) It's a pity more of the writings from Al-Andalus aren't readily available, but when I remember just how poor my Arabic is, how long it'll take me to get through these two works, how difficult it is to get inside the mindset of another era, and how baffling vague-yet-technical ancient texts can actually turn out to be when you sit down with them, I see that I just need to relax and not get too far ahead of my language skills or my time committments.

Sunday, March 29, 2009 -- 7:04 pm

I've been meaning for some time to write about Geschiere's The Modernity of Witchcraft, which surveys the practice of magic in counterpoise to political authority in modern-day Cameroon. I was first brought to the subject by my reading about cannibalism and assault-sorcery in the Amazon, because there had been repeated (but oblique) references in that bibliography to the often complicated relationships between shaman and civilian political leadership, and the need for politicians to court the endorsement of shamans to solidify their mandate. These books also tended to mention, in passing, that the practice of assault sorcery (i.e., casting spells with the specific aim of hurting someone) had become more prominent, and more aggressive, as a reaction against colonial authority. Geschiere's thesis, as I understand it, seemed exactly on point: that although witchcraft may be common in colonial or post-colonial societies as a way of compensating for the feelings of inadequacy, impotence, and embarrassment that a native people may feel when comparing their society to the pageantry, wealth, and technology a western colonist can bring to bear, witchcraft is more common in totalitarian regimes where there are few or no formal outlets for political expression; and it is actually spurred on by the popular need for an expression of home-grown authority because no other is available. Although the practice of witchcraft is generally done in secret (this makes for more effective marketing, and helps one hush up the failures), this is an advantage in a totalitarian regime because it helps one avoid persecution. Although witchcraft is presumably only rarely successful, it's better than nothing, and the regime is powerless against the nameless and unintelligible force it represents. On the other hand, being so diffuse, witchcraft can hardly be a basis for organized resistance, and so is somewhat self-limiting: it lies in an awkward limbo where it needs to be practiced in secret, but relies on notoriety for its social clout. As a work of narrative and description, Geschiere's discussion is quite fascinating, but I suppose I was looking for more rigorous effort to substantiate his thesis. I don't recall (though in fairness I should check again, since it's been a while since I finished the book) him undertaking a comparative study, for example, of venues where greater political freedom translated corresponded with witchcraft having less of a grip on the popular imagination. I do recall him discussing how the introduction of Pentacostalism, rather than a police crackdown, seemed a more effective way of ridding the countryside of witchcraft because it provided a publicly acceptable forum for hearing and addressing disputes and served as an alternative to witchcraft that some people even found preferable.

I was also expecting, I suppose, a more thorough development of various ideas that rear their head from time to time within the text, and in my opinion certainly warranted more extensive discussion: for example, that witchcraft itself is somewhat totalitarian in its practices, because fear of witchcraft creates an atmosphere of terror, accusation, and betrayal that is familar to students of history as forming a long and sorry chain from the reign of Tiberius to the East German State. Such accusations of witchcraft have a way of ripping up the trusting bonds of civil society that allow the state to function, and replace them with an atmosphere of mutual suspicion that has to be ruled with an iron fist lest it collapse altogether. So while witchcraft may be a form of rebellion against a totalitarian state (or, perhaps originally, a colonial power), it seems to me that it shows a tendency to repeat the crimes of the state on a smaller scale. In addition, where witchcraft has become entrenched, I gather from Geschiere's account that it encourages a very cynical attitude toward political power, and a tendency to both (a) think of any new form of power, including technology or economic advantage, as a novel form of witchcraft (rather than, say, the result of merit, market forces, or resonance with popular concerns), and (b) to exploit political office for personal gain once it's attained, and to disregard the rule of law, because you presumably ended up in office on account of your superious witchcraft rather than through a fair and impartial process. On the other hand, those same tendencies encourage people to explore and adopt new techniques and new resources as they become available, rather than becoming committed to a strictly traditional or parochial outlook.

Although this is not the definitive text on the subject, I get the impression that truly interesting anthropology is anything but definitive, and that for an anthropologist, a bit like a philosopher, to make definitive and exhaustive claims about the world is the surest way to guarantee failure. So I am content to take Geschiere's work as a piece in the greater puzzle of human nature, and to try to fit it into the grander theory of politics I've had in progress for a few years now.