Category Archives: Random

On the relativism of cultural relativism

I finished The Protectors the other day, and have now started on Raft – a book of short stories written by a doctor who has visited many remote communities. I may finish that on the plane, or I may decide that it’s a bit heavy-going. The One Arm Point story, for example, was about the death of a very senior woman, and I’m pretty sure I know who the main person in the story is. Although the author has disguised the identities of the people involved, because he identifies communities, the number of possible identities is very small. This is a book written, it seems, with the presumption that those with first-hand knowledge of those communities will not read it. It is elegiac, but the message is bleak and disempowering.

But back to the Protectors. This is a very strange book. I could never quite work out whether the author – Stephen Gray – was trying to set himself up as an apologist for the policies that led to the Stolen Generations. On the one hand, he spends a fair amount of time discussing genocide, reactions and justifications of the perpetrators of genocide, and the parallels and non-parallels between Australia, South Africa, and Nazi Germany. On the other hand, however, his stance about motives is highly relativistic. He seems to be arguing that although Aboriginal people have suffered, we have to take into account the motives of the actions of the people who most proximately caused that suffering; such actions were always argued to be in the best interests of  aboriginal people and their children.

This is not a little ironic. One of the justifications for removing children from their families has been a cultural and moral absolutism: all children must be protected, no Australian should have to put up with domestic violence, and so on. All deserve equal protection under the law, along with full access to the rights of law. If one is going to go down the cultural absolutism path, at least it could be applied consistently.

More on the netsuke

I’ve now finished The Hare with Amber Eyes, and the book continued to intrigue and provide diversions through Coolangatta and Sydney airports and into the trip to Osaka. Another element has been introduced to the work, however, which also has relevance for linguistics and those who work with Aboriginal people and write about them.

I have to disagree with the Guardian’s review which I linked to in the previous post; I didn’t feel like there was a fetishism of the sense of touch, nor that De Waal had turned his book into ‘yet another narrative of loss’, despite his denials and assertions to the contrary. Yet there are two topics that the author is clearly grappling with, and another one that he didn’t grapple with and perhaps should have at least mentioned in passing.

First to the grappling. For the middle of the book, a theme that keeps coming up, from the anti-Semitic undercurrent of 1880s Paris to the overt anti-Semitism of Paris and Vienna of the early 20th Century, is how to write about pre-Holocaust European Jewish life without either overshadowing it by what follows, or by painting it as rosy and unreal. The author is clearly battling with how to write about this subject on a number of levels – how to represent his own feelings, those of the book’s characters at the time and subsequently, trying to convey how one gets from a shove in the street to a death in Auschwitz. I am not criticising the author for having difficulties here; on the contrary, I think he did a very good job of conveying why writing about such things is so difficult. (It is, though, perhaps a little ironic that the author criticises his grandmother’s writing about her return to Vienna in 1945 as being too emotional.) If one concentrates on the big picture, the people become lost, unreal, caricatured. But if one concentrates on the minutiae, one loses proportion. This is, of course, not a problem with netsuke, where the miniature is the proportion.

I see the same difficulties in writing about Aboriginal genocides. One can state facts: by 1920, the Aboriginal population of Australia had fallen by nearly 90% from 130 years before. Those words “had fallen” cover death, genocide, kidnap, massacre, revenge killing, common, sordid murder. To focus on it distorts other parts of Aboriginal lives and culture, but to play it down also distorts our views. I see this in Stephen Gray’s The Protectors, which I’m now reading thanks to the same birthday. Gray manages the juggling rather more clumsily than De Waal. In commenting on a graphic description of child removal at Wave Hill, he quotes a passage of  Justice O’Loughlin who writes that the passage “can only evoke the highest emotions of sympathy both for the mothers and children; indeed, some might even be able to spare a thought for the poor patrol officer who was the instrument of such grief.”* No one was forcing to patrol officer to take these kids. He wasn’t working at gun-point, patrol officers were notoriously short-staffed, and aboriginal families often had inventive ways of hiding their kids. Kidnapping children is wrong, and exhorting us to have sympathy for the perpetrators of such kidnappings, trying to create a balanced book, may reveal more of how complex things were in the Territory in the 1950s, but it doesn’t do anything to represent how unbalanced the situation really was.

Now back to the missing thread in the netsuke. Here I do have a real criticism of the Hare with Amber Eyes. De Waal totally overlooks what a remarkable woman his grandmother was, and that’s a crying shame. This is a woman who gained a PhD in Law from Vienna University in 1924 – a time when the percentage of female undergraduate students at the university was in low single digits. She returns to Vienna in 1938 and succeeds in getting her parents out of Austria to Czechoslovakia, and then is able to bring her father to England in the early 1940s. But we get details like De Waal’s family lamenting her lack of taste in clothes when as a 16 year old she is allowed to choose her own trimmings and clothes style for the first time. This is ultimately a book about men and their stuff; the women in this narrative are ultimately just part of that stuff, and that’s pathetic. The culture of 1880s vitrines were worth a few months of reading, but it never occurred to him to find out the last name of the servant who did so much for his family. The book ended up being a pretty spectacular example of how researchers have blind spots, and how even in the hidden inheritance, there are others who are more hidden still, or rather simply overlooked in plain sight.

*The passage (from Gray 2011:166) is “The engines of the ‘plane were not stopped at Wave Hill and the noise combined with the strangeness of the aircraft only accentuated the grief and fear of the children, resulting in near-hysteria in two of them… I endeavoured to assuage the grief of the mothers by taking photographs of each of the children prior to their departure and these have been distributed among them. Also a dress length each was given the five mothers.’” 3 yards of cloth as compensation for a stolen child? And I’m supposed to have sympathy for this bloke? Perhaps one might argue that this is a passage, an event, taken out of context. Any context that makes this less jarring just goes to show how screwed up aboriginal policy was.

Archive work and Netsuke

My in-laws gave me a copy of The Hare with Amber Eyes (Edmund de Waal; Vintage/Random House, 2011) for my birthday. It’s a beautifully written book. Ostensibly it’s about a collection of netsuke which have been in the author’s family for 150 years; about the original collector, Charles Ephrussi, and the family’s War experiences. But what has really captured me about this book so far is the way the author talks about his research, how what starts as a simple enough task of looking up some papers can turn into an all-consuming project, how the researcher responds personally to the people he/she is researching, the invasion of privacy there is in trawling through other people’s personal effects, getting to know them (and what a chore it is if you don’t actually like the person you’re researching).

Community vignette

Every so often I get a really good example of how tourists do really odd (and off) things that it would never occur to them to do in their own suburbs. Things like driving round the streets taking photos of the locals. There was a pretty good example last week. Some chick about my age came into the school carrying a puppy that looked rather like the one I’ve seen at Bessie’s house. She asked at the office if it belonged to anyone in the community, because “I’ve been looking for a dog and I’d like to take this one.” The office set her straight that it did, in fact, belong to someone (you’d think the fact that it was clean and well-fed – i,e, that the chick with her designer shirt was willing to pick it up – might be a clue that it belonged to someone). When I left a short time later I had a stickybeak in her car and the dog wasn’t with her, so I take it that Jayirri ended up back home ok.

Look, people, communities are places where people live, and they aren’t places for white people to come and pinch stuff and generally gawk and behave like jerks.

Stress, tactus, ictus and polyrhythms

Mark at Language Log recently posted on metrics in music and I have a couple of points to add.

Renaissance composers frequently play around with syncopation and word stress for effect. Renaissance music wasn’t composed with bars and key signatures like more familiar classical music, but there is a tactus or beat. Going with the word stress against the tactus can create hemiola effects and highlight parts of the text. An equivalent clash in ictus and word stress is also used in classical hexameters. Virgil is very fond of this in the more alarming battle narratives.

Some composers get the word stress wrong. I see it most commonly in modern composers trying to set Latin texts but Handel is also famous for this; Mark mentioned and he shall reign where the words line up, but in the setting of And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, of is stressed (except in most modern editions where the underlay is altered so glory gets two prominent beats). Handel also gives prominence to For in for unto us a child is born and other conjunctions that would usually go on an upbeat.

One of the features of Bardi ilma song style is stress shift, but it doesn’t occur in all verses. I don’t know how common it is in other Australian song styles.

LSA Bloggers report

LanguageLog unfortunately seem to have been too busy basking in the glory of their award to hang out with the rest of the linguabloggers, but we had a fun lunch as usual despite their absence. Featured topics included the Word of the Year (and the fact that a fair number of the nominations were phrasal, and what that means for the lexical integrity hypothesis), science fiction, and linguistic blogging. It was great catching up with everyone!

my inner Turkologist

Friends will know that I am a closet Turkologist, and I had occasion to check out Yale library’s comparative Turkic grammar collection yesterday, and of course to compare it to Harvard’s. Harvard’s is highly oriented towards German Turkology, although there’s a fair amount in English too.

The location cheat sheet at the front of the stacks said to go to floor 1M, but when I got there, that cheat sheet told me to go to 2M. Yale’s Turkic collection, I discovered, has little in German and almost nothing in English. The collection is almost but not quite entirely in Russian (which will be good for me). In amongst the grammars were 3 shelves of trashy Azeri action novels and what looked like Uzbek romance fiction. Harvard definitely didn’t have that…