On race

PBS in the US did a documentary on race a while ago. I haven't seen it, but I did come across the companion website, Race - The Power of an Illusion, recently. Being a show made by and for Americans, it traces the history of race in the US, but it does give a glimpse of what race meant - or didn't mean - before European settlers arrived in the Americas. It also points out, as the title suggests, that race is not a biological fact but a social construct. The terms we use so casually today - 'white', 'black', 'caucasian' - have an interesting history. It doesn't call for the abolition of racial categories though because they are useful in determining such things as social equality, which suggests that current social inequality is a function of the arbitrary classification of human beings into nonexistent subcategories, and not vice versa. And if you'd like to see evidence of how arbitrary this classification is, take a look at this page, where you are given 16 photographs to classify under four racial categories. Give it a go and see how many you get right.

But what's most interesting and, I think, most relevant to Australia is the section titled What's Race Got To Do With It? The third presentation, called "The Elephant in the Room" seemed the most directly applicable to what I've seen in Australia. I should point out that I don't know all that much about the social and racial history of Australia and what I do know comes from references made in articles and conversations about current issues (such as the Apology to Indigenous Australians made by the Prime Minister earlier this year, the portrayal - or lack thereof - of Indigenous Australians in the media and art, and Australia's rather intersting immigration policies through history). I have however been living here for just over two years now and while I honestly find it a wonderfully welcoming place, I have also found it to be one where racism is incredibly deeply ingrained. Not in the classic American sense of being discriminated against on the basis of your skin color (though it's been known to happen) but in the constant classification of people into categories and sub-categories. People born and bred in Australia are still referred to by their parents' race or, if they are of European ancestry, by their forebears' country of origin. Nobody, it seems, is just Australian. Given the intermittent noise in the media about 'Australian values' and identity, that's just bizarre.

The racism is so casual you almost don't notice it. For instance, upon meeting my husband, several people have remarked that he wasn't what they expected. They were expecting a Pakistani - and therefore presumably Muslim - male but he 'doesn't look like one.' As if that wasn't galling enough, some have remarked on how lovely that is and how lucky I am.

Another example is language. I have lost count of how many times I've received compliments on my command of English or been asked outright where I learnt it because it's really rather good. I don't think any of the people who have complimented me have meant any harm by it and have no idea that they were being insufferably patronizing. I have decided however that, rather than get annoyed, the simplest thing to do is to compliment theirs in return. You know, one native speaker to another.

My personal favorite is people who must assert a cultural difference no matter what. Everyone being spoken of belongs to some neat little category that immediately explains everything about them. What a convenient way to view the world.

Given the history of racism, these are minor irritations. But they indicate nonetheless how deeply ingrained the assumptions based on race actually are, even though most people would be hard put to explain why some people are categorized according to race while others are defined by their ethnicity, nationality, or religion and would be surprised to learn how often they conflate these categories themselves.

Science and Literature

In his article May 11 article for the Boston Globe titled Measure for Measure, Johnathan Gottschall writes:

We literary scholars have mostly failed to generate surer and firmer knowledge about the things we study. While most other fields gradually accumulate new and durable understanding about the world, the great minds of literary studies have, over the past few decades, chiefly produced theories and speculation with little relevance to anyone but the scholars themselves. So instead of steadily building a body of solid knowledge about literature, culture, and the human condition, the field wanders in continuous circles, bending with fashions and the pronouncements of its charismatic leaders.

Something that frustrates me no end about literary theory is its lack of understanding of the sciences, particularly when it purports to draw from them. Witness theorists who present their musings as meaningless mathematical formulae or draw on an at best limited understanding of physics. Nevertheless, these theorists manage to impress, because they most often happen to be addressing people who have no interest in either mathematics or physics (or biology or chemistry) and who are therefore happy to take their word for it because the theories in question are interesting and seem to make sense in context.

The other frustrating thing about literary theory is precisely its irrelevance to anything outside literary theory. Certainly it enhances the reading of literature and provides new and startling ways to conceive of the world created by literature and, given that literature is often seen as a reflection of real life, the world itself. But while it contains ideas and philosophies and suggestions that are a joy and a challenge to explore, it ultimately doubles back on itself without actually providing answers and students are left right where they started.

At the same time, it irritates me when the science bloggers I read make offhand, dismissive comments about the humanities and those who study them, saying things like "Even the arts students understand that intelligent design is bogus."* No we're not scientists, but why does that automatically make us the morons of academia? ID is a shoddily presented argument. You need only basic reason to see that, not deep scientific knowledge.

And while we're on common misconceptions, why are scientists so often cast as drones lacking all imagination? The rigors of method notwithstanding, I can't see a scientist as anything but imaginative. What is the development of a hypothesis if not a creative act?

We seem to be stuck in this very high-school perception that the arts=flaky vs. science=nerdy. Gottschall argues that this is simply unnecessary:

Above all, these changes would require looking with fresh eyes on the landscape of academic disciplines, and noticing something surprising: The great wall dividing the two cultures of the sciences and humanities has no substance. We can walk right through it.

I think he's absolutely right. If we all actually bothered to get to know each other, I think we would all realize that we are, at heart, all knowledge-obsessed geeks.

*This quote is illustrative only. It reflects only the tone of various statements littering the web, not the actual content.

Language habits

Scientific American interviews Alice Gaby, a linguist working at UC Berkeley (and a University of Melbourne alumna), about her research on how language affects our perception of the world. She explains, however, that language isn't some sort of "straitjacket" that limits us to thinking in only one way, but rather a "habit" of mind that we fall into and that can and does change. Culture both reinforces and results from these habits.

The discussion ranges over other interesting topics, including Gaby's project regarding the concept of time in language, which sounds fascinating.

SciAm promised a transcript of the interview a week from the post, but nothing's been posted yet. I'll link to it as soon as it's up.

It's official

I'm enrolled in the PhD program. Till 2012. And I'm being paid to do it, which is utterly cool.

There were delays, of course - it's taken almost a month and a half to process everything. You'd think, with an unconditional offer and two full scholarships, there'd be no reason for any holdups, wouldn't you? I thought so too. I have seldom been so horribly wrong.

See Australia requires international students to have health insurance while they're in the country. In itself, this is not a problem. It becomes a problem, however, when you want to switch insurance companies. They don't like each other and while they're happy to have you, you need to be punished for ever going over to the competition in the first place. Once they work you over good and proper and make you swear a blood oath to never ever leave the fold again on pain of torture by red tape, you are finally redeemed and accepted into the fold.

You can imagine, then, what the company you're leaving does to you. Honestly, if my parents had divorced when I was 12 and I'd been forced to choose between them, it could not have been worse.

The incompetence of the people who are supposed to 'handle' us international students  was the next hurdle. Yes you need health cover for three years. No you don't. Yes you do. No you don't. Unfortunately, it was 'yes you do' when I went to accept my offer and I was sent packing straight to the insurance company with offerings of money and vows of eternal fidelity. They were in a benevolent mood - and hey, who isn't when you give them money - and back I went to finally, finally accept my offer. And then, naturally, I find out that the department of immigration only requires you to have cover for the first 12 months of your degree, after which it is your responsibility to keep it updated.

That stupidity aside though, it's done and I'm ready to start. I'm quite excited and nervous, but I have about four years to get over that.  I've started exploring German on my own, though I'll sign up for proper classes once I sort out where to go. I'm also sorting through what resources I've found at the library and looking for stuff online, though the amount of material searches turn up is a little frightening. Ah well, as I said, four years to go through it all.

I realized something else that's 'official', or at least will be by the time I finish: in 2012, I will have lived in Melbourne for just under six years - that's longer than I've ever lived anywhere before.  Who'd'a thunk?


I've heard the terms 'moral' and 'morality' thrown around often and what irks me is that it is assumed that these must flow from some kind of religious foundation. So it was heartening to read Steven Pinker's article The Moral Instinct in the New York Times yesterday. It's a fairly long article and just about all of it is quotable so I'd suggest just going there and reading it from beginning to end. It talks about what we perceive as moral, why we do so, how the 'moral sense' can be tricked, and how it evolves as we adapt to changes in our world. It's a very interesting read that will probably surprise, interest, and possibly upset you, all for good reason. I'll be looking into his books in the mean time - I've spotted a few titles that sound like they'd flesh out my own research into language rather well.


The Telegraph recently carried a story about levitation and how it could be used to help nanotechnologists keep "tiny objects from sticking to each other." It can do this by reversing the Casimir force, which causes things to be drawn together in the first place. In theory, this could be used to levitate whole humans and, more importantly, move large objects.

The Casimir force is a consequence of quantum mechanics, the theory that describes the world of atoms and subatomic particles that is not only the most successful theory of physics but also the most baffling.

The force is due to neither electrical charge or gravity, for example, but the fluctuations in all-pervasive energy fields in the intervening empty space between the objects and is one reason atoms stick together, also explaining a “dry glue” effect that enables a gecko to walk across a ceiling.

Now, using a special lens of a kind that has already been built, Prof Ulf Leonhardt and Dr Thomas Philbin report in the New Journal of Physics they can engineer the Casimir force to repel, rather than attact.

For more on the Casimir effect and the Casimir force, see The Casimir Effect: A Force from Nothing. For more on this story, see Perfect Lens Could Reverse Casimir Effect.


I handed in my thesis a few minutes ago and I want to collapse. Or sleep. Sleep would be good too. Instead of being all elated and relieved, I'm feeling quite bereft. I want it back. I want to do it over. Not because what I handed in, despite its pretentious title, is bad, but because I just want to go again. Orientation for semester 2 has just started, which is aggravating the the whole nostalgia thing. I want to be at that end of it again. But that's what the PhD's for, right? Right. Here's hoping!

Bye, bye, unconscious

Lo! 'Tis done! My last assignment has been handed in and I am free to dip my aching fingertips in some warm, salty water. Seriously, they're getting all funny looking from all the typing I've been doing. Or maybe I'm just getting old. Which I am, really. Next week, in fact, I'll be a whole year older. Yay me.

But for now, I am still last year's me and I have handed in my assignment and I feel good. I don't know how I managed to turn that damn short story into a play, but I did and I justified it too. Seriously though, no more Freudian-Jungian-anythingian analysis for me any more. It's exhausting and ultimately just pisses me off, but I shall wax indignant on that at a later date. Right now I need to sleep.


The Australian Association for Literary Translation had its second public lecture at Monash University's Caulfield Campus yesterday. It's just as well I checked the newsletter one last time before leaving or I would have ended up in Clayton which is a good deal farther away. I'm glad I got to the right place and in time though, because it was just so good to talk to people about the work I'm doing, the work they're doing, about language acquisition, linguistic shifts, choosing languages, who 'owns' language, writing in another language, picking up other languages through the languages one already knows, translation, interpretation, regional variants in language, accents, the linguistic/cultural dominance of English-English vs US-English...and all this is before the actual lecture. *swoon*

Dr Jean Anderson teaches at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand and "fell into" translation. She translates into French and her lecture was primarily about issues of cultural difference when translating literature from the Pacific island nations - a group of which she contends New Zealand is a part. Her particular problem had to do with translating work that, while written, comes from a highly developed oral tradition into French, which has fairly rigid conventions. Repetition, she said, was one example. Where a Mao'hi writer could repeat words, 'good' French writing demands that a particular word not be repeated until several paragraphs after its first appearance. Such conventions, be they in whatever language, throw up interesting quandaries for translators and quite often one has to make a decision based on what will ultimately be most acceptable to readers.

That raises the question of domesticating a text: risking the elimination of the original voice of the text by absorbing it too deeply into the target language (and culture).  And that in turn raises the question of why a translation shouldn't 'look' like a translation. Why shouldn't it look foreign if that's what it is? All of which constitutes a fairly long-standing debate in the field of translation.

 I don't know if translation studies is where I want to go necessarily; it represents to me a fairly black-and-white approach to language that I don't think I'm entirely comfortable with. I prefer a more nebulous approach to language and that may well have to do with having grown up speaking three languages. I never had to 'learn' any of them formally although I've had lessons in all three at one time or another. Actually, when you think about it, it's odd that this should come as a 'surprise' to translators because I'm hardly alone. The majority of the world's population does grow up multilingual - there's usually a national language as well as a regional language or dialect at the very least, as well as English and any other languages that may be relevant. It's people in English-speaking countries who have to make an active effort to learn a new language, and those who do constitute a fairly small minority of language learners. And yet our theories of language acquisition center on the latter approach to language learning. ...I have to go read me some more Venuti, I think.

One down…

I handed in my final assignment for my research course yesterday. Yes, it's silly to have to write a research proposal for a thesis that's due in a few weeks, but that should actually make it easier to write. I took it as a good sign that I got it done without bursting into tears - that means I actually do have some idea what I'm doing. Yaay.

The creative component was fun though, specially since I've opted to not include a creative component in my thesis and I wanted to see what I might have come up with if I had.  I thought of doing an 'imitiation' of Faiz in English, but discarded that idea pretty fast since I'd need my examiner to be able to read the original for it to make sense. What I did take from Faiz was the images and sentiment he uses in "Aaj Bazaar Mein Pabajaulan Chalo" which translates roughly as "Come to the marketplace in shackles today".


I've tried translating that one line over and over and simply cannot come up with any kind of phrasing in English that manages to convey the right combination of grief or determination or resignation or any of the other emotions that one line carries. 'Aaj' means today. 'Bazaar' is not just a marketplace, it's the town centre or square where the business of living, not just trade, is carried out. 'Mein' is 'in'. 'Pabajaulan' means 'with shackled feet. 'Chalo' means 'walk' but it can also mean come or go. But that doesn't really help because we don't know who the line is addressed to. It could mean: 

  • come with me to the marketplace in shackels

  • let us go to the marketplace in shackles today

  • I must walk in shackles through the marketplace today

  • walk in shackles in the marketplace today

  • We have come to a time when we must walk in shackles in the marketplace

So which is it? The problem is, it's all of them. The poet himself actually did have to pass through the marketplace in chains one day because he needed to see a doctor and one couldn't come to him in prison that day(Faiz was jailed because the government didn't like his political opinions). The idea of having to walk chained in his own country for the crime of actually caring about its people stayed with him. It is also a comment on subjugation and the idea that, visible or not, everyone living under an oppressive regime is in shackles in public. It is also not only touches on (and the poem later discusses it explicitly) the humiliation faced by those with the will to fight but suggests that the brave come out in shackles willingly and take whatever other punishment the 'oppressors' wish to heap on them. Yes this is still the one line.


 Since I've been reading Ilhan's book at the same time and given my own interest in the ancient history of the land, I also picked up the image of the Dancing Girl of Mohenjodaro and again used Faiz's idea of her 'birth' as the moment when time began (until we figure out what the real myths of the time were, I suppose we'll just have to make up our own). Combine that with the Indus River (because I can) and you have a narrator all set to tell the story of a land in political turmoil. It was also easier to use the dancing girl as the speaker than myself because I feel my own emotional connection to the land is quite tenuous, despite my anger at the current situation there. (But that division is a whole other post.)

Overall, I'm not unhappy with the stuff I turned in. I'm avoiding reading it because I know I'll find something I could have put better or should have left out or something. Plus I have my Writing the Unconscious assignment due next and have to go look up stuff on Jung. A jungian short story. What the hell was I thinking?!