At the Annual Convention of the Study of Nationalities, I'm a speaker at a book panel about Marci Shore's The Taste of Ashes: The Afterlife of Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe (Random House 2013). The conference takes place at the Harriman Institute, Columbia University. The panel is from 5:10 to 7:10pm. More information on the website of the ASN.
On April 8, 2013, I'm speaking at the conference "Realizing Roma Rights: Addressing Violence, Discrimination and Segregation in Europe", which brings together policymakers, academics, and activists from across Europe and the United States to address the inter-related themes of extremism, structural discrimination and youth disempowerment. The conference is jointly organized by the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights, the Mahindra Humanities Center, the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe/Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR).
For the conference agenda and participants, please click here and here.
Is deliberation becoming a core feature of our transforming democracies? A large and growing list of scholars have theorized about the ‘second transformation of democracy’, as liberal representative political systems move beyond being top-down polyarchies to new models that seek to engage in more bottom-up processes involving deliberation among citizens. Although the idea of deliberative democracy is not new - for decades theorists have argued that democracy should be based not just on votes but also on the incorporation of public debate – in the last few years we have seen an upsurge in the number of practical initiatives aimed at realizing this theoretical claim. Notable examples are We the Citizens in Ireland, the Icelandic Constitutional Council, the British Columbia Citizens’ Assembly, the Dutch Citizens’ Forum, and the Belgian G1000 Citizen Summit. This conference brings together some of the top researchers worldwide on this topic. They will investigate both the theory and the practice of recent deliberative innovations.
Plenary speakers include David Farrell (University College Dublin), Jane Suiter (University College Cork), Eoin O'Malley (Dublin city University), Kimmo Grönlund (Åbo Akademi University), André Bächtiger (University of Bern), Seong Min (Pace University), Juan Ugarriza (El Rosario University, Colombia), Henk van der Kolk (University of Twente), Kenneth Carty (University of British Columbia), Benoît Derenne (Foundation for Future Generations), Stef Steyaert (Levuur), David Van Reybrouck (G1000), and others.
Date: December 13, 2012
Location: Leuven Institute for Ireland in Europe, Janseniusstraat 1, 3000 Leuven, Belgium
Find the complete programme here [ PDF]
To register click here
On Friday, 5 October 2012, I'm speaking at the panel "Reclaiming Public Space - Democratic Practices Reinvented", organized by the European Cultural Foundation. The panel explores alternative models for democratic practice in Europe, starting from an artistic perspective. I will, among other things, discuss deliberative democracy and the G1000. Other participants are Tiffany Jenkins and Juan Freire. At De Balie, Amsterdam. For more information, see: http://www.culturalfoundation.eu/imagining-europe/programme#reclaiming_european.
The special issue of the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies on 'Romani mobilities' I edited with Nando Sigona (Oxford) has been published and is now available on Taylor & Francis Online. The contributors examine Romani mobilities in the context of contemporary European politics and policies on migration and ethnic minority protection. The articles are interconnected not only because they are centred on the Roma, but also because they are all focused in one way or another on the theme of mobilities. They examine the Roma’s movement across Europe, within and across the borders of the European Union: as ‘illegal’ migrants, and governmental efforts to restrict their mobility; as forced migrants escaping the collapse of the former Yugoslavia, stuck in IDP camps or forcibly returned; or as EU citizens within their country of residence and the EU space. But they also look at the Roma’s efforts to escape social exclusion and governmental attempts to break down the social barriers between them and other groups of citizens.
Mark Tansey, Derrida Queries de Man (1990).
When I was in New York City a few weeks ago, I talked with Lawrence Weschler about his new collection, Uncanny Valley: Adventures in the Narrative (Counterpoint Press 2011). Lawrence Weschler is commonly regarded as one of the foremost practitioners of non-fiction in the US. His pieces have long been published in the New Yorker and have appeared in elegant and wonderfully diverse volumes such as The Passion of Poland, Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder, Calamities of Exile, and Everything that rises. Since 2001 he has been the director of the New York Institute for Humanities at New York University. In 2004 Lawrence Weschler published Vermeer in Bosnia, a collection of narrative nonfiction that explored the connections between the 20th century’s wars in the Balkans and the equally violent Holland in which Vermeer created his paintings. In Uncanny Valley Weschler writes about digital animation, human rights, paintings, writer’s block, stories and their political importance, and, above all, faces.
The full interview appears on the pages of the web magazine CITSEE (Citizenship in Southeast Europe)
P.V.: Like "Vermeer in Bosnia", your new book "Uncanny Valley" brings together meditations on visual arts, storytelling and politics. How, in your view, are these phenomena related?
L.W.: Back in the old days in the New Yorker I used to distinguish between the things that I did as either political tragedies or cultural comedies, but in fact they were all what I called “passion pieces”: they were about people or places that caught fire. The human side of that could sometimes be quite comic to watch. When people suddenly become passionate about something it can be funny. But there is also the political side. Take for example the way in which the Poles during the Solidarity movement would speak of Solidarity as the ultimate representation of “the subjectivity of the Polish nation,” by which they meant its capacity to act as the subject of its own history and not the object of other people’s histories. Most people all over the world spend most of their lives being objects of other people’s intentions. But occasionally you have these moments where things become vivified and we become the true subjects of our own lives. That’s a grammatical transformation: instead of “me” you become an “I”. Repression in that sense tries to turn people who have been acting like subjects back into objects, and resistance is refusing that. That is precisely where the stuff about animation and narrative in this book comes in. It’s about this same grammatical transformation: you have to start moving the “I”, the subject has to start moving. One of the ways the “I” moves is by taking on agency. The “me” is always a victim, the “I” starts to move and does it in the form of tales it tells itself.
P.V.: Resistance is a creative act.
L.W.: Oh yes. It’s funny, when I originally came up with Adventures in the Narrative as the subtitle, editors would say “why don’t you call it Adventures of Narrative?” And I’d say “no, no, I’m talking about the narrative”. The narrative is that long, great river of history. When people become aware of their own agency, they will no longer just be floating.
P.V.: How can visual arts represent such a grammatical shift?
L.W.: In terms of the visual side of that, one of the themes that keeps coming up in the book is the notion of faces and facing things. The key essay that unites all these things is the collaboration I did with photographer Richard Avedon in the chapter on human rights monitors. This goes back to my days at the New Yorker. We had ten human rights monitors from all over the world in town - people who were being honoured by Human Rights Watch for doing great work in South Africa, Columbia, Vietnam, the Philippines and so on - and Avedon was going to take pictures of them, and I was going to write about it – we hadn’t quite figured out how. What Avedon did, just on a spur of the moment, was set up bleachers in his studio, like for a graduation photo. We brought all these people over. Avedon would just put them all up there, then he would bring out one and take a picture of their face with all the others gazing behind. The phrase that you can’t help thinking of when you look at the pictures is “I have your back”. It’s a visual representation of social solidarity. It reminded me of the famous symbol of solidarity which was the name Solidarność with the flag, and if you looked at it closely the letters were done as a crowd. Solidarity was the people. In various points in the book, I talk about how dictators see people as just meat on bones. And in a certain way that’s true. The only way that changes is when the people themselves assert their subjectivity.
P.V.: You could perhaps also say that it’s a matter of counter-narrative. When people start to reclaim their own stories they can provide a powerful counter-narrative to that of the dictatorship.
L.W.: That’s right. Think for example of that incredible line in the American Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal”. What’s so insightful about that phrase is not contained in the words “equal” or “truths”. It’s in the phrase, “we hold”. Thomas Jefferson did not say, “it is self-evident that all men are created equal”, he said “we hold these truths”. The minute we hold it and pledge our lives and sacred honour and so forth, something weird begins to happen. Things begin to glimmer.
P.V.: The “we” is created.
L.W.: The tyranny begins to melt and all men momentarily do become equal. But only because of the We. That’s what does it. So the book is about that, but I go farther afield. I have a whole section about digital animation of the face and the way that digital animators have gotten really good at doing digital animations of crowds, of hands, of bellies of people walking, of entire battle scenes; they just can’t do faces.
P.V.: Which is also where you introduce that enigmatic term “Uncanny Valley”.
L.W.: That term was coined by the Japanese Buddhist roboticist, Masahiro Mori, who many years ago was in effect saying: “if you make a robot that is 90% lifelike, that’s fantastic. If you make it 95% lifelike, that’s incredible. But if you make it 96% lifelike, it’s a complete disaster.” You go from having a robot that is really life-like to having a human being with something wrong with it. At that point you enter what he called the “Uncanny Valley”, and you have to work harder and harder to get it up to 98%, at which point it becomes good again. But the specific thing with the face is that it’s impossible to get out of the uncanny valley. What I argue is that digital animators can’t and never will be able to do faces, because the face is the seat of the soul. The soul can’t be digitised nor animated, which is ironic because the word animation itself contains the word for soul – anima. Faces are really fascinating. On one hand, they are far and away the most complicated set of muscles and movement in the human body - there are more than 40 muscles and many of them don’t attach to bone, they fold one atop the other. When you use them incredibly subtle things are happening with your eyelids, with your ears, with your cheeks and so forth, which lead to thousands of facial expressions. All that would have to be digitised. But even more amazing is that the face is the part of the body that we are incredibly sensitive to. So that if you were standing 100 yards from me and I would look at you - think about the infinitesimal slice of my visual field that’s been capturing where the whites of your eyes are - I would still be able to tell what you’re looking at. And I could tell whether you’re looking with concern or not. That hypersensitivity is so profound that they’re just never going to get there at a digital level.
P.V.: Oddly enough, as you suggest in the book, current plastic surgery and Botox makes some real faces now look as if they were digitally animated.
L.W.:That’s the flip side of it. Some digital animators even believe that they might be able to extend the careers of movie stars who are no longer able to create certain facial expressions.
P.V.: The “Uncanny Valley” also seems to tell us something about the relationship between narrative and truth. Animators can collect a massive amount of detail but still end up in the “Uncanny Valley”, where they arrive at almost the opposite of truth. At the same time, something very simple - a very simple narrative, a simple drawing - can ring very true.
L.W.: That’s the wonderful thing. At one level the more detailed you get the more it clogs up and slows down, and at another level a simple line, or Mickey Mouse, is perfectly believable. I don’t know if this has been shown in Europe, but there’s this fantastic little animation here called “Marcel The Shell with Shoes On”. It’s the stupidest, dumbest thing you’ve ever seen - a tiny conch shell, with stupid little plastic shoes and one googly eye - but it’s completely effective because of its voice and because of the narrative. It’s a rich terrain to think about, and it has, as you said, all kinds of political implications. I would argue that a lot of my work is about the way in which things that are primarily thought of in terms of aesthetics have huge implications in terms of ethics and epistemology, and even at the end of the day, ontology. One could say that in much the way that the pancreas secretes insulin, the brain, this astonishingly complicated thing, secretes stories. And the stories we tell ourselves are how we get through the day. The vividness of those stories makes all the difference because we find ourselves in a world that tries to dull the stories we tell ourselves. Politically it is hugely important to find vivid stories. It’s also hugely dangerous.
P.V.: Exactly, so it is a double-edged sword. When you say dangerous, that makes me think of the Balkans, which have been a very rich terrain for all sorts of stories, including stories of hate.
L.W.: One completely false story that was told about the wars in the Balkans was that it was an attack of the countryside on the city, an age-old grievance that had festered, bubbled up in the countryside among rural farmers. That was completely not what happened. It started with certain urban intellectuals, particularly historians, in many cases some of the brightest bulbs in the pack. They got everybody all riled up and politicians managed to use it for gain. Ordinary people were living perfectly calm lives with each other. There might have been tensions but they were able to live together for most of the time. Now they are beginning to come back to that, one hopes.
P.V.: Do the destructive narratives purely come from the elites, you think? From the politicians and the intellectuals?
L.W.: Well, I’m of two minds. One is the very dark view that there is something in the water there, and in the people, that in the end makes conflict inevitable. The people who will bleed away that horrible dark blood and re-establish the brightness of life may be able to do that for a generation or two, but the conflict remains somehow in the ground. I mean, if politicians are able, for personal gain, to exploit the people, what does it say about the people that are exploitable in that way? That’s one way I think about it. The other way I think about ethnic conflict in the Balkans is to see it as flocking behaviour. I know this scientist guy at the Santa Fe Institute who was looking out of his window one day at the blackbirds in the playground, how they would all suddenly rise up in one direction then all go together in another direction, and thought: “how strange; they have tiny brains, how are they able to do that? I wonder whether we could model this?” He was able to model very complex flocking behaviour on a computer through the use of three extremely simple rules. Something like: if somebody comes to your right, turn left; and if somebody comes to your left, turn up, and so forth. Whatever the rules were, they were very simple. The rules would create the flock. I’ve wondered whether or not a similar thing is at work in an ethnic conflict. Maybe it is also the effect of a number of simple rules. Something like: fear of the Other trumps hope; and transmogrifies into hate; which in turn provokes more fear in the Other, and so on. The loathing you feel for yourself for having succumbed to this gets projected onto others having made you succumb, you hate them for what they’ve made you become, and you get into these vicious cycles.
On 15 March 2012, I'm presenting a paper at the symposium Beyond the Ballot: forms of citizen engagement between democratic elections, which will take place at University College Dublin, National University of Ireland, NUI offices, 49 Merrion Square, Dublin. The symposium will include panels on: deliberative experiments and innovations, and civil society participatory approaches to civic engagement. I'll speak about deliberative democracy in Belgium and, in particular, about the G1000.
Update: read a short article about the event here.
On January 26th the International Literature House Passa Porta in Brussels will open its doors for an evening with asylum seekers who are also poets. With a.o. Jef Lingier, David van Reybrouck, Khan Novaid Haqqash, Keita and the Italian poet Fabio Scotto. Moderator: Peter Vermeersch. More information here.
I contributed a chapter on the social affairs agenda of the Belgian EU Council Presidency (co-written by Danielle Dierckx) to this new book: Steven Van Hecke and Peter Bursens (eds), Readjusting the Council Presidency, Brussels: ASP, 2011.
On the occasion of the publication of this book a lunch conference is organized in Brussels, hosted by the Permanent Representation of Belgium to the EU, Wetstraat/Rue de la Loi 61-63. The event takes place on Monday 23 January 2012, 12:30 - 14:30. For more information about the programme and to register follow this link.