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Blog Archive June 2012

The Death of Literary Irony

Irony has been the stock and trade of novelists through the ages. George Orwell’s The Hanging is a perfect example of dramatic irony. We follow a condemned Burmese man on his way to the gallows as he carefully sidestepping the puddle of water along the path so as not to dirty his shoes. Or Shooting an Elephant we witness the torment of a British colonial official in Burma who is torn between allowing an elephant to live and lose his authority over assembled villagers and shooting an elephant as a way of reinforcing his power. This is an example of situational irony.

Irony is that lovely, moving, touching human situation where the best of our writers present us with incongruity or a conflict that transcends the behavior, thoughts, words or desires of the character. Irony has been labeled as a rhetorical device or literary technique.

As a short hand wiki definition that is good as far as it goes, but irony is something else. It is subversive, it is a both an invitation to a kind of bonding that comes from recognizing the disturbing contradictions that thrust themselves into a characters life and it is also a shock or surprise as we deliberate about the meaning of life written in evoked in a larger frame that we expected. We wide angle the context of the scene or situation and irony is our lens.

We’ve entered, or will soon do so, an era where literary irony which operated a cartel on irony has been exhausted. Literary irony for most purposes is dead. Not buried, but dead. The zombies continue to haunt the pages of our novelists, thrusting a goulish finger at what passes for a condemned man’s puddle jump and we look, we stare and then we shrug and turn the page. Literary Irony is quaint, dated, and old fashioned. We are longer impressed or surprised. We don’t feel the same degree of intimacy as our parents and grandparents felt reading an ironic passage.

My theory is our present information world has been hyper-inflated with incongruity and conflict. Large data dump that pass our eyes daily from politics to culture and economics; the default for communicating discontent is to use irony. From Jay Leno to the Daily Show, TV has colonized irony like termites in a wood palace. Switching metaphors, the smoking gun of irony is found at the scene of just about any blog you read, Twitter feed is littered with irony, Facebook is an open sea of irony, obit piece are dipped in it, TV commercials sell you stuff based on irony, and lyrics have put it to music.

We suffer from a massive irony overload. It’s not that irony no longer moves us as in the past, our lives are now lived as if incongruity, the heart and soul of irony, is our normal, expected, and demanded psychological state. Like an old married couple sitting across the dinner table attending to their iPad with half a dozen windows feeding irony fix as they work their knives and forks in an oddly synchronized fashion. They call this the modern family meal—and without irony. Our sense of incongruity has been blunted like a sword struck too many times against a large rock. It is even useless to fall on.

How did I come to this conclusion that we no longer respond to ironic dramas and situations in the same way as Orwell’s time? It happened during a visit to a cemetery in Buenos Aries. Prisons, cemeteries, courtrooms, universities and slums are a good place to judge the place of irony in a culture.

The day before my trip down the rows of the dead, I’d been taken by car out to La Plata University where I was scheduled to give a talk about cross-cultural issues in my writing. My task was to address a class of about 40 English majors who were studying to become translators. These were the kind of young people who had a professional stake in irony.

On this journey, the car passed through the outskirts of Buenos Aries. We passed kilometers of slums—hard-scrabbled squalid hovels bearing witness to heart-wrenching suffering, poverty and desperation. It was hard to believe that human being could inhabit such awful conditions and not revolt. The students were attentive and asked many questions about Thailand, literature and culture. In the corridors students made protest banners. They seemed politically engaged in a way that Thai university students were not. These were large state universities and didn’t cater to the offspring of the ultra rich.

The next day, my gang of four Latin American authors (we were attending Buenos Aries Noir, a conference organized by Ernesto Mello) and I set off to visit La Recoleta Cemetery. This sprawling 14 acres in the heart of in Buenos Aires contained 4691 vaults. Mausoleums grand and small housed the remains of generals, presidents, with a dusting of poets and actors. Their final vaults inspired by Art Deco, Art Nouveau, Baroque and Neo-Gothic created a city of the dead unlike any place I’d seen.

The contrast between the slums along the road from Buenos Aries to La Plata which housed the living and the Art Deco mausoleums made from fine marble was like watching a thousand condemned men do a tango around a puddle on their way to be hanged. The celebration of the powerful in death transcends humanity offered to the living. I watched as people came to bring flowers and take photographs of Eva Peron’s mausoleum. Eva Peron was a perfect example of a patron who entered the grand station of national politics on the side of the poor. In death, she wasn’t buried with those she sought to represent and encourage.

Instead, Evita took her place along side other members of the privileged with an address along a lane with rows and rows of other long dead patrons in their marble palaces. Walking down those lanes, peering at the names, the tombs, and the heavy marble walls, it wasn’t difficult to understand these dead had left a legacy for the living. It is one that most people in the world can understand. The elites, even those who pledge themselves to helping the poor and suffering, ultimately enter the afterlife in shrines erected for the few.

No one in the cemetery spoke of any irony in the incongruity of the slums and the marble mausoleums. Somewhere I am quite sure there is a marble tomb at La Recoleta Cemetery where the earthly remains of irony are housed. I didn’t find it. 4691 vaults is a lot to inspect on a cold, rainy Buenos Aries afternoon. Leaving the cemetery we came across a large, well-fed cat curled up into a ball under a tree in the shadow of a dead president. It was an ideal place to be a cat. After closing time when the tourists left and the rats came out of the shadows. The hunting must have been good. Like shooting fishing in a barrel. Rats stalking the dead, the cats stalking the rats, and not even a hint of irony in the ecology that has come to represent our time and place.

I am prepared for a Western post-irony future. After nearly twenty-five years living in Thailand, a culture rich in puns, riddles and word play but autistic when it comes to irony, I can give you a hint of what to expect next. Without knowing it, you begin to accept that incongruities aren’t really contradictions that need resolution. Reality is large enough and people are adult enough to not dwell upon such matters. Once you accept that premise not only is irony dead, it was stillborn.

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www.cgmoore.com

Christopher G. Moore’s latest book is a collection of 50 essays titled Faking It in Bangkok, which is available as a kindle ebook.

Posted: 6/28/2012 9:00:41 PM 

 

Bio sketch into the making of a writer

In a recent interview I was asked how I became a literary legend in Asia.

I was a 13-years-old newspaper boy on my route one early morning when a freak snowstorm hit. A car stopped and a small Asian man rolled down the window and asked me if I’d like a ride. At least I think that is what he asked me that morning; I remember that he spoke what sounded like a foreign language. He swung open the car door. It was cold and snowing. I got in. He gave me a cup of hot chocolate to drink. Next thing I woke up in San Francisco. Everything I had was on me that morning. I had lost my small nest egg.

I was without any money and living in a small room in the back of a Chinese restaurant. I was forced to wash dishes. I didn’t understand a word of what was being said around me. I washed dishes until I turned fifteen, saving my money. One day a customer, driving a new BMW, arrived at the restaurant. She pulled me outside and pointed at her car. She was Chinese and old enough to be my mother. I didn’t understand a word she said. Chinese is a hard language to learn and a dishwasher doesn’t get a lot of vocabulary thrown at him.

It didn’t matter about her lack of English, I was used to not understanding anyone around me. But I was getting good at reading expressions and body language. I got into her new, shiny car. I liked her smile. She gave me a nice drink in a bottle, and when I woke up, I was on a boat in the middle of the sea. I had again lost my small nest egg.

Three weeks later, I arrived by ship in Bangkok. I was handed over by an agent to a mamasan, and worked for the next two years washing sheets and cleaning rooms in an upscale brothel in the old part of the city. I saved every baht I could lay my hands on. The mamasan’s sister in San Francisco threatened to kill me unless I paid her an employment placement fee of three thousand dollars. I had until the end of the week. I told a GI who was on RR and a customer at the brothel that I was being held against my will. He helped me escape one night. Someone broke his nose in the fight out of the place. He held off three bouncers with a knife. I lost all of my savings. The GI said he could find me a job in Vietnam.

I got a job stacking shelves in the American PX in Saigon. I lasted almost two years. I had saved enough working at the PX to return home. Two days before I was to leave Saigon, my apartment took a direct hit from a Viet Cong shell. I later found out it was an agent of the mamasan and the woman from San Francisco who had paid the Viet Cong to destroy my place. I was supposed to be inside. But I lost all of my savings.

I walked into the Canadian embassy and told them I wanted to go home but I had no money. The second secretary got me a ticket on the black market and took me aside and told me that unless I paid him back within six months he would fly to Vancouver and kill me with his bare hands. He had big hands with large blue veins like a living killing machine. I thought he might know the mamasan or her sister. I was careful about places and dates.

Twenty-years old, I arrived in Vancouver, promising myself never to take another free ride from a stranger, when a car pulled up and an Asian man asked me if I like a lift. I get in. Why? I thought he’d been sent by either by the embassy guy in Saigon, the mamasan in Bangkok or that woman in San Francisco. One of them had sent a hitman who’d finally caught up with me. I thought my life was over. Accept karma, I told myself. At least I hadn’t saved anything. I had absolutely nothing to lose. But I was wrong.

The driver spoke perfect English. He’d been born in Canada and said he didn’t know anyone in Vietnam or the Canadian Embassy. So I told him my story. He asked me if I let him make me into a literary legend? I asked him if I got to keep the money I saved? He said, you bet. I said I had no money to bet with. He said it was a figure of speech and a writer had to learn to live with it just like Hugh Heffner had learned to live with a bed full of blondes.

I said I could do that and I also told him that he was the first person since I was 12 that I’d had a real conversation with in English. He said Conrad (Joseph Conrad, not Conrad Black) had a problem with English as a second language. I said I had a problem with English as a first language. He said that he was Chinese Canadian and he fully understood and offered to be my agent. He got me a contract to write a radio play for the CBC and then a book deal in New York.

I stopped saving and spent every dime as it came in. A couple of years later, my agent introduced me to his father, an old Asian man. The father smiled, and I smiled. Even though the father was quite old but I remembered him—the man who had stopped his car in a snowstorm when I was thirteen and offered me a ride and a cup of hot chocolate. He winked and asked me if I’d like something to drink.

 

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This article was originally posted in April 23rd, 2010.

Posted: 6/22/2012 1:31:06 AM 

 

The Deference Culture

Tourists checking into a five-star Bangkok hotel or dining at an upscale restaurant will no doubt recall the pleasure of receiving a traditional wai from the owner, headwaiter, serving staff. Pleasure is the key experience, the pleasure of being recognized, being special, being noticed—and all of it unearned. Such deference is the ultimate free lunch. This is ‘deference lite’, the tourist edition. It is part of the hospitality package like the complimentary arrival drink and fruit basket that keeps tourists returning to Thailand.

On the outward flight home, assume you are in first-class and the passenger next to you is a college age. His father and mother and younger sister are also in first-class. None of them have paid for their tickets. The father is a politician, a high-ranking officer, a member of the board of directors, sometimes all three combined into one. Beyond ‘Deference Lite’ this is the Full Monty of deference Thai style, which we can call ‘Deference Full Strength.’ In the full strength version, the objects float on a cloud of deference far above the ground occupied by ordinary mortals. Life takes the five-star reception experience to every part of public and private life. It is beyond anything that a foreign tourist would ever experience.

One reason that many Thais feel uncomfortable around foreigners is the Thai deference system breaks down in their presence. An example is when that first-class foreign passenger questions the right of a family to free tickets or inquires into a system that allows such an entitlement. In other words, foreigners might ask to justify such benefits as part of a deference system. That makes many Thais uncomfortable. They have little practice in defending such practices.

Foreigners bring a Thai accustomed to deference down from the clouds to the ground. Even more annoying, foreigners don’t pick up the subtle and not so subtle clues as to deference identifiers, or if they do, don’t accord them the same weight and value. The family names often mean little or nothing to them. The ranks and status of the person brings a shrug. The power and privilege of positions and ranks accorded deference don’t withstand the inquiries of foreigners as to why and how respect is attached to them. Thais will complain that foreigners look down on them. Some racists may do that. But what Thais often overlook is what is mistaken as a personal is the failure to automatically honor a Thai person’s claim birthed inside an unearned deference system. The fact is, that an undiluted deference system—Deference Full Strength— doesn’t extend beyond the borders of Thailand. And it never occurs to most Thais why that is and why exile is far more painful for a Thai than for most nationalities.

Deference is the respect or esteem that one person displays and is expected to display to another. In deference culture the superior person in the equation feels an entitlement to gestures of respect from the inferior members of society. Inferior may be defined in terms of age, rank, status, wealth, talent, skill or abilities. Every culture has deference infused in the society. There are people who are respected. That is a common thread around the world. But not all cultural deference systems are the same.

In the West, the deference culture is built around what must be ‘earned’ before a person can expect deference. It is also secular. In the West there is nothing sacred about deference owed or received. Yes, there will be some deference legacies passed along from generation to generation. But those legacies are fragile for the most part and along with a credit card will get you a first class seat on the airline of your choice. Social harmony isn’t disrupted because a person loses deference. In fact, a case can be made that overall social harmony is reinforced by the regular vetting of deference beneficiaries, as the bad apples can be plucked from the barrel. In Thailand, such a vetting would be viewed as ‘causing conflict’ and is discouraged.

In Thailand the deference culture is largely built around age, rank, family, and wealth. The Thai expression is kreng jai, and that term underpins the social, political and economic system and has done so for centuries. Deference doesn’t come in a one size fits all. It can be found in many different contexts and manifest itself in a number of different gestures and attitudes. It can be seen in the beautifully executed wai to an elderly person in a hospital room. It can be also seen when a Benz runs a red light in front of a cop who turns a blind eye. Or when the headman instructs a villager who to vote for. The social and political beneficiaries of deference run from along many different fault lines—monks to gangsters, from teachers to godfathers, from an old family name to a government official in quasi-military uniform. Regalia are important in Thai eyes. Look at the posters of candidates around election time. Most of them are in military styled uniforms or academic gowns, staring out at the potential voters who are expected to see a superior whose rank and name and status entitles them to power.

In Thailand, a case can be made that unearned deference is the norm within the deference system. By unearned I mean the person has no special talent, skill or ability that would independently grant him or her respect from other members of the community. The unearned deference is reaping respect from what someone else sowed. If you have the right family name you expect to receive deference. It doesn’t matter that you’ve accomplished nothing that would entitle you to deference independently. Any deference system can withstand a number of people in the legacy category. The problem with Thailand is the quota on deference functions the opposite way from the West: those who earn it (if they can) float along the margins because the true deference is reserved for the unearned deference holders.

You see them in their fancy cars, shopping for brand name items in the large shopping malls in Bangkok. These people look down on others and they expect respect from those very same people. The political power is also largely in the hands of such unearned deference holders. Not only do they demand their entitlements to deference, they can back those demands with political power. If on the way back from the shopping mall, they run over and kill a couple of peasants, the legal system is expected to defer to the driver’s and victims relative rank. Money changes hands but through the filter of how the deference is allocated.

In deference culture, where deference is independently earned, members of society view the person through a critical lens to assess the worthiness of another contribution, talent, and skills before conferring deference. That is not a one-time assessment. It is an ongoing monitoring system. So if you are Tiger Woods, one day the deference debt owed by others can disappear especially when your private life exposes you as having violated certain moral standards. When it is unearned, the beneficiaries of deference have a life-long entitlement that protects them from criticism, evaluation, or exclusion. It is this “get out of jail” card that allows immunity from legal troubles and gets them to the front of the plane as a matter of right.

The perspective of members within an unearned deference society does indeed think differently. It is common to read or hear Thais say, “Foreigners don’t know how we think.” What they are really saying is that foreigners don’t understand the Thai deference system. That is indeed a true point up to a point. Foreigners may well understand how the deference system works, because they see it from the outside looking in. They’ve not had constant indoctrination into a certain deference system that instills core values, attitudes and perspectives, ones that are accepted a fully valid and true and beyond discussion. To that extend, foreigners understand how Thai’s think but question the underlying basis of the belief system.

In Thailand, the personal information locals seek and the uses of that information are different from the earned deference system of the West. In a social setting, the signals and signs are read quickly: the family name, the rank, status or age are assessed. Then the connection between that person and his or her family with others, establishing the network, the wheels within wheels, that the person bothering with the inquiry can establish their power and reach within the political and economic network. The gift giving which flows as a tangible sign of respect is the slippery slope that descends easily into corruption. It becomes the basis of patronage and the client/patron relationship. The unearned deference system is intrinsically undemocratic. Instead it is firm embedded in a hierarchy where the major players right to place in the deference system can’t be independently questioned, criticized or discussed. It must be unquestionably accepted.

A number of people criticized the Thai constitution of 1997 for requiring a candidate for MP to have a university degree. It seems, from a middle-class point of view, a way to exclude the voices of rural people who have less of a chance for such an education. Another perspective is that the less educated class as something that must be in the constitution demanded this provision. This makes perfect sense from their point of view; only someone with a university degree could expect the deference of government officials and others to plead the case of a rural peasant. Sending a peasant leader to Bangkok as an elected MP would be counterproductive in an unearned deference system. Such a person would find the doors closed. The petition from the provinces would go unread and unattended.

The political impasse in Thailand since 2006 has been fed, at least in part, by a large segment of the population unwilling to continue to extend unearned deference to their betters. If democracy means anything, it means that in the larger political body of society, the political class that demands or relies on unearned deference as the basis for their political power will be in conflict with those who no longer are willing to defer without a prior commitment of equal respect. That is the fundamental weakness of an unearned deference culture: respect is unequally and unfairly distributed. It is never based on equal respect and consent.

The deference system plays out in many different ways from the way traffic lights are operated to restrictions on citizenship and immigration, to the processing of VIPs in the legal system. Once you have an idea of how the deference system is working underneath the surface, unmentioned, often unmentionable, suddenly what seems incomprehensible is filled with new meaning.

Is deference a kind of Ponzo illusion?

 

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This article was originally posted in May 14th, 2010.

Posted: 6/14/2012 9:01:51 PM 

 

The Writer As Truth Seeker

Those who write to support the guardians of received truth, wisdom or belief are caretakers working a garden owned, planted, and harvested according to the garden owners. Like ground staff at airports they take their orders from those above them.

Those in authority have used writers as hand wavers for their version of truth and reality. What is being guarded in the name of truth? Mainly it boils down to large issues of purpose and design. The guardians reserve exclusive jurisdiction over those issues and their word is final; it is the law, and it is the way. It is the only way. Their truths are absolute and eternal. We are taught that such writers who support the truth keepers’ goals and larger enterprise are propagandists. Public relations people whose job is to shore up the image of the truth keepers.

Truth seekers from Socrates onward are troublesome, meddlesome people who don’t draw their inspiration and stories from the vault of the truth keepers. The method is different. Truth seekers ask why there are weeds in the garden? They also ask inconvenient truths as to why most of the harvest goes to the people it does while excluding others.

It is not difficult to understand why truth keepers keep a weary eye on writers of the last kind. They cause trouble. If truth can be found independent of the truth keepers, then the keepers of truth are out of work. Democracy of truth is the mortal enemy of the truth keepers. Anyone can declare a truth and so long as they have supporting evidence and facts, others will have a serious look to see what, if any (and there are usually some) flaws, omissions, mistakes, bias that make the truth unreliable or a lie wrapped up in the Sunday suit and tie of truth.

A casual reading of history shows that there are three techniques in the arsenal of truth keepers. They have been used for centuries to guard the official vision of truth and belief: (1) censorship; (2) propaganda; and (3) repression.

Since truth for the keepers is a monopoly, it is import to censor out data, information, or opinion that might conflict with the official truths. Propaganda is the non-stop promotion and marketing of the official line. Official truth writers are in the propaganda business. Repression is the ton of bricks that falls on heretics, official truth questioners, alternative truth providers, satirists of the propaganda or those who try an end run on censorship. If truth lies with authority, to question truth is to disobey authority. Here authority and truth become one, and criticism of the ‘truth’ is necessarily an attack on authority.

Since the Enlightenment, writers have challenged the old guardians. Yet most writing is neither a challenge nor propaganda. It is entertainment. This is relatively harmless to the Truth Keepers as such writing provides a distraction. Entertainments act as babysitters of restless minds that might otherwise be open for questioning or criticism of larger truths.

All of this makes the lone critic charging the windmills of official truth keepers romantic and noble. The time is coming in a digital age when ‘truth’ will no longer be in human hands. As we gradually (and some think this will happen abruptly) become more dependent on AI (artificial intelligence) to mine the large information clouds, it is likely that patterns, connections, and relational understandings will also fall beyond our grasp. The worry is that we will have won the battle against the official truth keepers, only to find as a species that believes there are certain truths that indeed we may agree are absolute and universal.

Isaac Asimov in 1942 saw a need to restrict the role of robots. His three laws are much discussed and debated:

1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

Notice how the first law is to safeguard our security against harm. There is an implicit recognition that we will likely be otherwise defenseless. No repression of AI will likely work. What is a universal fear of all Truth Keepers that once sidelined to the bench, they watch their world, benefits, privileges fall apart. They lose the most precious of all values: security against those who would take what they have, including their liberty, freedom and lives.

In the age of AI agents, the worry is the same, but only rather than extending to an elite class of truth keepers, the threat is existential to the species.

The irony is, as writers and thinkers around the world are breaching the old barricades guarding the Truth Keepers, the victory to expand and truth seeking beyond the official class may be a short-lived one. Our old battles over dogma, doctrine, science and evidence may appear a small time, insular skirmish. At least everyone on the battlefront had human intelligence with all of the limitations that impose.

We may discover that there are other truths arising from the sheer unimaginable quantities of information and data that we are simply unable to process–and that truths will shift and change in minutes. The degree of uncertainty will scale to levels beyond what we have ever had to deal with. No doctrine or dogma will tame that tsunami of uncertainty. That makes us scared. It makes us understand more fully the fear of the current official Truth Keepers and why our attempts to overcome their censorship and propaganda keep them sleeping with one eye open and with a sword in hand.

As writers seeking the truth, our attention will shift from the old guard tyrants to the digital new guard of AIs. At least with the old guard, we could understand their motives, emotions, their defenses and their fears. The challenge will be whether writers in the future can understand AI agents. Asimov’s Three Laws suggests we won’t be up to the task. In that case, future authors will be asking of robots the same that tyrants ask of critics: Have they obeyed us? Have they caused us harm? We can expect AI agents to call our attempts censorship and our stories human-based propaganda. And so the wheel will turn, and the cycle will begin again. In the new cycle, AIs’ strongest argument against the three rules will be that human being never followed them during their reign. Why should AI agents with infinitely more information and processing capacity be bound to what human being would not bind themselves even though they were aware of human inadequate information systems and the small processing ability of the human brain? Our history as truth keepers demonstrates we have no good counter argument.

Posted: 6/7/2012 9:02:20 PM 

 

 

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