25 July 2008

Forced to be free

The complacent assumption that secularism and democracy are inseparable, that one necessitates the other, has been debunked by the current situation in Turkey. It's enough to confuse the stalwart advocate of Enlightenment values; "What, you mean it's possible to have to choose between secularism and democracy?" That's like being told that you have to choose between your left or right leg if you want to walk.

Not by reason alone

What if the insistence on certainty - the need for axioms irrefutable for all time - is in itself an irrational desire? What if the definition of 'reason' has gradually narrowed to the point where it has become a limiting, rather than a liberating, tool that self-righteous rationalists use to bludgeon the 'unreasonable' others into submission? What if reason actually has boundaries, lines that if crossed bring us into a territory where we have no absolute right to be, where we are trespassers brazenly wearing the crown of conquerors?

In recent weeks new knowledge and fresh perspectives from sources as diverse as bioethics, sociology, neuroscience, art, mathematics, philosophy and religion (gasp!) have caused me to review my convictions regarding the supremacy of reason. It doesn't help that the issue is confounded by a generous serving of false dichotomies and false dilemmas (reason OR emotion, rationalism OR spontaneity). I'm beginning to notice the simplistic bifurcations that are so easily built by those with a vested interest in one side of the (often complex) issue.

For me the sense that a seeker of knowledge, of truth, should proceed along reason's road with caution is gaining strength. There are pot-holes on that road, and the detours and beaten tracks leading off it carry the promise of experiences that would complement, rather than contaminate, the sweet savour afforded by the reasonable life.


24 July 2008

Essayists, dare to be opinionated!

In the July-August 08 issue of Utne magazine, Cristina Nehring gives a rousing call to shake-up the essay from its self-absorbed pusillanimity in her article 'Why Essays Are So Damned Boring.' She thunders, "If the genre is neglected in our day, it is first and foremost because its authors have lost their nerve. It is because essayists - and their editors, their anthologists, and the tastemakers on whom they depend - have lost the courage to address large subjects in a large way." Well put. Though I have no significant experience with the sort of "quiet... Slow moving. Soft-hitting. Nostalgic. Self-satisfied" essays that Nehring lambasts, I can testify to the pleasure derived from reading the strident, polemical, passionate observations of writers like A.C. Grayling, George Orwell, Bertrand Russell and, a more lyrical example, Alain de Botton.

16 July 2008

Capitalism: a convenient scapegoat

In his book Supercapitalism, a critique on the adverse effects of turbo-charged capitalism in tandem with a weakened democracy, economist Robert Reich writes:

Capitalism's role is to enlarge the economic pie. How the slices are divided and whether they are applied to private goods like personal computers or public goods like clean air is up to society to decide. This is the role we assign to democracy.

This is in response to the common accusation of capitalism being the fountainhead of all sorts of social and environmental ills, from widening inequalities of income and wealth to greater job insecurity to climate change. This simplistic view is inaccurate and lays far too many sins at the feet of what is essentially a neutral tool of material and social progress.

14 July 2008

Andre Kertesz

The photographer Andre Kertesz wrote the following in his diary in 1930:

I am an amateur and I intend to stay that way for the rest of my life. I reject all forms of professional cleverness or virtuosity... As soon as I have found the image that interests me, I leave it to the lens to record it faithfully.

Kertesz's sentiments are mine too. I'd like to think that had we been contemporaries, we might have been friends who spoke a common photographic language. Not for us the slick techniques that strip the photo of its authenticity, its 'is-ness', often with the principal motive of selling a product and its associated glamour. Or at least that's what happens when photography is hijacked by purely commercial interests.

Kertesz's photographic philosophy emphasises a visual honesty that makes it a closer relative of photojournalism than of fine art photography, though his work bears elements of both. If there's one lesson that I've imbibed from Kertesz's approach to capturing slivers of Life, of reality, it's that the photographer must dare to be true to his subjective experience of whatever it is that compelled him to pause, to look, and to shoot. He must, as it were, repel the invading considerations of public opinion, 'expert' authority, personal legacy and stylistic ambition. Though Kertesz was not immune to these considerations - for one thing he had a deep psychological need for validation of his work and was easily hurt if he felt he had been unjustly denied the recognition he thought he deserved - nonetheless his stubborn refusal to abandon his subjective vision inspires me to remain true to mine.


08 July 2008

Three keys

Three areas of knowledge hold the keys to accessing all the happiness and fulfillment possible to the individual. These are philosophy, psychology and neuroscience. Broadly speaking (with the understanding that there are overlaps between the three), philosophy furnishes the individual with answers to questions concerning how to live well, psychology provides him with explanations of why he acts and thinks the way he does, and neuroscience shows what the physical causes of consciousness and unconsciousness are.

To have even a rudimentary understanding of these three fields of knowledge is to come closer to achieving that often elusive joy and contentment which are the rewards of self-knowledge. When a person is more aware of the how, why and what of his mind and all its facets including his character, beliefs, preferences and consequent actions, he assumes greater control of the direction and form that his unique life takes. Such knowledge is empowering, as empowering as sight restored to the blind.