Archive for April, 2013

“Der Abschied” (The Farewell) by Gustav Mahler, from “Das Lied von der Erde” (Song of the Earth)

April 19, 2013

This is the final movement of Gustav Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde” (The Song of the Earth), entitled “Der Abschied” (The Farewell).  It is conducted by Otto Klemperer with the New Philharmonia Orchestra; the soloist is Christa Ludwig (1966).

A previous post on this site communicated some of Theodor W. Adorno’s comments on the work as a whole:  that the Lied recalls a “melancholy hope for other stars, inhabited by happier beings than humans,” given that “the earth that has grown remote to itself is without the hope the stars once promised.”

I feel differently than Adorno about the work: the Chinese motifs (unique for Mahler), taken together with the instrumental and vocal beauty and juxtaposed with the content of the accompanying text (itself based on poems written by Meng Haoran and Wang Wei, who lived during the Tang dynasty [7th to 10th centuries CE]), are to me suggestive of a celebration of life and the world’s beauty: against Adorno, and whatever Mahler may himself have said in self-deprecation[1], the magnificence of the work reflects present and future hopes rather than mere past ones.

Doubtless, the movement deals centrally with questions of loneliness and death (“Birds sit motionless on their branches. The world is slumbering! It grows cool in the shade of my fir-trees. I stand and await my friend, I wait for him for our last farewell”), but this emphasis should not be taken in any sort of Heideggerian fashion.  Instead, consider the final words of the movement’s text, themselves apparently added by Mahler himself to the original two poems which served as the basis of the song:

“The beloved Earth blooms forth everywhere in Spring, and becomes green anew! Everywhere and endlessly blue shines the horizon! Endless… endless!”


[1] From the Wikipedia entry on the Lied: ‘Mahler also hesitated to put the piece before the public because of its relentless negativity, unusual even for him. “Won’t people go home and shoot themselves?” he asked.’

Guardian: “Millions face starvation as world warms, say scientists”

April 16, 2013

“World is unprepared for changes that will see parts of Africa turned into disaster areas, say food experts.”

By John Vidal in The Guardian, 13 April 2013

Millions of people could become destitute in Africa and Asia as staple foods more than double in price by 2050 as a result of extreme temperatures, floods and droughts that will transform the way the world farms.

As food experts gather at two major conferences to discuss how to feed the nine billion people expected to be alive in 2050, leading scientists have told the Observer that food insecurity risks turning parts of Africa into permanent disaster areas. Rising temperatures will also have a drastic effect on access to basic foodstuffs, with potentially dire consequences for the poor.

Frank Rijsberman, head of the world’s 15 international CGIAR crop research centres, which study food insecurity, said: “Food production will have to rise 60% by 2050 just to keep pace with expected global population increase and changing demand. Climate change comes on top of that. The annual production gains we have come to expect … will be taken away by climate change. We are not so worried about the total amount of food produced so much as the vulnerability of the one billion people who are without food already and who will be hit hardest by climate change. They have no capacity to adapt.”

America’s agricultural economy is set to undergo dramatic changes over the next three decades, as warmer temperatures devastate crops, according to a US government report. The draft US National Climate Assessment report predicts that a gradually warming climate and unpredictable severe weather, such as the drought that last year spread across two-thirds of the continental United States, will have serious consequences for farmers.

The research by 60 scientists predicts that all crops will be affected by the temperature shift as well as livestock and fruit harvests. The changing climate, it says, is likely to lead to more pests and less effective herbicides. The $50bn Californian wine industry could shrink as much as 70% by 2050.

The report lays bare the stark consequences for the $300bn US farm industry, stating: “Many agricultural regions will experience declines in crop and livestock production. The rising incidence of weather extremes will have increasingly negative impacts on crop and livestock production. Climate disruptions have increased in the recent past and are projected to increase further over the next 25 years.

“Critical thresholds are already being exceeded. Many regions will experience declines in crop and livestock production from increased stress due to weeds, diseases, insect pests and other climate change-induced stresses. Climate disruptions to agricultural production have increased in the recent past and are projected to increase further”.

Lead author Jerry Hatfield, director of the US government’s national laboratory for agriculture and the environment, said that climate change was already causing weather extremes to worsen. Very hot nights, fewer cool days and more heatwaves, storms and floods have already devastated crops and will have “increasingly negative” impacts, he said.

The report follows recent disastrous harvests in Russia, Ukraine, Australia and the US. In 2010, climate-driven factors led to a 33% drop in wheat production in Russia and a 19% drop in Ukraine. Separate climate events in each case led to a 14% drop in Canada’s wheat output, and a 9% drop in Australia.

A separate US government-funded study of the fertile Lower Mekong basin, which includes Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Laos, states that temperatures there could rise twice as much as previously expected, devastating food supplies for the 100 million people expected to live there by 2050. “We’ve found that this region is going to experience climate extremes in temperature and rainfall beyond anything that we expected”, says Jeremy Carew-Reid, author of the Climate Change Adaptation and Impact Study for the Lower Mekong.

Two major food security summits are being held in Ireland, organised by UN World Food Programme, the CGIAR Research Programme on Climate Change and the Mary Robinson Climate Justice foundation.

Ertharin Cousin, the UN’s World Food Programme director, said: “We are entering an uncertain and risky period. Climate change is the game changer that increases exposure to high and volatile food prices, and increases the vulnerability of the hungry poor, especially those living in conflict zones or areas of marginal agricultural productivity. We must act quickly to protect the world’s poorest people.”

Negative Dialectics, Knowledge, Utopia

April 13, 2013


This is the close to the last address contained in the Lectures on Negative Dialectics, a volume that compiles a series of lectures given by Theodor W. Adorno in 1965-1966 on questions associated with concerns he would contemplate in his eponymous magnum opus, Negative Dialectics (1966).  The Lectures are edited by Rolf Tiedemann and translated from the German by Rodney Livingstone (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2008, p. 181-2):

“Knowledge, which desires content, is really in search of utopia.

It [utopia], the consciousness of possibility, clings to whatever has not been disfigured.  The way to utopia is barred by the possible, never the immediate reality.  This is why it always appears abstract in the midst of existing reality.

It is served by thought, a piece of existence that, negative as always, reaches out to that which is not.

Phil[osophy] converges to this point: at the uttermost distance, which alone would be proximity.

It is the prism in which its colour is captured.”

“Anarchism or annihilation”

April 6, 2013


In Wayne Price’s newly published The Value of Radical Theory: An Anarchist Introduction to Marx’s Critique of Political Economy (AK Press, 2013), his seventh chapter is entitled “Socialism or Barbarism?”  Therein, Price discusses Rosa Luxemburg and Marx and Engels, among others, on the question of the prospects for social revolution vs. collective destruction and the suicide of humanity.  In this discussion, Price also presents Murray Bookchin’s brief, simple, and witty counter-positioning of the historical alternatives, one that was previously unknown to me, which I share here:

“Anarchism or annihilation.”


“Extinción 2,” Santi Armengod

Eroticism and egalitarianism among bonobos, illustrated

April 6, 2013

This graphic is taken from “The Left Bank Ape: An Exclusive Look at Bonobos,” written by David Quammen with photographs from Christian Ziegler, a piece that appears in the March 2013 National Geographic (p. 104).  It plainly contrasts some of the behavioral differences between the more aggressive and hierarchical chimpanzees (whose native habitat lies on the northern side, or right bank, of the Congo River in equatorial Africa) and the more ludic, sexual, and egalitarian bonobos (Pan paniscus, who reside south of the Congo River).


The graphic indicates that bonobos are more matriarchal where chimpanzees are patriarchal, and that sex is often used among bonobos to resolve conflict, among a myriad of other uses for such practice!

As Quammen writes in the text, opening with a quote from Dutch-American biologist Frans de Waal:

“‘Whereas the chimpanzee shows little variation in the sexual act, bonobos behave as if they have read the Kama Sutra, performing every position and variation one can imagine.’  For instance, they mate in the missionary position, something virtually unknown among chimpanzees.  But their sexiness isn’t just about mating.  Most of those variations are sociosexual, meaning that they don’t entail copulation between an adult male and an adult female during her fertile period.  The range of partners includes adults of the same sex, an adult with a juvenile of either sex, and two juveniles together […].  Usually there’s no orgasm culminating these activities.  Their social purpose seems to be communication of various sorts: expression of goodwill, calming of excitement, greeting, tension relief, bonding, solicitation of food sharing, and reconciliation.  To that list of benefits we might also add sheer pleasure and (for the juveniles) instructional play.  Varied and frequent and often nonchalant, sex is a widely applied social lubricant that helps keep bonobo politics amiable.  De Waal again: ‘The chimpanzee resolves sexual issues with power; the bonobo resolves power issues with sex.'”

PS To take such information from National Geographic is in no way to overlook legitimate criticisms of the magazine, the most devastating of which I consider to be Reading National Geographic by Catherine A. Lutz and Jane L. Collins (1993).

Counterpunch Repost: “Syria Teeters on Obama’s ‘Red Line'”

April 6, 2013

This essay by Nile Bowie, published originally in Counterpunch on 22 March 2013, provides a useful corrective to much of the mainstream media’s portrayal of the ongoing conflict in Syria.  I do not think I agree with Bowie here on everything (particularly on civilian casualties, as in his antepenultimate paragraph), but overall I find his argumentation important, and so I repost it here, hopefully without violating copyright, etc.


Syria Teeters on Obama’s “Red Line”

The pages of history tell us that beautiful civilizations emerged and prospered in the ancient cities of Damascus and Aleppo, some of the oldest continually inhabited cities on earth. The harrowing circus of brutality that is the Syrian conflict, now in its third year, will soil and blacken those pages indefinitely. No matter the political outcome of this horrible war, a once tolerant and diverse state has been shattered and terror itself has eaten into the destiny of Syria’s people, inexorably changing the courses of their lives forever. Children have been orphaned; parents have faced the loss of their children – and by uncompromising means. Infants have been beheaded, the fates of innocent men and women have been sealed through summary executions, and families have been torn apart or destroyed all together. Recent developments in Syria are alarming.

Spokesmen of the Assad government recently accused foreign-backed militants of launching scud missiles containing chemical weapons in the city of Aleppo, killing dozens. Witnesses claim to have seen powder emanate from the rocket, causing those who inhaled the substance to suffocate or require immediate medical attention. An unnamed chemical weapons expert cited by Al-Jazeera claimed that the causalities were not consistent with Syria’s reputed stockpile of chemical agents, stating, “If it’s a chemical warfare agent, it’s not working very well.” Syria’s ambassador to the UN, Bashar Ja’afari, called on the UN Secretary-General to form an independent technical mission to investigate the use of chemical weapons by terrorist groups operating in Syria.

While on his first state visit to Israel, Barack Obama cast doubt and expressed deep scepticism toward the Assad government’s version of events, stating that if the government did indeed use chemical weapons, then it meant a “red line” had been crossed. Obama vowed not to make further announcements until concrete facts were established. What this essentially means is that Obama is now in a position to act on his statements and intervene more boldly and directly than the United States has already been doing since the beginning of the conflict. Additionally, NATO personnel have also indicated that they are prepared to employ a wide range of operations. US-European Command Admiral James Stavridis recently told media that the alliance was “prepared, if called upon, to be engaged as we were in Libya.”

Those who have critically monitored the situation from the beginning are under no illusions. The way in which mainstream media sources have covered the Syrian conflict, perhaps more so than any other topic in recent times, shows unequivocally how certain content providers have moved in step with the foreign policy of the Western and Gulf states who have enabled insurgent groups and provided diplomatic cover for opposition politicians who represent their economic and strategic interests. The Obama administration’s policy toward Libya and Syria eyes the same familiar endgame as what the Bush administration sought in its foreign policy adventures. The fact that many of those on the left who campaigned against Iraq and Afghanistan are now generally silent, or even supportive of Obama’s agenda, is proof that his policies have been packaged far more intelligently for mainstream consumption. The reality is that Syria is “Shock and Awe” by other means.

There are a myriad of reasons why Bashar al-Assad must go in the eyes of policy makers in Washington and Tel Aviv, and the destruction of his tenure could not have been possible without the financial muscle of Saudi Arabia and Qatar’s wretchedly opulent Sunni Monarchs. These glittering kingdoms of disaster-capitalism are not only responsible for supplying weapons and cash; a major incentive of theirs is exporting the Wahhabist and Salafist ideologies that many of Syria’s imported jihadists subscribe to, a warped and primal interpretation of Islam that has fueled the sectarian nature of the Syrian conflict and deepened social divisions to their most dangerous point – in a country that was once renowned for its tolerance of religious diversity. These Gulf kingdoms, which are more-or-less given a trump card to commit deplorable human rights violations institutionally, are also responsible for propping up the political arm of their militant foot soldiers, and that comes in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Syria’s opposition coalition, which is itself entirely a creation of foreign powers, has recently elected its own interim prime minister – enter, Ghassan Hitto, a virtually unknown political novice with a US passport and a computer science degree from Purdue University. Hitto is an Islamist Kurd with strong ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim Brotherhood has politically dominated the Syrian National Council since its creation, in addition to organizing tactical elements of the insurgency. The backbone of the Brotherhood’s relationship with the medieval monarchies of the Persian Gulf is grounded in a firm opposition to Shi’a Islam, as extolled by clerical leaders in Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah; Assad himself is also an Alawite, an offshoot of Shi’a Islam. It should be clear enough by now how enflaming sectarian divisions in the region was a prerequisite for those bank-rolling the insurgency, aimed at demolishing the secular Syrian state.

Several high-profile members of Syria’s opposition coalition boycotted the vote for interim prime minister, citing what they viewed as a foreign-backed campaign to elect Hitto. Kamal Labwani, a veteran opposition campaigner, was reported as saying, “We don’t want what happened in Egypt to happen in Syria. They hijacked the revolution.” Those who abstained from the vote accuse Hitto of being a puppet of the Muslim Brotherhood, and that the SNC’s decisions were being dictated from the outside. Walid al-Bunni, another senior figure in the opposition, stated, “The Muslim Brotherhood, with the backing of Qatar, have imposed their prime minister candidate. We will keep away if the coalition does not reconsider its choice.” Let’s just get this straight – Assad, a leader whose presence today is a testament to the fact that he continues to enjoy majority popular support, is considered to have lost his legitimacy. On the other hand, Hitto, a man with no political experience who received 35 votes out of 49 ballots cast during a Syrian National Coalition meeting, is supposed to be legitimate representative of the Syrian people?

These realities can only be interpreted as the boot of the so-called “International Community” squashing the face of the Syrian people, imposing on them a man who does not represent them, but the business interests of multinational corporations who seek to plant their flags in the soil of a post-Assad Syria. Let’s not humor ourselves by thinking John Kerry, William Hague, Laurent Fabius or Qatari Emir Khalifa Al Thani actually care about the people of Syria. However many casualties the Syrian conflict has incurred thus far can be attributable to the influx of foreign funds, foreign arms, and foreign fighters. It would be intellectually dishonest to deny that the tactics of Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian Arab Army have also caused widespread civilian causalities and suffering. It is an enormous challenge for a state military to quell unconventional insurgencies of the sort carried out by militants in Syria when these battles take place in densely populated residential areas.

One should not cynically credit Syrian government forces with intentionally killing their own people; this does not serve the purposes of the state in anyway. Civilian deaths that have occurred as a result of government forces engaging the insurgency should more accurately be seen as a heinous by-product of a foreign campaign to topple the Syrian government. While the foreign ministries of Western capitals cite politically charged death-toll statistics to justify their campaign against “Assad the Butcher”, it is absolutely unconscionable that Paris and London have called for lifting the Syrian arms embargo, and for vowing to arm militant groups with or without the consent of the EU. Apparently some seventy thousand people have been killed in Syria according to the United Nations, and these cited European states, which allegedly are so concerned about terrorism, want to dump more guns into Syria – this is madness.

Western states want to install proxy leaders who will grovel to their multinationals and swallow IMF medicine, Gulf states seek unfettered hegemony in their own backyards, and they all want to see the Shi’a resistance smashed to pieces. Following the news of chemical weapons being used in Syria, the most immediate conclusion of this observer is that foreign-backed militants, who have used every opportunity to call for more material and support, employed the use of a smuggled chemical weapon of poor quality to bring about direct military intervention in their favor. Right on cue, Senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain are frothing at the mouth, urging President Obama to “take immediate action” and consider deploying troops. Graham was quoted as saying, “If the choice is to send in troops to secure the weapons sites versus allowing chemical weapons to get in the hands of some of the most violent people in the world, I vote to cut this off before it becomes a problem.”

There is no surer sign of a pathological mind than when one credits others with the blood on their own hands.

Nile Bowie is an independent political analyst and photographer based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He can be reached at