I wrote a book review, of sorts, last week about Walter Isaacson’s book on Steve Jobs and my concern that biographies, as a genre, celebrate a “great man” theory of history. While I remain convinced that we need more biographies of teams, of successful collaborations (an idea that Nathan Matias furthers in his post today on acknowledgement and gratitude), I do have a dark secret to admit: I periodically dream about becoming a biographer.
This isn’t because I believe in the biography as a form. It’s because there are people I find so fascinating, I’d enjoy spending a couple of years thinking about how they became who they are or were, and how their personal stories give us a picture of what was possible at different moments in time. I asked a room full of students and colleagues who they’d most like to read a biography of, and the responses were a fascinating picture of my friends as individuals and as part of a group trying to invent the field of civic media.
When the question came around to me, I told the room that I wanted to read the biography of Afrika Bambaataa, one of a few men who can reasonably claim the title “Godfather of Hip Hop”. What I didn’t admit is that I’ve periodically considered dropping my academic pursuits and researching this fascinating figure.
We’re getting to the moment in history where thoughtful popular books are being written about hiphop’s early years and innovators – Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop Won’t Stop is extensively researched and thoughtfully written, and Ed Piskor’s Hip Hop Family Tree has a visual style that recalls the early 1980s better than any text could.
Ed Piskor talks about his Hip Hop Family Tree project
Throughout volume one of Piskor’s beautiful history, Bambaataa recurs as an iconic figure, looming over an interchangeable crowd of short-lived MCs and DJs, as a future-looking visionary. Bambaataa was a leader of the Black Spades gang in the Bronx before deciding to dedicate his formidable charisma and organizing skills towards building the Universal Zulu Nation, a group that was part hip hop music and dance crew and part consciousness-raising Afrocentric cosmopolitan social club. Raised in the Bronx River Projects by his activist mother, he traveled to Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea and the Ivory Coast after winning an essay contest run by the New York City housing authority, leading Bambaataa to adopt the identity of an African chieftan, leading his crew of former gangsters into a new artistic life of “peace, love and having fun”.
Throughout the early years of hip hop, Bam was a step ahead of his rivals. Other DJs would look over his shoulder to determine which eclectic selections Bam was using as beats – adopting a trick from DJ Kool Herc, Bam would soak the labels off his records and replace them with labels from unrelated albums, leading rivals to purchase legendarily bad albums in the hopes of replicating his sound. (It’s hard to know whether tales of Bambaataa rocking a party with two copies of the Pink Panther theme are authentic musicology or an unintentional consequence of this tactic.) While other DJs sets had MCs asking the audience their zodiac signs (early hip hop was a direct descendant of disco), Bam was playing Malcolm X speeches over his beats. (I like to think of Keith LeBlanc’s No Sell Out, sometimes cited as the first recording featuring digital samples, as a Bambaataa tribute.) When everyone else followed Bambaataa into the crates, crafting their tracks around James Brown and P-Funk, Bam had moved on sampling Kraftwerk, building “Planet Rock” and inventing the entire genre of Electro.
Planet Rock, 1982
At some point, hip hop stopped following Bambaataa. After about 1986 sampling ruled hip hop, blossoming until it was killed by the Bridgeport Music decision. Electro has influenced every generation of dance music since the early 80s, but you can instantly place any track with rapping and chilly synths as coming from the lost sonic territory of 1982-1985. More tragically, after Bam led gang members out of the streets and into the dance club, Ice-T, BDP and NWA led hip hop out of the clubs and back into the gang life.
“Surgery”, (1984) World Class Wreckin Cru, featuring Dr. Dre. Yes, THAT Dr. Dre. Look it up.
Somewhere there’s a parallel reality in which Afrika Bambaataa is the best known name in hip hop and Dr. Dre is a little-known electro DJ. It’s an alternate dimension where Bambaataa added laser fusion propulsion to P-Funk’s Starship and flew music into orbit around Jupiter rather than having it crash in South Central. In that parallel universe, the Universal Zulu Nation got Angela Davis elected president in 1988 and Bambaataa DJ’d the year-long party to celebrate the intergalactic peace accord of 1999, in which all interpersonal conflicts were put aside towards the shared goals of
“peace, unity, love and having fun“.
Instead, Bambaataa has remained an honored and (insufficiently) celebrated hiphop pioneer, best remembered for one unforgettable track than for his epic social hack in the Bronx or his subsequent activism (including Hip Hop Against Apartheid and Artists United Against Apartheid.) Fortunately, the man is starting to get the respect he deserves, from an unusual corner: academe.
In 2012, Cornell University gave Bambaataa a three-year visiting scholar post. Bambaataa responded by donating his legendary record collection to Cornell’s Hip Hop Collection. This has presented an interesting curatorial challenge – the collection contains 40,000 albums, many of them with notes, flyers, press releases or other materials attached, all of which need to be scanned or digitized for posterity. For the past year, archivists have been cataloging the collection, sometimes in public, in Gavin Brown’s gallery in Greenwich Village.
From a slideshow of the Bambaataa collection on Okayplayer
The public archiving project has attracted a raft of contemporary DJs desperate to spin the Godfather’s discs. Joakim Bouaziz was one of the lucky DJ’s to be invited to the gallery, and he recorded part of his set spinning his favorites from the collection and recording the experience. No need to kick yourself for missing the gallery show – Cut Chemist and DJ Shadow are touring the US and Canada this fall, spinning the records live as part of their work building a Bambaataa tribute mix.
As for the biography? Bambaataa has been promising an autobiography since the mid-1990s. Let’s hope the revival of interest in his records leads to some helpful pressure on the man to put aside pressing Zulu Nation business for a few weeks and explain to us all What Would Bambaataa Do.
While I’m waiting for a Bambaataa autobiography, my guess is that a book that answers the questions I have would need to be biography of social movements at least as much as the story of a single individual. It’s not a coincidence that hip hop grew up in the Bronx at a moment when New York City’s physical infrastructure was crumbling and the Bronx had become synonymous with danger and decay. (Fort Apache, The Bronx came out in 1981, two years after Rappers’ Delight.) The physical and conceptual isolation of the Bronx from the rest of the city and the world allowed a culture to evolve in comparative isolation, which means that a history of Bambaataa needs to be a history of urban planning, of urban poverty and systemic racism, of the US’s housing projects. It would be a history of street gangs in New York as well as a history of Afrocentric philosophy and resistance. It would reach back to The Last Poets and ahead to Native Tongues, explore the rise of P-Funk’s Mothership and Sun Ra to understand “the Afro-Alien diaspora”. It’s more book than I am capable of writing, but damn, I hope someone takes it on.
For a taste of what those Bronx parties sounded like in 1982, here’s a collection of live recordings of early Bambaataa sets.
A friend recently posted a video on Facebook, a 1997 news story from ABC’s Nightline about Tripod, the social media company I helped build in Williamstown MA from 1994-1999. The video sparked a wave of reactions in me: nostalgia for those past days, pride in the accomplishments of the friends I’ve kept up with, regret for losing touch with others, and bafflement that I would choose to wear flannel and overalls to show off our company to the world. (Perhaps my favorite moment in watching the video was discovering that we’d been interviewed by Deborah Amos, NPR’s Middle East reporter, who has subsequently become a respected friend.)
I’m not proud of all of the emotions that I experienced traveling 17 years into the past. Seeing Bo Peabody, our co-founder and CEO, skateboard into the office and declare that we sold “eyeballs” gave me a wash of anger, envy and frustration that characterized much of my time at the company. Bo playing CEO – something he did splendidly – was often intolerable to me when I was in my twenties, and surprisingly uncomfortable for me to watch in my forties.
Like many companies, Tripod was run by a team of executives who worked closely together – Tripod was somewhat pioneering in that our executives were mostly in their mid-twenties, often working our first serious jobs. (I realize that all promising tech companies now recruit VPs from middle school and issue them standard-order Zuckerberg hoodies in kids sizes, but this was still pretty radical in 1997.) Our company succeeded to the extent it did (never profitable, but sold at a good price for our investors, and still survives as a service almost twenty years later) because we had a small, close-knit team of smart people with complementary skills, (One of those people now directs product design at Facebook. Another became chief marketing officer for Adap.tv and Rubicon, two pioneers in online advertising.)
I saw the team, its strengths and weaknesses as core to Tripod’s success. But whenever a journalist did a news story, it became the story of Bo, the founder, the solitary entrepreneurial genius who’d built our company.
I hated this. I thought it misrepresented our company, disrespected not only the contributions of the management team but the work done by the 60 smart people who built our products and served our users. Hearing me rant about this one too many times, Kara Berklich, our head of marketing pulled me aside and explained that the visionary CEO was a necessary social construct. With Bo as the single protagonist of our corporate story, we were far more marketable than a complex story with half a dozen key figures and a cast of thousands. When you’re selling a news story, it’s easier to pitch House than Game of Thrones.
Bo, to his great credit, understood that it was his job to play this role and was good about separating the character and the reality – his reflections on Tripod, Lucky or Smart?, make clear that Bo knew he was lucky enough to assemble a smart team and smart enough to let the team make the important decisions. Having taken on that visible visionary role at nonprofit organizations, I also now understand how often that job sucks, how being the avatar for a vast project forces you to try and manifest qualities that the company has and which you, personally, lack.
I was thinking of this ancient history last week as I worked my way through Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. (In defense of my choice of beach reading – I read several better books on paper that week. But Audible’s selections are a lot more limited, and I wanted something to “read” as I walked on the beach.) Isaacson’s biography, written with Jobs’s cooperation and hundreds of interviews with Jobs, his family, friends and colleagues, is an enjoyable and uncomfortable read. I found it enjoyable because it’s another personal time machine of sorts – reading it, I remember my first time using Apple products, from the venerable Apple II through the laptops and phones I use today. It’s uncomfortable because it becomes increasingly clear that Steve Jobs was an angry, manipulative asshole who slashed and burned his way through the lives of most people he encountered.
Sue Halpern reviewed Isaacson’s book for NYRB and does a better job than I could ever hope to, raising uncomfortable questions about Jobs’s attempts to be both corporate and counterculture, reminding us that Apple’s “Designed in California” is made possible by being “Assembled in China” under often troubling circumstances. My favorite of her observations is that Isaacson manages both to canonize Jobs while revealing his most damning flaws: “.. it is possible to write a hagiography even while exposing the worst in a person.” Jobs saw himself as an artist, Isaacson reminds us, and artistic geniuses are often too strange and pure to peacefully coexist with us lesser mortals.
When Jobs chose Isaacson to write his biography, it’s fair to assume he was aware of the author’s previous subjects: Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein and Henry Kissinger. The first two are routinely cited as exemplars of genius, and Kissinger may have his own dark claims to genius. It’s not hard to read Jobs’s selection of Isaacson as a way of inserting himself into the Pantheon.
Isaacson is happy to assist. The book was rushed into print when Jobs died, and Isaacson wrote a coda, excerpted in the New York Times, to cover Jobs’s death, funeral and legacy. In the New York Times excerpt, Isaacson makes clear that he saw Jobs as a genius, even if he wasn’t always conventionally smart. It was Jobs’s ingenuity and creativity, his ability to see a brilliant technical idea and turn it into something that consumers wanted that characterized his genius, Isaacson argues. One of the major themes of the book is the intersection of the sciences and the humanities – Jobs saw himself as standing at that crossroads, using his acutely honed sense of taste to predict the technical future and inspire the technicians to invent it.
This unusual form of genius, if that’s what it was, makes Jobs a particularly accessible role model for the tech industry. Many people who work on technology for a living are not Wozniak-level programmers. We flatter ourselves that we can contribute to the industry by helping those more gifted at writing code understand the needs of users, the importance of usability, the applicability of technical breakthroughts to unexpected new markets. Perhaps, like Steve, we can “put a dent in the universe” by connecting someone’s technical innovations with new markets.
People who can bridge between engineers and end users are important, necessary and often hard to find. It’s harder than it might appear to build these bridges in ways that respect and appreciate all those involved in building and marketing new technologies. In finding ways to bridge constructively and respectfully, Jobs is a lousy role model much of the time. The answer to “What Would Steve Jobs Do” is often “bully someone” or “throw a tantrum”. Unfortunately, it’s often easier to emulate Jobs’s less attractive personality traits than it is to replicate his design sensibilities.
Taking a break from Isaacson’s book, I read a thoughtful essay by Joshua Wolf Shenk, a preview of his new book, Powers of Two. Shenk argues that the myth of the solitary genius has dominated much of our thinking about creativity and obscures the fact that many people we know as geniuses worked in pairs or in larger teams. Shenk is particularly interested in creative pairings, pointing out that Einstein worked through the theory of relativity with Michele Besso, that Picasso invented Cubism with Georges Braque and that Dr. Martin Luther King co-led the civil rights movement with Ralph Abernathy and others.
There’s a way to read Isaacson’s biography in support of Shenk’s argument. Jobs was most productive as a serial collaborator, and was often disastrously unsuccessful when he wasn’t challenged by a strong partner or a team he respected. Jobs built Apple Computer on the brilliance of Steve Wozniak’s Apple computer, led Pixar to dominance over Disney’s animation business by hitching his star to filmmaker John Lasseter, and reinvented Apple as a music and phone company by partnering closely with Jony Ive. (Search for any of these men and you’ll find a wealth of articles and books declaring them geniuses.) Jobs has been good about crediting these collaborators and, occasionally, teams of collaborators – he saw the Macintosh as a team effort and honored team members at subsequent Apple product launches until his death.
When he didn’t have a strong collaborator or team, Jobs was often lost, as he was when Woz disengaged from Apple after the Apple II, when Jobs founded Next, or during the years Jobs dumped tens of millions into Pixar as a technology company, before Lasseter’s films demonstrating Pixar hardware took the company out of obscurity. In retrospect, this is obvious – Jobs didn’t write code or build prototypes. Instead, he shaped and guided the work that others did, making it better. Without a worthy collaborator, Jobs’s deeply impressive skillset was insufficient and often irrelevant.
It doesn’t lessen Jobs to recognize that creative genius comes from collaboration. Letting go of the idea that Shakespeare was a solitary genius writing masterworks in an attic without outside input and accepting that he was a member of a popular theatre company, incorporating the influences and feedback of other writers and actors into his creations makes him more fascinating to me, not less. Since we don’t have much access to the historical details of Shakespeare’s life, it’s easier to see these collaborative dynamics in modern biographies. Jobs may be one of the best examples of the collaborative genius idea, as the solitary genius narrative simply makes no sense in considering his history. We can imagine Shakespeare alone in a garrett or Einstein puzzling out equations alone at a blackboard, but Jobs alone is just an angry vegan too picky about design to furnish his own mansion.
In writing a biography, it’s natural to lionize the protagonist, if only to explain why she or he merited the author’s attention. Isaacson is better than some in featuring Jobs’s collaborators and influences, but the form ultimately dictates that the book is about a single individual, not pairs and teams of collaborators. The narrative arc is that of Jobs’s life, not the life of the companies he built, the products they created or the industries they influenced.
How do we tell the stories of partnerships and collaborations? Shenk’s book promises to tell the stories of creative pairings, both visible ones like Lennon and McCartney and invisible ones like that of Vladimir and Vera Nabokov. But his essay hints at the intriguing problem of telling stories of more complex collaborations, like the one I experienced at Tripod. How do we tell a story about creativity and collaboration at Wikipedia that doesn’t become a biography of Jimmy Wales? Is there a story about Linux that’s not a portrait of Linus Torvalds, an examination of Free Software that isn’t a character sketch of Richard Stallman? Not only are humans creatures who think in terms of stories, we are social beings, which means there is nothing we are so attuned to as the life stories of successful people.
Nathan Matias, a brilliant poet, literary scholar and software developer (who happens to be my doctoral student) has been working on better systems to acknowledge and credit the dozens of collaborators he’s worked with on his various projects. His personal website features almost a hundred collaborators – clicking on the icon for any of us reveals projects we’ve worked on with Nathan. It’s a first step towards a broader effort at designing acknowledgement on the web, and a key part of Nathan’s research on collaboration that leverages cultural and cognitive diversity. If we want to encourage diverse collaboration (and the end of Rewire makes a case for why we need to do so), we need to figure out how to recognize and celebrate people who work as creative teams, not just those who demand to be celebrated as geniuses.
Steve Jobs changed the world, or at least some highly visible corners of it. The story of his life, his successes and his failures is an important one for anyone who designs products and tools for large audiences. It would be a shame if the message we took from Isaacson’s book were that success comes from arrogance, self-certainty and cruelty. Until someone discovers a better way to write biographies of collaboration, that’s a message many readers will take away.
Once upon a time, there was a blog.
It was written in Amharic, the dominant language in Ethiopia, by a team of young journalists and thinkers who wanted to have an open, public conversation about the future of their nation.
Pictures of some of the Zone 9 bloggers
It’s not especially easy to talk about these issues in Ethiopia. Africa’s second largest country has been ruled by a neo-marxist government (EPRDF – Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democracy Front) which overthrew a brutal military dictatorship in 1991, instilling one-party autocratic rule in its place.
Part of EPRDF’s strategy of control is the silencing of dissent. When students protested rigged elections in 2005, the government blocked all SMS traffic for two years, claiming that opposition activists were using SMS to plan their campaigns. (They were. The real issue is that Ethiopia saw opposition political activity as a threat to regime stability.) Ethiopia briefly had a thriving and energetic blogosphere, but government censorship and harassment of bloggers quickly silenced many of those voices. The country’s independent press has been crippled by Ethiopia’s strategy of imprisoning the strongest journalistic voices, including PEN prizewinner Eskinder Nega, in the country’s notorious Kaliti Prison.
Tens of thousands are held in Kaliti prison, in the outskirts of Addis Ababa. Journalists and other political prisoners are held in Zone 8 of the prison, and they jokingly refer to the rest of the nation, itself in a prison of sorts, as “Zone 9″. Thus the name of the blog: the Zone 9 bloggers are writing from the outer ring of the prison, the nation itself.
Zone 9 member Endalk explains:
In the suburbs of Addis Ababa, there is a large prison called Kality where many political prisoners are currently being held, among them journalists Eskinder Nega and Reeyot Alemu. The journalists have told us a lot about the prison and its appalling conditions. Kality is divided into eight different zones, the last of which — Zone Eight — is dedicated to journalists, human right activists and dissidents.
When we came together, we decided to create a blog for the proverbial prison in which all Ethiopians live: this is Zone Nine.
Ethiopia sees itself in danger of splitting into rival, warring parts. This fear is not unfounded – Eritrea broke away from Ethiopia in 1991 after a thirty-year war, taking Ethiopia’s seacoast with it. (Sadly, Eritrea is also a one-party state notorious for jailing journalists.) Ethnic Somalis in the Ogaden region and ethnic Oromo have been seeking independent states – their armed movements, the ODLF and the OLF are seen as terrorist organizations by the Ethiopian government.
The Ethiopian government does face a real threat from armed militants. But it has a disturbing tendency to label anyone who expresses dissent as a terrorist. Consider Eskinder Nega. Nega’s crime was to report on the Arab Spring protests and to point out that Ethiopia could face similar protests if the government did not reform and open up. He was charged with “planning, preparation, conspiracy, incitement and attempt” of terrorist acts and is now serving an 18 year prison sentence.
The Zone 9 bloggers were understandably scared by Nega’s arrest and prosecution, and the blog went silent for over a year. This spring, they decided they could not remain silent any longer. On April 25th, the government responded by arresting 6 members of the blogging team, and three journalists the government saw as “affiliated” with the bloggers.
The charges against the bloggers give a sense of what the Ethiopian government is fighting: dissent, not terror. Much of the charge sheet focuses on accusations that bloggers traveled out of the country to receive training in encrypting their communications, specifically through using Security in a Box, a package of Open Source software compiled by Tactical Tech, an organization that helps free speech and journalistic organizations protect themselves from surveillance. The Ethiopian government accuses the Zone 9 bloggers of using these tools in an attempt to “overthrow, modify or suspend the Federal or State Constitution; or by violence, threats, or conspiracy.” In fact, the bloggers were using such tools to coordinate their reporting work, hoping to avoid detection and arrest by a paranoid government.
These charges give a sense for how hard it is to work on free speech issues in repressive countries. Global Voices worked with Zone 9 in 2012 to create the Amharic edition of Global Voices. (That edition hasn’t been updated recently due to the imprisonment of our partners.) Four of the bloggers held in Kaliti are Global Voices volunteers. Other members of the team who work with Global Voices are in exile and would be arrested if they returned home. Knowing how dangerous it is to report from Ethiopia, we helped our volunteers find resources like Security in a Box. Our attempts to help create a safer environment for free speech in Ethiopia are now part of the case against our friends.
Compounding the sadness and frustration we at Global Voices are feeling is the fact that Ethiopia is a massive recipient of foreign aid, hosts the headquarters of the African Union and is a key military ally to the US, seen as a stable, Christian bulwark against Somalia. Meles Zenawi enjoyed a warm relationship with the Obama administration (the President’s statement on Zenawi’s death included a cursory mention of human rights after praising Zenawi’s focus on food security), and there’s been little evidence that the State Department has any plans of getting tough with Ethiopia on issues of free speech or human rights.
At Global Voices, we are trying to call attention to the plight of the Zone 9 bloggers, hoping for action from the US State Department to seek their immediate release, and an easing of Ethiopia’s war on independent media. We are asking friends to join in using the #FreeZone9Bloggers hashtag, and to direct tweets to @StateDept.
This is a hard time to call attention to this situation, we know. Ellery Biddle, writing for Global Voices, notes that her Twitter client autofills the hashtag #Free____ with half a dozen choices, many of them our community members. It’s an appropriate time to tweet the State Department to demand Israel protect the safety of civilians in Gaza, or to demand that news media cover the ongoing catastrophe in Syria. In asking for help, I don’t want to lessen anyone’s outrage about other injustice, but to ask for help bringing visibility to the plight of our friends who are otherwise likely to be forgotten in international diplomatic circles.
My regular readers know that I’m a fan of sumo, and am especially interested in the globalization of the sport. The top three rikishi (wrestlers) in Japanese sumo are from Mongolia, and top ranks of the sport have recently featured competitors from Bulgaria, Georgia, Russia, Estonia and Brazil. On the one hand, this is helping a distinctly Japanese tradition gain global audiences, which is a great thing for the quality of the sport. On the other hand, the globalization is in part due to waning interest in the sport by Japanese youth (few of whom are excited about living the highly-regimented life of the sumo wrestler), and globalization may be contributing to waning interest in Japan, as it has been many years since a Japanese rikishi was the top competitor in the sport. (If this topic is interesting to you, you might enjoy a ten minute talk I gave on the subject to Microsoft Research in January 2013, available as video or as my notes.
This is the first week of the Nagoya basho, one of six two-week tournaments that are the heart of the Japanese sumo season, and much of the big news is about a foreign competitor who has recently joined the sport. Abdelrahman Shalan, who competes in sumo as Osunaarashi (which translates as “the great sandstorm”), is a 138kg, 22-year old Egyptian, who is the first Arab, the first African and the first Muslim to compete at the top level of sumo. Osunaarashi came to Japan in August 2011 to compete, and has moved through the ranks very quickly, competing for less than two years at the lower levels of the sport before joining the highest level of competition (maegashira) this past November.
Osunaarashi defeats Harumafuji!
This week, he’s making headlines not for his origins, but for his performance. Yesterday and today, Osunaarashi scored back to back kinboshi, victories of a lower ranked wrestler over a yokozuna, or grand champion. In other words, yesterday and today, Osunaarashi fought the very best guys in the sport and won. It’s worth mentioning that these two matches were the first time Osunaarashi had ever faced yokozuna, which makes the achievement even more impressive.
Kinboshi are relatively rare in sumo. The term means “gold star”, and it refers to the fact that sumo victories and losses are traditionally tallied with white stars for wins and black stars for losses. A gold star signifies a particularly important win. These victories are so rare because yokozuna don’t lose very often – Hakuho, the most senior yokozuna, finishes most tournaments 13-2, 14-1 or a perfect 15-0… and those few losses are usually to other yokozuna or other high-ranked wrestlers (ozeki, komusubi, sekiwake). For an “ordinary” rikishi (i.e., a guy who’s competing in the top league, but hasn’t yet earned a particular rank) to beat a yokozuna is a significant enough achievement that fans usually respond by grabbing the cushions they are sitting on and throwing them into the air. The rikishi is rewarded with a modest, but significant, raise in pay, and the lists of rikishi who have accomplished kinboshi are relatively short and filled with sumo superstars. (Only 9 active competitors have 2 or more kinboshi.)
If you weren’t impressed by the fact that Osunaarashi beat yokozuna the first two times he faced them, leading the Japanese press to call him a “giant killer”, consider this: the man is fasting for Ramadan. Obviously, eating is an important part of sumo – one of the reasons rikishi live and train in communal houses is so they can follow a regimen of eating, sleeping and training that allows them to gain and maintain weight. But sumo training is demanding martial arts training, and in the summer in Japan, wrestlers gulp down water as they train to stay hydrated and cool. During Ramadan, Osunaarashi neither eats nor drinks during the day – in a Japanese-language interview, the head of his sumo “stable”, Otake Oyakata, explains that he hoses Osunaarashi down during workouts to keep him cool when he cannot drink water. Last year, >commentators were concerned that Osunaarashi would not be able to compete for a full 15 days while fasting – the big man went 10-5, and I’ve yet to see a news story this year that even mentions his observance.
I have enormous respect for Osunaarashi, who not only is showing himself as a magnificent athlete, but is introducing the Japanese public to the dedication, intensity and beauty of the Muslim faith. Sumo wrestlers are not just competitors, but celebrities and cultural figures. Osunaarashi is emerging as an ambassador for the Muslim world, appearing as a guest lecturer in university classes and on TV to talk about differences and similarities between Japan and Egypt, between Islam and Shintoism.
I also have great admiration for Otake Oyakata, who has broken some of the traditions of sumo to make it possible for Osunaarashi to compete. Life in the sumo beya is highly ritualized – simply giving Osunaarashi time to pray five times a day is a break from sumo routines. Rikishi eat a rich, pork-heavy stew called chankonabe to pack on weight – the Otake stable now offers a fish-based chankonabe to Osunaarashi so he can gain weight while eating halal. These sound like minor changes, but they’re a big deal for a sport that is deeply rooted in Japanese tradition and extremely slow to change. (Rikishi appear in public wearing kimono and sandals, never in western street clothes, for example.)
My friend Hiromi Onishi, a senior executive with Asahi Shinbum, and I have been bonding over our fondness for Osunaarashi and trading links about him. Hiromi theorizes that Osunaarashi’s popularity in Japan tracks the nation’s engagement with different parts of the world. In the 1980s, Hawaiian sumo wrestlers came to dominate the sport, just as Japanese tourists were beginning to travel to those destinations. As Mongolians came into the sport in the early 2000s and eastern Europeans in the later 2000s, Japan has been increasingly globalized and engaging in trade and travel to these parts of the world. Now, as Japanese hotels learn to provide halal options for Muslim travelers and show other signs of connection to the Muslim world, Osunaarashi emerges as an ambassador.
For those of you meaning to start watching sumo, it’s great to have someone to support. If you’re an African, an Arab, a Muslim, or any other kind of human being, please join me in supporting Osunaarashi. With two kinboshi, he’s likely to win the Outstanding Performance prize in this tournament, and if he keeps his winning ways up, perhaps he can defeat Hakuho as well and take down all three yokozuna. Inshallah!
Thoughtful Quora post from Sed Chapman on the history of foreign rikishi and Japan’s reactions to Osunaarashi.
Kintamayama posts footage of bashos with English title cards – an amazing resource for the sumo fan outside Japan.
Much of my summer reading centers on the idea of civics outside of the conventional bounds of the state. I’m interested in understanding reasons why individuals and groups grow frustrated with traditional state-bound politics, and what forms of civics they explore when they opt out of engagement with the state. I’m fond of extreme cases as a way of understanding the limits of a position, so I’ve been reading about seasteading, the “dark enlightenment” movement, and prepper culture, all of which appear to me to be responses to the perception that existing states are inexorably failing.
These three forms of exit all involve a conscious renunciation of states and their accompanying services and protections. In the case of seasteading and the DE folks, this renunciation is made on an ideological basis, the belief that freedom from state tyranny (defined various ways, but usually through taxation and regulation) requires exit from political systems rather than the use of voice to influence these systems. Preppers see a collapse of existing states, either through political or natural disaster, as inevitable, and preparation to survive the collapse as prudent.
In reading about these movements, I was intrigued to see the phrase “zombie apocalypse” recur as an example of the sorts of disasters that might bring existing states to their demise. Nick Land, one of the central thinkers of the Dark Enlightenment movement, titles a section of his manifesto, “The arc of history is long, but it bends towards zombie apocalypse”, a particularly dark way of stating his reactionary historical thesis. In the prepper community, “zombie apocalypse” is a common enough shorthand for “unspecified disaster” that the US Centers for Disease Control has used Zombie Preparedness as a way to get Americans to talk about more conventional disasters they should prepare for, like tornados or floods.
But zombies are not just another natural disaster, and our anxieties about zombies are more complicated and multilayered than our fears of the implications of global warming. As John Feffer notes, our fear of zombies is a manifestation of our broader fears about globalization and pandemic, and about immigration and “the enemy within”, the post-9/11 anxiety about sleeper cells and the fears that our neighbors will turn out to be homicidally “other”. Accompanying the fears is a set of fantasies. The dream of the well-prepared survivor protecting his or her family from mindless hordes is remarkably similar whether the hordes are composed of fellow citizens less prepared for the disaster, hungry for carefully stockpiled resources, or the undead hungry for brains. The zombie apocalypse is caused when people who look like us, but are not as resourceful/prepared/strong/worthy as us, become the enemy. It’s John Galt’s nightmare, where unproductive moochers rise up to demand food, education, healthcare and eventually the very lives of the more productive and worthy citizens.
The “what’s mine is mine” stance isn’t the only possible reaction to societal collapse, including zombie apocalypse. Jeriah Bowser, who self-identifies as a prepper, has a beautiful response to this selfish view of the comping collapse. His thoughtful piece on teaching wilderness survival to preppers concludes:
I very strongly believe that, in the coming collapse, those who are able to build communities and work together – abandoning their childish, apocalyptic fantasies – will have a much better chance of survival than any Prepper I have come across. Besides, what is “survival” even worth if you are encased in a concrete bunker for years, eating MRE’s and drinking recycled piss water, living in a constant state of paranoia that someone will “take what’s yours?” Not me, I would much rather live my last days actively doing meaningful work with people I love, creating a more beautiful world than the one we left behind; a world that is based on egalitarianism for all species and types of humans, a world built on cooperation, sustainability, simplicity, and freedom. You can keep your bunkers.”)
If we want to move beyond “hide and hoard” approaches, we need to consider the role of large-scale human organization in the face of the zombie threat. While most literature on the undead focuses on individual preparedness and response, it is worth considering the ways in which the zombie apocalypse has consequences for existing states, up to and including, their collapse. Fortunately, political scientist Daniel Drezner has considered the implications of widespread zombie attack and the stresses it would create on states in his seminal “Theories of International Politics and Zombies.” Published in 2011, Drezner’s volume is not only the most comprehensive overview of likely state responses to the rise of flesh-eating formerly dead ghouls, it is also a thoughtful overview of the zombie canon (though clearly an American-centered understanding of the canon that consciously excludes the West African/Haitian view of zombies as living servants enslaved by magic or pharmacology, for example.)
Dresner explores state responses to a zombie pandemic from various philosophical points of view. Political realists, he predicts, will see zombies as a manageable fact of life in a globalized world, more threatening to weak states than to strong ones (much as communicable diseases and famines are.) Liberals will seek cooperation through international institutions and may mitigate and contain the threat of the living dead through regulation, but their insistence on open societies will complicate crisis response by forcing governments to deal with civil society, which may support zombie rights. Neocons will likely incorporate zombies into an Axis of the Evil Dead and turn a disastrous war on zombies into a war on autocrats, likely creating more zombies in the process.
Some of Dresner’s most nuanced analysis comes in the chapter on the social construction of zombies. Referencing thinkers like Alex Wendt, Dresner outlines a constructivist view of zombies based around the core idea that “zombies are what humans make of them”. Under a constructivist theory, zombie and human coexistence is both possible and desirable – the key is to escape existing paradigms that see the rise of zombies as an existential threat to human existence and to seek integration of zombies into human society, much as is accomplished at the end of Edgar Wright’s “Shaun of the Dead”.
In exploring the constructivist approach to zombies, Dresner steps up to the edge of a radical idea, then steps back. Dresner’s serious consideration of human/zombie coexistence is a brave move, though one he’s clearly uncomfortable with. In his literature review, Dresner makes clear “this project is explicitly prohuman, while Marxists and feminists would likely sympathize more with the zombies.” (p.17) In his consideration of liberal, multilateralist approaches to the zombie phenomenon, he warns that the rise of activist organizations to protect zombie rights would likely complicate or prevent global zombie eradication. (p.58-9)
Perhaps due to his inherent anthropocentrism, his suspicion of rights-based theories of politics, or the simple fact that the extant zombie literature had yet to articulate this view, Dresner is not able to consider the idea that perhaps zombification is, perhaps, a desirable next state of human existence. This radical idea is articulated by celebrated novelist Colson Whitehead, whose underappreciated contribution to the zombie canon, “Zone One”, follows a “sweeper” nicknamed Mark Spitz, tasked with clearing lower Manhattan of zombies to make the nation’s most valuable real estate inhabitable once more. “Zone One”, Manhattan below Canal Street, is one of the last safe zones in a United States transformed by zombie attacks.
(SPOILER ALERT – Stop reading here if you’re planning on reading the novel.)
While annihilation is a common theme in the zombie canon, most works focus on the transformation of society by the zombie threat. Protagonists die, but humanity survives. There are simple narrative reasons for this: it’s hard to follow a narrative when all narrators have been exterminated. In Whitehead’s apocalypse, it becomes increasingly clear that humanity cannot survive. Lower Manhattan will fall. At the close of the book, we learn that the narrator’s nickname comes from his inability to swim and fear of water, which has near-perilous consequences as he is trapped by zombies with escape possible only by diving into a stream. (As with all of Whitehead’s work, this is a comment on race in America, a reference to stereotypes of African-Americans not learning to swim.) As the novel comes to a close, waves of zombies, held back by a fragile wall, threaten to swamp Zone One and Mark Spitz realizes that it is time to learn to swim, to dive over the wall and embrace his new life as a zombie. This is suicide, the annihilation of the self, but it is also rebirth, the embrace of a new way of being in the world.
Whitehead’s radical suggestion is that we entertain the idea that it might be okay to become a zombie. That Whitehead continually confronts the idea of otherness by examining what it means to be black in a white world, may invite us to consider this idea purely as metaphor. But read literally, it’s an intriguing concept, though impossible to evaluate as the zombie is constructed as so radically other than we cannot imagine our zombified existence in anything other than cartoonish terms. (Consider how few narratives are offered from the zombie’s eye view – Jonathan Coulton’s “re: Your Brains” is one fine example, but is a reminder that the zombie perspective is so uncomfortable, it must be played for laughs, not serious consideration.)
If we read the zombie as the fear of the immigrant as other, Whitehead’s possible future merits close consideration. Some of the anxiety over the zombie invasion maps to fear of a “majority minority” nation, one where the current “default” white, Anglo-Saxon identity is merely one of many origins and backgrounds that make up a heterogenous whole. Perhaps Dresner needs to offer an update, informed by Whitehead’s addition to the canon, that considers a cosmopolitan framing of the states and zombies question. If cosmopolitanism involves recognizing the validity of other ways of living life and accepting that we may have obligations to those who live differently, perhaps it offers a framework for human/zombie coexistence, and perhaps, a richer, more varied society that recognizes the contributions and perspectives of the differently animated.
More likely, this cosmopolitan framework would rapidly lead to annihilation of human life as we know it. “As we know it” is the key phrase. The radical version of the cosmopolitan stance demands we consider the possibility that a world transformed by zombies is an optimistic future, or perhaps simply a less bleak future than one in which the main form of human existence is self-centered conflict to avoid the zombie onslaught. This is a subtext in virtually all of the zombie canon: the seven occupants of the farmhouse in Romero’s foundational Night of the Living Dead cannot cooperate or compromise, while the zombie horde at their door is remarkably coherent and peaceful, united by their desire for tasty human flesh. If we cannot unite to tackle an existential threat, perhaps we deserve our extinction. Perhaps our unity with the horde is a higher state.
This is why the zombie apocalypse analogy is such a dangerous one. If we cannot imagine a future in which we survive our encounter with the other, our likely response is to hide and hoard, to hunker down, as Robert Putnam describes, in the most extreme (and heavily armed) ways possible. Drezner does us a service in positing a world where we manage a zombie invasion much as we manage any other pandemic, and life is transformed, but still recognizable. But as soon as we posit an other – zombies, terrorists, (welfare recipients and liberals for the DE folks) – whose desire for our extinction is innate, coexistence is impossible, cooperation towards extinction of the threat fraught, and our annihilation inevitable. “A strange game. The only winning move is not to play.”
My wife is one of the bravest people I know.
Almost six years ago, Rachel got pregnant. When we found out, she was in Colorado and I was home in western Massachusetts, and in phone calls and emails we giddily planned for the future. Five days after discovering she was pregnant, she miscarried.
Rachel mourned the end of her pregnancy by writing, processing a set of crushing emotions into a slim volume of poetry, Through. It’s not one she often turns to when she reads in public, but women who need the book seem to find the book, and she hears often from readers for whom the book was a lifeline in a very difficult time.
Not long after, Rachel got pregnant again and gave birth to Drew. In those first weeks of the sleepless, fumbling process of learning how to parent an infant, it was hard to notice Rachel falling into postpartum depression. It was months in, when Rachel was finding it hard to do anything more that nurse and sleep, that friends and family urged her to get help. She did and she got better, producing another book of poetry in the process, Waiting to Unfold.
(When Rachel reads poems from that book, some of the darkest lines get loud laughs from the audience. The level of despair associated with acute depression is hard to understand when you’re not personally plumbing those depths – it’s easier to understand those images as jokes about the dark night of the soul rather than actual dispatches from its depths. I suspect those that really need the poems read them as written.)
In a funny way, Rachel’s bouts with depression and her profound honesty in writing about her experiences have made it harder, not easier, to write and talk about my own depression. Having someone you love go through acute depression can make it easier to see the symptoms of depression in others, but may make it harder to see moderate, high-functioning depression, which is what I appear to be prone towards.
I was depressed for most of 2013, from roughly March through December. (I’m doing much better now – thanks for asking. One way you can tell is that I’m writing about the experience, something I could not have done last year.) Much of the depression coincided with the release of my book, Rewire, which was unfortunate for two reasons. One, I did a lousy job of promoting the book, and two, smart friends counseled me that publishing a book often leads to feelings of loss and mourning, which may well be true, but isn’t the best explanation for what happened to me during those nine months.
I didn’t understand that I had been depressed last year until a natural experiment came along. Every six months, MIT’s Media Lab holds “members week”, where principal investigators open our labs to the corporate, foundation and government sponsors who fund our work. Members week in the spring and fall of 2013 was an utterly miserable experience for me. It took physical effort to haul myself out of my office and talk to the folks who’d come to discuss our work, and I was exhausted for days after from the effort. I’d decided that this was normal – MIT is a high-stress place and members week is one of the higher stress experiences at the Media Lab.
But then I went through members week this spring, which was… fun. A really great time, actually. I’m proud of the work I and my students were showing, excited to see what my colleagues were working on and excited to see friends I have at the companies and organizations that sponsor the Media Lab’s work. I got a second chance at a natural experiment with Center for Civic Media’s annual conference, which we run each June with the Knight Foundation. I remember virtually nothing of 2013’s conference, and I spent a week in bed afterwards. 2014’s conference was a good time intellectually and emotionally, and not only did I manage to feel better after the conference was over than I did on the first day, I also managed to get in a four-mile walk each day before sessions started.
Objectively, there’s a lot that’s harder in my life this spring and summer than there was in 2013 – illness in my extended family, uncertainty about financial support for my research. If mental state were purely a reflection of life circumstances, these meetings should have been harder in 2014 than in 2013. But that’s not how depression works. While depressed, everyday tasks are hard, and social tasks that challenge my introverted nature are extremely hard. They’re not impossible, just highly draining, which is why high-functioning depression is hard to see in others.
These natural experiments have forced me to think about my depression and why it’s been hard for me to see. In retrospect, I now think I’ve had several periods of significant depression since college, and twice have sought professional help. (That I’ve never been put on medication for depression is more a function of my obstinacy and ability to talk my way out of treatment than an objective evaluation of my psychological state.) As I’ve been “coming out” to myself about depression, my closest friends have offered sympathetic versions of “well, duh!”, noting that it’s been clear to them when I’m having a hard time and am not my normal self.
My guess is that my depression is significantly less visible to people who know me only professionally. I’ve never missed work or another professional obligation. I teach classes, give talks, advise students, attend meetings. The difference is almost entirely internal. When I’m my normal self, those activities are routine, easy, and leave a good bit of physical and emotional energy for creativity and expression. When I’m depressed, the everyday is a heavy lift, and there’s little space for anything else. The basic work of answering email and managing my calendar expands to fill any available time in the day. I’m far less productive, which triggers a voice that reminds me that I’m an unqualified impostor whose successes are mere happy accidents and that my inability to write a simple blog post is proof positive that I’m in the wrong place, doing the wrong thing, in need of walking away from my life as currently configured and starting over. It’s an exhausting dialog, one that crops up for moments at a time when I’m well, but can fill weeks and months when I am not.
I think what’s made it hard for me to identify my own depression is having close family and friends who’ve dealt with severe depression. What I’ve experienced isn’t anywhere as serious as what friends have gone through, including bouts of near-catatonia. The problem with having experience with the harrowing and dangerous extremes of mental illness is that the experience of being moderately messed up may not even register on the spectrum. (I’m going to use the term “moderately messed up” to describe only my own experiences, so please don’t give me any crap about the political incorrectness of the term – moderately messed up is how I best understand my experiences.)
There are cases where it’s harder to find help as someone who’s moderately messed up than someone dealing with a more acute illness. About three months into this bout with depression, I decided to give up drinking. I theorized that I might have an easier time navigating this tough patch if I wasn’t rewarding myself for getting through a hard day with a few drinks every night. Thankfully, alcoholism isn’t a forbidden topic anymore, and twelve step approaches like Alcoholics Anonymous have been tremendously effective for many people, including friends and family. (My friend Wiktor Osiatynski’s remarkable account, “Rehab”, helped me understand why many people describe AA as having saved their lives.)
But powerlessness in the face of addiction doesn’t accurately represent my situation. I came up as a “sensible drinker” on the AUDIT questionnaire and other screening tests for alcoholism. While the Denis Johnson fan in me is vaguely disappointed in my largely undebauched lifestyle, the main consequence of my drinking history is an ample beer belly.
I ended up taking a year off from drinking, with very little difficulty, and have gone back to moderate drinking and haven’t found it particularly hard to stop drinking after reaching the limit I’ve set for myself. I recognize that I am deeply fortunate, and I gratefully acknowledge that many people who have trouble with alcohol do have a disease for which abstinence and support is one appropriate response. (New research suggests that cognitive behavior therapy and harm reduction may have at least as positive results.) But it’s harder to find advice and support for the moderately messed up; detox and recovery wasn’t what I needed – I needed help changing my habits and drinking less. (Talking about this question with friends, one pointed me to Moderation Management, which might well have helped. My friend Ed Platt notes, in a thoughtful blog post, that this probably isn’t an appropriate option for people with serious alcohol problems.)
As with my drinking, I am deeply fortunate that my depression is something that’s not life threatening. But that’s allowed me to gloss over long stretches of my life when I’ve not been my best, where daily life is a heavy lift. Identifying the past year as a period of high-functioning depression hasn’t led to the miracle cure or support group, but it’s allowed me to have incredibly helpful conversations with friends who are taking proactive steps to cope with their own depressive tendencies. A dear friend, a brilliant and productive programmer, uses meditation to help him manage depressive spells. I’m finding that walking is critical to my psychological health, as is finding a way to put firmer walls around my work life. (Turns out that the upside of drinking is that makes it very hard to do academic work, forcing an end to your work day. A year without drinking helped me see how flimsy my work/life barriers are.)
So why write about depression? One set of reasons is practical, and selfish. I process by writing, and much of my processing right now centers on these issues. I write better in public than in private, and so this is likely a helpful step for me, independent of whether reading this is helpful for you in any way. And writing about depression here, on the record, makes it harder for me to delude myself the next time I find myself writing off a bout of depression as just “a rough patch.”
It’s possible that writing about depression is also the responsible and helpful thing to do. Rachel talks about her decision to open much of her spiritual and emotional life to her congregation and to her readers, acknowledging that it would be a sin of omission if her congregants didn’t know that her experience of offering prayers of healing was deeply informed by having loved ones in the hospital who she was praying for. There’s a balance, she notes, between sharing emotions and making herself a three-dimensional human for her congregants and leaning on them to shoulder her troubles. My hope is that there’s a way to write about these issues that’s less a call for support (not what I need right now) and more an invitation to talk.
So far, talking about my experiences this past year has led three friends to talk about their own struggles with depression and others to talk about anxiety, mania or other issues they are coping with. The only way these conversations have altered my friendships is to deepen them: I am more likely to turn to these friends the next time I am struggling and hope they will turn to me as well. It turns out that depression is remarkably common in the US, affecting as many as one in ten people in any given year. As Ian Gent observed, nearly everyone in academia is high-functioning. As a result, there is necessarily a large contingent of high-functioning depressives at MIT, likely including some of my students and colleagues. If I can be open and approachable on the topic, perhaps it makes it easier for people to seek me out for help at a university where stress is epidemic and sometimes celebrated. (In the first semester I taught at MIT, two colleagues told me stories of professors who ended up hospitalized for overwork. These stories weren’t offered as warnings – they were celebrations of an admired work ethic. That’s an environment that makes it hard to talk about depression or other mental health issues.)
I’m writing about depression because I can. As John Scalzi has memorably noted, “straight white male” is the lowest difficulty setting in the game of life. Add to that the fact that I’ve got a good job at an institution that is trying to do the right things on work/life balance, with a boss who’s written openly about his relationships with alcohol and other health issues, and it’s simply easier for me to write about these issues without fearing professional consequences than it is for many others. I believe that speech begets speech, and if more people are talking about working through depression, it becomes easier for the next person wrestling with these issues.