Eurasia Newsletter

bringing the minds of Asia, Canada and Europe together

Month: April, 2016

When science meets culture

Claude Shannon was born just a century ago. He was an eccentric American genius who, among other things, studied the mathematics of juggling and built an “ultimate machine” the only action of which was to reach out and turn itself off when it was turned on. But he is best remembered for developing Information Theory in 1948. This turned out to be of great importance. Not only did it provide a basis for work with the new computing machines that were being developed at the time, but it influenced a whole range of sciences – in fact, it would be hard to think of a science that it didn’t influence. Yet one wonders if the whole craze wasn’t just a recycling of old cultural patterns.

Shannon always emphasized that he was interested in information only as an engineer; that is, he wanted to know how it might be transferred between machines. Now this kind of transfer could be called communication, but it had little to do with human communication. Shannon was not interested in meaning. His definition of information did not include meaning as it was not quantifiable. Information was just how much or how little you told me that I didn’t know before – which was quantifiable.

Yet soon enough information theory was on the radar of every science. Not just physics, where it seemed information might be some kind of basic element like energy. In the social sciences, they talked about information being transferred within and between social systems. In linguistics in particular, they started accounting for language in terms of information. They conveniently forgot about Shannon’s discounting of meaning, which surely is the key element in language. If you read the linguistics textbooks and the structuralist gurus of the 1960s, Information Theory is all there, cited again and again like a revelation from on high.

But the most important and lasting influence of Information Theory was in the new science of molecular biology. After Watson and Crick discovered the double helix, Nirenberg and Matthaei “cracked the code” of DNA. It turned out to be a code with combinations of letters. François Jacob extended this with “messenger” RNA. Linguists (who should have known better) as well as others toyed with the idea of language being just one instance of patterning in life and in the universe, a patterning which turns out to be – information.

Molecular biology got a further boost around the turn of the millennium with the project of the human genome. Now there was all kinds of talk about the Book of Life. A very Biblical-sounding phrase, to be sure. As historian of science Lily Kay pointed out, the language/code/book-of-life complex is a metaphor, which turns out to be a reworking of age-old commonplaces in philosophy. Molecular biology could operate without this, but just uses it as a convenient mythology.

Mythologies like this are dredged up from the past of human thought – maybe from the collective unconscious – and form the cultural side of science, which is too often underestimated. Science – even so-called “hard” science – is not as pure and unaffected by culture and ideology as we like to think.

Trojan horse to gallop into sunset?

The British, as is well known, are soon to vote in a referendum on whether to leave the European Union or stay.

Writing in the Montreal paper Le Devoir, the commentator Martin Poëti puts things bluntly: Britain does not belong in Europe. Europe is better off without it. And the British would be happier just being a part of the Anglo-Saxon world.

Culture, history and language weigh more in the balance than geographical proximity. In having Britain in the EU, he says, the Europeans “have confused geography with culture.”

He goes so far as to say that Britain in the EU is nothing but a Trojan horse for the Americans. Europe needs to be independent of the USA and have its own voice, expressing its own peculiar “genius”.

Poëti has his own definite ideas about what this genius is and where its natural borders lie. Russia does not belong, he says, because it is too big and an entity of its own (Eurasia again?); nor does Turkey, which belongs in the Middle East. Within the Western world thus restrictively defined, there are and should be two rival camps, Europe and North America. This tension is “a source of enrichment for all Westerners”, he concludes. A thoroughly Western perspective, as can only be expected from a Quebecker who evidently sees himself as a little bit of Europe in North America.

Poëti is right when he points out that culture trumps politics, economics and even geography. For culture has been around for a long time, so culture involves history – with culture shaping history and history shaping culture – and it does not change all that quickly or all that much.

If Britain was all alone in the world, then it would pitch in to the European project without a murmur. But as Poëti emphasizes, it is difficult for Britain to be a part of Europe, because it has the counterweight of the English-speaking world pulling it away in a centrifugal manner. The British can indulge their illusions of absolute independence, because they live in that English-speaking world and can pretend there is no other.

Of course, the politicians in Britain won’t talk much about cultural issues in the referendum campaign. They will produce economic arguments to say “we’re better in – or better out – because we’ll be better off.”

Then again, there is an aspect of all this that Poëti does not consider. Surely the USA would not relish having to deal with a Britain-less Europe. It’s nice for America to be able to deal with someone who speaks the same language (both literally and figuratively). One can imagine the British wooden horse galloping across the Atlantic like Pegasus and turning up outside the American stockade, neighing eagerly and wanting to be let in. Uncle Sam looks down over the gate, strokes his long white beard, takes off his top hat and scratches his head in perplexity. “What the hell are you doin’ here?” he growls finally. “Get back over there inside the walls of Troy where you belong!”







Vancouver: liveable, but not affordable

People are being priced out of Vancouver. On the one hand, you read in the Canadian and European press that Vancouver is one of the most liveable cities in the world, and on the other hand, you read that Chinese millionaires looking for offshore investments are buying up all the houses and driving ordinary Vancouverites out of the housing market. Canadian government at all levels – federal, provincial, even municipal – has been keeping a remarkably low profile on this issue, not wanting to interfere with the workings of the market or appear to discriminate against the incoming Chinese buyers.

After Hong Kong was given back to China in 1999, Canadians started joking about Vancouver becoming “Hongcouver”, with panicked emigrants from the former British colony joining the already numerous contingent from Hong Kong and its Cantonese hinterland in the West Coast city. The idea was that Vancouver would become as ethnically and culturally Chinese as Hong Kong.

Vancouver may well be on the way to becoming another Hong Kong, but not in the way Canadians imagine. A more radical change is in the works. Far from being just an “immigration gateway” as it is currently considered, Vancouver seems destined to become what Hong Kong became in the nineteenth century: an entrepôt port, a colonial foothold, a “concession” even, like the European concessions in imperial China. Only now the boot is on the other foot.

Vancouver, like many big cities, is becoming a place of mobile international élites which have nothing to do with the immediate hinterland. It has been observed how multicultural and ethnically diverse Vancouver is in comparison with its vast hinterland, the Interior of B.C., where the towns consist of nothing but the old-style “white guys and a few Indians”. It’s a different world out there.

In The Revolt of the Elites the late American writer Christopher Lasch noted that the big city is being reshaped by moneyed elites associated with the new globalized economy. To them the big city – anywhere in the world – is a place to work and play, and they rank it in terms of its “liveability” and “world-class” amenities. They are the exact opposite to the ordinary Joe who is rooted in his own location and country.  But this is a contest the ordinary Joe is unlikely to win – for the wind is blowing the other way.


Out of space and silence

Westerners find a certain Oriental art, notably Zen-inspired art, to be strikingly minimal. There is so little of it there, it is over so soon. Think of a Japanese garden with almost nothing in it. Whereas in the West the artist creates a monumental work full of detail, and rejoices in the resistance of the medium to his tools:

Chisel and carve and file,
Till thy vague dream imprint
Its smile
On the unyielding flint

as George Santayana says in his translation of Gautier’s poem L’Art.  The Oriental artist, the Zen artist, on the other hand, contents himself with a quick calligram, a landscape made up of a few suggestive strokes.

You can just imagine the artist doing it. So much the better if you see him do it. You can see the flickering strokes of the brush, the form taking shape. Jean-François Billeter, the Swiss sinologist, has said that the Chinese ideogram seems to emerge from the white space of the paper; the space is more than two-dimensional, it is full of potentiality, it is ready to receive just this character, and the result looks three-dimensional, as if it somehow had depth.

The white space of the paper is like Plato’s chora, the receptacle, the mother of all things, in which ideas germ to become their copies, the things of this earth. It is not just empty space, an empty surface stretching in all directions, it is a living body that vibrates in response to what it receives from above.

So too voice is powerful when we hear it against a background of silence, when we hear the silence around the words, in fact when we hear the sound emerging from silence – like it does when you hear a poem read by a gifted actor. The emergence of the voice from the silence is like the emergence of the calligraphic ideogram from the empty space of the blank page. Sound is to silence as ideogram is to white space. We can see both sides of this at work in language – for language is both spoken sound and written character.

Zen art tends to be minimal, because it is always emerging from nothingness. It comes out of the nothingness of space, or out of the nothingness of silence, and as it does so before our very eyes, as it were, it is still full of its background of nothingness and points back to it.

It seems to be saying to us: “I come from nothing. I go back to nothing. That is how it has to be. Nothing to lament about. It is good so.”