January 28, 2003

A love letter to France

A love letter to France by David Warren expresses some of my own feelings. The joy of coffee and culture in France when living day-to-day in England... writing post-cards at La Samaritaine by the Seine to friends in Canada living through an ice storm... shopping for books or discs at FNAC... let's not forget the Marais... and yes, the idiosyncratic vision of customer-service or protection of culture. But it is his ideas about Canada in comparison which catch my eye this morning. He is right about the common conflation of multiculturalism with "ethnic" restaurants and it is true the French only send us their cooking wine unfit for washing of windows let alone a refined French palette.

I am struck by Warren's idea that Canada is a Norman country, both Norman English and Norman French:

Our essential personality was not English nor French but Norman, plus some Celts thrown in from Scotland, Eire, and Brittany, just for the thrill. Northern, boreal, monarchic, understated, battleship grey and sublime -- that was Canada (though it is now grown ridiculous).

My Toronto-centric perspective on Canada is manifestly multicultural - more culturally diverse even than New York or Los Angeles - and so arguably is of a post-Norman Canada. But I fail to see how Canadian Babylon has grown ridiculous. If our international stature has decreased it has done so under the stewardship of old Anglophone and Francophone elites. If multiculturalism as policy is problematic it is no more so than any other bureaucratic misunderestimation of the complexity of life and language. And if multiculturalism as a lived fact is no more than "ethnic" restaurants I think this says rather more about the author's failure of curiosity than the virtue of so many perspectives. I suggest Warren read Michael Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion and think again about the merits of Norman Canada's old battleship grey.

Posted by the Flea at 08:14 AM | TrackBack (0)

January 23, 2003

The Gododdin

The Gododdin were a Brythonic tribe living in the region of what is now Edinburgh remembered chiefly for a disastrous cavalry raid to Catraeth (Catterick) around the year A.D. 600. Their glorious defeat - a recurring Celtic trope - was recorded in an epic poem by Aneirin, perhaps the only survivor of the raid.

I first came across Gododdin more than ten years ago through Brith Gof and Test Department, two performance-art ensembles who staged a musical interpretation of the poem in an abandoned car factory in Cardiff. I came across this performance again through Theatre/Archaeology, a book by Mike Pearson and Michael Shanks. Shanks is an archaeologist whose work incorporates interesting ideas about photography and landscape while Pearson was a member of Brith Gof who is currently a professor of performance studies but trained as an archaeologist.

The poem found its way to me again this morning when I came across Kenneth Jackson's 1969 translation and interpretation. This appears to be the edition used by Test Department and Brith Gof to stage the piece:

"The uprising of warriors, they gathered together, together with single purpose they attacked; short were their lives, long the grief for them among their kinsmen; they slew seven times as many of the English. In battle they made women widows, and many a mother with tears at her eyelids."

Jackson's translation is sub-titled: "the oldest Scottish poem," a claim he defends by pointing out it was probably first written in a region which is part of contemporary Scotland. The Gododdin were, however, speakers of a form of proto-Welsh and it is in Wales that the epic poem has been preserved. Muddled claims to "ownership" of mythical figures are common. I had to turn off Disney's version of the Arthur story when the film claimed the rightful owner of Excalibur (Calinburn to the Welsh) would be "king of all of England." This irritated me even more than Kevin Costner's on-again, off-again American accent as Robin Hood. Regardless of the mythic or historic truth of the Arthur legends he was a Brythonic war-leader attempting to fight off the invading English. Disney's error may be the simple conflation of England with Britain or reflect an underlying appropriation of the hero by the conquerors. The same phenomenon later happens to the English (in their proto-English manifestation as Angles, Saxons and Jutes) when their resistance-leader Robin Hood is appropriated in the romances popular with the descendants of Norman aristocracy.

Even so, there is a factor which makes it hard to knit-pick over this sort of detail: the historical accuracy of the Gododdin epic. The poem makes much of the personal valour of the participants in the massacre at Catraeth but does little to place the conflict in context.

"Three hundred men hastened forth, wearing gold torques, defending the land - and there was slaughter. Though they were slain they slew, and they shall be honoured till the end of the world; and of all us kinsmen who went, alas, but for one man none escaped."

I can readily imagine my anscestors getting liquored up and charging off to fight 600 against 100,000 in certain knowledge of defeat. The idea of there being a sole-surviving poet, however, strikes me as meeting the technical anthropological criteria of "bullshit." Aneirin probably never had to buy another beer in has life after his glorious failure. A Welsh friend of mine once imagined a scenario where each of us would have tried the same beer-related bardic strategy only to run across each other in some dark ages pub. "You're the last survivor of Catraeth? That guy over there said he was the only survivor of Catraeth..." Some quick thinking would ensue: "Hey buddy! I had no idea you made it!"

Posted by the Flea at 02:28 PM

January 18, 2003

Sorted pattern ground

"Sorted pattern ground" is a form of self-organization which is new to me as are the arctic stone circles produced by this process (via Cronaca). UC-Santa Cruz earth scientist Mark Kessler describes an iterative process of frost heave combined with particular stone and soil conditions.

Posted by the Flea at 12:14 PM

January 17, 2003

Voices of Light

Richard Einhorn's Voices of Light was written as a score for the once thought-to-be-lost film The Passion of Joan of Arc. It is majestic and sad and somehow perfect for the brutal cold outside. I gather there is now a DVD of the film... a good thing as I missed fleeting theatrical runs of the film release in both London and Toronto.

Posted by the Flea at 11:55 PM

The oldest wreck ever found in the Black Sea

The oldest wreck ever found in the Black Sea is a snap-shot of life in the golden age of ancient Greece.

Posted by the Flea at 08:18 PM

New host for The Flea

(This was my first post upon moving to Blogspot)

Why the new host? I need the archive function and the permalinks.

Sorry for the change in URL... and for the less snappy interface. Once I have sent Blogger some money I can start fiddling again. For now it's all archaeology (etc.) all the time.

Posted by the Flea at 05:47 PM

January 12, 2003


Pamphleteering might be a good metaphor for second-wave bloggers. The term was suggested to me by the chair of my department this morning before I had enough coffee in my system to appreciate it properly. Dan Bricklin works through the metaphor in a comparison of contemporary personal websites and pamphleteering in the American Revolution. The polemical style and political content of many blogs - particularly those addressing issues of globalization or terror since 9/11 - seem a neat fit. I would hesitate to suggest that blogging was just pamphleteering, however, as this communication revolution lets pamphlets travel much further afield much more quickly. There is also the persistance of those first-wave techies and green bloggers to consider... Bricklin concludes with several caveats offered by a co-worker: pamphlets had large print-runs compared to the average blog whose redundancy is limited to one server; paper has a track-record of durability which is impressive compared to electronic data, and; paper is relatively "autonomous" in comparison to the tech needed to access a weblog.

Posted by the Flea at 10:47 PM

My reading list this week

My reading list this week included... a source-book on the Illuminati (in jest), a translation of the Gospel of Thomas (in earnest) and Julian Steward's Theory of Culture Change (in class).

Posted by the Flea at 09:33 PM

January 10, 2003

Heroism and "national self-interest"

HEROISM AND "NATIONAL SELF-INTEREST" are the subject of a post by Brink Lindsey (via Instapundit). Lindsey's comments are inspired by a reading of Peter Green's The Greco-Persian Wars, and specifically Green's account of Themistocles' leadership of Athens against Persian domination. Was Themistocles right - let alone heroic - in his decision to risk the safefy of Athens in a bid to resist Persian hegemony? Or would the wiser course been to capitulate? Can we judge his decision at all with the benefit of a hind-sight Themistocles could not have?

Lindsey is right to draw a comparison between Themistocles' decision and that of Churchill's England to face down over-whelming odds to defy Nazi Germany. Virtue and self-interest may seem to be opposed when "doing the right thing" is a choice in opposition with survival. Lindsey opens the question for debate rather than suggesting an easy answer. I believe, however, he and some of his readers reach too quickly for biological grounds to justify this or that moral choice or one or another survival-related decision.

I have a friend whose favourite pointless bar-argument is to claim loudly that everyone always acts selfishly. Even apparently selfless acts, he claims, are ultimately grounded in self-interest or for personal pleasure. He never fails to find someone who is willing to argue the point. My friend's argument is grounded in the claim we are all "only" animals acting for our personal survival and that any interpretation of an individual's acts to be selfless is to deny a fact of our biology. In this light, selflessness is delusiory and a kind of false relationship to ourselves and the world.

I believe he is mistaken on two points. First, there is no inconsistency between apparently selfless acts and the fact of our biology. The theory of inclusive fitness can account for the evolution of selflessness as an adaptive strategy. Simply put, the genes of which we are composed are shared with other humans (particularly close relatives) and in acting for the benefit of other humans (particularly those we perceive to share our genes) our genes may be passed on even if we as individuals risk death that they may do so. I would take the argument further. We share something like 70% of our genes with banana trees... perhaps inclusive fitness is a property of adaptation which extends ultimately to all living things (if somewhat tenuously the less obvious the genetic relationship). My addition is intuitive, arguably mystical and difficult to support given the chicken I ate today, thereby hampering that chicken's adaptive success. Even if this last point is open to debate there is little controversy among biologists that inclusive fitness can account for many apparently selfless acts. On this point my friend's recourse to biology in his apologia for cynicism is unwarranted.

But he is wrong on a more important point: we are never "only" animals. I do not mean by this that we humans are qualitatively different from other animals in some moral relationship to evolutionary processes. I mean that in even the most cynical interpretation of evolutionary processes we as animals never experience those processes directly. Yes, I can know intellectually that the majority of my ancestors were anaerobic bacteria. Yes, I can know I am something like 98.6% chimpanzee. I can even know my every action is guided by "selfish genes" blindly replicating in a host - my body - whose experiences are only ever secondary to the success or failure of those genes to replicate. But those experiences are never secondary to me. Perhaps I am nothing more (or less) than an illusion sustained as an emergent process of a multitude of chemical reactions, the happenstance of the laws of physics in this universe and ephemeral given the time-span of events going on around me. So what? If acts are selfless "only" in relationship to our limited human perspective I ask: what other perspective are we supposed to have? Far from being naive or credulous in the face of blind biology I say that it is our human experience of heroism and selflessness which best defines us. Biology produces the very heroism my friend would ascribe to false consciousness. His nihilism finds no analog, let alone justification, in nature.

I posted a comment to Lindsey's blog:

"Themistocles' heroism not only saved his city and heralded a golden age. His heroism saved a future - our civilization - of which he could not have been aware. How great then is our duty to safe-guard an unknown future?"

Posted by the Flea at 06:22 PM

January 07, 2003

The Chinese "discovery" of America

THE CHINESE DISCOVERED AMERICA, claims Gavin Menzies. This "mishmash of off-base conclusions drawn from amateurish research" was worth a half-million pound (about US$800,000) advance to Bantam/Transworld. I wonder what they would advance for a book about the Chinese discovery of Canada? Rather less, I suspect. I cannot comment on Menzies' claims directly as I have no intention of reading his book. Chinese treasure fleets of the fifteenth-century seem to have travelled as far as east Africa before this brief Chinese age of discovery was reversed by imperial policy. If some equivalent endeavour was launched to the Americas it has left no substantial evidence and, more important in my view, had no consequence.

I have been surprised at a particular reaction I recieve when my archaeology teaching turns up in conversation. I have been assured alien intervention was necessary to build a variety of pyramids around the world, unrecorded flight was necessary for buidling Tibetan lamaseries and the Olmec civilization of mesoamerica was engaged in trade with ancient Egypt. Perhaps the Olmec were Africans... no wait, they were Chinese! And what's with the penis-size comparison of Chinese and European sea-going vessels? I am baffled by these claims not because they can be dismissed with rudimentary logic and basic understanding of the culture and history of the peoples they concern. In fact, I am pleasantly surprised whenever archaeological orthodoxy is overturned by evidence (such as the discounted notion of the Maya as peace-loving priests of time). What baffles me is what emotional or intellectual investment could lead people to bother me so fervently with claims that are obviously nonsensical.

Do they think these fantastic stories are more interesting than history and archaeology proper? Or do they think archeological science is too difficult or time consuming to master? And what possible difference does it make to contemporary life if the Olmec and the Egyptians engaged in trade? I know I would find the latter case interesting... but I suspect if I started holding forth on Olmec trade and economics eyes would glaze over. It doesn't help that anthropology and archaeology as disciplines distance themselves from popular conceptions of romance and adventure for fear these may be complicit in historic or contemporary exploitation.

Posted by the Flea at 06:20 PM | Comments (1)

January 06, 2003

Exciting and 'Nu'

"...EXCITING AND 'NU' ... ...'s 'Ghost of a Flea' blog has 8th century Anglo-Saxons, The Ark of the Covenant, Aztecs, ancient poetry from Alexandrian Egypt and the Love Boat theme."

True... but the Bitchin' Monaro experience has Australian news and politics, a Nirvana midi and Anna Kournikova. The Flea has to get up early to come close to that. Somehow ancient locker scenes don't have the same "I do not know what" as Ms. Kournikova. Use your imagination? If that does not work, resign yourself to fantasies of owning your VERY OWN HOBBIT HOLE.

Posted by the Flea at 06:10 PM

January 04, 2003

The bris of Jesus

A NEW YEAR'S MYSTERY is the subject of an interesting post at The CounterRevolutionary. I suspect many Christians do not consider why December 25 is celebrated as the birth date of Jesus let alone consider that a corollary of this birth date is that January 1 would be the date of his circumcision. I posted the following to the comments section (with a minor edit here...). I am one of the "Puritans" who object to celebrating December 25 as Christ's birth date. In fact, my puritanism extends to objecting that such a date be celebrated at all. Is it the timing of his birth which is important? I also want to empathize with the CounterRevolutionary's "rising religiousness" after 9/11. There are, indeed, no atheists in foxholes.

And my comment on this new year's mystery:

The cult of Mithras was an initiatory, "mystery" tradition whose enthusiasts could largely be found in the Roman army. It is important, however, not to underestimate the political significance this leant Mithraism. The choice of the winter solstice as the birthdate of Jesus is also significant to "signifying a new age." This happens every year with the "rebirth" of the sun following the solstice and is the reason Dec. 25 was considered to be the birthdate of Mithras, a salvific figure and son of the sun. The emperor Constantine, often identified with a conversion to Christianity (somewhat over-blown) allied with the cult of Sol Invictus, the invincible sun. The coincidence of the Mithras cult of the Roman army and the monotheist character of Sol Invictus worship made the winter solstice the symbolic date of choice for aligning Christianity with 4th century Roman politics. That said, the choice of Jan. 1 as the new year is interesting. Why not the winter solstice itself? The Roman new year coincided roughly with the spring equinox, or rather, it did until 153 BC (later confirmed in 46 BC under Julius Caesar, thus the Julian calendar). January 1 had traditional importance as the beginning of the Roman civil calendar and the date when the Roman senate took office. I am afraid this last point suggests the bris of Jesus was rather too belated to effect the choice of January 1 as the new year.

Posted by the Flea at 06:07 PM

January 03, 2003

Rumour has it

RUMOUR HAS IT Yahoo! is being prompted to offer blogging services. I can only hope. Geocities, now owned by Yahoo!, does not support Movable Type and Blogger is out of the question. This leaves me with an improvised blogging solution which does not allow me to offer links to specific posts.

Posted by the Flea at 06:01 PM

January 02, 2003

The capital "I" in "Internet"

THE CAPITAL "I" in "Internet" should be replaced by a more modest "i" as "internet" according to Joseph Turow who believes it has become an everyday "part of the neural universe of life" (via Fimoculous). And a belated "happy birthday" to the internet which turned twenty yesterday (via Mean Mr. Mustard).

Posted by the Flea at 05:53 PM | Comments (1)

January 01, 2003

Forgotten Tolkien manuscript

A FORGOTTEN J.R.R. TOLKIEN MANUSCRIPT is to be published in the United States next summer. Tolkien's line-by-line translation and commentary of Beowulf, an 8th century Anglo-Saxon epic, will sell well in light of interest in his work excited by the ongoing film serialization of The Lord of the Rings (via Geek Press). The power of Tolkien's fiction draws in part from his able expression of spiritual and moral conviction and in part from the astonishing complexity of detail he provides his fantastic worlds. Beowulf is perhaps the only English equivalent of the Scandinavian edda and saga tradition. Coherent fictional languages, history and cosmology all underpin Tolkien's narratives in what he hoped might complement Beowulf as a "saga for the English speaking peoples." Peter Jackson's film interpretation of Tolkien's work relies on a comparable degree of complexity and attention to detail lending a depth of realism to otherwise fantastic characters and contexts.

Posted by the Flea at 05:52 PM | Comments (1)

A truly astonishing spectacle

A "TRULY ASTONISHING SPECTACLE" is ressurected piece by piece as work on rebuilding the Baphuon temple restarts after a twenty-five year hiatus due to civil strife in Cambodia.

Posted by the Flea at 05:49 PM