Book of the Month: Self Portraits

Lauded by Susan Sontag as ‘a valiant writer whose work honors literature’, Frederic Tuten is a recently revisited favourite of mine in the form of his ‘Self-Portraits: Fictions’, which was given to me earlier this month. He is best known for ‘Tintin in the New World’ which is characteristic of an oeuvre studded with Borgesian, Conradian and Proustian influences and edged with mystical realism. Published in 2010, ‘Self-Portraits’ brings these same influences together in a series of interrelated stories that offer as much enjoyment as narratorial ingenuity. Cross references and allusions are frequent but lightly spun across trajectories that wind out of control and back again.

Not dissimilar to the premise of this website’s ‘Writing Health‘ section, Tuten’s self-portraits contour lives and experiences through words in an attempt to hold them up to a readerly, or spectator’s gaze. Although not directly claiming to pertain to health, global citizens and readers will relish the thread through tales in which  a young boy barters with pirates for his grandmother’s soul; Death appears as a genial waiter in a bar across from the Metropolitan museum; a lonely man lectures circus bears on the history of art; miniature glaciers tumble from a refrigerator in an East Village apartment, heralding a voyage to Antarctica on a frozen schooner anchored in Tompkins Square Park with two lovers reappearing time and again in new guises, through new voices and in new places.

Reading as escapism is true of all of Tuten, but especially of this work. Writing at the close of the Prologue, he muses ‘Stories. Like air, like food, like hope. I read them, I told them, and later, I wrote them, stories about men and women seeking the faraway in revolutions, in art, and in the dreamy search for love’. I can offer no better invitation into another world.

 

Image Credit: Tournesols, A. Bow-Bertrand

Relief/Development: bridging the divide

When one reads a news article titled ‘policy change crucial for international development’ or ‘governments must get behind the relief effort in XYZ nation, in XYZ context’, one rarely pauses to consider the link, interchangeability or otherwise of ‘relief’ and ‘development’ as terms and actualities. Perhaps it is the history as an English Literature student, but ingrained in me is the habit of dissecting every term to the sum of its parts and to consider how it interacts variously given its context, narratorial voice, intended audience and so on. But this scrutiny over terminology is necessary from any critical reader, particularly one concerned with global health, and the international agenda for it determines accountability, motivation and outcome.

So, what’s in a name? The two definitions most readily associated with ‘relief’ include a feeling or encouragement of emotions of reassurance following periods of anxiety or high stress as well as financial or practically oriented assistance given to those parties or persons in critical need or difficulty. Meanwhile, ‘development’ is most generally associated with a specifiable state of growth, optimistically linked with progress or change through space, time and people. The crossovers between the two are apparent and, indeed, rather than considering each term and concept in silo, it is best to see them as a continuum. In temporal terms, relief humanitarian assistance usually segues into development, but this chronology is not always linear with the two happening in tandem in many circumstances of humanitarian crisis,  fragile states and insecure environments.

But this broad brush approach to theory does not always trickle down into good practice, which returns us to the reason behind discussing these terms and states in the first place. Humanitarian, relief and international development organisations usually pitch themselves as just that – umbrella groups that want to address the acute and the chronic like the most forward-thinking, prophylactic minded doctor. However, the two states have diverse objectives and priorities as usually a different government department is involved in allocating relief aid funding to that involved with international development. This is evidenced in the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID) which regularly has to clarify the position of it’s central funding mechanism, UKAid Direct, which awards grants to small and medium sized UK and International Civil Society Organisations to reduce poverty overseas.  It was formerly known as the Global Poverty Action Fund (GPAF) but this titular revision also likely has something to do with managing interpretation and associated expectations.

The divide is also widened in related funded  gaps frequently carved through donor motivations and constraints that are, at times, sadly at cross purposes to those in most need. The group of diseases that fall under ‘Neglected Tropical Diseases‘, such as Kala Azar and leprosy are, in part, so categorised because they are less de mode, or emotive than some of the often great, white man killers such as AIDs which dominated funding and coverage in the late twentieth-century across the United States. So too, the missions around ‘relief’ and ‘development’ demand and employ different skills with income generation a priority of current development such as the food security approach. Furthermore, different priority is given to sustainability. Vaccination programmes, a cornerstone of many development initiatives, are frequently hard to implement in anything but a scatterfire manner in acute crisis zones such as mutating refugee camps through which peoples often pass unidentified.

To bridge these gaps, it seems that best practice is to both speak about and act on development in relief and relief in development. There is a clear opportunity here for researchers and workers in disaster preparedness (i.e. the measures taken to prepare for and reduce the effects of disasters) to increasingly bring these two closer together, so that when relief is needed, it is readily available and part of a comprehensive, on-going development effort.

 

Image Credit: Jonction, Geneva. A.Bow-Bertrand

Photojournalist of the month: Jiro Ose

Hailing from Osaka, Japan, Jiro Ose has worked as a freelance photojournalist since 2005, and has covered the historical election in Congo, the Sudanese refugee crisis and the departure of deposed president Jean-Bertrand Aristide in Haiti amongst other events and states. His coverage of the Democratic Republic of Congo election won him the Award of Excellence in the Magazine General News Story category of the Pictures of the Year International competition . The selection below are drawn from Ose’s ‘SOS from Iraq’ which he describes as follows:

I was sent to cover the 2003 Invasion of Iraq by Newsday, one of New York’s dailies. I entered Northern Iraq (Kurdistan) through Iran, like many other journalists who were rushed in to cover the war. When the City of Kirkuk fell, I entered with Kurdish Peshmaga fighters and thousands thronged the streets and greeted us as though we were liberators of the city. Saddam was finally gone. The air was filled with euphoria. People danced and chanted on the street. A bronze statue of Saddam was brought down and beaten with their sandals.

I hardly saw any fighting except American bombers dropping bombs on Kirkuk in the distance. Infamous Republican Guards peeled off their uniforms and melted into the population. It was dangerous, still. It was still a war. I walked the field where another journalist was killed by stepping on a landmine. I drove past the intersection where, only half an hour later, another journalist was killed when a suicide bomber drove through in a car laden with explosives. What was to come there after is beyond comparison: the total collapse of Iraqi society, fighting between religious and ethnic lines. Yet, the only time I saw the dark sign of what was to come was the second night in Kirkuk.

I heard a lot of commotion outside the hotel. Parked in front was a taxi. On its bonnet lay a boy’s lifeless body. Half of his head was blown clean off. A group of men who had surrounded the taxi were shouting; these were Turkmen, one of the many minority groups in Iraq. They said they were under attack by Kurds, and that the boy was shot by a Kurdish sniper. They knew that a group of international journalists were staying at the hotel. The protest lasted about an hour and when the men left the lifeless body on the ground remained. Several hours later, someone could no longer tolerate its sight, so covered it with a flag of Turkmen.

Yet, I still did not really seen the real cost of the war, if you call it a war, until I visited Red Crescent Hospital in Amman, Jordan 5 years later.

Walking through the 2nd floor of Red Crescent hospital in Amman, Jordan, you bear witness to the devastation the war and ensuing violence have brought upon the civilian population on a daily basis in Iraq. Because of the curfew, lack of safety and medical supplies, hospitals inside Iraq cannot perform long and complicated surgery. They are the lucky ones (referring to a selected few who are brought to the hospital to the program by Medecins Sans Frontiers , MSF, France),” said Dr. Nasser, an Iraqi plastic surgeon who preferred that only his first name to be used. Because of the escalating violence, MSF France pulled their international staff from Iraq three years ago. Now they assist Iraqi hospitals across the border by providing drugs and medical supplies. They also set up a surgical program in cooperation with the Jordanian Red Crescent Hospital in Amman where they perform reconstructive surgery for patients who have been handicapped by injuries or incomplete procedures free of charge, including transportation from Iraq and back after the recovery. 

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Brexit and Non-place

What’s the current situation?

It is a week since almost half (48% to 52%) of the United Kingdom (UK) reeled at the news that the majority had voted to leave the European Union (EU) – its constitution, ideals and politico-economic partnership. Since then the respective leave and remain campaigns have been posthumously dissected, their leaders and leadership questioned and the integrity and informedness of the voting public duly challenged.

As the title of this blog suggests, MattersduMonde is about matters that affect the world, often starting from the local, and health-based infrastructure with previous posts exploring the National Health Service and foreign aid programmes via the Department for International Development (DFID). However, if nothing else, these critical days since the largest suffrage determined political decision taken during my voting history, I have been struck by countrywide engagement with what it means to be the United Kingdom, more commonly – and loosely – used interchangeably with notions of ‘Britain’ and ‘British’.

Notwithstanding the disappointing level of abstaining voters particularly of the 18-24 age range, and the widely varying degrees of information or mis-information (given the complex, often contradictory and repeatedly deceitful policies of both campaigns) held by each voting citizen, every one of those 30 million plus voters has an opinion, before, during and most importantly following the outcome of last week’s referendum.

Bit of a mess?

Bit of a mess? Somerset House ‘Utopia’ exhibition, detailed below.

 

Where does this ‘leave’ us?

While there is real value in reading, sharing and re-writing the present experiences and reactions of the UK’s constituents, it is imperative to note that while a local issue for many, the implications of this vote have global consequences, from Donald Trump’s looming presence in Scotland last Friday morning and that state’s predicted distancing from the result, to Northern Ireland’s renewed clamour for independence. Fundamentally, the economic, social and literal health of the populace of the UK we are ever a part of is ironically dependent on the peoples and places beyond this island’s increasingly literal borders.

Many leave voters cast their weight behind a campaign that promised an impossible finite end to free movement to the UK associated with membership of the EU. Many of these same voters claim it is acceptable for immigration in the form of skilled workers – doctors, lawyers, pharmacists. All of which crystallises into a persistent and little explored anxiety that this referendum was seen less as a heterogeneous, multi-faceted decision of unity in all its forms, and more of a reverse process founded on the widely silent, but influential idea of what the UK or ‘Britain’ really is.

The much-cited statistics that show a demographic skewing of the older population across England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales towards a leave vote and vice versa at the other end of the age scale should be increasingly seen not based on electoral or life experience, but in terms of how this shaped one’s understanding of what it is to be British. What is palpably clear as orchestrator of the leave campaign, Boris Johnson, has shown in his sudden shadowy disappearance from the now 5-way race Conservative leadership line-up, is that the people of Britain and their understandings of it are so wildly different, that to try and unify them for a future Britain that is based on modern change, innovation and progression, is an insurmountable ask.

Utopian vacancies at Somerset House exhibition, 2016.

Utopian vacancies at Somerset House exhibition, 2016.

Indeed, our respective understandings of Britain and our role as citizens of this nation are most formally pinned to the ‘Life in the UK’ citizenship test first introduced in 2013 under the imperative ‘prove your knowledge of English or citizenship and settling’. Such lexicon of proof and knowledge are constructs bandied about during this referendum as though quantifiable. But of course, it goes without saying that such a test is so anachronistic when so many current citizens would not pass. It is intellectually comic that one of the questions in the aforementioned test is as follows:

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Reproduced from the condensed version of the YouGov citizenship test for the Independent.

Aside from ideological correctness of such answers, many of the other constituent questions are so divorced from educational-derived curricular knowledge as well as national identity that this test’s value – and marker for ‘Britishness’ – is undermined.

 

Where has this come from?

Rather than suggest what our future will look like, as I don’t think that there is a clear nor comprehensive vision, or reality, this discussion turns instead to look back through history and literature to the model of utopian thinking and impossible dreaming that has coloured and discoloured every sovereign state and every independence narrative. Utopian thinking, the American dream, scriptural, Edenic Paradise are all permutations of a similar model characteristic of humanity – the striving for something that is perfect in the eyes of the perceiver.

Of course, perception rarely correlates with feasibility which in turn causes the very personal and emotive fall-out experienced by so many of us in the UK and beyond this past week. Furthermore, ‘utopia’ is etymologically rich, deriving from Greek stems to form the hybrid of ‘non-place’. From Thomas More’s possibility dreams (Utopia 1516) to Francis Bacon’s political ideology (New Atlantis 1627) and Margaret Cavendish’s wonderland of the imagination, the seventeenth century reader and audience alike were accustomed to the idea of ‘a world elsewhere’. In itself an epoch of upheaval across currencies of religion, philosophy and politics, these learnings and writings are increasingly critical to the immediate now.

In addition to the main Somerset House exhibition and series of talks, there are collaborative pieces running in conjunction with the neighbouring Courtauld Institute and King's College London

In addition to the main Somerset House exhibition and series of talks, there are collaborative pieces running in conjunction with the neighbouring Courtauld Institute and King’s College London.

The debt Thomas More owes to humanism for the origins of Utopia is an area in which much debate has been devoted, in part due to the malleable connotations and contextual meaning of pigeonholed definitions. The Renaissance saw a resurrection of the classics and humanists heralded furthering the arts of reason and the dignity of man within the Christian doctrinal frameworks. Famously described as a ‘revival of good letters’, humanism was perhaps less ideological than often attested.

Whilst the humanist influences of Plato and Erasmus are powerfully vocal in Utopia, so too is a contradictory turn from them, most notably in discussions which theorise beyond the boundaries of Christian monogamy both on personal and national levels. The principal elements of utopian writing so understood, are a chance landing or shipwreck on the coast of what turns out to be an ideal commonwealth followed by a return to – specifically – Europe, and a commentary on what has been remarked.

 

What are the dangers of utopian thinking?

So too, as argued by Margaret Cavendish (1623-73) who engaged with and practised a form of experimental science through her literature, imaginative freedom is considered a prerequisite for intellectual maturity, social change and intellectual development. Indeed, commonly held truths (or unexamined perceptions or ‘proof’ of what Britain is) are utopian experiences that must be deconstructed for they are ultimately unavailable for representation and appropriation.

In Cavendish’s The Description of the New World, Called the Blazing-World (1666), Cavendish, herself the actual and literary figure of the ‘Duchess’ of Newcastle finds herself on a satirical trajectory as scribe to a beautiful maiden – the Empress – who writes her way into another world with different stars in the sky and creatures on its shorelines. When the Empress desires to share this found world, the guiding-force of the Duchess encourages her to construct her own, redirecting utopian expectation away from material production to shared creative activity.

The ‘Britain’ idealized in the subconscious of all voters is a utopia of sorts – not a venture until is examined in the open – but still an irreconcilable state. The other; the ‘European’ in this case, like the Orient and prolific discourses in the field of global health of the ‘west and the rest’ quickly become the subject of the languages of dream and Utopia, ‘the object of a powerful fantasy’ (Hall, 1992).

 Readers and citizens must surely be left wondering about the value of the ‘otherness’ of Utopia and its paradoxical comparability with sixteenth-century England. Unlike Plato’s Republic, Utopia is not a maquette for an ideal commonwealth; it seems more dramatically to be one of More’s theatrical metaphors ‘in which disparate and seemingly discontinuous aspects of […] existence come together, touch, and resonate’ (Greenblatt, p. 27).

Preach.

Preach.


And the possibilities of such dreaming?

The contradictory design and rhetorical paradoxes of these cited utopian writings are self-interrogative, challenging, and reflects the wealth and the weakness of words to influence worlds. The final line of More’s Utopia hovers in the subjunctive, so what happens next is for us to decide. Certainly, the utopia of one human may be the dystopia of another, so to the very last, the polemical nature of the literature and author remain. More specifically, when angling this pitch through a perspective of health and globality, the idea of a global society should not be construed as a utopian world free of conflict. Rather, as in most national societies, one would expect a global society to be characterised by ongoing political conflict and competing views. As Frenk (2010) notes, ‘what the notion of a global society does imply is that underpinning such conflicts would be a widely shared understanding of health interdependence and an acceptance of some responsibility for the health of others as members of the same society—in other words, a shared commitment to realisation of health as a human right based on a recognition of our common humanity’.

Is this pathetic fallacy? Dark and gloomy Somerset House quad the weekend post-Brexit vote

Is this pathetic fallacy? Dark and gloomy Somerset House quad the weekend post-Brexit vote. Might just be the monochrome filter.

It so happens that it is the 500th anniversary of More’s Utopia celebrated in a challenging and ever-relevant events programme at London’s Somerset House. Yet, as the programme preface articulates: the text and commemorative events are, once again, ‘not a blueprint for the future, instead he [More] places importance on the process of dreaming in the now. His work continues to inspire communities and provide a framework for true innovation in our time.’ In a world that has just witnessed the return of ESA astrologer Tim Peake from the International Space Station, surely the brand of extra-terrestrial exploration and utopian dreaming as read through Francis Goodwin’s The Man in the Moone (1638) indicates the worth in looking at the bigger picture and reassessing the simple but time-old answers we would give to an alien asking ‘what is Britain’?

With constant personal reflection translated into political representativeness, I think there might be hope for a Britain that is united in understanding the nation is ‘great’ for being in flux, flawed but imperatively free. A renewed brand of utopian ideology, distanced from it as a reality, will be instrumental in shaping this future.

As simple as an OS map.

‘Paths to Utopia’: as simple as an OS map…

 

Bibliography

Bruce, S. (ed.), (1999) Three Early Modern Utopias: Utopia, New Atlantis and the Isle of Pines (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

Comp, A. and F. K. Pizor (eds.) (1971), The Man in the Moone: An Anthology of Antique Science Fiction and Fantasy, (London: Sidgwick and Jackson)Frank E. and Fritzie P. Manuel (1979), Utopian Thought in the Western World (New York: Belknap Press).

Frenk, J. et al (2010), Global Health is Public Health in The Lancet. Vol. 375; pp. 535-6.

Greenblatt, S. (1980), Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare (London: The University of Chicago Press)

Hall, S. (1992), The West and the Rest: Discourse and Power. Available from: <https://analepsis.files.wordpress.com/2013/08/hall-west-the-rest.pdf&gt; [Accessed 28 June 2016]

Lilley, K. (ed.) (1994), The Blazing World and Other Writings, ed. Kate Lilley (Harmondsworth: Penguin)

Logan, G. M. (1983), The Meaning of More’s Utopia (New Jersey: Princeton University Press)

Nelson, E., Greek Nonsense in More’s Utopia. The Historical Journal, 44 (2001), pp. 889-917.

Skinner, Q. (2002), Visions of Politics. Volume III: Hobbes and Civil Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)

Image Credits (all): A. Bow-Bertrand. The featured image reads ‘Utopia’ transliterated into Thomas More’s alphabet.