Sunday, June 12, 2011

with Singaporean characteristics

Rereading an interview with Walter Mignolo from 2007, I came upon a name that had been kicking around my subconscious for a while, and one I’ve yet to maintain a clear sense of – Kishore Mahbubani.

Long-time member of Singapore’s Foreign Service and a key thinker within the framework of the ruling class, Mahbubani’s face should be familiar to many, as he writes prolifically and appears regularly across the media circus on a range of politically-based and current events programs. Perhaps his most well-known book Can Asians Think? is a series of essays which attempts to set out an “Asian” (or Singaporean) conception of society and politics—a general worldview that is to run counter to constructs of Western imperialism and the remnants of colonialism.

It is this claim by Mahbubani that creates my first stumbling block. After pouring through this book and related articles, and watching a dozen or so interviews with him, it certainly appears that what Mahbubani is advocating is not actually a different -- an “other” -- an “Asian” way of conceiving of progress and modernization, but instead that he is justifying a hyper form of capitalism and governmental control that is based directly on Western models, with the only real difference being the alteration in location and the speed with which the modernization has taken place. Democracy with Singaporean characteristics, to take from Deng.

Having taken its independence in 1965, Singapore has been an unrivaled economic success story—balancing a multi-ethnic population, sometimes overtly hostile neighboring states, and an extremely vulnerable and limited set of natural resources—perhaps seen most acutely in its reliance on the state of Johor for drinking water. With a very restricted landmass of just under 650-square kilometers, and a population of approximately 4 million, Singapore’s story over the past 40 years has been a distilled version of the Taiwan experience, where Martial Law was a stated necessity en route to a modern and more democratically leaning state.

A related question that arises is exactly what level of economic progress must be reached before government restrictions on press freedoms are lifted; before Singapore distances itself from the Chinese government’s definition of human rights; before a broader range of political freedoms are allowed? And who, within Singapore, is asking for this change?

The brief and unnuanced answer to all of these is no time soon, as long as Mahbubani remains one of the architects of the current regime. Throughout his essays Mahbubani attacks the idea of a free press as being an ultimately flawed and dangerous entity. In his essay on “An Asian Perspective on Human Rights and Freedom of the Press,” his very tendentious logic posits that because the Philippines (of all the ASEAN bloc) has the freest press, and because the Philippines continues to have difficulty modernizing, that the free press has both failed and, in part, led directly to this failure—that a free press is not “sufficient condition” for “progress.”

Mahbubani is certainly correct in stating that a free press alone will not bring about change, but a free press has been a major component of many “developing” nations. Elsewhere Mahbubani writes that “A free press need not lead to a well-ordered society.” Again, fine, yes—but who is making the claim that one component of a society will be able to bring about societal transformation without a range of other coordinating factors? There is a reason for the plural—The Bill of Right(s); Check(s) and Balance(s), Branche(s) of government.

Is there a baser form of free press that exists on gossip rather than news; do personal axes sometimes win out over objectively reported editorial content—of course, but to expect a free press to exist in a puritanically Orwellian vacuum is to erase the human factor from the equation, and to claim that there is a possible causal relationship between a more aggressively free press and increasingly bad government seems a ludicrously undergraduate claim. Though perhaps everything can be reduced to one statement by Mahbubani:

“It is necessary for a developing society to first succeed in economic development before it can attain the social and political freedoms found in the developed societies.”

So again, just how developed does Singapore’s economy need to be? At what point will Mahbubani drop the rhetoric and just speak? When does he stop answering questions about press freedoms and elections with discussions of JFK airport’s “third world” status or the upcoming repair work necessary on the Tappan Zee Bridge? The man can obviously think, but when considering economies of scale, I would hope that he would be more concerned with the potentially devastating issue of the Three Gorges project than with a few cracks in a suburban NYC bridge.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Gold Soundz

For several years there have been reports of young Internet gamers in China basically living out of Internet cafes, amassing credits in online role-playing games for the sole purpose of selling off these credits to gamers elsewhere in the world who want their characters to leap forward several levels without putting in the time.

In a recent Guardian piece, there is word of the Chinese prison system having now perfected this form of monetization as yet another successful example of capitalism with Chinese characteristics.

"And they're coming to the chorus now . . ."

Tuesday, May 24, 2011


While working on an interview and article with the mathematician and economist Michael Edesess for the Advanced Institute (AI) here in HK (Hong Kong), the issue of "elegance" versus "sophistication" has arisen. Specifically in terms of the appropriation and misuse of the term "sophistication" by the financial services industry.

As in a hedge fund manager plying a client with, "We have employed an extremely sophisticated mathematical model" -- [which by definition you, the client, could not possibly understand; so, please write me a check and step away from the desk]." Actually in the world of high finance this the cash reserves are most likely intuited from one account to the other without the necessity of ink. A Daoist return to an earlier stage of human existence where transactions are done telepathically.

Whereas, in mathematics, you might refer to an "elegant" formula -- which is so defined, as Eldesess writes, "because it encapsulates the mathematical result of a series of idealizations in a compact, closed-form formula (meaning that one does not need to run a lengthy sequential-approximations computer program in order to obtain a numerical answer. It is not sophisticated because it's only an abstraction, it doesn't really, by itself, give you a meaningful real-world answer)."

To then pull in another strand from an individual involved in terminological discussions on "sophistication," I move to Roger Ames and his recent book Confucian Role Ethics: A Vocabulary. At the beginning of the volume Ames sets out a shift in Western philosophical concerns where the Greek and Christian traditions grew into "the service of theology, and reverence for the theoretically and spiritually abstract . . . a growing preoccupation with ontological and metaphysical questions led to a more rarified and pointed search for an abstract, unconditioned knowledge, and its promise of certainty."

Ames moves further into discussion of "philosophia" (the love of wisdom) and "philoepisteme" (the love of knowledge), in looking at the current state of the academy, where "wisdom" has become a largely abandoned concept. In its place is abstract thought employed for the purposes of certainty. Though this is a certainty that remains abstract and divorced from the quotidian; separate from the real exploration of the self and wisdom.

These are the dual voices running through my head, and I've done neither Roger nor Michael justice in fully explicating their positions; but, I'm primarily interested in working through the terms, and in this particular instance, the confluence of a mathematician's mention of a formula being "elegant" but not "sophisticated" because it remains abstract and doesn't end in a "real-world" answer, and a comparative philosopher who is, at least in part, speaking about similar forms of abstraction for "certainty," though a certainty of "knowledge" rather than "wisdom."

Which eventually leads back to the hedge fund manager who freely uses the term "sophistication/ed" as a way of creating distance from any potential investor questions. It can't be stated as an issue of "knowledge," as a well-informed investor could, theoretically, study the methods behind the modelling (representation of the financial forecast), and eventually come to understand the system. It must necessarily be a matter of "sophistication" -- of a "wisdom" within an aether that remains just out of reach. Cue music for financial crisis.


Having shifted continents to Hong Kong one year ago and recently taking up a new post as Publications Director at the Hong Kong Advanced Institute for Cross-Disciplinary Studies (HKAICS) at City University, I'll make another start at my multiply abortive attempts at platforming. Perhaps this one will take.

Many thanks to Natasa Durovicova who just passed through HK [via a literary festival in Taipei] for the suggestion of getting back on the blog pony.

First, do keep your eyes open for the final print Zoland Poetry annual -- which should be on store shelves in late June 2011. Zoland will continue online -- focusing on poetry reviews and features on poets and translators of note. Sustainable energy, assessments of risk, entrepreneurship of various stripes all comes back to a poetry.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Book v. Journal

The Tuesday March 11, 2008 entry on Silliman’s blog focuses, in part, on the question of curatorial intent and in coming towards a definition of book v. journal. Barbara Jane Reyes continues and expands on the discussion at her blog.

The Zoland Poetry series fits into the discussion, as Ron’s take is that the Zoland series and its ancestors, such as the New Directions annuals, are more journal than book – focusing on “what’s new” rather than being a thematically constituted anthology of previously published work. At the core of Ron’s criteria for naming something a journal is “does it appear predictably, does it have a clear editing principle, does it feature work that has appeared before …”

These are certainly integral parts to the discussion, and any number of Zoland contributors to the first two (going on third) book have been unable to break themselves of referring to each annual as an “issue” rather than “book.” Confusion is more than sex.

So what is it – Zoland?

In answering Ron’s three questions 1) It does appear predictably, in time for AWP each year; 2) clear editing principle (yes, see below); 3) All the work is previously unpublished and focuses on contemporary work, which, by chronological default, is concerned with the “now.”

On a purely practical, marketing level, the project was envisioned as a series of annual anthologies (with ISBNs not ISSNs), so that Zoland N.1 could remain on the shelf for several years, next to Zoland N.5 and beyond. If a journal, its shelf life would be, perhaps, 6 months, and then it’d be coverless and back to dust.

Tied to this move towards book rather than journal is the fact that the Zoland annuals are meant to be read as a continuation of the Zoland Books line, which brought into print poets such as Kevin Young, Ange Mlinko, Bill Berkson, Lisa Jarnot, William Corbett, Michael O’Brien, Patricia Smith, and on. A continuation in the real sense of rather than 3-4 volumes of poetry by individual authors each year, there is instead one Zoland annual that includes a wide swath of individuals previously published by Zoland, individuals who were on the radar (or would be now), and an individual here and there that fits into the larger whole of each annual.

As Roland Pease was the driving force behind Zoland Books and is currently the primary editor for the Zoland Poetry annuals, it is only natural that the “curation” of the Zoland series would have obvious similarities to Zoland’s previous incarnation.

Add in the generous selection of translations in each annual and the ongoing series of book reviews that appear at you get what we hope will continue to be an ever evolving and vital part of the world literary community. And if we get bored/ing, we’ll do something else with the words.

Friday, February 29, 2008


Back in Cambridge for a couple days of convening over the post-AWP blast of submissions.

Officially there are still two weeks remaining for ZP3 submissions--though we're nearing 100%-plus capacity, so submit now (especially any new choice translations). We'll then take most of April off to get contracts and Word files together and be back with a new set of online reviews the first of May.

We will begin reading submissions again, in earnest, later in the summer, though we will respond, as timely as possible, to any work over/through the transom the next couple months.

And go ahead and spend the money on the Collected Whalen. You'll thank yourself, or the individual you've convinced to drop that much through the coin slot.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008


AWP is gone and past and am finally caught back up with the rest of life. It was a delight to see everyone Zoland-related and otherwise in NYC. More than a dozen authors from each of books 1 and 2 stopped by to say hello, and festivities were topped off with a group reading at the Bowery Poetry Club, along with readers from New Directions, Zephyr Press, and Ugly Duckling. Audio from the reading will be posted on the Zoland website in early March.

Copies of Zoland Poetry No. 2 should be appearing on store shelves over the next couple weeks.

Besides the post-AWP haze, this blog's relative silence of late has been at the hands of my own boredom in terms of what there is to say about the shrinking amount of poetry in English translation--on store shelves and in publishers' catalogues.

The simple equation is [sparse funding + slim margins = little interest in publishing poetry in translation]. Focusing on fiction at least affords a press the chance of "discovering" the next Bolano, Svevo, or Pessoa. Not so with poetry.

So this is a reality, with a more important reality being the people that continue to translate and publish despite the margins. There is still vital and fascinating translation work being made available by a handful of small and independent presses simply because the work allows editors to shut their eyes to finances and hear only/mostly the words (financial murmuring never fades completely).

Outfits like Tinfish, Action Books, Ugly Duckling Presse, Achiote, the journal Circumference, Nightboat, Archipelago and a scant few others are now responsible for keeping contemporary poetry interesting. Those are not bad hands to be in.