Monday, January 31, 2011

Riding a novel to India's Sundarbans

First, a word from Mike Daisey

On Friday evening I watched Mike Daisey perform The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Macworld was in full-swing across the bay, and the pumped-up music playing as the house opened aimed to rile the audience as if for a convention keynote. In the event, the one-man performance at Berkeley Rep was a bit strange ... Daisey sat and spoke for nearly two hours, without intermission.

Daisey's way with voice and gesture animates what amounts to a travelogue interleaved with historical accounts of technology fetishism, his and ours. Still, the show boiled down to political argument. It argued to lift a curtain from realities that are usually hidden from we First World folk -- that the human cost of wealth and privilege is imposed on the bodies and lives of people who work the factories and farms that produce "our" stuff. That the argument is powerful and tragic didn't qualify the evening as what I usually think of as theater.

Nonetheless, Daisey conjured up some pointed insights.

Among them was his observation that those of us who spend inordinate amounts of time in front of screens, and especially screens that open onto the intertubes, are susceptible to the illusion that the borders of the world are drawn at the borders of the internet. And that the deeper our culture burrows into its screens -- from "smart" phones to iPads to laptop and desktop computers -- the easier it is to overlook that world beyond ethernet. (Underlook, maybe?)

I witness that sort of underlooking every time I nearly run into a pedestrian (on foot, on my bike, with my car) who is crossing a street while talking or texting. Crossing a street while talking or texting is not smart, I don't care what they call the devices.

There is, of course, a vivid world beyond ethernet ... which I trust anyone can realize if s/he pulls away from a monitor, Crackberry, or iThing long enough to think about it. This is not news. Among many others, Jerry Mander (whose work I've mentioned before) has been going on in this vein since he published Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television in the late 1970s.

From Daisey to Ghosh to the Sundarbans

But Daisey's observation made me think, as I had often this month while reading Amitav Ghosh's novel The Hungry Tide, about how books can be compelling even if what they do best is put one in an unfamiliar and intriguing world -- beyond the borders of one's own.

The Hungry Tide
was like that for me. I didn't like how the novel opened. The initial drama seemed thin and artificial. The author's excuses to depart on long (if fascinating) flights of exposition were similarly thin, and recurred frequently enough to feel intrusive. On the other hand, description of the tidal forests of the Sundarbans, and the people & plants & creatures who inhabit them kept me riveted. I have never been to south Asia; the only other 'experience' I have of the Sundarbans was acquired via Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children (which I also found awkward as a novel: too self-consciously mythic, never mind the bombast).

Even when we detect cracks in the craft, books and intertube ephemera can compel simply by taking us past the worlds we know. This is true even when we understand that neither reading nor web surfing is the same as being in another world oneself. Yet it's a testament to the power of imagination that a person living on the west coast of Turtle Island (in Gary Snyder's sense of the place-name) can have some sense of the Sundarbans' mangove swamps, tigers, and crocodiles through book-assisted visits. Is there truth in that sort of sense? I can't say for the Bay of Bengal, but if I extrapolate from odd recognition I've felt visiting parts of Europe and North America that I had only known through books and paintings and films -- maybe so.

There's a scene about three-quarters through The Hungry Tide, just a few pages long, in which the protagonists witness a group of villagers attacking a trapped tiger with bamboo spears. Piya, a Bengali-American cetologist, goes mad with rage at the animal's plight, and the men with whom she is traveling prevent her from attempting to intervene. Later, Kanai -- a cocky New Dehli businessman who is acting as her translator-- tries to set Piya straight:

"That tiger had killed two people, Piya," Kanai said. "And that was just in one village. It happens every week that people are killed by tigers. How about the horror of that? If there were killings on that scale anywhere else on earth it would be called genocide, and yet here it goes almost unremarked: these killings are never reported, never written about in the papers. And the reason is just that these people are too poor to matter. We all know it, but we choose not to see it. Isn't that a horror too -- that we can feel the suffering of an animal but not of human beings? [...] [W]e're complicit in this [...] Because it was people like you," said Kanai, " who made a push to protect the wildlife here, without regard for human costs. And I'm complicit because people like me -- Indians of my class, that is -- have chosen to hide these costs, basically in order to curry favor with their Western patrons. It's not hard to ignore the people who're dying -- after all, they are the poorest of the poor."

Piya has an answer ready for Kanai, and it holds up to the truth of the horror he has told.

Daisey and Ghosh cross paths

When I came to the passage just quoted the day after hearing Mike Daisey tell about working conditions at Foxconn Technology Group in Shenzen, China, where electronic components are made for Apple, Dell, Nokia, Sony, and other widely-consumed brands -- conditions that drive migrant workers to suicide -- it was hard to miss the comparison.

Here's Daisey himself in the program notes from Berkeley Rep:

"I’m really proud that we had the opportunity to take The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs to India this summer. I got to perform early versions of this show talking about China’s labor policies in the context of performing in India with Indian audiences who are having the same multinational corporations move in and try to enforce the same labor standards. It was riveting to get to have these conversations late into the night with people and feel how this is a living story that really matters right now."

However decisively "we choose not to see," to use Ghosh's phrase, there are worlds behind our screens and beyond our pages. They can be brutal past even inspired telling. They can be beautiful beyond poetic rapture. If one does want to see, it takes conscious effort to keep sufficient distance from the illusion that screens and pages are the world itself. One needs to lift one's eyes and look.

Apples to oranges, I'm partial to the imaginative travel experience delivered by novels over those available from TV, movies, and intertubes. Perhaps that's because prose fiction requires more of my own imagination, and so pulls me into deeper emotional and intellectual engagement.

But then ... musing on the changing world ... I stack Mike Daisey beside Amitav Ghosh, and wrap them up in Jerry Mander, and then begin to wonder how the experience of reading books on devices that also open onto the internet will change the way people conceive the world's borders.

Will e-books further extend our imaginations?

Or will electronic mediation lull us into accepting a softer focus on the complexity and intractability of brick-and-mortar (or tide-and-tiger) otherness?


  1. Wow, interesting post. You get so much content and consideration into it -- very well expressed. I remember when the news first came out that the so-called "recycling" of computer parts was this horrific scenario of Chinese villagers being exposed to chemicals as they attempted to extract valuable parts. It was a shocking revelation and I guess I wanted to believe that the companies were shamed into mending their ways. There are so many ways that our high tech habits are destructive -- for example, we are basing the whole Internet on an electrical system that runs on polluting coal. The more we share online (videos, photos, etc.) the more power and cooling is needed. There's really nothing "green" about going paperless.

    Yet for all this there are so many ways that we need to keep going with all of it in order to become who we are becoming. I would argue that despite its many limitations, the Internet/social media/etc. has opened many of our lives outwards. We are connecting with one another in ways that were impossible in the past. We're electing different types of leaders, organizing and spreading goodwill at levels we never could, and generally learning more about our shared humanity to degrees we couldn't in the past. Anyhow, thanks for your beautiful writing!

  2. It's an interesting question. I find myself reading more and more on my kindle but I have not once been tempted to take any of the available launching off points to the internet and in fact find it really annoying to be intruded upon with reminders of the interconnectedness of the medium. It's interesting though that I'm bothered by things like seeing what sentences other buyers of the book highlighted, whereas if I had borrowed the book from a library and found someone else's notes in it I don't think I would mind at all, and might in fact find them intriguing. Maybe it is just because of the feeling of ownership that comes with purchasing the book vs the implicit sharing relationship of borrowing but I do also think the new forms of media can encourage a voyeuristic sense of separateness. Not sure that's really on point with your post but it's certainly more interesting than thinking about services and authentication :-)

  3. Last week downtown I saw a man walking and reading a book, a block later passed a young woman, head bowed over her electronic device, reading or, perhaps, writing (texting?) ...

  4. @bma: That's a pretty interesting perspective on e-books, that the connected-to-intertubes quality is intrusive, when one wants to 'escape' into a book. Maybe that explains a part of why I remain committed to reading words printed on treeflakes -- that direct route to the web and e-mail would just get me thinking about services and authentication which would not be the point at all.

    @Glenn: Nice! Proving that in Berkeley you can find people spaced out over any old thing.