Journalist-writer Carlo Pizzati on his memoir Mappillai — An Italian son-in-law in India , his work around the globe and how he came to love and live in a fishing village south of Chennai
When we meet at the house with the green gate, Carlo Pizzati, 52, has just arrived from a refreshing walk at Kalakshetra, showered both by rain and tree jasmine. He sportingly decides to don a blazer for the photographer despite the sweat maps it leaves on him. Ten years ago, on his first visit to Chennai, Carlo almost decided he couldn’t allow himself to fall in love with the woman he had just set eyes on because he found the humidity sapping. Four years after he married poet-journalist-dancer Tishani Doshi he seems to have found his pace with the city’s weather and its people. Home is Arlanymôr (Welsh for ‘beside the sea)’, a salmon-pink villa with teal windows and a blue gate, at the fishing village of Paramankeni, over 90 kilometres south of the city.
Their life here — distributed among toads croaking behind the ancient family porcelain that has survived the voyage from Italy to India (“a piece of the Old Continent brought to the even Older Continent”); snakes that charm their way to the kitchen coffee station; a dog named after a character from Jungle Book ; a mouse that has survived several spins in the washing machine; navigating the red tapeism of Indian bureaucracy; locals who call him mapillai (son-in-law) when they see him walk the beach in his lungi ; and slaving away at writing desks despite the siren call of the sea — forms much of the lyrical, stream-of-consciousness narrative of Carlo’s memoir Mappillai – An Italian son-in-law in India (Simon & Schuster India).
“The book was a decade in the making, and took a year-and-a-half to write,” says Carlo. “There is a lot of race identity in it, about the India I first encountered and the India I see now. It is the journey of 10 years of a white European in this country who becomes a local without having to go native.”
Although Mapillai has some threads in common with Carlo’s previous bookEdge of An Era that explores geopolitics from the perspective of an European who grew up in the shadow of the Berlin Wall, it is more a sequel to “my other book, Technoshamans , a journal of a journey around the world that ended in India”, and introduced him to Indian spiritualism and Ashtanga yoga.
Let’s go exploring
At the age of 16, Carlo left his hometown north of Venice and went to Pensacola, Florida, as an exchange student. “I lived in the US for 11 years supporting myself through American University and Columbia. Those years babysitting boys with snakes, being a pool lifeguard, sports editor of the college newspaper, and doing carpentry were unusual growing-up experiences for someone from a middle-class European family, although it was a rite of passage for most Americans,” says Carlo, his eyes crinkling with laughter.
Adventure is a word that suffers from overuse, but that can be forgiven in relation to Carlo who struck luck when he started working for the Italian national daily la Repubblica corresponding from New York, Central and South America and Europe. It opened doors for him to cover the Northern Ireland strife, drugs in the Andes, civil rights battle in Chile, immigrant smuggling in Mexico, environment in Mururoa atoll and the GMO war in Europe and the US. “Those were the roaring years of enjoying New York but working hard as well. It made my writing eclectic, led me to make a feature film, be a political talk show host and teach at Asian College of Journalism. It’s probably easier to obtain success in one field by focussing, but I’ve been keen on having an interesting life,” he says, adding that some experiences like meeting a 16-year-old guerrilla in the jungles of Colombia taught him empathy. “She was more interesting than presidents who exude more power, although I got arrested on my way back.”
Does Paramankeni allow for this urgent, rock n’ roll journalism? “Stepping away has been a kind of evolution. The adrenaline-seeking personality I had is still there. I recently reported on love commandos in Delhi, following them to their secret hideout. Paramankeni is not retirement but more a writer’s colony that gives me the space for intimate storytelling. We are the sum of the experiences we have had. I don’t want to be stuck with an idea of myself.”
Is the real Carlo then the man who wrote a memoir that is a love song to his lucky wife? “Oh no, I’m the lucky one,” laughs the mapillai .
by Deepa Alexander
portrait photo by R. Ravindran
The book will be launched on October 11, 7 pm at Goethe Institut Auditorium. The author will be in conversation with Tishani Doshi. The event, hosted by Goethe Institut and Prakriti Foundation is open to all. For details, call 28331645.
For centuries, travellers from the West have written tomes about India—but no one’s had the last word
Oh, no,’ my wife says, ‘you are NOT going to write an India book, are you?’
‘No, I’m not, I promise.’
This book will not attempt to explain something that cannot be dissected, as it is ever changing.
There are so many Indias. There’s a tangible, smellable, real India. There’s an imaginary, literary, dreamed India.
Writing about India is like writing about the mafia. It’s like owning a pharmacy. Everyone is bound to always get sick, there’ll always be a need for medicines. A never-ending, lucrative business.
Whether you want to find out about India’s Maximum City, its White Tigers, its Slum-dog Millionaires, its Cities of Joy, or whether India is calling or coming or becoming, whether you want to know about its makers, its prisons or its 50 incarnations or its nine lives, India is there to be told. To be explained and often mansplained.
Not here, not in these pages. Nope. Here you’ll have to read about simple, real, one-sided, totally biased and culturally slanted personal anecdotes and opinions from a recovering Orientalist.
But, think about it, hasn’t this really been the fate of all the people who’ve come for religion or to conquer or for love and have been captivated?…
I guess it all started with the historian Megasthenes, the first foreigner from the West who wrote about India. He left Greece around 300 BC and, after crossing Anatolia and Mesopotamia, finally reached Lahore and then Allahabad. The first whitey or gora, as they’re called in Hindi, to tell his side of the story about India and Indians.
Diodorus, Strabo, Pliny and Adrian all plagiarized from his Indica (not just a type of cannabis, but also the title of Megasthenes’ book). He mixed local legends with personal tales. (…)
by Carlo Pizzati
Is the rapidly rising trend of talking to the dead online the millennial way of seeing the Internet as god?
There are at least 30 million dead people on Facebook right now. Every day, 8,000 Facebook members die. By 2060, there could be more deceased people on Facebook than those who are alive. By then, we may be communicating in completely new ways and social networks might exist only as anachronistic testaments of a bygone technological phase — a digital graveyard of a forgotten past.
As we head into this possible future, it’s evident that a growing number of people are already talking to the dead on social media. And the way in which they communicate with the deceased is altering how we relate to the ideas of loss of our loved ones and to the idea of an afterlife. More importantly, this behaviour increasingly identifies the Internet with the notion of what is divine, sacred and holy.
This phenomenon re-emerged distinctly with the recent deaths of writer V.S. Naipaul and singer Aretha Franklin. Hundreds of authors, intellectuals and admirers gushed their grief all over their timelines, invoking the great lessons of the master and the powerful voice of the singer, often addressing the deceased stars in the second person. “You who taught us so much…”, “You who sang so heavenly…”, and so on.
It’s nothing more than an understandable variation of public mourning, one might say. But there are more serious implications in this common behaviour.
Talking to the dead must have been a strong need since the early days of humanity. According to psychologist Julian Jaynes, the very first concept of god originated when an ancient tribe began to worship the decaying corpses of a king and queen. The royals were buried in their hut, sitting upright as they decomposed. At some point, someone heard their voices still imparting orders from a great beyond. And began to worship the inanimate bodies as deities.
All religions, to varying degrees, claim different ways of communicating with the afterlife. Orpheus is always descending into some inferno; Lila is always hoping to be reunited with her dead king, as narrated by Vasishta.
This may be motivated by the need to express love, or the attempt to accept loss. To varying degrees of gullibility or believability, through the centuries, clairvoyants, necromancers, channellers, diviners, crystal gazers and mediums with Ouija boards on seances have offered promises of connectivity.
The industrial revolution brought innovative technologies and new methods to supposedly communicate with the alleged souls of the departed. In the post-WWII period, spiritualists across Europe thought they heard “psychophonic” voices of the dead emerging from radio waves.
Today, in our relationship with the inexplicable, we witness a mixture of events on social media. There is the comprehensible attempt to keep the idea of the deceased person alive, reaffirming a spiritual belief in the existence of an afterlife. And the need to reawaken a functioning mourning ritual, lost with modernisation.
However, it is one thing to share admiration for dead artists, scientists and leaders, and another to inadvertently equate the Internet with the sacred enclosure of the temple, the traditional location for our dialogue with the invisible.
The annus horribilis that brought this phenomenon to the foreground is undoubtedly 2016. David Bowie, Prince, Muhammad Ali, Fidel Castro, Umberto Eco, Jayalalithaa, Harper Lee, George Michael, Elie Wiesel, Leonard Cohen, Carrie Fisher, Katherine Dunn, Gene Wilder — these disappearances unleashed waves of comments that allowed people to externalise the public discourse on death. #RIP, which can be interpreted as the classical ‘Rest in Peace’ or the more likely ‘Rest in Pixels’, reached record levels.
The Internet has clearly changed the way we relate to celebrities. It has also changed how we talk about them after they’re gone. In turn, this has affected how we talk about our own dead. People now readily externalise what is called “competitive mourning,” a race of comments like “only the good die young,” “I knew her so well,” and similar banalities.
Elaine Kasket (real name, nomen omen ) is a psychologist at Regent’s University London, currently on sabbatical to finish writing All the Ghosts in the Machine: How the Digital Age is Transforming Death in the 21st Century . She’s been trying to determine if it is healthy to talk to dead people online. “For digital natives born after the mid-80s,” she writes, “to put something on the Internet is to trust it will be received by someone, somewhere in the ether.”
Kasket says that since Facebook is a place many associate with their loved ones, after their departure “it’s natural to reach out to them in the same ‘place’ where you interacted, talked and joked,” when they were alive. The issue, the psychologist points out, is that online, the problem of “legacy hierarchy,” meaning who is entitled to represent the deceased, who can decide how they are remembered, who has “chief mourner status,” becomes a public problem.
Which is also why removing the social network profile of a deceased can be publicly traumatising. Basically, Kasket affirms, keeping a dead person’s profile online is the equivalent of preserving a bedroom, continuing to lay a place at the dinner table for someone who will never show up again. But posting on their Facebook wall has a twist: this was the place where often you had the most interactions with the deceased person, so the expectation of an impossible reply can be higher.
How does this affect our integration of spirituality within our daily use of technology? We can assume it enhances it. However, there is a fundamental difference between talking to the dead in your own head (or out loud in the silence of your room) and posting your dialogue on a public platform, such as Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.
Virtualising the experience of our loved ones, while they are still alive, and getting accustomed to mistaking their pixellated avatar for our tangible reality, makes us want to hang on more to their Internet version, allowing us to continue experiencing a form of mediated presence.
A compulsive behaviour that has been observed in mourners is that of repeatedly returning to visit the page of a departed loved one. It is equivalent, in a previous technological phase, to calling an answering machine in order to hear the voice of someone who died — initially useful, yet if repeated it might slow down the process of mourning.
There’s also the problem of self-censorship while posting online. As Sherry Turkle, MIT professor and author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other , has explained: “We have come to believe that our experiences are not validated unless we have shared them. What we do online tends to make us look good. When we attempt to grieve or commemorate a lost loved one in a public forum, we censor what we want and need to say. We lose certain ways of talking, experiencing things because we don’t practise them.”
For example, we may need to insult, in our own internal dialogue, a friend or relative who died. It might be exactly what’s needed to gain closure and face grief. But most of us would not do that online.
If the Internet is being associated with a virtual temple, a sacred place of dialogue with the invisible, what are the implications on atheist and agnostic minds who may be engaging in spiritual behaviour without realising it? Or on believers who are beginning to divert their focus of worship from a real church or temple to a screen? In other words, is the Internet becoming the new temple for many millennials and Generation X web surfers?
If you listen to musician Alexander Bard (again, nomen omen ), the answer would be “yes.” Six years ago, this Internet activist became a spiritual leader by founding a new religion claiming that “the Internet is God”. He called it Syntheism.
The word means “together with god,” to indicate that humanity creates god as opposed to god creating humanity.
Of course, at the moment, Syntheism seems more of an artistic provocation rather than a real religion. Yet, Bard might have a point when he says: “I firmly believe Syntheism is already being practised — we are just formulating it.”
And, of course, Syntheism already has serious competition in the ‘Church of Google’, a website first taken down, but revived as ‘The Reformed Church of Google’ — their belief is that the search engine is the closest thing to god because it is omni-present, omniscient, omni-benevolent, as it professes (officially) no evil.
These trends, some facetious, some more serious, are not alone. Extropians are a group of young scientists, looking at technological promises made by the pioneers of artificial intelligence like Marvin Minsky, or of nanotechnology like K. Eric Drexler, who predict a world where both body and mind will become obsolete, and where a combination of technologies and genetic engineering could lead to our capacity to download our conscience in a web server and reach artificial nirvana in a new post-human world.
It’s a popular trend in Silicon Valley, with its promises of doubling life spans with special diets or deep-freezing bodies with cryogenics. It is, more than science, a new form of utopian religion looking at a trans-human who can control nature and the universe.
Some traditional religions see this as the antichrist, or a Satanic endeavour to end humanity. Optimists see the birth of a connected world-brain through artificial intelligence as the realisation of what philosopher Hegel had predicted about society as a whole.
Computer as god
All traditional symbology is in place to understand why it is possible to experience technological communication in spiritual terms. Biblical Armageddon, or the “Technocalypse,” is envisioned as a sizeable solar flare that could wipe out all the hard drives in the world. The Dark Net is a metaphor of a hell ruled by a concealed, immoral, and murderous underworld. The Heavens could be the download of our conscience in a server, resulting in eternal body-less nirvana.
As with life itself, most people experience electronic networks as entities evolving from a force they do not really understand, and that certainly they cannot control — a self-organised, decentralised and distributed system, which is also how many experience the concept of the divine.
To allow the identification of a faceless abstraction like the Internet with an all-powerful god-like force, there’s also the fact that the traditional monotheistic idea of god in a human form, often that of an older, wise man, has been suffering a slow erosion.
In the West, there has been a crisis of the patriarchal symbology of god in the aftermath of the bloody World Wars of the 20th century which involved (negative) father figures like Hitler, Mussolini or Stalin, along with positive (for some) father figures like Woodrow Wilson or the Kennedys. Of course, the need for an older man with a white beard sitting on the highest throne of the land lives on in a place like India, for example. But the iconography of patriarchy is suffering as the interdependence of humanity with the natural world brings everything on a similar level.
The more we use the Internet, the more we experience existence as an interconnected network of dependencies, leading to a possible weakening for the need of traditional religious symbols.
This could mean a return to an animistic approach, as is the case with some New Age beliefs in which mountains, rivers and oceans, along with plants and animals, are seen not as objects and lives created by god, but as an integral part of a larger interconnected whole, components of a web of creation.
People of the PC
In an era of democracy, the hierarchical structure of some theological liturgies might suffer, as believers feel equally important in the face of the divine, just as they are in the face of Internet. It is not so far-fetched to see that, in our age, a God-like presence could be perceived in the network which connects us more frequently and deeply every day.
For centuries, monotheistic religions have identified themselves with a technological object which transmitted the religious experience far and wide thanks to a machine: the printing press.
Theology does come with technology. So it is not such a leap of faith, pardon the pun, to see that from “the people of the book,” we may soon be seeing the “people of the computer” becoming the strongest religion of the millenium, seeking salvation in the algorithm.
The writer is the author of Technoshamans. Mappillai,a memoir, will be published this month.
Today’s so-called crisis of globalisation is nothing more than a new variable of the old battle between protectionism and free trade. On the one hand it is the tribalists while on the other it is the globalists. On one side there are the anti-Amazon, pro-retailers, losers of a global challenge, while on the other, there are the pro-Amazon, e-commerce winners.
Nothing more, really. The opening of trade walls has accelerated industrial evolution in such a way that workers have had to learn to adapt to almost every generation. The difference, today, is that the evolution didn’t happen within a lifetime, but a few times within that lifetime. This is why the Indian farmer, who initially moved to the city to work in a call centre, had to reinvent himself as an Uber driver and is now worried about driverless cars — all within one lifetime.
Cause of discontent
Technological innovations are what accelerate the rhythm of change. The medium is the message all over again. It is the transformation of technology that affects society, not whatever that technology delivers (news, electricity, TV series). And this is why in the United States and the United Kingdom and in some parts of Europe, so many 50-somethings, unemployed, disgruntled voters who found it hard to reinvent themselves ended up voting for someone who promised to bring back an impossible past — a greater America, a more British Britain, whatever that may mean.
Up until 20 to 30 years ago, you could reach your pension age before a new radical evolution in the job market, which created its winners and losers. Today, the challenge is that evolutionary shifts happen not just once before reaching pensionable age, but often.
This is what causes globalisation’s discontent. Blue collar workers from the mid-West cannot move to Silicon Valley; it’s a totally different skill set, and only few can manage it.
A sort of revenge
U.S. President Donald Trump’s and Brexit’s victories can be seen as a sort of “revenge of the losers”. The victims of the system described above decided to vote for someone who promised to protect them. Ludicrous. And, in fact, little has been done by Mr. Trump or British Prime Minister Theresa May to help those workers. And little is being done. Their standards of living have not improved. Or have certainly not returned to previous levels. Nor is there any policy in motion indicating that the previous levels will return.
There won’t be any promised return to the past. Which doesn’t mean the economy will not thrive. It just won’t bring back the same old jobs to the unskilled.
For example, the latest U.S. tax reform promises to lower corporate taxes, rehashing the ancient myth job, the “trickle down” theory, will not impact the lower middle classes who voted for Mr. Trump. At the dangerous cost of increasing the deficit and widening the hole, Mr. Trump is lowering too high corporate taxes to bring them down to European levels.
It would seem to make sense even though the impact on total taxation will be marginal. Lowering tax on capital may increase wages for those skilled workers whose productivity will be positively affected by increased demand for capital intensive work, but while engineers might see an increase in their wages, the unskilled won’t benefit directly from it.
In other words, instead of fighting the ills of globalisation, Mr. Trump has found a way to economically hit the coastal electorate who mocked and railed against him — the Hillary Clinton voters. By lowering the maximal for family deductions and real estate taxes, he has hit those middle to upper middle classes in the east and west coasts who hate him. They are the ones who will not benefit from this reform. This is what he’ll obtain with this tax reform. Brilliant from his point of view because the reform dips into the pockets of people who never have and never will vote for him.
How will this impact free trade globally? U.S. manufacturing is down to 11.7% of U.S. GDP (2016), while farming agriculture is only 1% (2015). America produces services such as Amazon, Google and Facebook; these are the richest corporations. Their expansion is thriving globally. And so is the expansion of other multinational corporations.
Even though the discontent of globalisation is a leftover of the crisis of 2008, today we don’t see that it will really impact globalisation seriously. At least, so far, we don’t see the results of this desire to raise barriers. Globalisation is here to stay.
Carlo Pizzati is an author and professor of communication theory
this editorial appeared in the daily national newspaper The Hindu on Dec. 18th 2017 also readable at this link.
As the archetypes of myth make a comeback to books, they seem to capture a world that has changed little since the days of Zeus
The gods of Mount Olympus are still with us. Their tales, myths and tragedies are intertwined with our days. When we gaze in the mirror for too long and see Narcissus, when a son is too close to his mother like Oedipus, when a daughter is obsessed with her father like Elektra, the Greek tragedies are there. When there’s a murder in the family like a Clytemnestra stabbing her Agamemnon, the tragedies from the epics are still with us.
The Greek gods may have long been buried, chased from the realm of theology and temples of worship to be corralled into museums and libraries, frozen in mawkish statues and in theatre plays, but they are still with us along with their tragedies. And more so this literary season.
It may just be remarkable coincidence, but there have been three intense recent novels all reinterpreting Greek tragedies — Orhan Pamuk’s The Red-Haired Woman obsessing with patricide; Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire reimagining an Antigone among Islamic State fighters; and Colm Toíbín’s House of Names, adapting contemporary language and family relationships to the matricide of Clytemnestra.
How and why did we get to the 21st century still reworking the same old plots, still gazing at the same old gods we thought had vanished to the distant planets we named after them?
The Iliad and the Odyssey are considered the origins of Western literature. Greek tragedians took Homer’s characters and created plots of their own, just like today’s novels integrate myths with contemporary language. Once reworked by Euripides, Aeschylus’s Oresteia strayed so much from the original that some consider it the real birth of fiction. ‘Based on a true myth,’ I presume the book would warn readers were it printed today.
This literary trend didn’t fade when Greece was crushed by Rome. Latin poet Horace put it plainly in his epistles: “Greece, in fact, conquered us by bringing her arts into rustic Latium.” The victims’ culture seeped into Roman values through the Hellenisation of literature and art.
Latin poet Virgil was the pioneer; his Aeneid is a sequel to the Iliad, and tells of Aeneas escaping from the charred ruins of Troy and reaching Italian shores, the mythological representation of the cultural thread joining Greece to Rome. Then, the Empire brought Greek myths to an invaded Europe. Later, Western colonisation spread these myths to the Americas and beyond.
Throughout the following millennia, Greek polytheistic myth experienced moments of fortune but also of oblivion. Greek gods continued their metamorphosis, not only from Zeus to Jupiter, but from divine to oh-so-human. But the gods have always been keen on metamorphosis — once, shape-shifting Zeus even trickled down through a roof as golden rain to impregnate a lady. Yet, in Shakespeare, Giordano Bruno, Torquato Tasso or Cervantes, the gods began to take on very humanly fragile dimensions, while mortals were increasingly invigorated by divine qualities. These authors created a new mythology by fusing Greco-Roman with Christian themes.
Mount Olympus experienced a prolific revival of its allegories during the Renaissance and the Baroque. Ovid became a major influence for poets and artists. Enlightenment, led by Voltaire, only made parodies of what it perceived as obscurantist legends. And Romanticism seemed mostly interested in individual countries’ national pasts rather than in the archetypes of southern Europe. But the gods of Mount Olympus just wouldn’t die.
Why, then, did the 20th century rediscover Ancient Greece?
The birth of psychoanalysis has its part. The Oedipus complex, Narcissism, the Elektra complex: a now somewhat discredited Sigmund Freud borrowed from myth to explain mental conditions. In literature, Tolkien and Rowling, but before them James Joyce, Italo Calvino and Roberto Calasso all dipped their pens into the cornucopia.
March of folly
In the 20s, the Fascists discovered a renewed pride in the remote past of Roman imperialism by poking awake the sleeping deities. In the U.S., in 1931, Eugene O’Neill would set his famous interpretation of the Oresteia in the smoky battlefields of the American Civil War. In the following decades, existentialists obsessed with the Sisyphus myth as representing the frustration of modernity. What an appropriate image to represent the endlessness of the often mechanised efforts and frustrations created by the industrialised enslavement of millions of workers. Or to portray the vain struggle of an individual in pursuit of knowledge.
In his 1942 essay, Camus imagined that Sisyphus must be happy as the “struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart” — a rather dharmic interpretation.
It is only when Sisyphus accepts the futility of his task and the certainty of his fate that he is he freed to realise the absurdity of his predicament and reaches a state of contentedness. Or santosha. Sartre rejected what he saw as the classical pessimism and disillusionment of Camus, which caused a most notorious rift between the two. Existentialists also realised that Greek tragedies were often centred on the importance of choice and the role choice has in connecting a person to her social destiny.
Everyone knows what Joyce did with Ulysses, few know how French dramatist Jean Anouilh reworked Antigone into a clearer symbol against totalitarianism, turning it into an anti-Fascist tale, worthy of the merciless pen of exiled poet Bertolt Brecht, who would set the tragedy in the Second World War and paint Creon, the ruler of Thebes, into a Nazi-style dictator.
And as Europe began to realise the advantages of unification, the elites again became obsessed with the greco-latin Greco-Latin heredity. The matrix of its culture is inscribed in its name, Europa, after a Phoenician princess who was seduced by Zeus in the form of a white bull.
More recently, Margaret Atwood retold the Odyssey from its hero’s wife’s point of view in the feminist Penelopiad, and Madeleine Miller repainted the relationship between Patroclus and his star-warrior companion in The Song of Achilles.
As the myths make another comeback in contemporary literature, is it a symptom of our confusion and lack of direction, a need to go back to something familiar? Or is it also because of a need to make sense of the massacres, the slow war between flawed democracies and their nemesis?
The very concept of the perception of truth has been altered, so it is possible that reaching into the myth through fiction will actually bring a sharper sense of veracity, as paradoxical as this may sound.
Superimposing the archetype of a Greek tragedy on the nightmarish summer massacres of Europe in subways and promenades, or over the senseless gau rakshak lynchings, or over the bloody scenes of Syrian cities collapsing under dusty clouds of bombs can allow writer and reader to feel that in this madness, in this “march of folly,” as historian Barbara Tuchman would call it, literature is the only way to gain some comfort in the realisation that history repeats itself. Or at least that it rhymes, as Mark Twain said.
Or it may be the only way to understand that the pointless wars, the beheadings, betrayals and mayhem, the stuff of Greek tragedies, are what best describes and makes us understand the world we are living in now. Because it’s all happened before. The patterns may be in our DNA, they may be in our culture, they may, sadly, be part of what a human being is. Feral, ferocious, ambitious, vengeful, but capable of noble acts, of love and self-sacrifice.
Mythological archetypes may be an oversimplification of the nuances of the present. And yet this is what history does, clearing away the fuzzy noise, outlining a crisper image of how things really went. Creating an acceptable story with a beginning and an end — with meaning.
Pamuk does it by identifying not only the personal tension between fathers and sons, but also between the citizen and the state. Toíbín takes on the Oresteiaand makes us realise how the ancient family’s implosive dynamics are similar, if not the same, as our own. As the author said in The Guardian: “I was writing, after all, in the time of Islamic State, a time when images of violence and hatred seemed to appear natural or at least prevalent…”
Ode to Apollo
The most impactful attempt to bring back Greek tragedy to make us understand contemporary events comes from the youngest and most promising voice, that of British writer Kamila Shamsie. In Home Fire, she grapples with many of the central questions of political migration and integration in today’s West versus East and North versus South dynamics, while adapting them to the matrix of Antigone. Not only is the ancient world brought closer, but there’s also a clearer understanding of our world, seen through the prism of the original tragedy.
Home Fire is sprinkled with brilliant and biting contemporary one-liners like this question from a British young man of Pakistani descent to a woman acquaintance wearing a sort of turban: “Cancer or Islam — which is the greater affliction?”
Shamsie’s book freely adapts the structure of Antigone to tell us about the Lones, a successful family integrated in the British paradigm, so much so that its patriarch becomes Home Secretary, repudiating his own Muslim community. And about the Pashas, a family attempting to integrate, but whose patriarch was a jihadi killed on his way to Guantánamo and whose youngest son, Parvaiz, is recruited to work for the Islamic State. I’ll share no more spoilers.
But why use myth to eviscerate the contradictions of integration, migration and radicalisation? Or juxtapose it on internecine regional conflicts as in Northern Ireland? Or to contemplate the power of emerging strongmen muscling at the walls of Europe and Asia?
The simplicity of the archetypal human tragedy survives the precociously announced death of the novel, post-modern literature, non-fiction, reality fiction. Why? Because it captures a universal humanity which seems to have changed little since the days of Apollo. Whether this can be a reassurance that nothing changes, or a disappointment in humanity’s lack of progress, is better left to readers to decide. May the gods of the Olympus inspire their choice.
Carlo Pizzati is an author and professor of communication theory.
His most recent book is The Edge of an Era.
The article appeared originally in The Hindu Literary Review and can also be read at The Hindu website by clicking here.
As we ask ourselves how employment is threatened by technology, we should look at how labour has changed in recent decades. Before we get so attached to the current job market, and feel we must defend it from an eventual robot takeover, we should examine how unfair the labour system has become and how robotics could contribute to change that.
If properly managed, the robotic revolution could be a chance to free millions of people from a system of exploitation of labour which is unprecedentedly inhumane. Or not.
In ancient Rome, a slave worked a maximum of six hours a day. A third of the year was spent in festivities. European workers in the Middle Ages had a six-hour work day and spent 150 days in religious celebrations — almost half the entire year off!
Nothing close to the 13 to 14 hours put in by the average, always-on entrepreneur of our times. Or the 10 hours a regular employee often clocks in, which explains why overwork is causing so many deaths across Asia.
The Industrial Revolution and the continuous automation of work have morphed us into becoming increasingly less human workers. This is the central premise before looking into what robotisation can offer to the future of work in India.
Is there also a continuing percolation, in India, from the agricultural sector, through urbanisation and its consequences, into the service and manufacturing sectors? Certainly.
Could this happen in a more humane way, as easily automated jobs are slowly stolen by robots? Is farming also destined to be substituted by Artificial Intelligence (AI)? Could we then envision a future of a widely urbanised class with more leisure time thanks to robots? Utopia.
But there may be a way to go in that direction, if we think about the advantages of robotisation being equally distributed among those who will lose their jobs.
A socially sensitive policy should consider this a chance for the government to gather advantages from higher robotisation and distribute them to the work force by creating job alternatives. Or by providing subsidies and employment systems with less working hours — such as part-time and work from home. Finally, robotised work should distribute earnings to those who will permanently lose their jobs. And this could be done in very specific ways.
A kind of exploitation
First, we should consider how to capitalise from the current market. The premise for doing so requires a radical change of perspective.
When we read that in a town in Andhra Pradesh, an AI company hires women and youth and spends some of its profit on education and drinking water for the community, we should not be humbly thankful. We should be worried.
But what is passed for bringing employment to underdeveloped areas is neo-colonial exploitation at its best. Workers are paid peanuts to build the very same AI that will render them obsolete. This is not explained to them. So they are thankful for an extra little water and infrastructure, in exchange.
This trick is fooling Western underprivileged people as well. To refine conversation skills, a digital AI assistant needs to be told over and over when it has failed. There are plenty of American college students spending 10 to 30 hours a week, for $10 an hour, on phones or computers as AI supervisors, evaluating search results and chats through sites such as Clickworker. If they understood the ramifications of their work, they might demand to be paid much more.
This is policy recommendation number one: enforce a high international minimum wage for all data-entry and data-supervision workers. Help people who are “feeding the machine” be better paid for contributing to coding reality into its virtual version.
There is a more serious issue in the Indian job market. In 1810, the agricultural sector was 90% of the U.S. economy. In 1910, it was down to 30%. In 2010, it was 2%.
Is this what’s in store for India, where agriculture is still occupying half of the work force? Will it happen faster here? How do we retrain farmers? And where are they to relocate?
What will happen to “the rejected” as Pope Francis called them, “the forgotten,” as U.S. President Donald Trump labelled them during his campaign?
A new era
More interestingly, will we move into a “humanistic intelligence” era in which we transform our workers, first with wearable computers (smartwatches and Google glasses are a beginning, the new smartphones operating according to moods, gaze and gestures are the next step), and then with deeper integration, like the Swedish company Biohax, implanting chips under the skin of their employees’ wrists?
It is called “shortening the chain of command”— from the smart screen era, to the cyborg era.
At first, technology might not immediately take all our jobs, it will take over our bodies. Of course, it’s already doing that. For example, I wear a hearing aid. Would I wear a bionic eye for sensory and visual augmentation, or for, say, drone operation? Maybe.
Is this how humans will compete with robots in an intermediary phase? What does it mean for society and its sense of identity, our relationship to our bodies?
There might be a lot of jobs for our new cyborg selves out there, in what is called the aug-mediated reality. Humans, some argue, are not to be defended, but expanded. So, will we be become transhumanistic, pimped-up cyborgs, with mechanical elements expanding our physical limitations? Isn’t this already happening? Is this the Nietzschean Übermensch we are supposed to become? Shouldn’t policy regulate that as well?
The focal question here is: as labour is being transformed at its roots, should economic forces be the only thing that matters? Aren’t we in front of an ethical and political, rather than an economic, question? And what if the answer is simply that everyone must benefit from the capital generated by robotisation?
Shouldn’t we begin to think of an alternative form of ownership of the robots? Shouldn’t they be public property, since they are objects that occupy and operate on public grounds, impacting public economy and nation-wide employment?
Shouldn’t they be owned by everyone? Should India consider nationalising robots? As ludicrous and anachronistic as it may sound in the post-neoliberal zeitgeist, it is something at least worth opening up for reflection.
Or could robots owned by private companies be allowed to operate only by purchasing a costly state licence, benefitting society at large or, specifically, displaced workers, thus funding unemployment?
Is it conceivable to create “job permits for robots” so that 30% of the revenue they raise with their work goes directly to finance the pension funds of the workers made redundant by robotisation?
This may not be the specific solution, but discussion should begin on these topics, as one of the ways to avoid famine and death possibly brought on by massive unemployment in a relatively short time.
Carlo Pizzati is an author and professor of communication theory. This text is part of his contribution to the “Technology Foresight Group on the Future of Work in India,” a collaboration between Tandem Research and the International Labour Organisation
This opinion piece originally appeared in “The Hindu” newspaper editorial pages and can be read also clicking here.