The importance of telling stories… but whose story?

Jean Cocteau once wrote that ‘the poet does not invent, he listens’ in order to tell a story. But is there an art to this? Robert Saviano recently argued that he tells stories about Italian Mafias because he constantly seeks to raise awareness to fight them more effectively and he has succeeded extremely well in that. But do his stories always have to be so dark and uber-naturalistic for his message to attract a mass audience? No.

There are many examples of Camorra stories which include different voices, registers, and tones. In Francesco Rosi’s film ‘Le Mani sulla Città’, there is a scene where during a council meeting, the councillors put their hands up and shout ‘our hands are clean, we have got clean hands’, implying that they are not involved in corruption. This one single act summarises the story of corruption which Rosi is trying to tell. More recently, in the Neapolitan Mafia musical, ‘Ammore e Malavita’, the Camorra is portrayed with humor as a harsh reality, but the love story between the Mafia hitman Ciro and Fatima, the witness-nurse, shows that alternatives to the Camorra life are possible, and we laugh at the couple’s attempt to escape it.

FELIA COVERLike Sciascia, Roberto Saviano believes that ‘mafia stories are our defence against organized crime’. And there is no doubt that he is right about the importance of telling stories to help break down l’omertà, (the law of silence), disband traditional stereotypes and introduce a dose of reality. As part of my research for The Invisible Camorra, I too was keen to let the criminals have their say, and use their voices to explain their clan’s mobility around Europe. Adopting a bottom-up, insider’s perspective of the many camorristi who travelled across Europe, I was able to trace their presence and activities in the UK, France, Spain, Germany, and the Netherlands. This allowed me to get a taste of their thinking but at the same time, a better-informed overview of their rationale and consequent actions. By using their language, I became fascinated by their mind-set, their choices and acts, which forced me to go beyond the obvious scenarios.

However, I soon realized that it would have been simplistic to leave this one-sided view of their behaviour unchallenged. I too needed to listen to other individuals, those in the wider community and context. After all, criminals do not exist in a vacuum; they act and think in relation to their civil society, the economy and politics and as a researcher interested in un-packaging the complexities of this criminal phenomenon, it was necessary for me to give a voice to all the actors involved. Therefore, I collected the stories of the camorristi, but also of all those who interacted with them (police officers, anti-mafia judges, expert observers, and state witnesses). This helped me produce a multi-dimensional, multi-layered story.

Saviano argues that in his creative non-fiction, the key is to allow the criminal’s point of view to frame the story. He wants to show these camorristi as they are, and he suggests that as a consequence of this, there are no positive characters in his stories. The result is a very bleak and violent portrayal of the Camorra today: young and old camorristi jetting around Naples city and Campania to conquer territory, business deals, and political favours. Like in Kafka’s novels, Saviano’s convincing description of the Neapolitan underworld as lived by his criminals, is one where you cannot breathe, where there is no hope nor escape route.

But, would positive characters in his stories have detracted from his fast tempo and gripping account? Yes, I believe they would have made a difference, and they would have made Saviano’s incomplete stories complete. Different and varied non-criminal voices would have added to the intricate detail, the harsh reality, and the gruesomeness of Camorra lives and business. It would have put his stories in context and not left them isolated. As story tellers of the mafia, it is our responsibility to produce complete accounts of this complex phenomenon. In this way, we are not inventing but continuously listening attentively like Cocteau.


About the author of this blog post: Felia Allum is senior lecturer in Politics and Italian at the University of Bath. She is author of the The Invisible Camorra (Cornell University Press, 2016). From September 2018, she is a Leverhulme Major Research Fellow.

 

 

The importance of telling stories… but whose story?

Happy Independence Day, India: Grassroots Resistance in India Past and Present

Since India won its independence in 1947, it has celebrated its victory over its bygone British colonial occupiers on August 15th annually. In contemporary India the holiday is celebrated with parades, flag-raising ceremonies, and the singing of the national anthem, “Jana Gana Mana.” The festivities mark a celebration of the modern Indian state, but it is also day of remembrance and a repudiation of the repressive colonial powers of the past. Most of the princely states and regions that are now unified under the state flag of India were under the thumb of the British Raj for close to a century (and some lands had been under military occupation by the East India Company or other colonial interests for a least a hundred years before that). Thus, India is no stranger to foreign interventions, and it should be quite comprehensible that many Indians are still sensitive to soft and hard applications of power by outside influences.

Celebratory parade in India, photo by Jessica Falcone.

As I discussed in my book, Battling the Buddha of Love: a Cultural Biography of the Greatest Statue Never Built, when an American-based transnational Tibetan Buddhist group of mostly non-heritage Buddhists sought to build the biggest statue in the world, they became embroiled in a dispute with local Indians in Kushinagar. The Buddhist group, the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (FPMT), wanted to build a 500-foot behemoth Maitreya statue in Kushinagar, the site of the Shakyamuni Buddha’s death about 2500 years ago.

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A Buddha statue in Kushinagar, photo by Jessica Falcone

The “Save the Land Movement,” comprised of rural Indian farming families and their advocates, argued that the land acquisition of several hundred arable acres that had been organized by the state government for the Maitreya Project would be a complete disaster for those affected. In the process of arguing against the statue, locals said that even if they did consent to sell their farms, which most refused to do outright, the state was forcibly taking their land at far less than market value. While some Indian farmers felt that the project could offer some benefits to the local economy, they were almost in total agreement that the proposed process of land acquisition would be so imbalanced that they themselves would be shunted aside long before any potential benefits trickled down to their villages.

During my years of research on the Maitreya Project, I was often compelled by informants to think about how such a compulsory land acquisition on behalf of a foreign institution was not unlike a neocolonial incursion.

When I embarked upon ethnographic work in India in the mid-aughts, I did not seek to study the echoes of colonialism, but as many scholars in the region will attest, postcolonial India is haunted by the past, especially insofar as domination of the poor by the rich has continued unabated, albeit under new globalized, neoliberal, neocolonial guises. Even armed with the intellectual understanding of this history and cultural context, I naively hoped that the project that I was studying would be different. But my hope that the cultural logics of Buddhist morality would set this intervention on a more deliberate, ethical path were not borne out in fact. Most surprising to me, FPMT and its Maitreya Project, seemed utterly ambivalent about the local resistance movement directed against them.

A village protesting against the Maitreya Project, photo by Jessica Falcone.

An elderly woman in Kushinagar who counted herself as an anti-Maitreya Project protestor told me that she remembered Gandhi’s anticolonial protests from her childhood. She told me during our interview that they had beat the British and they would fight against this Maitreya Project too. On another occasion, I was approached by a local man, let’s call him Sanjay, who likened the Maitreya Project to a foreign parasite. He said, “We will win against the Maitreya Project. I am 100 percent sure that we will be successful. [Around 1600 CE] the East India Company came from London. The East India Company was also a ‘project.’ The Maitreya Project is like the East India Company.” When I hastily wished him and his peers well in their struggle against the Maitreya Project, he seemed skeptical and anxious.

And so, on the occasion of this year’s celebration of Indian independence, as I find myself thinking about Indian resistance movements past and present, allow me to share what Sanjay said to me by way of farewell, “We are stronger now. You tell them that we can’t be colonized again.”

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About the author of this blog post: Jessica Falcone is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at Kansas State University where teaches about South Asian and Asian-American cultural and religious worlds. Her book, Battling the Buddha of Love: a Cultural Biography of the Greatest Statue Never Built, will be released on September 15, 2018 by Cornell University Press. Since the release date of Manikarnika: the Queen of Jhansi was postponed until next year, she will be celebrating India’s Independence day by watching the movie, Lagaan, for the hundredth time.

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Happy Independence Day, India: Grassroots Resistance in India Past and Present

A Photographer Grows in Brooklyn

Before leaving California in October 1970, to return to NYC, I bought a 35mm camera at a San Jose pawnshop. Because it was the heavier of the two cameras in my $30 price range, I chose a Nikon rangefinder. I was lucky, 22 years old and wanted to be a photographer.

Back home, I took a photography class at the School of Visual Arts, a job with the telephone company and began photographing my family and friends in South Brooklyn. I never felt comfortable at SVA so I rented a small storefront in Sunset Park and set up my own black and white darkroom. I bought a paperback book on photography, and carried it everywhere, reading and re-reading every section.

I returned to college and graduated in 1972. Over the next few years, I completed a Masters degree and worked as a cab driver, cameraman, waiter, photographer’s assistant, bartender and carpenter. But no matter what I did to earn money, I kept photographing. I made my own prints in a variety of darkrooms – almost always ill equipped for washing big prints. So I often used a bathtub.

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Looking back on it now, I smile thinking of my eager young self. I walked around South Brooklyn with my camera and a hand-held light meter, recording each exposure in a 2 x 3 inch spiral notebook. I enjoyed working as a photo assistant in a Manhattan commercial studio, but deep down always preferred photographing in my neighborhood.

Somewhere around 1975, one of my mother’s cousins gave me a Speed Graphic. This classic camera – made famous by Wegee and familiar to me as the logo of the New York Daily News – used 4×5 inch sheet film.

It was quite a while before I was ready to meet the challenges of photographing with a large format camera but I learned.

When I began learning about the craft and art of photography, I was influenced by Robert Leverant’s book Zen in the Art of Photography: “A camera is an extension of ourselves. An appendage to bring us closer to the universe.”

My universe in the 1970’s was South Brooklyn where my ongoing interest in photographing working class family life and religious expression began. Although I photograph throughout NYC with a variety of cameras, I still like to shoot family events in BxW with an old medium format camera.


 

About the author of this blog post: Larry Racioppo was born and raised in South Brooklyn, and he has been photographing throughout New York City since 1971. Living in Rockaway, NY, with his wife, interior designer Barbara Cannizzaro, and their dog, Juno, he can’t believe his good luck.

You can pre-order and learn more about his upcoming book, BROOKLYN BEFORE, here.

A Photographer Grows in Brooklyn

On this #ElectionDay, WOMEN WILL VOTE

Today’s the day. It’s Primary #ElectionDay in seven American states, and this election season, it seems that no one is willing to sit on the sidelines. Women will vote, and make sure their voices are heard. But as we all know, this wasn’t always the case.

women will vote.jpgIn their book Women Will Vote, Susan Goodier and Karen Pastorello explain how the 1917 referendum that marked women’s right to full suffrage in New York State was a turning point in history. The victory at the polls signified the coming together of rural, urban, African American, Jewish, immigrant, and European American women. And, also, a victory for the male suffragists that supported it.

As Goodier and Pastorello point out, only when upper-class women convinced the majority of men to support them, did suffrage succeed. After all, at the time only men made political decisions, and only with men on board did women finally have the power, and the number of voters needed, to get the legislation passed.

Moreover, the authors argue that the popular nature of the women’s suffrage movement in New York State, and the resounding success of the referendum at the polls, relaunched suffrage as a national issue. If women had failed to gain the vote in New York, they claim, there is good reason to believe that the passage and ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment would have been delayed. Today many, if not most, political battles start at the state level; and the activism behind New York women’s victory in 1917 is clear proof that local efforts spur social change. As mentioned in our #1869 podcast celebrating the 2017 centenary of the referendum, we should remember that New York State was the tipping point in the national movement that finally gave women a political voice and vote.

Today #NYCvotes and polls will be open through 8:00 PM. Reflecting on the story of Women Will Vote let’s try to bring back the notion of coalition the women who fought for suffrage embodied, and remember that by coming together in spite of our differences we’ll be better citizens, ones able to focus on common goals, and to act for the common good of our society.

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Featured upcoming event:

“The Greatest Victory: Women Will Vote” presentation by Karen Pastorello, on Friday July 6th, from 6pm to 7pm. More details here: https://thehistorycenter.net/calendar

About the author of this blog post: Adriana Ferreira is the Social Media Coordinator at Cornell University Press. She admires women like her grandmother Delia, doctor and poetry writer, who advocate and stand for women’s rights.

On this #ElectionDay, WOMEN WILL VOTE

Political Upheaval: a glimpse into racial politics, state political patronage and the future of Malaysia

Since the early 1970s, capitalism and politics have been organised and rationalised in Malaysia in a distinctive way: the principal stated aim being to transform the comparatively disadvantaged social and economic position of ethnic Malays vis-à-vis ethnic Chinese. Promotion of an ethnic Malay business and state bureaucratic class, together with insistence on Malay political supremacy within the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN, or National Front) coalition, were integral to the strategy.

But in spite of initial improvements for ethnic Malays in general, the model’s real power lay in growing capital accumulation opportunities for capitalists that were closely aligned to the dominant BN party —the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO). And as inequality grew, so did BN’s reliance on repression of its opponents and critics. Ethnic and religious nationalism were both used to justify BN rule and discredit challenges to it, but yet this model’s problems would mount.

PARTICIPATION

As explained in Participation without Democracy: Containing Conflict in Southeast Asia, the unequal distribution of costs and benefits of development have exerted political pressures across the region. However, precisely how capitalism is organized affects the bases of support and opposition for particular institutions and ideologies of participation and representation. In neighboring authoritarian Singapore, for instance, the People’s Action Party’s (PAP) interests and ideological dominance link to state capitalism under technocratic rule. Hence, the PAP developed state-controlled consultative institutions and ideologies for incorporating experts, civil society actors and others into public policy deliberations.

Comparable forays in consultative representation in Malaysia were limited and counter-productive. Two national consultative committees—during 1989-90 and 1999-2000—produced governance reform proposals antithetical to the regime’s political patronage systems. As a result, the politically disaffected sought to exploit electoral politics and civil society mobilizations. These peaked under Najib with huge street demonstrations, organised by the Bersih movement pushing for electoral and other institutional reforms.

Malaysia’s May 9 general election result was a shock, ushering in the first change of government in 61 years of independence. To be sure, Prime Minister Najib Razak’s government had been on the nose for years, saved at the 2013 election by massive electoral malapportionment. In 2018, though, the scale and range of obstacles to free and fair elections was unprecedented. These included further racially-skewed boundary changes, barring of key opponents, boosts in phantom voters, deregistration of a major opposition party, and an Anti-Fake News law to blunt debate about Najib’s alleged role in Malaysia’s biggest ever corruption scandal.

Yet still one of the world’s most durable authoritarian governments fell, and the Pakatan Harapan (PH, or Coalition of Hope) formed government. Paradoxically, 92-year-old former authoritarian BN leader, Mahathir Mohamad, is again prime minister.

Mahathir’s political comeback was precipitated by allegations of at least $4.5 billion stolen from the state investment company One Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), including almost $700 million siphoned into Najib’s personal bank accounts. Mahathir aligned with Bersih’s call for Najib’s resignation and co-established Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Malaysian United Indigenous Party) in direct competition with UMNO, as the authentic champion of Malays. And in early 2017, HP elected Mahathir leader.

It is an unlikely coalition of forces, comprising alienated members of the old political establishment combined with popular reformist forces, that has made this victory possible. Many of the latter seek the dismantling of racial politics and state political patronage: foundational pillars of the prevailing Malaysian political economy. But how much will government change translate then to regime change? This depends on the way that contradictions within this multi-ethnic coalition are resolved or managed, and how the PH’s technocratic, nationalist, democratic and even authoritarian elements play out to lead change.

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Related article: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-44036178

About the author of this blog post: Garry Rodan is Professor of Politics and Director the Asia Research Centre at Murdoch University, Australia. He is also an elected Fellow of The Academy of Social Sciences in Australia.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Political Upheaval: a glimpse into racial politics, state political patronage and the future of Malaysia

From West Oakland to Wakanda—the African American history that inspired Marvel’s “Black Panther”

Marvel’s critically-acclaimed new film Black Panther broke multiple box office records this past weekend by delivering the fifth-largest opening of all time. While the film is clearly a superhero movie, it does draw deep inspiration from actual political events of the past century. Director Ryan Coogler, born in Oakland, California, set several key scenes in the city to honor his hometown as well as to bring awareness to Oakland’s pivotal role in setting the stage in 1966 for the founding of the Black Panther Party movement. Continue reading “From West Oakland to Wakanda—the African American history that inspired Marvel’s “Black Panther””

From West Oakland to Wakanda—the African American history that inspired Marvel’s “Black Panther”

Your Job or Your Water: Watersheds amid the “Economy Vs. Environment” Conflict

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Lake Tear in the Clouds, Hudson River headwaters

The need for improved water resource protection is urgent, yet land-use activities increasingly imperil our water supplies. With that in mind, we’re excited to present the final installment of a three-part blog series, “Watershed Paths to Water Protection,” on citizen stewardship of water resources by Karen Schneller-McDonald, author of Connecting the Drops: A Citizens’ Guide to Protecting Water Resources.

We’ve all heard the message: Natural resource protection (including regulations) raises taxes, costs jobs, and discourages economic growth. Environmental degradation may be the price you have to pay to retain your job and standard of living.

In this series, we’ve had a look at watershed science, community partnerships, and watershed groups and their goals: clean drinking water, reduced flooding, healthy ecosystems. A major obstacle to achieving these goals, no matter where we live, is the “environment vs. economy” argument framed as a zero-sum choice. Continue reading “Your Job or Your Water: Watersheds amid the “Economy Vs. Environment” Conflict”

Your Job or Your Water: Watersheds amid the “Economy Vs. Environment” Conflict

BOTNIK versus the Romantics! Can an App Help You Write Like a Romantic Poet?

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Lord Byron at his computer

By  Bob Holman and Steve Zeitlin

John Keats might have called the computer “a thing of beauty.” Or perhaps “an unravish’d bride of quietness.” Coleridge’s question, “Is very life by consciousness unbounded?” could just as aptly apply to the computer.

What Byron, Shelley, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Keats did with pen and paper is still accessible 200 years later. But can our new computers help us write in the style of the Romantics? Can the zeros and ones of digital technologies collaborate with us to write poetry? Bob Mankoff, cartoon editor of Esquire, says Yes.

Along with Jamie Brew of the Onion’s satirical website the ClickHole, he founded the app company Botnik, which is “very semi-seriously” looking into this question. Its new app Predictive Writer can harness the vocabularies of Seinfeld episodes, recipes, Bob Dylan, country music, and more to create playful word games that enable you to write in different styles. When you go to the Predictive Writer app, you can select from a number of idiom-specific “keyboards” that the Botnik community has uploaded:  Seinfeld season 3, cooking recipes,  Savage Love (a syndicated sex-advice column), and the Romantic poets that we ourselves suggested to them. Say you want to write a poem in the style of Keats. You choose the Keats option, enter a word or two into the app, click on the eighteen choices they offer for the next word à la Keats, and on it goes. Try it at apps.botnik.org/writer/.  But why, pray tell, would anyone want to do this? Continue reading “BOTNIK versus the Romantics! Can an App Help You Write Like a Romantic Poet?”

BOTNIK versus the Romantics! Can an App Help You Write Like a Romantic Poet?

College and Community: A Watershed Partnership

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Eel survey, mouth of the Saw Kill at the Hudson

The need for improved water resource protection is urgent, yet land-use activities increasingly imperil our water supplies. With that in mind, we’re excited to present the second installment of a three-part blog series, “Watershed Paths to Water Protection,” on citizen stewardship of water resources by Karen Schneller-McDonald, author of Connecting the Drops: A Citizens’ Guide to Protecting Water Resources.


Watersheds connect people in multiple communities through a shared interest in water. Water doesn’t respect municipal boundaries, so watershed protection encourages water users to form partnerships—not only among towns and villages, but also with colleges and universities. Even if you don’t live in a college town, chances are good that the watershed that supplies your drinking water includes a college or university campus. Continue reading “College and Community: A Watershed Partnership”

College and Community: A Watershed Partnership

Why Indonesia’s Muslim preachers are doing so well

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Cornell University Press has just published Hearing Allah’s Call: Preaching and performance in Indonesian Islam. Anthropologist Birgit Braeuchler interviewed the author, Julian Millie, of Monash University, about his new book.

Birgit Braeuchler: Your preparation for this book included fourteen months listening to Islamic sermons in West Java. I imagine there must be many preachers there, simply because there are so many Muslims in that part of Indonesia—about forty million in a province not much bigger than the island of Hawaii. But let me ask . . . the title of your book emphasizes performance. Why is that concept such a big part of this project?

Julian Millie: I work with colleagues at the State Islamic University in Bandung. A couple of years ago, students in the Islamic predication program helped us do a survey about the features that made preaching successful amongst West Javanese audiences. They went to their home villages, and came back with their reports. According to almost all of these surveys, a sermon was successful if the preacher was able to hold the audience’s attention for its duration . . . In other words, the students regarded a captivating sermon as a successful one. Continue reading “Why Indonesia’s Muslim preachers are doing so well”

Why Indonesia’s Muslim preachers are doing so well