Erenlai - Displaying items by tag: vermander
Thursday, 24 May 2012 00:00

The Beautiful and the Sublime

Man is an aesthetic animal. He takes interest and pleasure in the contemplation and appreciation of other men, living beings, objects, thoughts, shows, music, landscapes that strike his imagination, his memory and all his senses. He makes such appreciation a driving force of his inner life, which becomes infused by greater meaning through the exercise of his aesthetic faculties. The fact of appreciating beauty, and to be able to take time so as to let oneself be transformed by the contemplation of it also provides one with spiritual nourishment and insights. The transforming power of beauty has been recognized and celebrated in many forms throughout ages and cultures; but it is rooted into the capacity to take time out for silence and attentiveness. Therefore beauty is a fragile power, the appreciation of which is to be nurtured from one generation to another. And we have also to recognize that beauty is not purely immemorial: some forms of beauty will speak more to our senses and our understanding according to the age and milieu we live in.

But what is “beauty’” after all? Greek philosophers, and many thinkers after them, have generally drawn some kind of distinction between two kinds of aesthetic emotions, which can be roughly labeled as the “Beautiful” and the “Sublime.” “Beautiful” somehow refers to an aesthetic pleasure provoked by the understanding and mastery of the thing with which we relate: we appreciate the beauty of a musical piece because we realize how skillfully it has been composed, and we can compare it with other works; we admire the craftsmanship in the painting, the jewelry or the vase that is offered to our appreciation; we celebrate the beauty of the face of the loved one according to some aesthetic standard (the Romantic, the Modern, the Classical…) that have become intelligible to us through education, and travels. This is why it is sometimes so difficult to appreciate artworks that come from a culture utterly alien to ours.

The Sublime is an emotion awakened by a sense of mystery, by the sudden realization that we cannot master or understand how this particular thought, artwork or landscape has come to the light of the day. The emotion we experience has not been produced by the pleasure of recognizing aesthetic canons that we have learnt to master and appreciate, but rather by the overwhelming impression that the object we contemplate produces on our senses. The “Sublime” has to do with shock and sometimes with terror, with the struggle between life and death, with the primal forces that work within our inner being and around us. Somehow, “Beauty’ is deeply human, while the “Sublime’ confronts us to what is beyond and behind us: the Animal from which we come from, and the Divine in which we aspire to be transformed.

The whole spectrum of our aesthetic emotion speaks of the different strata that compose our humaneness – the strive for reason, and the one to go beyond or behind reason; the pride we take in being humans entrusted with the task of dominating nature; our potent and unconscious recollection of the fact that we come from the breast of the very nature that we colonize, and our aspiration towards the Divine who made us what we are and still who calls us to trespass the boundary of our selves.

 

Drawing by Bendu

 


Tuesday, 14 August 2012 00:00

Breathing Poetry

Where is Poetry to be found in our life? Like oxygen, Poetry is to be found everywhere – and nowhere in particular. Like oxygen also, Poetry is rarely found pure and unmixed – it reaches us in composition with other gases, and this is what makes us able to breathe and flourish. Still, when oxygen becomes too rarefied we need a bottle of it, and inhale it at its purest. Poems – sometimes only one verse, a couple of lines - are like supply bottles that make us able to go on when we feel asphyxiated. But Poetry comes under many garbs, and likes to mix with the profane and the ordinary.

Living without Poetry makes one wither and dry out. Life has no taste, resonance or nuance anymore, thoughts and projects pile up in the shelves of the mind like strings of empty shells. But Poetry is always at hand. For sure, there are environments that naturally bathe our life in Poetry – when we live near forests, lakes or mountains, when people around us walk at a leisurely pace, when music resonates at our gate. However, breathing Poetry throughout our life is first and foremost a question of inner attention: I am the one who decides to stop my work for a while and to listen to some beloved piece of music or take time to discover an author, some of whose verses I had heard one day. I may choose to go to the park and marvel at the trees and their birds rather than staying at my computer. I can rediscover the smile of the people living near me, and offer them in gratitude the smile I so often forget to illuminate my face with.

It's not so easy, for sure. I am presently living in an apartment located on the 20th floor, and my office is in a tower, on the 26th floor. No matter what window I look out of, I just see roads and groups of towers… At the start, I did suffer a lot from it: the landscape and rhythm of life made me feel dry. Poetry flew away from me, leaving my imagination, my will, my memory, dried out and empty. Step by step, I had to learn again, to find Poetry in silence, prayer, the reading of a book – a new one or an old companion -, the rediscovery of music. I also found Poetry in dreaming over these endless ranges of towers, especially when night is falling. And I gave myself time to create objects of Poetry – drawings and paintings, short texts, emails that were not for “business” but which I took pleasure to carve as if they were little artworks. Also, I decided to walk more. Whatever the environment, there is something in walking that is akin to Poetry. Many poems after all were composed, in ancient times, to accompany the work in the fields, the wandering on the roads, the dance during the ritual…

In new environments, Poetry surges in new forms. For its oxygen to fill and replenish our life Poetry requires from us skills and virtues that are timeless: a sense of playfulness and gratuitousness, a willingness to pause and to listen, and a desire to respond in chants, words and works to the gift we receive when we walk on the road and we breathe Poetry.

 

Published in
Focus: Poetry and Song

Friday, 29 June 2012 00:00

Beyond the digital trash bin

There are as many ways to take a photograph as to look at the world. Some pictures show an empathy with the subject, some others create a sense of distance or even repulsion. Some are bathed with light and tenderness, and some with anger or despair. Some concentrate on everyday life, with a sense of patience, a kind of meditative undertone, while others try to capture the spark of the moment, the transformative event that changes the mood of a crowd or the look on a face. Some impact a meaning on the world and on human life, and others speak of meaningless wanderings Some pictures seem to be the product of a leisurely walk, and some of a feverish quest into both the city’s and one’s own soul…

I am teaching a course of religious anthropology, and have found that initiating students to “visual anthropology” was one of the best possible ways to make them enter the subject matter. I show them documentaries and photographs, and they slowly become conscious of the fact that the best and most informative documents are not the ones that try to objectively record data but rather those that testify to the engagement of the director of photographer with the people he meets with. A sense of risk, of bewilderment, the account of how one’s own perspective has changed, the courage to position oneself within the environment one explores are the qualities we look for: at its best, visual anthropology gives us an unparalleled account of the way people live and express their beliefs, engage into rituals, how they understand and shape the world they dwell in.

Photographs are rich with information, but not only with information. They are relational objects: they express how we engage or did not engage into a relation with the object of our interest, how our exchanges created the opportunity through which a rich and striking photograph could be taken, how we become part of the scene we document (landscape, ritual or street scene), how frontiers have been blurred till the point that we do not know whether we shot the picture or were shot into the heart by what we saw and experienced.

It is a pity that the act of photographing has been trivialized to the extreme. Pictures are taken all the time with cell phones and other devices – pictures of ourselves mostly -, we look at themselves a few seconds before forgetting them forever, and putting them into a digital trash bin. When it comes to me, I like to sense the weight of a real camera resting on my shoulder, and to make this weigh the symbol of what it costs to take real photograph, photographs in which I have engaged my powers to relate, to feel and to create. At the end of the day, there always will be the pictures meant to go into the trash bin from the moment they were taken and the ones that will speak for a very long time of the tears and the laughs that together compose what can really be called “the salt of life.”

 

 


Thursday, 07 July 2011 00:00

Romance of the Three Kingdoms: The Sequel

“Romance of the Three Kingdoms”, written in the 14th century, is the most popular Chinese historical novel, based on the tumultuous history of the country during the second and third centuries. A cultural icon, it has lost nothing of its evocative power, revived through TV series, mangas and videogames. Throughout the centuries, its over-complex plot has also provided the Chinese political scene with endless analogies, helping politicians and commentators to assess power relationships, strategies and claims to legitimacy.

No wonder that the “Three Kingdoms” metaphor is still in use. And it serves today to describe the somehow subdued battle going on between the three main ideological forces that divide the Chinese intellectual spectrum, all of them trying to define policy making and future institutional transformations. Roughly speaking, the “Three Kingdoms” are now referred to as Confucianism, Christianity and a populist form of Maoist revival.

Let us start with the latter “Kingdom”: Bo Xilai (薄熙来), Party secretary of Chongqing Special Municipality and a scion of a prominent Communist family, has built up his popularity on the eradication of local mafias (or its substitution by new factions), the building of scores of social housing, and the chanting in group and on TV of revolutionary songs of the past. He has somehow reshaped a “spiritual civilization” based (a) on the comfort of small groups fostering mutual support through chanting together and participating in community activities, (b) on nostalgia for less corrupt times, and (c) on the reassertion of the quasi-religious nature of the Party.  Strangely enough, the model has proven effective, and is now embraced by a growing number of national and local cadres, making the ones who embrace the revival of the Party and the enshrinement its history leading contenders in the political battles to come. For sure, the ultimate motivations behind Bo’s launching of the “Red songs campaign” remain unclear, but it any case it has initiated a movement that has implications going beyond his personal political future. Current dissatisfactions as to inflation and unemployment may give more impetus to this peculiar form of populism.

Confucianism fits better the mind of the leaders and intellectuals who envision the future of China as a continuation and refinement of the current model: meritocracy is the core value, a meritocracy mainly based on technical and administrative expertise; virtue is to be extolled, along with obedience and sense of order; “scientific development” associates with uncritical reverence for China’s long past (while the Populist-Maoist model relies more on generational nostalgia and short-term memory); caution and wisdom anchored into the ruminating of Chinese classics have to predominate over daring attempts at change, so prone is the country to disorder and division.

Finally, “Christianity” is fostered by the rapid growth of Christian churches, joined by people aspiring to a spiritual experience anchored in both personal and community life; at the same time, it clearly posses political undertones as it goes with aspiration to personal freedom and rights understood in the Western sense; such aspiration ultimately implies to relax or even to overcome the Party-State’s overall control on society. “Christians’ are thus often assimilated to people aspiring towards a Western-leaning model, and such people can also be found in leading circles. An example is the one provided by the economist Zhao Xiao (赵晓), who has equaled the historical achievement of the West with its adhesion to Christian beliefs and has converted to Christianity. During the last few years and months, spiritual and political values have been more clearly associated than was the case at the beginning of the “religious fever’ tide, with tensions and debates consequently growing.

“Romance of the Three Kingdoms” is characterized by the intricacy of its plot and the innumerable changes of alliances and fortune that occur. It would thus be unwise to see in the three “Kingdoms” now emerging the sole actors of an ever-evolving drama. But the understanding of the Characters who appear on the stage at a given moment of time might help all observers to better follow the plot yet to unfold.

Photo: C.P.


Wednesday, 29 December 2010 14:32

China's paradoxical religious revival

Is China really experiencing a religious revival?

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Also available in streaming on Youtube


Tuesday, 16 November 2010 15:18

Knowledge networks: diversity in the face of adversity

Benoit Vermander discusses the complexity of the the various networks and actors when it comes to global climate change negotiations and environmental issues. How can these difficulties be turned into opportunities? How can cities take the leading role on climate change?


Monday, 28 June 2010 00:00

China gets global

There is good news on the global front: China is more and more living up to its international responsibilities. The gradual reevaluation of the Renminbi, voting at the UN to sanction Iran and even moving cautiously on North Korea, all of this shows that China is increasingly calibrating its policies by taking into account their global impact.

China’s prompt recovery after the financial crisis had made some observers fear that China’s new assertiveness would translate into unilateral policies. The Copenhagen psychodrama heightened such concerns. Fortunately, these concerns currently prove to be exaggerated: China’s recovery is fragile, and the country knows that its sustainability depends on the health of the global economy. Friction with the US and France has been put aside. Chinese diplomats and policymakers are conscious of the danger that would represent an isolation of China, and are making their own the old American wish of seeing China behaving like a “responsible stakeholder.”

The recent move towards salary rises for Chinese workers also goes in this direction. Joined with the (still very gradual) reevaluation of the Renminbi it provides for a leveled international economic playground and the emergence of new economic players. Besides, as the World Bank has recently noted, Chinese enterprises still have huge margins of productivity to realise, which can more than compensate for the expense created by rises in labor cost. A fairer social system should go along with a more efficient economy – and a country linked to its partners through common interests that are progressively better defined and assessed.

As is the case with other countries, China’s policies depend very much on circumstances and conjuncture. Unwelcome shifts in style and orientation are still possible, especially in what looks like a new period of economic uncertainty. Still, recent developments prove that the gradual insertion of China into global governance called for during the last decade by Chinese and foreign scholars is bearing some fruits. These fruits might not be yet ripe, but signs of hope must be noted and valued: the new international order is not all about competition. Reason and cooperation can still help us to break though rivalries, misunderstandings and irrational behaviors.

Painting by B.V.

 

 


Friday, 20 February 2009 20:48

Language, a tool for freedom

Renlai and Taipei county government have started a cooperation so as to reflect together on the local implementation of global challenges: water management; sustainable farming; ecotourism; integration of migrants within the community; lowering carbon emissions... In the Chinese issue of Renlai (and on the companion Chinese pages of this website) the topic treated in March is "language education", be it education to mother tongue or foreign language education. County governments in Taiwan are in charge of primary education. In Taipei county, new textbooks have been recently edited, aimed at developing children’s reading and thinking abilities. An opportunity for pondering anew the rationale behind language education.

Studying one’s mother tongue and learning other languages are interdependent experiences: it is only if you know your own language well that you can enter into the intricacies of a foreign language. And, reciprocally, studying a foreign language gives you a distance vis-à-vis your mother tongue that helps you to appreciate and understand it into a new light.

Actually, learning languages is what makes you able to learn all other disciplines. What is even more important, it is by learning languages that you are able to understand yourself, to understand the others, to develop your freedom and creativity, and to work fruitfully with others. Let us take these four dimensions one after another:

-Understanding yourself: learning a language will provide you with words through which you are able to express your identity, your true feelings, to channel your self and thus to understand it. It is by saying whom you are that you truly understand who is this “I’ who is speaking. Furthermore, by connecting you with your cultural past, by understanding how your mother tongue is connected with a cultural history, with a world vision, you understand yourself as being in solidarity with a history and a community - even if you use this language for challenging the values that are the ones of this community. Also, mastering a language amounts to know the words that describes all the facets of feelings, miseries and desires in the human soul, and thus to know better one’s own “light” and “darkness”, thus being able maybe to accept whom we are, with our contradictions.

-Understanding the others: listening what the others say in your own tongue, being able to discern in the words they use the subtleties of their feelings and thoughts is already a way of understanding Otherness. Of course, this becomes even truer when you learn foreign languages: you learn not to take for granted values and categories that seem to be “basic’ in your own language, you learn to see the world through another prism so to speak.

-Developing your creativity: words and syntax are the tools we use for conceiving and expressing new ideas. Mastering languages helps you to find newness by creatively assembling these tools. Furthermore, educating a child to adequately express what he thinks throughout the study of language amounts to educate him to freedom of thought and creative thinking. Once can say that teaching a language to someone (when you do not nourish him only with proverbs and stock sentences) is to educate him to freedom: he is able afterwards to think and say whatever he wants in this language!

-And finally, if you understand quite well who you are, if you are able to understand the others, and if you are able to think freely and creatively, then you are also truly able to work and invent within a group. Language remains the basic tool that helps a human community to stand together, to communicate, to debate, and, ultimately, by creating and progressing, to perpetually re-invent itself.
So, when teaching a child his or her mother tongue and foreign languages you are doing much, much more than preparing him to succeed in exams. You are providing him with the tools that are necessary for being truly human. He will do whatever he wants with the formidable tools you are equipping him with – for language is a weapon that can be used for the best and the worst. But, by showing him that language is meant for freedom and creativity, you can bet that he will more and more understand and gratefully appreciate the wonderful gift that is thus given to him.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008 20:31

China’s Environmental Crisis and Global Warming

(extract from the speech given by B.V. during the colloquium on Cultural resources against Global Warming. oct 4, 2008, Taipei)

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IV- The international position

- Efforts by China to become a player in global governance, including in the environmental field, should not be underestimated. The country has signed more than fifty international conventions and treaties related to environmental protection and natural resources. The review of implementation by China of the Montreal Protocol on substances that deplete the ozone layer, has shown gradual compliance by China to the Protocol and its willingness to fulfill its contractual obligations (it had completed in 1999 the targets set for 2002), but also conflicts of interest adversely affecting its ability to act. China is also aware of the strategic role played by NGOs in environmental diplomacy.
- However, China implicitly refuses to engage positively in the management of environmental resources, contributing to the unbridled exploitation of tropical forests of Southeast Asia or hydro-electric resources in the Amazon Basin.
- China’s position in international forums is constant: national responsibilities in this area are "common but differentiated"; climate change and sustainable development must be thought as a whole; technology transfer play a key role in meet the climate challenge; the "Clean Development Mechanism" and other similar programs should be continued and encouraged.

V – International Margin of Action

China may moderate its demands but will hardly abandon its basic positions. However, a change in the level of quotas could be acceptable to China, with a passage to a non-binding commitment level higher and stronger. China would probably limit international agreements with a regime that would facilitate practical cooperation projects and would thus releasing funds for promoting research and development in the field of new energies and to introduce renewable energy. At present, external pressures as influential as they are, are still weaker than internal resistance.
However, Hu Angang, an renowned economics professor at Tsinghua University, advisor to the government on environmental and social issues, has publicly called for China to accept to be bound by an international pact to reduce emissions. He acknowledged that his point of view remains in the minority but emphasizes the seriousness of the problems encountered by China. It envisages a sharp increase in Chinese emissions until 2020, but feels that implementation of drastic reductions in the following decade is quite feasible, so that Chinese emissions may go down to their 1990 level by 2030, and be reduced again by half over the next twenty years. China, he insists, will be the first victim of climate change, and has a strong economic and diplomatic interest to transform itself into a "green power.”
China therefore has the potential to play a positive international role, if it dares to tackle the speculative and risky nature of its present model of development. It will thus contribute to a better management of "global public goods". Making the turn towards sustainable development is without doubt the best way to assert its global contribution. Yet the Chinese response seems hesitant, often contradictory. Because the debate on its own model of governance remains severely limited, China finds it difficult to play a more active role in reforming global governance.
For now, we can just bet that China will carry out its ecological reform at its own pace but that it still refuses to be bound by a priori international agreements. The Chinese reticence should not block the commitments of other partners: Global governance, when it comes to climate change, must be one of "variable geometry" rather than based on the principle of "everything or nothing." In other words, the WTO model, (based on the search for consensus without offering viable alternative if unanimity is not achieved), model strongly challenged in recent months with the failure of the Doha Round, is not directly exportable in the field of environmental diplomacy.
It remains possible that, faced with bold initiatives of other nations, starting with the ones that the European Union must take in any case, China decided to take on the role it says to be aspiring to. In other words, the best way to engage China in world climate governance is perhaps to start without waiting that China finally decides to join global initiatives...

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