Efe Levent

Efe Levent

業非(Efe Levent)是國立交通大學應用藝術研究所博士班的學生,目前正以寶藏巖作為民族誌的田野場域,處理關於藝術與都市更新之間的關係。他同時在進行網路遊戲社群的研究,以及在「ROFLCOPTER」樂團中擔任吉他手。

Efe Levent is a phd student at Jiao Da university (Hsinchu), doing ethnographic fieldwork in Treasure Hill about the relationship between art and urban regeneration. He also does work on video gamer communities and plays the guitar in a band called ROFLCOPTER.

Monday, 30 January 2012 18:20

The Rift and the Bridge

This is a two part documentary about how cultural understanding is forged on a day to day basis between models of civilisation that were considered to be fundamentaly incompatible. The aim is to make a case for ending caricaturised notions of 'the other' rooted voicelessness and disenfranchisement.

Monday, 30 January 2012 14:43

The Year of the Voiceless

One of the great advantages of looking at 2011 from Taiwan is that writing an article reviewing the year of the rabbit is still a legitimate endeavour in the month of February. Although, it has to be said, even in the less fortunate parts of the world, where New Year is celebrated only once, 2011 will resist being shelved away as ‘soo last year’ well into March or even April.

The fortunate coincidence that the yearly celebration cycle, gives a second chance for commentators who were too busy to write in December, is not the only interesting aspect of looking at the world from Taiwan.

Those of us who have a certain familiarity with this island, understand quite well that we are living in a geographic region that is ill understood and whose voice often goes unheard. In fact, Taiwan is exceptional in its conduciveness to misunderstanding. Its unique relationship with China lies at the core of this bewilderment. The extent to which Taiwan is part of China and the extent to which it is an independent nation are both endless sources of confusion.

China itself induces a state of intellectual disarray on most Western observers. In the words of sinologist Francois Billeter: “China is more and more present in the world. But at the same time it is absent. We don’t hear its voice.” Taiwan, thanks to its complicated relationship with this already mystifying civilization, starts off on the race for global attention on the wrong foot. The fact that the island nation is largely unrecognized in international diplomacy does not help it to make its voice heard.

It is for this reason that those of us dwelling in Taiwan have an even more significant understanding of the developments around the world in the past year. Because 2011 has been the year in which those who seemed forever doomed to silence finally gained a voice. So many actors whom most never even knew existed appeared on the world stage, that we can make an exception in renaming the year of the rabbit the year of the voiceless.

Let us first look at what has arguably been the most significant social movement, namely the Arab Spring. Since time immemorial, occidental observers have scornfully assumed that non-autocratic forms of governance are fundamentally incompatible with the Muslim population of the region. Dismissing the rather obvious fact, that the majority of the ruthless dictators in the region, were granted power by the benevolent might of the neo-colonial powers.

Today the same commentators are screaming bloody murder at the election of the Muslim Brotherhood as the main party in Egypt. With the confidence of medieval clergymen who claimed that the Earth is flat, they declare that Muslims are incapable of establishing political regimes based on fair representation. Again, ignoring the fact that the Brotherhood have expressed their intention to operate within the democratic framework.

The ‘Manifesto Against Islamist Totalitarianism’ signed by leading intellectuals, among whom Salman Rushdie (Europe's favourite drama queen) is one, states the alleged impossibility of reconciling Islam and Democracy in a language that Shaggy himself (from the 90’s) would have described as ‘bombastic, very fantastic’. This is the first line: “After having overcome Fascism, Nazism, and Stalinism, the world now faces a new totalitarian global threat: Islamism.” It continues, two very short paragraphs later with the following words: “Like all totalitarianisms, Islamism is nurtured by fears and frustrations.” If the fine art of writing a manifesto, was subject to strict rules, like that of a game of chess, invoking the ghost of Fascism, Nazism and Stalinism on the opening move, then accusing your opponent of nurturing ‘fears and frustrations’, would be the equivalent of running your Knight diagonally across the board while simultaneously declaring your opponent’s pieces as your own and calling checkmate!

2011 saw the passing of one such man. A man who has achieved immortality thanks to his superhuman ability to talk out of his ass and yet refuse the possibility of miracles. Christopher Hitchens and the rest of his costumed tag team who cheerfully made appearances as ‘The Four Horsemen of Atheism’ are chiefly responsible for re-interpreting racism to apply exclusively to Muslims. His chum Richard Dawkins (who’s fighting name is ‘the Dalek’ due to the irritating quality of his voice) has recently croaked in praise of the British Prime Minister, David Cameron. For the latter’s speech condemning multiculturalism that ‘coincided’ with a racist rally organised by the English Defence League.

Speaking of Islamophobia, 2011 has also seen an explosion of white supremacist violence. Norway was struck by Anders Breivik’s assault. Whilst in Germany an extreme right wing terrorist organisation was finally exposed after going on a rampage of 10 murders including a policewoman, 14 bank robberies and two nail bomb attacks between 2000 and 2007. What is stunning is that both catastrophes were coloured by the tendency of the European public and commentators to suspect Muslims. Recall, if you will, how the first day of reporting on the Oslo massacre was largely guided by fact free conjecture. It was not until the very last minute when Breivik was finally captured, that self declared terrorist experts have dropped all talk of al Qaida and picked up the question of right wing terrorism. Similarly in Germany racist terrorists were not picked up on, because for ten long years German intelligence had simply assumed that the murders were committed by the Turkish mafia.

Muslim and Chinese civilisations seem to be causing a tremendous degree of worry for the ex-colonial powers. Those who consider themselves to be the custodians of all that is good and just are making some very loud noises about the decline of the West. They claim, the cherished values of equality, liberty, fraternity are being eroded by the demographic rise of Islam and the economic rise of China. They claim, the members of these civilizational models are intrinsically incapable of understanding Western values and are likely to impose authoritarian systems on the free world.

There is a dangerous isolationist tendency in these apocalyptic visions. The suggestion is that Western civilisation should start digging its trenches and building its fortresses to resist the coming tide. The tragi-comic aspect of this line of thinking manifests itself more fully when it comes to sexual politics. A little known aspect of Breivik’s manifesto is it’s accusation of feminism for the demographic decline of his master race. “The female manipulation of males has been institutionalised during the last decades and is a partial cause of the feminisation of men in Europe,” he writes, possibly while scraping semen stains off his trousers with a commando knife. The argument is that, women empowered by feminism refuse to be bossed around by their men into producing enough babies to rescue the ubermensch from demographic extermination.

Of course we can discard the ramblings of a deranged man who has insisted that he should be treated by Japanese psychiatrists for reasons known to him alone. However similar versions of this concern manifest themselves in different guises, even in the writings of respectable thinkers. Umberto Eco for instance has recently hopped into the cacophony of voices that attempt to suggest ways out of the ‘European crisis’. In a very recent interview for the Italian newspaper La Stampa, Eco throws modesty to the wind and presents his credentials, by declaring that he is “speaking as someone who doesn’t understand anything about the economy”. According to Eco’s uniquely qualified opinion it is the Erasmus programme, which will prove the salvation of Europe’s cultural heritage. And here is why:

I call it a sexual revolution: a young Catalan man meets a Flemish girl – they fall in love, they get married and they become European, as do their children. The Erasmus idea should be compulsory – not just for students, but also for taxi drivers, plumbers and other workers. By this, I mean they need to spend time in other countries within the European Union; they should integrate.

I would like to urge the very few readers who have resiliently read my ramblings thus far to chase the image of a handful of Welsh plumbers prowling the gloomy housing estates of Warsaw in cold winter nights, preying on the nubile to ‘become European’ with, out of their minds. Although the image may well be hilarious, it is not as pressing as the question of to what extent young Arabs, Chinese or Caribbean people are allowed to participate in this so called sexual revolution. I may be a somewhat old fashioned sort of chap, who is not entirely familiar with the latest developments in the sexual revolution scene. But the last time I checked a sexual revolution does not imply an ethnic limitation, however broad it may be. More importantly it does not insist that the act of ‘becoming European’ is to be engaged in within wedlock or that it should have a reproductive purpose. My outdated idea of sexual revolution, is a state of affairs in which anyone can choose to ‘become European’ with anyone, regardless not only of their race, but also of their gender and orientation.

Yes, 2011 was a year in which people stood up to be heard. But it was also a year in which certain members of a civilisation which considers itself to be in perpetual decline have stooped to ridiculous lows to avoid hearing these new voices and engage with them. We must remember time and time again that what makes the human condition special is not just the universal attributes that runs through us like a long thread, it is also about the things that make us different.

In his book The Interpretation of Cultures, Clifford Geertz explains how the evolution of the human mind has happened alongside the development of culture. Contrary to common belief, our ancestors have not developed language and other means of socialisation once their brain had fully evolved. Instead, he explains: “human cortical expansion has followed, not preceded, ‘the beginning’ of culture.”

Eco perhaps had it right in one aspect. That the fate of Europe or any other culture in fact, lies not so much in the grand decisions made by its cream and crust but more in the daily practices of its plumbers and taxi drivers. It is up to them to open their eyes and ears to new cultures and engage with them in the spirit of mutual exchange. Without expecting them to abandon what makes them and their cultures unique. Because expecting them to do so would imply forcing them into becoming, in the words of Geertz: “unworkable monstrosities”.

Faithful to the Middle Eastern tradition (though I don’t presume to be a religious observer) of giving the last word to one’s elders I wish to conclude this piece with a quote from Philosopher Gilbert Ryle, which is also quoted in full in the above mentioned work by Geertz.

“The statement “the mind is its own place”, as theorists might construe it, is not true, for the mind is not even a metaphorical “place.” On the contrary, the chessboard, the platform, the scholar’s desk, the judge’s bench, the lorry-driver’s seat, the studio and the football field are among its places. These are where people work and play stupidly, or intelligently. “Mind” is not the name of another person, working or frolicking behind an impenetrable screen; it is not the name of another place where work is done or games are played; and it is not the name of another tool with which work is done, or another appliance with which games are played.”

Illustration by Bendu

 


A reader responds to Efe

 

Thursday, 21 April 2011 18:47

Questioning Individual Expression in an Urban Context: The Example of Treasure Hill

Suggesting that every society have their own ideas of what is authentic and what is not, might strike most people as too obvious to require re-iteration. However the charismatic contemporary ideology which suggests that authenticity and self expression are things to be encouraged by their own right, needs to be re-considered if it is to avoid contradiction with this basic principle.

The case of Treasure Hill artist village is illustrative of how these two suggestions are fundamentally opposed to each other. Treasure Hill is essentially a squatted community on the border of Taipei City and Taipei County. The neighbourhood has been preserved under the Cultural Preservation Act and turned into an Artist Village, where artist's can rent the emptied houses to use as studios or as living space. The complex includes various exhibition spaces and a cafe.

The current state of the neighbourhood has been settled after continuous negotiations involving various municipal departments and the residing activists/artists. Although the project has been motivated with all the best intentions and overall can be considered as a step in the right direction, it is still far from being an ideal template for future plans of urban regeneration.

As is the case with most heritage programs, the Treasure Hill project has not been entirely successful in incorporating the views of those who have used the space for non-heritage related purposes. It is this failure that has caused the neighbourhood to be stripped of it's prior residents and turned into a space which celebrates individual expression and artistic creativity at the expense of housing lower income families.

This is not to say however that Treasure Hill used to be an ideal place to live and should have been left untouched for eternity. In fact the view of the few residents who have kept their houses in the area range from indifference at worst, to approval at best. However a lot more residents have been moved out of the area, presumably further out into Taipei County or even beyond.

It would be tremendously unfair to criticise any particular organisation for the removal of residents out of the area. What has to be criticised however, is the global trend that grants notions like 'self realization' a cult-like status. The idea that if arts, culture and creativity are allowed to flourish, then urban problems of crime and housing will just magically untangle. It is unquestionable, of course that artistic and cultural institutions are extremely valuable to both local and global communities. Nevertheless, the suggestion that we can just add culture to an environment and stir, then proceed to statistically document the improvement of 'general well-being' is absurd.

This very same problem has been noted by London Mayor Boris Johnson's (whom I have to say without restraint I personally detest) Advisor for Arts and Culture, Munira Mirza. Although the Tory party's political motivations are far from being admirable, they are nevertheless making a good point about the instrumentalisation of culture under the previous administration. The problem in fact dates back to much earlier, to the slow but steady erosion of the Labour party's post-war settlement. In terms of housing this has been mostly concentrated around waging a war on council house projects. It is worth remembering after all, that the prioritization of home ownership and the rise of customisation often gloriously portrayed on television hour after hour, has been at the expense of collective, affordable housing.

To conclude, the twin subjects of culture-led urban regeneration and alternative building, need to be urgently re-evaluated. With as much emphasis payed to the residents who inhabit sites of cultural regeneration as the projects themselves. It is clear that the effect of cultural/architectural policy over the urban landscape needs to be studied far more rigorously and understood fully to be able to make healthier projections regarding the role of culture over the contemporary metropolis.

Photo courtesy of Marco Casagrande

Monday, 31 October 2011 17:02

The Internet as Continuity of Human Existence

Between the years of 2006-2007 I engaged in an ethnographic research about players of the Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG), World of Warcraft (WoW). Ever since then, I have had the impression that a lot of what has been said and written about the internet is in fact, hot air. Let us have a quick look at the two sides of the raging debate about the internet.

On the blue corner are the custodians of the 'old ways'. Much has been made of the internet censorship laws in China. Chinese authorities defend their measures by arguing that an unregulated internet would turn into a means of spreading rumours and propaganda. Similarly legislation in countries like Turkey and Iran limit content access on the internet on the grounds that it damages their 'moral fibre'. The 'affluent west' has it's own brand of conservatives, who unscrupulously use clinical language to describe the relationship between man and the internet. We see a new industry emerging around the 'curing' of 'internet addiction'. The problems with this approach to the internet are too obvious and hence, offer scant intellectual delight.

On the red corner, we have the champions of 'enlightenment'. Here are the bookie's favourite. The self appointed crusaders of progress are a very mixed bunch. In the Chinese context for instance we have the brave men and women of Google who have valiantly turned their failed investment in China, into a PR spectacle featuring themselves on the lead role as the stout hearted warriors waving the banner for freedom of speech in the land of the uncivilized heathens. In the western front the same battle is waged by groups like 'Anonymous' or 'Lulzsec' with varying degrees of success. There is far more intellectual flesh here for the enthusiastic polemicist to get their critical teeth into. Although crushing the dreams of stary eyed digital utopians provides a sense of immediate gratification of a predatory nature, it is scarcely productive nor satisfying in the long run.

Homo sapiens for good or ill, has a tendency to pick sides on issues that vary from the utterly trivial to existentially critical. Families can break up over potato salad recipes, just as generations can slaughter each other in the name of religion.

"What is your bloody point?" I hear you cry impatient reader. My point is that polarisation of the debate about the internet unfortunately misses some interesting things that are actually going on. We are struggling with the inevitability of change on one hand and the necessity to protect what we hold dear as a society. The assumption that both sides have in common is that the internet presents a massive rupture in human existence. An alternative is to look at the internet through the lens of continuity.

For instance during his aforementioned research your humble author has discovered that WoW players tend to model their social organisation on conventional organisational structures they have familiarised with outside the context of the internet. Also, contrary to the common belief that the particular form of anonymous interaction forged over MMO platforms dissolve sexual identity, I have observed that young boys and girls actually learn to perform their sexual identity through their interactions with the rest of the community.

What I am trying to get across here is that if we had spilled as much ink describing the effects of the internet as we have over the question of whether the Internet is a 'good thing' or a 'bad thing', we would have by now reached a state where we can accurately evaluate the direction that we want the internet to take. But where is the fun in that?

(Detail of a drawing by Bendu)

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