Poverty and war

–I work in a field where people sigh, “What more can we say about poverty and war that hasn’t been said before?” Of course, new numbers are always coming in, showing things getting worse or if slightly better, then not better enough–but still, the sigh continues: “Where are the new ideas?”

My own experience is that new ideas are all over the place, ready to be seized. How policy relevant they are, I don’t pretend to know, but as for new ideas, no, the assumption should be they’re there for the seeing.

–Before I illustrate how so for poverty and war, I want my methodological point to be clear. If social complexity is defined in terms of the number of components in a system, the different functions each component has, and the interconnections between and among components, functions and the wider environment in which the system operates, then the more components, functions and interconnections, the more complex the system.

But the more complex the system, the more understandable it is that I’m missing something about an issue that is, literally, right in front of me. To make visible what I’ve not been seeing is to make visible new opportunities for seeing other things I’ve also been missing. My own answer to, “What am I missing that is right in front of me”, is to create, arbitrarily and contingently, a set of new interconnections (new to me), whose unforeseen but now visible resonances mimic the complexity of interest.

–To answer, “What am I missing when I look at poverty the way I do?,” is for me much like reading a mystery novel twice: The first time I read to find out what happened by way of what is described and evoked. The second time I read to figure out and evaluate what I missed by way of how the mystery was constructed. As English Literature professor, Leona Toker, put it, the first reading is the reading of a mystery as it unfolds; the second is about the convention(s) at work in making the mystery I read. In like fashion, reading power is also about two readings: What you now know (how power worked itself out in the case at hand) enables you to reread what you have already read as “a case of this kind.”

This implies a complex policy issue (poverty) should be read at least twice, first as a policy issue and second as any such policy issue involving these rather than those conventions of issue construction: What does policy say? And what did we miss by way of saying it this, rather than that, way?

Here’s an example. Consider the following reports by Zimbabwe villagers:

March, 1992
“We are not yet getting food for drought relief”
“there is no body who bring us food”

“He has got a problem of starvation he is not working and he has got seven children.”

“The problem of water here is sirious so that they need borehole and their cattle are very thin because there is no grass”
“Trees die when they plant them”
“This man is a criple that he needs help, but he is very intelligent that he tries to help himself”
“She is old and she is blind and she is a widow and she does not have anyone to help her with food. No clothes no blankets. They do no have cattle to plough with this year”

“At present two girls have left school they are just sitted at home. They can’t get money to pay schoolfees”
“They have no food. She has a family of six children”
“They are starving”
“The cattle are dying”

What was to be done? That depends on my—your?—two readings. The first is the unfolding immediacy of dire times in the village; the second is identifying the conventional responses to what is described, running the gamut typically from food-for-work schemes to regime change.

But, and here is the point, the minute you respond this way is the minute that logically and empirically prior question moves to the fore: What am I missing? What am I missing by way of appealing to these kinds of conventional answers to those individual cases of, what, poverty?

My answer—the resonances, ad hoc and adventitious, for today and now as I write—starts with the book I’m currently reading, Guy Davenport’s 1998 Objects on a Table: Harmonious Disarray in Art and Literature. How does this book, arbitrarily chosen and most certainly arbitrarily used, help me find out something about “poverty” that I didn’t think about before?

On one page, I read: “Pausanias described Greece without a single view of meadow or wood, riverbank or mountain.” This reminds me that somewhere in The Country and the City, Raymond Williams remarks that what was missing from rural landscape paintings were the all the farm laborers in the fields. The point being, as I remember it, that it is all too easy by way of convention to stylize the working poor out of the picture.

Where so, the issue becomes in my mind: In what picture—to be clear, in what second reading of the above quotes—are the Zimbabwean villagers NOT stylized out in favor of programs and political responses that end up having a life of their own, above and beyond these villagers?

The consequence of thinking this way can be profound, and not just for Zimbabwean villagers. “The frisson afforded by rereading is the discovery not only of things one missed the first time round but of the changes in oneself,” concludes critic, Joseph Epstein.

–What missing when it comes to understanding war? Since that too depends on what I’ve been reading and thinking about recently, here is my answer for today and now.

I just finished reading the Collected Critical Writings of Geoffrey Hill, which discussed a World War I poet I don’t remember reading before, Ivor Gurney. Which in turn sends me to his poems, which leads me to his “War Books” and the following lines:

What did they expect of our toil and extreme
Hunger - the perfect drawing of a heart's dream? 
Did they look for a book of wrought art's perfection,
Who promised no reading, nor praise, nor publication? 
Out of the heart's sickness the spirit wrote
For delight, or to escape hunger, or of war's worst anger,
When the guns died to silence and men would gather sense
Somehow together, and find this was life indeed….

The lines, “What did they expect of our toil and extreme/Hunger—the perfect drawing of a heart’s dream?”, reminds me of an anecdote John Ashbery, the poet, told in one of his essays:

Among Chuang-tzu’s many skills, he was an expert draftsman. The king asked him to draw a crab. Chuang-tzu replied that he needed five years, a country house, and twelve servants. Five years later the drawing was still not begun. ‘I need another five years,’ said Chuang-tzu. The king granted them. At the end of these ten years, Chuang-tzu took up his brush and, in an instant, with a single stroke, he drew a crab, the most perfect crab ever seen.

It’s as if Chuang-tzu’s desiring—hungering—after a dream also produced the perfect drawing. In contrast, Gurney’s next two lines, “Did they look for a book off wrought art’s perfection,/Who promised no reading, no praise, nor publication?” reminds me of very different story, seemingly making the opposite point (I quote from Peter Jones’ Reading Virgil: Aeneid I and II):

Cicero said that, if anyone asked him what god is or what he is like, he would take the Greek poet Simonides as his authority. Simonides was asked by Hiero, tyrant of Syracuse, the same question, and requested a day to think about it. Next day Hiero demanded the answer, and Simonides begged two more days. Still no answer. Continuing to double up the days, Simonides was eventually asked by Hiero what the matter was. He replied, ‘The longer I think about the question, the more obscure than answer seems to be.’

I think Hiero’s question was perfect in its own right by virtue of being unquestionably unanswerable. In the case of Chuang-tzu, What can be more perfect than the infallible image that emerges, unstoppably, from a single stroke? In the case of Simonides, what can be more insurmountable than the perfect question without answer?

Yet here is Gurney providing the same answer to each question: War ensures the unstoppable and insurmountable are never perfect opposites—war, rather, patches them together as living: “Somehow together, and find this was life indeed”. It’s not only that, since war is life, perfection doesn’t exist; it is also because war reduces everything to every thing, together. “Everything here is a substitute for everything else,” Janet Flanner the journalist reported of the French in 1945.

–Once, however, you take time to question just what is “unstoppable and insurmountable,” then what is everything and every thing is up for grabs. It’s worth noting that some people rework and recast the unstoppable and insurmountable all the time, and not just for war-as-life.

Ashbery records poet, David Schubert, saying of the great Robert Frost: “Frost once said to me that – a poet – his arms can go out – like this – or in to himself; in either case he will cover a good deal of the world.”

So too “a good deal of the world” is up for grabs, as in: Our arms go out—like this—or in towards ourselves; in either case we cover a good deal of the world for recasting. And how could the possibilities for recasting not be limitless, when our starting point is an already complex human system and complex issues, i.e., they are complex by virtue of having many components, functions and interconnections, manifest as well as latent?

Of course, war and capitalism generate their own contingencies. (Boom-and bust capitalism isn’t as fearsome as other catastrophes?) But is that any different than anarchism and democracy, or whatever creed and economic policy, generates contingencies as the starting point, like the rest of life?


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