Cracks in Everything

Philosophy is dead.

At least, it is according to renowned physicist Stephen Hawking, who believes the discipline hasn’t kept up with modern developments in science to the extent that it has nothing relevant to say about the meaning of life any more. But has science really replaced philosophy as the means that people use of interpreting their experiences and answering the “big questions”? Is philosophy really defunct?

Of course, it’s interpretation that’s key here. Philosophy as a concept in and of itself – the very act of pondering the meaning of existence – is unlikely to die anytime soon. Humans are, by nature, a curious bunch and the desire to find answers to questions of life, the universe and everything is a big driving force behind much of modern global culture. By this measure of course, science is itself a kind of philosophy – just one focussed on certain particulars. But it’s more likely Hawking was talking about the academic discipline, which some have argued has bounded itself more rigidly than perhaps its potential scope allows for because of the historical tradition in which it is rooted. This has happened to all social theory to a certain extent and postmodern theory in particular – because while it seeks to address such problems, it has often had the effect of digging itself into a nihilistic and off-putting dead end. However, this background is never rendered irrelevant – the history of thought is vital to understanding how and why we have come to the field of knowledge and understanding in which we are currently situated; what’s ultimately important then is to drive new ideas into philosophical thinking – from as many varied disciplines as possible. That, after all, is what philosophy is meant to be about. In this light, science does not have to be opposed to philosophy – rather science can (and does) inform philosophical thinking on many levels, and the future direction of both disciplines will be largely dependent on the ways in which they interact. Science is certainly not free of the impact of trends in social thinking (although most scientists would attempt to argue otherwise) and subjects such as philosophy and anthropology can offer a vital critique.

But the other key point is public engagement. Neither science nor philosophy can claim to be of any relevance unless they make an effort to establish a dialogue with the very people whose experiences and world they claim to exploring – and this is certainly an area where philosophy lags behind science in contemporary culture. But there are developments – some of you might have noticed my recent Facebook activity has involved rather a lot of shameful plugging of a festival I’ve been working for over the past few weeks – HowTheLightGetsIn – which is the country’s biggest (and, currently, only) philosophy festival. It’s an intriguing concept, building on the proliferation over the last few years of a large number of boutique “alternative” festivals which have sprung up in as a counterpoint to the “mainstream” music festivals such as Glastonbury and Reading/Leeds. However, rather than focussing (like most) on the musical elements or on pure spectacle, HowTheLightGetsIn has an unashamedly high brow programme that brings together speakers from all sorts of fields – both more traditional philosophical theorists and scientists, politicians, technologists and artists to talk, debate, argue, agree and disagree on all manner of important (or trivial, depending on who you are and how you look at them) subjects. However they have sought and continue to seek to construct themselves academically, it is only with this kind of popular engagement and interaction that science or philosophy, or indeed any other academic discipline that attempts to provide some explanation for the world, will be able to develop without stagnating and maintain relevance in the modern world – and I very much hope we start to see more of it.

HowTheLightGetsIn 2011 runs from 26th May – 5th June in Hay-on-Wye, Wales. You can read more about the festival and the programme here –

Where is your companion?

Where is my companion?
Where is my companion?

It is Independence Day in the Philippines and having heard that there will be a parade in Rizal Park I make my way into Central Manila from my current home in Quezon City (slightly out of town) and follow the slowly gathering crowd of people towards the grandstand. Almost immediately as I join the throng, someone approaches me and asks me who I am and where I’m from. I’m used to this (see my previous post) and I tell her I’m a visitor from England come to see the parade. “But,” she says, confused, “where is your companion?” Continue reading “Where is your companion?”

Kain Na Tayo! (Let’s Eat Now!)

If “halo halo” was the first Tagalog phrase I learned, “kain na tayo” or “let’s eat now” was close on its heels. That they were both in some way food related is no coincidence – eating seems to be a bit of a national hobby in the Philippines and “kain na tayo” sums up their attitude nicely, often used as it is to express that food should happen before anything else, however important, can be done.

Lechon! A Filipino favourite at parties

Another indicator is the strictly enforced “merienda” – a meal that translates as “afternoon snack” but usually happens at least twice a day and sometimes more in between the three main meals which all almost religiously feature rice and an accompaniment.

Food is not only a matter of taste – its a big part of the culture, and it’s usual for friends and colleagues to share their food with each other. By doing this, my friends have explained, you feel closer to the people you share with and the lunchtime ritual of asking “what is your viande?” (viande is Spanish for meat – it’s fairly rare to be having vegetables although it does happen) is part of the ethos of eating together. Here there are no sandwiches hastily consumed in front of the desk – lunchtime is time out to socialise. Food is also a big aspect of the famous Filipino hospitality and I have been presented with all sorts of local delicacies to try over the last few weeks.

Unusually for a country so dedicated to cuisine, it doesn’t have much of a reputation for fine dining, despite the often unique and flavoursome dishes that form the staples of food here. This may be related to the Philippines’ relative obscurity as a holiday destination (outside of Korea), and like most Asian countries there is also the usual range of dishes demonised somewhat by anxious Europeans and Americans because they fall outside of what are considered to be normal or acceptable constructions of “food” in their cultures. In the Philippines it is the local delicacy balut – a boiled, fertilised, nearly developed, duck embryo – that is most often presented to scare squeamish tourists1, and both dog meat and bulls balls are apparently available in some parts of the country.

Schedule of meals
There are five meals a day in the Philippines

Equally it could be the overly sweet nature of foods that might otherwise be familiar (spaghetti bolognaise is made with banana sauce for example) or even the Filipino adamance that the heads or skin of fish and animals are the best bit. However in spite of any misconceptions, Filipino cuisine is a rich mix of spicy, sweet and salty flavours, and without wanting to sound too much like a cliched advert for WOWPhilippines, lifting the lids on the pots at my local turo turo eatery is a daily delight. With traditional dishes that range from jackfruit or fish stewed in coconut milk, to sizzling sisig (a bar snack made from chicken or pork) to the magnificent spectacle of lechon – a whole roasted pig, there’s no wonder the nation’s food obsessed. The pig pictured was part of the feast that made up the sixth meal on the day in question. The skin was definitely the best bit.

1Yes, I have tried it. My verdict? Pretty tasty actually – just like a meaty egg.

Robbed in Egypt

[singlepic id=4 w=320 h=240 float=left]Before myself and my three companions left the safety of our homes in Blighty last week, we knew that in the adventures ahead there were a few traumas that at some point or another on our journey we would have to face. We knew that long nights of vomiting and diahorrea would become comfortable normality, that regular showers would become a distant memory, that hot showers would become a barely believed myth and that we would be risking almost certain mild peril in every destination that we visited. We also knew, with our packs stuffed with expensive cameras, solar powered gadgetry and plastic currency, that we were bound at some point to get robbed. We prepared long and hard for all eventualities; mountains of Imodium, rehydration sachets, all purpose soap, dry soap and SAS survival guides weigh down our secure bags, protected from slashing and pick-pocketing by exomesh cages and security alarms. But despite all of our best forward thinking and planning, none of us were prepared for the foe we would meet only hours after we’d stepped off the plane in our first destination – Cairo, Egypt. We were robbed of our money quickly and effectively, not by the gun toting desperados against whom we had sought to defend ourselves, but instead by our seemingly kindly hostel owner who claimed that he just wanted to help the four poor, exhausted white girls who had stumbled through his door to see all that they wanted to in Egypt safely. In short, we were stiffed. Tired from the hours of flights, grumpy from the lack of our checked baggage that had actually made it to Cairo with us, disarmed by “welcome drinks” and (in my case) uncomfortable from pissing daggers every time I used the bathroom, we were in no place to resist the hard sell or to disbelieve the patter that this was the cheapest and best way we could see all of Egypt’s many sights. It wasn’t until the next morning when we woke up from a refreshing sleep and began to decipher who and where we were and how we’d gotten there that we began to wonder exactly how we’d both signed up to and paid for that hideously expensive tour of Egypt the night before.

It could have been an awful lot worse. We did actually get a tour of Egypt for a start, and although well beyond the shoestring budget that I had been planning to stick to, it was a very nice and well organised tour of Egypt. We were sorted out with student cards so that entry to all the sites would be half the adult price, met in each new town by a local rep, shown around each temple and tomb by a knowledgeable guide, ferried from place to place by private minibus and lodged in hotels that were nicer than any accommodation that we can expect for the rest of the trip (one of them even had a rooftop swimming pool). Had we been on a holiday to Egypt, with no pretentions of going any further no doubt we would have been delighted. But we weren’t. Well, I’m being a bit generalist here; I wasn’t. There was something about the whole affair that offended me, and not just because I thought I’d been ripped off. Not just because I think we were patronised for being female either, although that certainly came into it. Making our own way around Egypt on local transport would have been much cheaper, but it wasn’t the price that was the point – it was the “making our own way”. After even the first day of being driven around by pre-organised drivers from place to place, met by guides, guided around monuments and then allowed a small amount of “free time” to take some photos and have a closer look before our next pick-up we all felt utterly smothered and molly-coddled and like we weren’t in any way the independent travellers that we’d set out to be. We had become just like all of the other tourists being ferried around Egypt in coaches and on boats, seeing all of the same tourist sights, and never getting an insight into the “authentic”, “real” Egypt that we felt should be the preserve of independent travellers like ourselves. It was this that we had been robbed of.

[singlepic id=7 w=320 h=240 float=right]The distinction between “travellers” and “tourists” is of course a pretension. People who call themselves “travellers” do so to set themselves apart from the “mere tourists”, upon whom they look down from a lofty high ground built on their certainty that they find a richer and more fulfilling experience in their vagabond-like wanderings than anyone on an all-expenses paid tour to see the sights. I have to admit, it’s a pretension I find it difficult not to ascribe to; there’s something about spending a night in a cramped and battered bus chatting merrily to a local in some poor pidjin approximation of your language and their own that you feel the “tourists” in their air-conditioned tour buses where they sit next to only other tourists will never be privy to, and maybe that’s true, but both are looking to see something new. The new that they’re looking for might be different in each case, but in the eyes of those whose countries they’ve come to visit they are all tourists, one and the same. And in the words of Jarvis Cocker, everybody hates a tourist. Well, that’s perhaps not quite true, but in Egypt and I suspect much of the rest of Africa, everybody is out to make money off a tourist, whether they want to look at temples from the comfort of their tourist bus, or meet “local” people doing “local” things – after all cultural, volunteer and adventure tourism is a big market these days, and the world is full of backpackers, budding travel writers and shoestring travellers all after a more “authentic” experience than everyone else.

Authenticity is an interesting concept, and one highlighted very well by the pretensions of world travellers. It begs the question – what is an authentic experience and what isn’t – particularly in a world where tourism is such a big market that the extent of cultural change that has taken place in the last few hundred years and the influences of globalisation are often removed from the picture in the name of “authenticity”. Is the recreation of a “traditional” Masaai Village in Kenya, with songs, beaded tribal costumes and handicrafts more “authentic” than a visit to such a village when the inhabitants aren’t decked out in the tribal finery that they reserve for the tourist buses, and are instead clad in jeans and t-shirts, talking to friends in the city on their mobile phones? The answer would depend on who you talk to, but its a contentious one – Arjun Appadurai in The Social Life of Things talks of the way people define authenticity as a kind of “cultural capital”, used by people in place of more traditional displays of wealth to mark out their place in a social hierarchy. Nothing could be more true of the typically white, middle class, well-off shoestring travellers like myself who head off backpacking around the world – they may be living on a budget, but the feeling of cultural and intellectual superiority they gain from their experiences are considered priceless.

[singlepic id=11 w=320 h=240 float=left]So what of our experiences at the hands of Mr Ataf, the not so kindly after all hostel owner? Were we really robbed of the “authenticity” of our Egyptian experience, even if just an imagined authenticity that we were unlikely ever to find in a country so tailored towards tourism? As I’ve sat and licked my wounds, I’ve begun to think that there’s another way to see it. That maybe the reality of life in Egypt is itself the tourist industry, and the culture is one where the uninitiated are led astray, sold luxuries for more than they are worth and invited with open arms to experience, as long as they pay the right price. Over the past week we have seen more ancient monuments than you can shake a papyrus stalk at, ridden camels at sunset, sailed on the Nile in a felucca, been given a personal guarantee that if we buy Arabian Nights perfume then our men will become stallions and ride us for four hours and drunk enough “welcome drinks” to fill a small section of the Nile. We’ve haggled in markets for tourist tat and still probably been ripped off even after our best efforts to barter down the stall owners. In short, we’ve done everything that a tourist in Egypt could possibly want to do for a much greater price than we wanted to pay. But maybe that’s just what travelling here is like. And looking at it that way, what experience could possibly be more “authentic” than being robbed in Egypt?