Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Boer War - Thomas Pakenham

The commitment, even quixotic commitment, of the Boers. The irrepressible weight of the British military. In its time the Boer War seemed the defining moment, not just for a young and divided South Africa, but for British imperial prospects. Yet, in retrospect, twentieth century events would diminish the conflict's import. Global geopolitical winds and contestations rendered it little more than, as TE Lawrence might have said, "a side-show of a side-show." Afterwards the British interest would recede. The Boers of the Free State and the Transvaal would have their sovereignty. This was the last imperial gasp. The British gained their victory. It, like the Union of South Africa, would come at a terrible cost.

Thomas Pakenham's The Boer War is the history of the twentieth century's first war. In this remote corner of Africa, the set-piece battle of the imperial period gave way to methods of the guerrilla, to the tactics of the trench. The British shipped-off to Natal, the Transvaal, the Cape Colony, and the Free State, unprepared for what they would encounter. It was to be a "walk-over." "Christmas in Pretoria," they said. Yet, out on the veld, British troops were ill-prepared for the costs the Boers would hazard. Only by subjugating women and children, and, yes, even the land, could the British steamroller achieve victory.

Pakenham can rightly be criticized for his marginalization of the native population. Too often armies and commandos march and slip across the landscape; invisible are the inhabitants whose very lives and livelihoods hung in the balance of the conflict. Yet, this oversight is all the more apparent because the fighting feels so fresh, so present. The Boers and the British ushered in a new age of destruction, to be fully realized at Verdun and the Somme.

Though the British would prove victorious, the Boer War marked the end of the colonial period in South Africa. The peace brokered set the stage for the country's independence, a few years later. Pakenham's story, sometimes too often of military might and back-room politics, recounts the first hints that a global order was in retreat. Similarly, this account can be read as a somewhat bygone mode of history. Nevertheless, the humanity and savagery of the Boers and the British, and the lessons which Pakenham draws from it, resonate still.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance - Robert Pirsig

Pirsig's emphasis on the relationship between thought context and care binds this work. What we think, and how these are manifest in what is said and done, indicates a type of psychic position in relation to our caring. Care is an investment in the arena of concern; an interested-ness, both in it, and the self's relation to it. Pirsig's concern is the source of the seeming alienation between the modern self, and our thoughts and actions regarding the world and each other. The prevailing thought context is one in which the distance between care and thought, as well as the distance between care and action, has been deemed unimportant. Rationality, in conception and exercise, looks at the distancing of care from thought and action, and finds no grounds to suggest that they ought to be unified. This, Pirsig argues, is a short-coming of rationality, a short-coming which demands that rationality be expanded.

Prisig's answer to the modern feeling of alienation requires that we turn that feeling upon itself; in essence both using this pre-intellectual awareness as an entry point and holding it up for interrogation. Alienation is born from the awareness that our lived context - the social world we inhabit - is somehow unsatisfactory. Yet, our thought context does not readily provide us with the tools to interrogate and voice such dissatisfaction. This was the germ for the counter-cultural movement, for consciousness-expanding practices and narcotics, for the draw of charismatic religions and religious figures; each taps into a subtle but pervasive discontent with acceptable expressions of how our minds relate to the social world we inhabit. Like a muscle, a particular perspective on the world is strengthened or weakened by use. If we do not ignore the pre-intellectual awareness of discontent, if it serves as the foundation to build modes of thought unrecognized in narrow rationality, then people might learn to see differently.

But the sense of alienation cannot simply be overcome by the imposition of a new thought program. The psychic relationship between care and thought context must recognize that care is related to thought. Expressed in the world, care is the flip-side of Pirsig's Quality. Care in thought and action is both reinforced by Quality and helps to generate Quality in the world. The relationship between thought context and care is, for Pirsig, primarily defined in regards to its treatment of Quality - as it exists within the individual, within the world, and within the relationship between the two. Right thought comes from right attitudes Its having the right attitudes that is hard.

"Don't worry... Keep going!"