14 September 2022

The Dispossessed: an sf novel on two dystopian cultures

The DispossessedThe Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One of Ursula le Guin's better novels, I think.

Two planets orbiting the same sun act as moons to each other, and the inhabitants have split because of political and cultural differences. Anarres is dry and austere, and its inhabitants are libertarian and socialist. Urras is lush and green, and its inhabitants are authoritarian and capitalist, or propertarian, as the Anarresti like to call them.

Shevek, a physicist on Anarres , feels that his research and discoveries are unappreciated at home, and makes a journey to Urras to meet physicists there, but finds that the Urrasti want to use his discoveries to increase their own power.

The people of both Anarres and Urras have adopted a kind of apartheid, and want to keep their cultures and political systems separate, so that neither will be contaminated by the views and principles of the other. . The culture of Urras is closer to that of the world we live in and so is easier to depict; the culture of Anarres has no real life model, though certain aspects of it have been advocated by some anarcho-syndicalists, thus it is harder to depict in a convincing way. But authoritarianism manages to creep in there, under the guise of protection of liberty. Though I'm inclined to favour anarcho-syndicalism myself, I've never really tried to envisage just how such a society would work. Ursula le Guin makes a valiant attempt, but it is not quite convincing enough. For the most part Ursula le Guin does a fairly convincing job of showing how such diverse cultures might interact with each other.

Apart from space travel, le Guin does not envisage much technological development in society, and most of the technology -- transport, communications, computers, and the like, are much as they were in the mid-20th century on earth. Anarres has abandoned the week, and based its time measurement on units called decads, presumably of 10 days. But they also speak of "years" when referring to the age of people, and though it seems that these years must be fairly similar to earth years, it is nowhere stated that they are, or how it relates to the orbits of Anarres and Urras.

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10 September 2022

Diepsloot, a paradigm case of an informal settlement


Diepsloot by Anton Harber
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Diepsloot is an informal settlement (shanty town) on the northern outskirts of Johannesburg and the southern outskirts of Tshwane. It began post-apartheid in the late 1990s and this study of it was made by journalist Anton Harber about 2010, so it is probably out of date now. At the time the author estimated that there were about 1700 similar settlements throughout South Africa, and there are now probably many more. This detailed examination of Diepsloot at a particular point in its history gives a pretty good picture of how a lot of South Africans live today, and the number of people who live in this way continues to increase.

Anton Harber analyses Diepsloot from many different points of view -- its history, how people came to live there, the difficulties of life, accommodation, transport, housing, schooling, municipal and government services and the lack of them, and protests against lack of "service delivery".

Diepsloot and its problems are rarely known to anyone outside, and the place is rarely mentioned in the news media other than from an outside point of view, the only exception to this being the Daily Sun, which, however, concentrates almost exclusively on crime stories.

Diepsloot consists mainly of shacks erected in unplanned fashion by those who live in them, and the shacks were erected before there was any infrastructure like roads, sewerage or electricity, so providing such services is difficult without disturbing or demolishing existing shacks, which of course evokes protests from the residents.

Crime is rife, and the police were absent for a long time -- the nearest police station was in Erasmia, 16 kilometres away in the City of Tshwane, though Diepsloot itself is in the City of Johannesburg. so by the time a crime was reported to the police, and the police had arrived on the scene, the perpetrators had long gone, if they had not been caught be people in the vicinity and often dealt with by vigilante justice, so by the time the police arrived the only people they could arrest were those who had punished the original criminals by beating them up or even killing them. Later a police station was built, but because of the difficulty of reaching places within Diepsloot by vehicle, the police could still not reach crime scenes quickly.

Places like Diepsloot illustrate the problem of housing in South Africa. The figures for the provision of housing are impressive, but the need for housing is growing faster. Harber analyses this, and shows, pretty convincingly I thought, that the need is not so much for housing as for accommodation, and the distinction is significant and important.

The provincial and local government have tried to provide "RDP" houses, which are single-family houses in the middle of their own plot of land, very much on the same pattern as the previous apartheid government sought to provide. There is a shortage of land for such houses, and that makes it difficult for Diepsloot to expand for its increasing population, which is also complicated by some nearby land being the breeding ground of an endangered species of frog.

Outside politicians and bureaucrats have tried to impose a "one family, one house, one plot" model, but the people of Diepsloot gravitate naturally to a pattern in which

...shacks are in small family clusters, bunches of them sharing small courtyards and fenced off as units... People have structured the space to serve their needs, and it means that child-headed households, for example, get the support and assistance of their neighbours.

Finding solutions is made more difficult because of bureaucracy. Money is budgeted by one agency and allocated for something like road improvements, for example, but that requires drainage and various other planning permissions from different departments, which takes longer, and so the allocated money is not spent and has to be returned to the Treasury. The City of Johannesburg decided some years ago to separate the provision of electricity, water, and rubbish removal into several autonomous "silos", each with its own bureaucratic structure, so coordinated planning is almost impossible. 

...the electricity, water, refuse removal and transport departments... (were) carved off into independent companies, known collectively as City-Owned Enterprises.... Coordination, though, is a nightmare. Now they have more silos than a Free State farming cooperative and getting them all to operate and implement, in harmony, is extremely difficult.

One harassed bureaucrat from the Development Bank of Southern Africa showed Harber a shelf full of files of completed development plans, waiting to be implemented.

Because of this, the people of Dielsloot have de3veloped their own structures and systems of authority, and these are often rivals, and there are rivalries within rivalries. The ANC, the dominant political party in Diepsloot, sees power struggles between the ANC itself and its alliance partners. There are also tensions between businesses -- small businesses and bigger businesses, and between local business people and foreign traders.

Harber tried to interview representatives of each, bureaucrats, business people, teachers, NGOs, politicians (local, municipal and provincial), teachers, health workers and others, to build a picture of the settlement. People like to speak of the "community", but in fact there are so many overlapping and often rival "communities" within a place like Diepsloot that it is a misnomer.

 I found it particularly interesting  because some members of our church in Atteridgeville live in such an informal settlement, Phomolong in Atteridgeville West, and they sometimes mention similar problems. And sometimes our diocese has tried to negotiate for places for building temples in such places, without understanding the complexity of political structures and power relations. Some of that is unique to Diepsloot, of course, but the complexity is universal. We have been trying for 20 years to get a church site in Soshanguve, but the land, earmarked by the City of Tshwane as a church site, is registered in the deeds office as owned by the Gauteng Province, and before the site can be allocated and developed, someone must pay the conveyancing fees, and is it the municipality or the province? So people tell us to make like an informal settlement, and just build something on it before someone else does.
This book is important reading for South Africans, both those who live in places like Diepsloot, and perhaps even more, those who don't.

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04 September 2022

Academic versus spiritual knowledge

Someone asked on Twitter
Academic Bible readers, how do you separate the head knowledge from feeding the spiritual, contemplative side of your faith?

My short answer was that I try not to separate them, but to integrate them, but it deserves a longer answer, which is not possible in the 240 or so characters allowed by Twitter, because it's not really as simple as that. 

Academic theology tends to be book knowledge, learned from reading a lot. But Evagrius of Pontus said that a theologian is one who prays, and one who prays is a theologian.

In the Orthodox Church there is book learning, certainly, but you cannot really learn about Orthodoxy from books, or from searching stuff on the Internet, because the core of Orthodox theology is enacted theology. Yes, people wrote theological books, but the people who wrote the books also participated in the Divine Liturgy. They followed the rhythim of the liturgical day, week and year. They fasted and prayed, and that shaped the books they wrote and the way they wrote them.

Western theologians often fail to understand this, and tend to get things very wrong when writing about Orthodox theology. For an example of this, see here: Constants in Context: A Theology of Mission for Today (Book Review).

So trying to separate the academic head knowledge from the spiritual and devotional knowledge of the heart can be a dangerous and limiting thing. The very title of the book was misleading, "constants in context", because in the Orthodox case the context is Orthodox liturgy and worship, so in that particular book the Orthodox constants were taken out of context.

Theology can also be anecdotal, or, as the academic theologians like to say, narrative. So here is an anecdote or narrative from my own experience. 

As an undergraduate in the 1960s I studied theology at the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg, and our lecturer for both New Testament II and Doctrine II was Vic Bredenkamp, who was also a Methodist minister. He was teaching on Ephesians 6about St Paul's reference to "principalities and powers", and what he said blew my mind. 

My conception of "principalities" was places like Monaco and Andorra, and  "powers" were the USA and USSR (in the 1960s the Cold War was at its height). So I asked Vic Bredenkamp about this, and he pointed out that St Paul was referring to these principalities and powers (rulers and authorities) in the heavenlies

He referred me to a book, Principalities and Powers by G.B. Caird, which explained the context of St Paul's teaching on the topic. The context was the institution of divine kingship, and the Roman religion of emperor worship. The Romans did not worship the flesh and blood emperor, but they worshipped his genius. The emperor's authority (exousia) was a spiritual power in the heavenlies. 

The point here is mythical and symbolic. When a traffic cop holds up his hand on a busy highway, he can stop a 26-wheeler truck. It is not his flesh and  blood that stops the lorry -- if he tried that, it would squash him flat. It is his exousia, his authority, that stops the truck. If he were not wearing the uniform that symbolises his exousia, and were naked, or wearing pyjamas, the truck would not stop. It his his exousia, symbolised by the uniform, that stops the the truck.

The "powers", like the USA and the USSR, had their angels, their archons, in the heavenlies. Nations had "national spirits" (archons) in the heavenlies (cf Daniel 10:12-17), as did most earthly power structures. The "prince (archon) of the king of Persia" was analogous to the "genius of Caesar". This made clear to me the meaning of some other Bible texts, like Deuteronomy 32:8-9, and Psalm 81/82. YHWH, the "great king above all gods", speaks to the assembled gods and tells them they have messed up, and the psalmist prays "Arise O God, judge the earth, for to thee belong all nations" -- a prayer that Jesus answered in John 12:31-32.

But this is all experienced in the context of Orthodox worship on Holy Saturday, when the vestments  etc are changed from Lenten purple to Paschal white, and during the singing of Psalm 81/82 the priest bursts from the holy doors scattering bay leaves while shouting "Arise O God, judge the earth, for to thee belong all nations" and the congregations sings the refrain and the reader chants the rest of the psalm, and everyone bangs on the floor or the benches or anything that will make a noise, symbolising the earthquake.

Vic Bredenkamp's dry academic lecture opened my eyes to that, and also to the demonic nature of the contemporary government policy of apartheid, which, in the words of Psalm 81/82, failed to give justice to the weak and needy, or deliver them from the hand of the wicked.

Many years after I had graduated, I saw Vic Bredenkamp again, and thanked him for opening the holy scriptures to me, and was greatly disappointed to realise that he didn't get it. He wittered on about "ripe scholarship" and it became clear to me that for him, what's said in the classroom stays in the classroom, and had nothing to do with the world outside, or spiritual and devotional life. What he had said in his class all those years ago was to remain locked up in the academic ivory tower. 

I close with another tweet:
Electric man has no bodily being. He is literally dis-carnate. But a discarnate world, like the one we now live in, is a tremendous menace to an incarnate Church, and its theologians haven’t even deemed it worthwhile to examine the fact (Marshall McLuhan, 1977).

03 September 2022

Bog Child

Bog ChildBog Child by Siobhan Dowd
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is classified as "young adult" -- at least I found it in the Young Adult section of the library, but i can say that this old adult enjoyed it immensely, and I think it can be read by adults of any age. When I picked it up and started reading the blurb, I immediately thought of The Barrytown Trilogy and others by Roddy Doyle, but it wasn't really like those, though it does deal with Irish family life.

Fergus McCann is 18 years old, living with his parents and two younger sisters in Northern Ireland. His brother Joe is in jail for IRA activities, and thinking of joining other prisoners in a hunger strike. While out with his uncle digging for peat Fergus discovers what appears to be the body of a child. The place where they are digging is close to the border, so they notify the police from both sides, but the pathologist recons the body is old, and so they call in an archaelogist.

Fergus has a lot on his plate. He is writing his A-level exams and hopes to go to Scotland to study medicine. He's also learning to drive and hopes to pass his driving test. One of his brother's mates asks him to take dubious packages across the border, so he feels under pressure from all sides. The book is about how he tries to cope with all this, and all the way through you can feel the pressure on Fergus, feel for him as he tries to cope with several dilemmas and no sooner has he dealt with one than the unfinished business of one of the others crops up. And thoughout it all he dreams of the bog child, and shat she might have faced.

Not quite a Bildungsroman, but the picture of a young man at a particularly intense and stressful period of his life.

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