I’m not a communist anymore?!

Right, ok…where do I even start here?

I’m not even going to attempt to express this poetically or even vaguely nicely (I sort of did that in my last post, which perhaps wasn’t poetic as much as it was chaotic, although the two are sometimes synonymous); I just need to laisser this crap sortir already. I’ve had a personal shift of sorts, and although my last post concerned a less defined version of this very shift, I need to chronicle it more clearly for one final time before I can move on.

Great. 3 sentences in and I’ve already started sounding like I’ve just had a breakup. I guess it serves me right for letting ideology, of all things, define my character and shape my development for two and a half years.

Ordinarily, I would start from the beginning, from the psychological, even aesthetic, process which I underwent before reaching the phase of my life which started in early 2014 and ended a few hours ago. But I already did that while speaking as my hypothetical 26-year-old self. And in any case, such abstract ruminations are meant to be crafted elegantly into delicate, shapely prose, not splattered onto the screen in a colourful mess of realness. This is not the place for that.

So this is what actually happened in my life – which, in comparison with my ‘inner world’, I barely ever discuss. I was a communist for two and a half years, and during those two and a half years I did a lot. I met some people who have influenced me considerably, read more theory than I had ever read before, got a column in a newspaper, amassed a reputation at school as ‘that communist girl.’ But more than anything else, I moulded my identity. During those fragile years at the start of adolescence, during which everything seems so uncertain, Marxism was what gave me purpose, a sense of direction, a sense of self. Paradoxically for someone who does not believe in a non-grammatical ‘self.’

I’m not really succeeding at the no-abstractions thing, am I? Oh, screw it. Maybe I can’t think outside of abstractions. Another paradox.

Anyway. It’s quite scary how much of an influence Marxism had on me, psychologically, over those two years. For a while, almost everything I said, read or did related to it. I tried to construct a persona for myself based on it. I tried to be an ‘intellectual.’ I tried to ‘fight the system’, even if that just meant not handing in my physics homework and calling someone reactionary on the coach. The result was that my entire reputation was based around being a Marxist. People only saw me in relation to Marxism, because I only saw myself in relation to Marxism.

Now, although others’ perceptions of me have generally not changed, my own have. As the dialectic goes, there were some quantitative changes before the qualitative ones which inspired this post. I grew increasingly interested in language, and then in the arts, and then in science. At the same time, although I tried not to show it, the utter ineptitude and plain pitifulness of the left was eating away at my energy. I realised that perpetually forcing myself to rebel did not make me content, or even fulfilled. And I don’t want to waste my time on this anymore. I want to contribute. I want to take pleasure in things. I want to learn and adapt and take the future as it comes, and I want to be happy.

Honestly, some part of me wants to run as far away from politics/economics as possible and never come back after this. I already know that my career will absolutely not involve it and that my true passions, rather than veils for my disconnect and stereotypical teenage conflict, lie elsewhere. But I know politics is too important to ignore, as well. I’m not ready to commit myself to an ideology yet, and I may never be ready again.

So all I will say for now is this. Today, I renounced the socialist sclerosis to which I had been bound for two and a half years, and I have never felt freer. We are living in an entirely new society today, where political and economic divides are disintegrating as we speak. And it’s exciting – not because our predictions will come true, but because we can predict nothing at all, and doing so will result in more faith than sound sociology. As for me, I’m going to devote far more time to the things which genuinely lift my spirits, and when it comes to politics, I want to be completely open-minded for a while. I want to know how that feels again. There is plenty of intellectual merit to Marxism, and some of it will stay with me for a while yet, most notably dialectics, structuralism, and the notion of a scientific outlook on and study of society. But however influential it was, I am closing that chapter of my life. I’m not a communist anymore.

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A Letter from my Future Self

 

Дорогая…ceбя? Меня? Я?[1] Ah, what does it matter, you don’t even speak Russian yet. Heck, it probably took you ten minutes to read that Cyrillic. Wow, I know you so well.

Or is it “I know me so well”?

What can I say; it’s difficult to think about the correct pronoun to use when addressing my past self, of all people, when the silvery frost seems to have crept into my brain cells as well as into every other nook and cranny of Mainz. The harsh continental winter is especially a shock to the system if two days ago, as I was, you were by the still relatively balmy waters of the Mediterranean. But that’s a globe-trotter’s life for you. And you did always call yourself a world citizen.

In any case, I can easily put up with the brutal coldness of December in Germany thanks to the sheer Malerhaftigkeit[2] of…well, everything. I am writing to you from a postcard-perfect situation: wrapped up in a skin-hugging bundle of fur and cotton, on a well-loved old chair surrounded by roaring heaters and flickering lamps, feeling warmth course through my gloved hands, my throat and my whole body as I raise the steaming cup to my lips and inhale its swirling, dark contents. The coffee is, of course, perfectly bitter. Outside the café, a Christmas market is in full swing, the air ringing with the sounds of ebullient song and tinkling laughter and general merriment. Large snowflakes drift lazily down to settle on the buildings framing the square, an eclectic mix of colourful little merchants’ houses, whimsical boutiques and cafés and Mainz Cathedral, itself an elegant hybrid of Romanesque, Baroque and Gothic features. This square might just be my favourite of its kind in the whole of Europe, simply by virtue of its unassuming, yet effortless beauty. Above all, this is a scene of quintessential European-ism; a European-ism which manifests itself in everything from the festivities to the architecture to the almost fastidiously brewed coffee. My Europhilia never waned.

On the table in front of me is a saucer, a fairy-size teaspoon, two cubes of brown sugar – not that I need them – and a rather worn-out edition of Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften[3], a 1200-page paving slab of a book that I have just finished re-reading, in German rather than English this time. Consumed by my studies (which only lasted 4 years, since I grew too bored of universities to do a doctorate), my writing and eventually my career in natural language processing, I had promptly forgotten about all of the literature which shaped me during my formative teenage years. During the most recent phase of my life, the lingering nostalgia and the simultaneous yearning for the future which  characterised my teenage years have become a distant memory which I preferred not to recall.

After all, while going through one of those mollifying periods during which everything and its progress seems certain, the last thing one feels any compulsion to do is remember a time when Dasein[4] itself seemed like a thick, sticky concoction of unanswered questions. My early 20s, when I was doing my degrees and starting work and collecting experiences as one might collect stamps, were a time of my life when all I wanted to do was power through my work efficiently, approaching every task in my professional or personal life as if it were a linguistic corpus I had to analyse. This is how I moved cities, shifted between relationships, and gained and lost friends with the functional passivity of a jaded side character in a Bildungsroman. But revisiting those epochal works of my teenagehood has awoken something in me. Not the same passion and burning determination that existed during those years; I don’t think that will ever return. Rather, a desire to fittingly close that chapter of my life. Because I don’t think I ever did that properly.

Let’s start with you. You’re 15 years old. You just came to the end of one of the most influential summers of your life. Perhaps it wasn’t so visibly influential – to everyone else, you just spent 2 months in bed, reading about sociology – but internally, it plunged you into the depths of profound confusion. Throughout your childhood, while the other children would play with toys, you played with identities: rummaging around in the box and pulling out an identity which caught your eye, working yourself up into an enthralled frenzy over it, whiling away long summer days and lamplit winter evenings in its company. And then, gradually getting bored of it and discarding it and letting it blow away like a petal in the wind, to be forgotten and replaced.

When you were 12, you discovered ideology. It was just like an identity, just like a toy, but it slotted more neatly into the ‘intellectual’ adult life you wanted to create for yourself. Adults never stop playing with toys; they just rationalise them and disguise them so well that they appear as structured, as deliberate, as the black-and-white paradigm of the adult world, and your toys were no exception. You spent 2 and a half years with this particular ideology: 2 and a half years as a Marxist firebrand, channelling your rebellious instincts and your fervent, all-encompassing hatred of ‘oppression’ (a word with a surprisingly fluid meaning) into every aspect of your life and relishing the psychological, personal aspects of being a revolutionary at least as much as the actual socioeconomic theory.

And then you got bored. There was no epiphany, no revelation, not even a process of reasoning which precipitated your change; you just got bored, and the ideology began to dissolve into the background as you preoccupied yourself with branching out and preparing for your interdisciplinary future. This is where you are now: at a daunting crossroads, unsure of what to believe, to whom to look or how to find where you fit.

11 years on, I would not advise you to do the impossible and abandon the toys, abandon the trappings of childhood which no human being has ever truly left behind. But I would advise you to adopt adults’ toys, instead of teenage ones. You are already aware of the benefits, even joys, of pragmatic, scientific, forward-thinking thought, and by all means keep that awareness – but remake it. Rediscover how it feels to strive to contribute to society, instead of perpetually seeking its destruction. Think of classes not as inimical, but as complementary: the lungs, brain and heart of a thriving social organism which overcomes its problems together. Redefine ideology, push its limits, make it your own. You have no obligations. You are free, and much more so than you think.

The seemingly endless stretch of confusion will open up into a sea of clarity, of possibilities. Not possibilities of utopia or dialectical totality, and not possibilities of fame and glory and living a ‘special’ life, but possibilities nonetheless. Maybe you won’t spearhead a revolution or become known across the world, but you’ll still watch the sun rise and fall in love and laugh and cry and live. You’ll still pursue your passions and see the world and experience this dysfunctional, idiosyncratic, beautiful thing called existence. And what more could you possibly need?

C.

 


[1] Dear…(my)self? Me? I?

[2] Picturesqueness

[3] The Man Without Qualities (R. Musil, 1932)

[4] Literally “being-there”; the Heideggerian term for “existence”

 

A ridiculously long essay on architecture

A/N: Yeeeeah, this is long. Read at your peril. Also, I haven’t provided any citations because in my portfolio this essay goes with a set of photos I took in different countries and draws from them, rather than from publications or anything like that.

***

I have to admit, although I love to travel and am quite a seasoned traveller, I pretty much fit all the tourist stereotypes. I’m constantly snapping unprofessional photos (with a Nokia phone, no less), always manage to visit the most tourist-infested areas at the most tourist-infested times of the year, and am a sucker for cheap souvenirs. But although my travels followed the Lonely Planet guide trail rather than the trail of indigenous tribes’ footprints, the photos I took while travelling in various regions still give us a considerable amount to be analysed: they provide a sample of historical and modern architecture, they show us the parts of a certain country which are considered significant or notable, and they show us the impressions of a country which leaders and tourism agencies want foreigners to have.

So, what conclusions can be drawn from this little pictorial comparison? The first thing I noticed was that I had taken quite a few photos of nature. Originally I only intended to include basic information (region classification as per the UN system, population) and socioeconomic metrics (gross domestic product per head, human development index) on each page and relate the pictures to those. But a fair few of my photos turned out to feature trees or foliage or the sky, and as well as being pretty to look at and quite difficult to photograph well (the angle of the camera has to be perfect, the sun has to hit the right place and there must be enough chromatic contrast to keep the picture interesting), the ubiquity of attractive natural phenomena to photograph has some implications. Although there is obviously a lot of natural variation across the world, which is why I added each country’s climate classification to show the huge amounts of variation in terms of conditions, the similitude at base was striking. Natural phenomena are the common denominator of the world. If one can’t find mountains in a country, perhaps one can find beaches, or failing that, dense woodlands or vast expanses of desert. There is something intensely comforting about the fact that, even as I do a project which is examining the differences between cultures and the ways in which they relate to one another, I can always find this “base” provided by the natural world, which exists everywhere despite how much humans have eroded – or think that they have eroded – it.

Ironically, there is one other area in which the fundamental similarity between all of the world’s cultures can be seen: modern, urban architecture. The skyscrapers in Shanghai and Hong Kong could easily have been in Alexanderplatz (or Kurfürstendamm) or the City of London or Gulberg in Lahore, save for some signature East Asian neon, less interspersion of modern and traditional architecture than in Europe, and fewer broken windows than in Pakistan. In shamelessly Hegelian terms, this demonstrates a sort of architectural negation of the negation. When human society first came about, the entire world was carpeted with the fabric of nature: a fabric which could take the form of rainforests or savannah or ocean or any other biome, but was still uniformly nature. As humans spread around the world, snatching new territory from Nature’s grasp and making their mark on it, this homogeneity began to disappear: the structures built in Yayoi Japan were dramatically different from those built in Mesopotamia, which were dramatically different from those built in Pazyryk Siberia.

This difference persisted through rapidly proliferating trade and globalisation, right up until the advent of modernism, which emerged in France as a development of romanticism and was the first European artistic style to spread out of Europe and the Anglosphere. Nowadays, however, neo-futurist or neo-futurist-inspired architecture is overwhelmingly prevalent across the world, with new steel and glass, high-rise and eccentrically-shaped buildings springing up everywhere, most notably in Asia. Globalisation, cosmopolitanism and our increased and still-increasing ability to share information with people across the world in a flash have meant that ideas can be shared and cultures can merge more than ever. But on the other hand, they have also given rise to a new era of global homogeneity; innovative homogeneity, but nonetheless homogeneity. Dialectically, this is a “higher form” of the uniformity which existed across the world in early human societies, marking a return to the uniform state of nature which has been achieved through the partial sublation of borders and geocultural boundaries. Another way to look at this would be to link it to the ostensible ideological homogeneity of the post-Cold War period, after the triumph of liberalism; one set of ideas is governing global discourse to a greater and greater extent, and this is reflected in architecture.

What’s more, the developing countries (represented here by China and Pakistan) are scrambling to design buildings and urban spaces which fit this new, global neo-futurist model, often with disregard for their traditional cultures and architectural styles. In the societies of the Old World, architecture evolved organically to its current stage, and as a result the historical monuments of London, Berlin and other European cities are interspersed to a great extent with the rest of the city and are seen not as tourist magnets or old, forgotten relics, but as integral parts of the urban landscape. The story in other parts of the world is rather different. As America – culturally an outpost of the UK, and by extension of Europe – became the global power (outside of the Second World, which has since mostly adapted to American cultural hegemony) and globalisation accelerated during the 20th century, countries increasingly began to conform to a collection of artistic standards set by America and the West. Even in China, ever-patriotic and resistant to “Westernisation”, the idea of building tall towers to showcase power and innovation quickly took hold.

The result of this is that, contrary to pro-patria rhetoric, traditional buildings are being sidelined. Nowhere was this more evident than in Pakistan. This country is pretty undiscovered, so while I was there I got to see some breathtaking examples of classic Mughal architecture with only a smattering of tourists; but unfortunately, this meant that no one took care of the sites. They were sectioned off from the rest of the city, for the most part, extremely empty compared with the heaving streets, and it was assumed (probably accurately) that we would be more interested in shopping and other “modern” pursuits than seeing the architecture. If some of the sites had not been on UNESCO lists and the like, they may never have been preserved. For Lahore’s rising urban elite, it’s all about glossy shopping malls and Western-inspired glass structures. Pakistan is one of the “Next 11” countries marked out by the World Bank as the future of economic development, and if their attitude towards traditional architecture is indeed the attitude of the future, there is reason to worry.

China, also a developing economy which opened up only recently to the West, had a similar problem. It is a far more advanced country than Pakistan, and since it is the third most visited country in the world, it has a financial incentive to preserve its historical buildings and sites. However, they still did not feel integrated into their surrounding cities, and there was still an assumption that tourists would be more interested in the flashy new buildings. Yet although I think emerging countries need to preserve their historical architecture more and take more pride in it – because it is undeniably beautiful and fascinating – I am not taking a puritanical stance here. “Flashy new buildings” arguably epitomise what it is to be living almost anywhere in today’s globalised world: a cosmopolitan outlook, technological progress, aspiration. And these features are part of the modern cultural characters of Britain, Germany, China and Pakistan just as much as the countries’ older, more divergent architecture.

Now, what of such architecture? Happily, there was a considerable amount of variation in each country’s traditional architecture. As would be expected, Germany and the UK are quite similar. Both are wealthy, European, Germanic nations (though the UK is incredibly diverse, with Latin, Norman and Celtic influences), both were considerably affected by the Renaissance and Enlightenment, and both share a Protestant work ethic and cool, systematic, linear-active culture. They also have similar climates and social histories, which they share with France and Benelux. Correspondingly, many signature features of the two countries’ buildings are held in common: wooden houses and Tudor arches, cathedrals, palaces and buildings with Gothic, Romanesque and most notably Baroque influences (such as St Paul’s Cathedral and the buildings in Gendarmenmarkt), and a seamless fusion of old and modern. In fact, visiting Germany and comparing it with Britain, one wonders whether the sociocultural and aesthetic differences between Britain and the continent – at least, the North-Western portion of the continent – are being overstated a little. The main difference between the two relates to urban planning and use of space: the layout of Berlin is noticeably based more around squares than that of London, which (apart from Trafalgar Square) only has the leafy private squares of the Kensington area. Squares seem to be an exclusively continental feature, lending themselves well to the café culture of the continent but not quite as well to traditional British pub culture. But of course, a slight difference in culinary habits and habits en rencontrant between British people and some of their continental neighbours does not mean that the Channel represents the cultural gulf postulated by some people. Particularly when it comes to Britain’s Germanic relatives.

The traditional architecture of Pakistan and China, naturally, differed notably; but there were still some similarities with traditional European architecture. Courtyards – which I tend to consider a Grecian/Mediterranean feature which then spread into Northern Europe – were a central part of both Chinese and Pakistani architecture, and in both countries the symbolism of the courtyard was of an entrance into an inner space. The influence of Grecian motifs was a recurring theme, particularly in Pakistan, the vast majority of whose grand structures are religion-related (as one would expect of a theocracy) and therefore heavily influenced by Arabian, Persian and Mughal artistic style. The ancient Mediterranean societies (Athens, Rome, Constantinople) were viewed almost universally by those in and around Europe in the Middle Ages as the pinnacle of civilisation, and the Muslim societies of West Asia were no exception, even if they had religious differences. Hence the ubiquity of domes and minarets in Pakistan, which were noticeably borrowed from Byzantium and adapted by Muslims (which is why there is such similarity between the more extravagant Russian Orthodox churches, influenced by the Byzantine breed of Christianity, and mosques).

The famed Muslim arches share this origin too. These arches mark out sacred spaces as separate from everywhere else, dividing space in a similar way to the purposeful spatial planning of Chinese courtyard houses. They were originally descendants of Roman and Byzantine rounded arches, before evolving into the more distinct horseshoe-shaped and transverse arches, and the latter then became a staple of Gothic architecture (at Canterbury Cathedral, for example). Colonial architecture has also left its mark on Pakistan; the Punjab region, near the Indian border, was once home to the Indian residences of some of the British Raj’s elite, and the suburbs are dotted with peaceful whitewashed manors which would not have looked out of place in the Somerset countryside, but for the palm trees. The Lahore Museum, designed by celebrated architect Sir Ganga Ram, is perhaps the best example of stylistic fusion which I saw in Pakistan, merging the Sikh, Mughal and colonial styles which have all exerted considerable influence on the country in its history.

Interestingly, as well as sharing some Grecian influence, Islamic and Chinese architecture share a fundamental principle. At base, both types of architecture are simple and unassuming. The exteriors of mosques are traditionally plain apart from around the entrance, and built using basic materials. Only inside can any sort of extravagance be seen, and this generally takes the form of colourful murals and floral patterns, to celebrate God’s creations without distracting worshippers. Chinese architecture is similarly simple on the outside, with a wooden frame, sloping roofs and a basic structure formed by connecting rectangular units of space, but characteristic pagoda-style curves and eaves and sundry colour paintings add vibrancy to the basic architecture. This contrast doesn’t symbolise the divide between a spiritual space and the outside world, as in Islamic architecture, but the ideal of moderation which is prized in Buddhist and other eastern cultures.

Moderation is not the only Chinese ideal to which homage is paid through traditional architecture. It’s safe to say that China has a culture driven by ideals; even in modern China, the government is churning out new additions to its official ideology at an alarming rate, giving them philosophically-toned names like “The Three Represents” and “Four Comprehensives.” This is evidenced by the country’s buildings, whose every feature represents an ideal, from the ample use of wood representing life to high platforms representing power and prosperity to coloured lacquers in accordance with feng shui, which appear extravagant but actually represent harmony with nature.

And here is the artistic epitome of the fundamental difference between Eastern and Western theology. You may have noticed that most of the traditional structures discussed here have been religious: churches, mosques, temples. After all, man has “made God in his image”, as Feuerbach put it, for thousands of years. But while Western religious structures (well, originally Middle Eastern) are focused around building a place to praise and worship an anthropomorphic deity, all Chinese structures are focused around worshipping ideals, and this extends beyond structures with expressly religious purposes. This is very much aligned with Taoism, which – as is characteristic of Eastern religions – does not worship a deity, but a lifestyle, a path, and can thus be conceptualised as a sort of pantheism. Perhaps, then, man also makes art in his image. Just as religion was seen as projection of human desire by Feuerbach, Freud and others, art is also a form of wish fulfillment, an expression of what is through what should be. To no art form is this more applicable than to architecture, which quite simply consists of humans playing at being nature, and creating their own world to interpret and transcend their surroundings.

This little pictorial experiment has been fascinating, illuminating and pleasantly dialectical. Above all, it really does demonstrate how much art can tell us about societies and cultures, and how imperative it is that we preserve the art of the past and continue to tell stories, whose subtlety could not otherwise be conveyed, through art. There is a tendency, in this age of strict divisions and subject stratification and the dominance of “core subjects”, to view art as a discipline which exists in an altogether different dimension from the natural or social sciences. But using art as a lens through which to observe and analyse society, as I have tried to do, shows that such a division is quite demonstrably fantastical. And the adeptness of art at providing a lens is precisely the reason I love it so much.

 

The Truth about Autism (a talk)

Hi everyone. So, the first thing I wanted to do was express just how honoured and thrilled I am to have the opportunity to come here and share my experiences with an autism spectrum disorder and what I’ve learnt from them with all of you. This isn’t entirely because I love attention. As well as enjoying having all eyes on me for a few minutes, I’d love it if what I have to say would be of use to any of you who are going through the same things as my parents and teachers did.

Just a disclaimer before I start: this talk is going to be extremely honest. No doubt all of you are used to this from being around autistic people, but I think subjects relating to psychological conditions, perhaps more than anything else, should never be sugar-coated. We need to start having open, unapologetic conversations about mental conditions, or all the social stigma surrounding them will never go away. It’s going to be hard to do this topic justice in a few minutes, especially since I do like to waffle on a bit, but here is my attempt.

I’m going to start with my own experience. Since I was diagnosed at the age of 3 and my memory is a bit patchy around that age, I can’t really tell you what the process was like, but people first started really noticing that I was different when I didn’t play as I was meant to. Instead of finger-painting, or playing ball games, or showing any desire for social interaction at all, I would sit in the corner holding a StickleBrick and I would “stim” with it. “Stimming” is an abbreviation of self-stimulatory movement, and in my case, it takes the form of twiddling an object between my fingers or playing with my hair like this *demonstrates*. While I did this, I would be deep in thought, immersed in my own imagination. Along with this, my development seemed to be skewed: my fine motor skills were abysmal, and I didn’t learn to walk until I was 2, which was around the same age at which I learnt to read. So the diagnosis I ended up with was one of Asperger’s Syndrome. Some of you will know that this technically isn’t a legitimate condition anymore since it wasn’t included in the fifth edition of the DSM, but what it meant when I was diagnosed with it was essentially that I had a milder form of autism without any verbal communication deficit. That was quite an accurate diagnosis, actually, unless you count talking too much as a verbal communication deficit!

But the problem with having behavioural conditions, like autism spectrum disorders, is that their severity must be measured against a “normal” standard of behaviour. Unlike with a physical disorder, this norm can’t be derived from how we are supposed to function biologically, but how society tells us we are supposed to behave, since society, not biology, is the source of behavioural standards. So what my diagnosis with Asperger’s, considered a less severe form of autism, said about me was that I adhered to society’s definition of “normal” enough to go to mainstream school, and in the future to get qualifications and hopefully a job, but not enough to be treated like everyone else. And this was reflected in the way I was treated.

As you can imagine, this didn’t have a great effect on me. For eight years of my life, I lived like any other child, thought I WAS like any other child, but was treated differently everywhere, from the playground, to the classroom, to the Portacabin where I sometimes attended social skills sessions. And I had no idea why. When the school tried to help me through the social skills sessions and the Special Educational Needs group to which I gave the unloving nickname “Psycho Club” it only made me feel worse about myself. The result? My special interest became conforming. I tried all these different tactics to be like everyone else: pretending to be a tomboy, then pretending to like fashion and make-up, then trying to make people laugh by making a fool of myself…and all I wanted was to be normal.

This only stopped once I found out that I had Asperger’s. This discovery happened totally by accident. We went to the library as a class and I had to choose a non-fiction book, and after much grumbling, I chose one on very basic genetics and psychology called “What Makes Me Me?” There was one paragraph in this book on autism. And I read it, and thought “Oh my God. This…sounds exactly like me!” And there you have it! There were no deep conversations with anyone; I just asked my parents if I was autistic, received “yes” as an answer, and did all the research I wanted to myself.

Now, even this wasn’t the moment of liberation that you might have imagined it to be, because all it did was make me swing right the other way. Instead of feeling as though I had to be normal, now that I knew I had a condition, I felt that I had to be “weird”! I proudly went and told everyone about my Asperger’s and tried to act “crazy” as another method of being accepted by others. One could argue that being proud of my condition was preferable to beating myself up over it, but ultimately, my mentality was just the same as it had been before: I was still trying to conform to a certain standard expected of me in an attempt to be accepted. This doesn’t necessarily have to happen to someone who has just found out that they have autism. It happened to me in particular because I was so used to conformity, because I’d spent my whole life knowing I was different but not knowing how. To solve this problem, I would definitely recommend telling an autistic child that they have autism as early as possible. This will stop them from feeling like they’ve been kept in the dark, and maybe encourage them, as it encouraged me, to learn more about their condition.

So what actually was my moment of liberation? Surprisingly, it came with change: the change from primary to secondary school. During my last term at primary, I felt as though I had to make the most of every minute I had left, and consequently it was probably the best term of my life: I formed many new friendships, got a big part in the Year 6 Production that I’ll always remember, and went on my first residential trip away from home, where I was always well outside my comfort zone and had to really be brave and take responsibility for myself. Then that summer, I began my internet presence: I started a blog. I’d always done a lot of writing outside of school, but before I started blogging it had been a bit haphazard and didn’t have much structure to it. Blogging allowed me to share and organise my work, and the internet has been a huge driving force behind my past three obsessions. Since one needn’t worry about facial expressions or body language on the internet and can easily find many people with the same interests, it is so, so useful for people with ASDs who want to connect with others. Speaking about interests, developing a special interest and finding others to discuss and practise it with can inspire real happiness and confidence in an autistic person, and it should definitely be encouraged. The internet can make these interests both more fun and stimulating to pursue, and more social.

Finally, although the switch to secondary school can seem daunting, with support, organisational help and understanding staff, it could actually improve a child’s life a lot. For me, it was a chance to reinvent myself, form new relationships and truly devote myself to my passions, which I have a lot more time for now that I don’t have to worry about conforming. And if I could only make one point today, it would be that autistic children should be allowed to do this by themselves in a conducive environment. Sure, we do sometimes need support and we should be given it if we ask, but we generally like our autonomy, and too much support will have the effect of making us feel different from everyone else and feed this unhealthy desire to conform. I can confidently say that having independence and the ability to be treated in the same way as everyone else except when it’s needed has been the biggest help to me when dealing with autism, and I’m a much happier person for it. Thank you for listening

Exhibition Review: The Fabric of India

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The final review in this project is of the Fabric of India exhibition at the Victoria and Albert museum, which takes us back to my lovably chaotic homeland: the Indian subcontinent. Unlike Bend it Like Beckham, this exhibition didn’t focus on emigration from India and its cultural effects, but delved deep into the subcontinent itself through the medium of textiles. This, in my opinion, was a very effective way in which to paint a picture of a country which produces x% of the world’s textiles and has a rich history of creating fabrics for rulers the world over, from Maltese sultans to Japanese emperors. On the whole, the exhibition portrayed Indian history through textiles and culture richly and colourfully and I found it very illuminating.

The exhibition displayed a spectacular collection of fabrics, dyes and tapestries, some of which had been originally collected and displayed in the India Museum, which educated 19th century Londoners about the “jewel of the British Empire” from 1801 until its closure in 1878. The time span covered by the exhibition was equally impressive: it was noted that the earliest surviving cotton threads from India dated from 4000BC and the oldest dyed textiles from 2500BC, and although many pieces from the Mughal and British Raj eras were on display, there was a lot of coverage of indigenous practices relating to textiles too. The exhibition was divided into six main sections, each of which had its own rooms one on the various forms of textile-related art in India, one on fabrics’ religious uses, one on fabrics as an expression of class, one on the global textile trade and India’s position in it (particularly during the modern era of mondialisation), one on the uses of Indian textiles during the British Raj and post-independence periods and one on uses in fashion. Indirectly, the ordering of the sections also corresponded to the chronological order of different periods of Indian history, with each section apart from the religion one focusing on a specific period. This layout worked well and highlighted the evolution of subcontinental society.

The first section of the exhibtion was actually my least favourite. It wasn’t badly-executed or uninformative, but the information itself centred on the dyes and fabrics from different regions of India in and of themselves, and for that to be captivating for a textiles novice, a good deal of context and explanation of relevance needs to be provided. I don’t feel that this was done quite well enough, but this is perhaps because I don’t have much of an interest in textiles and am far more interested (particularly for the purposes of this project) in their sociocultural contexts. That being said, there were a few interesting tidbits I learnt from this part of the exhibition. The regional differences in Indian textiles perfectly captured the pluricentrism of the country’s culture. Assam was known for its silks and the distinctive blue dye from the Indigo plant (whose name comes from “India”) worn by its inhabitants, the Lhota people. Bengal produced cotton and muslin, and in keeping with the segregated nature of its religious communities, Hindus wore plain muslin and Muslims wore patterned. The Baluchar sari was also particular to the Bengali Hindu community, since it depicted human figures. Since Muslims couldn’t wear silk against their skin, they had special saris made from cotton-silk mixtures known as mashru (meaning “permitted by Sharia law”) saris. Embroidery was mostly a preserve of inhabitants of Northern and Central India, with each region having its own distinctive style: modern-day Uttar Pradesh was distinguishable by its lavish Chikan embroidery, a favourite of the aristocracy of Lucknow, while West Bengali embroidery was more resourceful, using recycled saris and dhotis. Southern India was the source of most Indian dyes, and the state of Tamil Nadu produced quite distinctive, dark red saris with gold borders. The “gypsies” of India, the Banjara people, also had textiles as a central part of their lifestyle, using woven bags to store supplies as they travelled and searched for work. This contextual information was highly interesting, and I would have liked to have seen more of it.

My wish was granted in the next few sections of the exhibition, the first of which covered religion. I would have liked this section to go more in depth and look at the bigger picture a little more, since it didn’t seem to relate any of the religious customs it described back to India’s wider culture and situation, but it was full of fascinating little stories and highlighted several religious – and therefore cultural – differences. As you may expect, Hindu and Buddhist embroidery was mainly pictorial, while Muslim embroidery came in the form of Koranic inscriptions for garments which had a talismanic function, perhaps to bring good fortune to Mughal warriors in battle. The closest Muslims came to embroidery with narrative purposes was on their prayer mats, which served and still serve as reminders of Allah and the events of 610CE during prayer. Hindus and Buddhists, however, went all-out on the storytelling/pictorial symbolism front. Buddhist hangings were embroidered with lotuses and other symbols of purity, enlightenment and the knowledge of the bodhisatvas. Hindu hangings, meanwhile, told literal stories of episodes from the Mahayana or, in contrast to the peaceful Buddhist stories, victories in battle. But despite these contrasts between religions, as ever, there are points of confluence: since the 14th century, both Muslim and Hindu pilgrims have brought large coloured flags to the shrine of Muslim warrior Ghazi Miyan in exchange for his blessing and healing powers.

The exploration of religious divergence and convergence through textiles continued into the next section of the exhibition, which focused on the usage of textiles by the various élites of India. Extravagant textiles at royal courts were signs of wealth and skill, and skilled weavers and embroiderers were held in high regard. Around the Deccan plateau area of Central India was a clear dividing line between the Muslim world of the Mughal sultanates and the Hindu world of the relatively undiscovered southern provinces. North of this line was a rapidly modernising and outward-facing Muslim nation, with a workshop for every sultanate producing elaborate silks and cottons inspired by Islamic, Persian and European art. Hindu rulers in South India were more self-contained, drawing on local painting decisions to create narrative textiles (often religious). They were more human- and narrative-based than Muslim textiles, which were often just patterned, and sometimes depicted the lives of their owners.

Perhaps my favourite part of the exhibition was the next few sections, which dealt with the changing position of textiles in modern India and India during the periods of the British Raj and Industrial Revolution. After the British invasion, India was unified and industrialised, and the arrival of faster and more efficient mechanical methods of textile manufacture drove many petty artisans out of business and into industrial, urban labour, much like it did in Europe. Combined with the influx of foreign-produced textiles, by the 1890s, India’s textile culture was threatened, mirroring the threat posed by British and Anglosphere culture and by globalisation to all of India’s traditions. But India, perhaps by virtue of its population size, turbulent history and diversity, did not allow its traditions to be stamped out as those of the Native Americans and Australian aborigines effectively were. During the 20th century, there was a resurgence of traditional culture and Indian, as opposed to Commonwealth, patriotism, which of course culminated in Indian independence in August 1947. And as this exhibition documented so well, Indian cotton and textiles were at the forefront of this resurgence: people would buy and use Indian textiles as a symbol of national identity and protest against the British Raj and globalisation. The exhibition finished with a display of modern Indian fashion: a fusion of traditional motifs and materials from all over the subcontinent with cutting-edge Western design and inspiration from haute-couture in Europe and the States. Just as textiles demonstrated regional and religious differences and the opulence of royal courts in the past, today, they continue to demonstrate the essential character of modern India: a vibrant country of old and new, tradition and modernisation, and the pulsating heart of South Asia. This exhibition conveyed this brilliantly.

Charcoal.

A/N: I haven’t been doing any Arts Award work lately, so here is a romantic “fanfiction” I wrote on a bus in Paris in early 2015 for an art-obsessed friend of mine. We spent most of the Paris trip planning out each other’s love lives, as every single person with too much time secretly does.

(Names were changed.)

No one appreciates art anymore. It’s too slow for the world of fast food and rush hour and speed dating. And now, more than ever, it’s only a preserve of those who will allow their time to be slowed down enough to appreciate the “finer things.” Normally, Maja would regret this, would want art to be something the whole world – regardless of such arbitrary things as class and location and upbringing and social codes – can share. But in this unusually bright evening, where the sun painted the sky a deep, rich orange and London was a sea of glinting rooftops, she was glad to be alone in a room of the Tate Modern. Just her, her sketchbook and pencil, and the sculptures that now faced her. They were fine postmodern originals, the sort that were so abstract that one wonders if they were made in some other dimension external to known reality. The pencil flew across the page.

A scratching noise came from across the room. Maja tried to block it out; she liked to draw in silence. The noise persisted. Inexplicably, it really irritated her. Scratch, scratch, scratch…

“Could you stop making that noise?” asked Maja, her eyes still on the sculpture. The noise paid no attention.

Sighing, she stood up and began, “Hey, I’m trying to -”

She stopped. The noise was charcoal on paper. In the corner of the room was a boy, quite tall and slender, dressed in a blazer, dark jeans and a cotton printed scarf. His long, black hair fell over his face as he concentrated on his drawing. Their eyes met.

“Sorry, was I bothering you?” he asked. His voice was low-pitched, yet had a certain softness to it.

A blush crept up Maja’s cheeks. “No, no, it’s fine. I mean, I like drawing in silence, but you know, charcoal sounds nice too, I guess,” she babbled. Real smooth.

“Oh, I’m sorry. I wasn’t even aware that I was making a noise. I was just so-”

“Immersed in the drawing?” Maja blurted out.

“Yes!” The boy laughed. Maja noticed how nice his eyes were: large, oval and grey, framed by long eyelashes. Piercing. “When I draw, it’s like I’m somewhere else. Somewhere I can express everything I want to without being judged.”

Maja nodded; she knew exactly what he meant. “Yes. It’s like speaking another language, except rather than having to abide by someone else’s grammatical rules, you can create your own rules. You can interpret what you see in whatever way you want to. I think that’s what’s so attractive about art: whatever you create is unique, and presented in a unique way. You have total autonomy.” She blushed even more; why did she suddenly sound like a Sartrean aesthetics chatbot? And what was it about this boy that made her want to tell him all this? “Sorry I just, er, went off on one there.”

“No, no, I completely understand.” He gave a hint of a smile. “It’s nice to find someone so passionate. Most people just think I’m crazy for hanging out in art galleries and drawing everything that inspires me the way I do. I mean, it’s not exactly what most teenagers do.”

“Same here,” said Maja.

She saw him quickly add a stroke of charcoal to his drawing. She was curious. “Which sculpture are you drawing?”

“Um, it’s not exactly a sculpture. Well, it could be one metaphorically, but…” he stuttered, blushing.

The temptation was too great. She shuffled next to him, peered at his sketchbook, and gasped. On the page was a perfect charcoal sketch of…herself. Her long, straight hair, her coat adorned with badges, her chunky jewellery, the focused expression on her face as she lost herself in drawing.

“Sorry, this probably seems really weird…” mumbled the boy.

“No, it’s, I…” Maja was lost for words. “It’s beautiful.”

“I said I drew things that inspired me,” he said shyly.

They gazed at each other. The moment seemed to last for a century.

“What inspired you about me?” she asked.

“You looked like you were really into what you were doing, really passionate. That’s rare these days,” he replied. “I thought you might actually understand me. And…you did.”

There was nothing to say. Language couldn’t express the warmth she felt. She just smiled, and so did he.

“We should go out sometime,” he said.

She nodded.

 

Musical Review: Miss Saigon

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The second musical I saw was of a very different vein. For one thing, it was set (primarily) several thousand miles away, in Saigon, Vietnam. For another, it was set around 20 years earlier. And for another, far from being lighthearted and comic with subtle cultural messages, it was dark and harrowing, and the cultural conflict took a much more deeply frightening form (if anything can be more frightening than your Indian mother brandishing a rolling pin at you and yelling about how you’re a disgrace to your family). The plot, of course, was the famous story of the country girl from Vietnam who began a passionate romance with an American soldier during the war, lost him when he was evacuated, still believed that he would come back for her, and was finally broken three years later – after meeting his new wife.

This short summary cannot even begin to do justice to the utter grief and anguish conveyed by the musical. Some musicals make the audience pity the character, and maybe sniffle a little. This was the first musical I’ve seen that didn’t just induce a little bit of sorrow and sympathy and sniffling; it induced a complete outpour of empathy, of emotion, of despair on behalf of the protagonist, who had lost everything she had. It takes extremely effective characterisation and worldbuilding to make the audience feel so connected to a character, especially when the character in question is not in a circumstance to which most people in the audience can relate, in this new, post-Cold War millenium. Apart from the brilliantly realistic and poignant acting, there were two main factors which I thought contributed to making the musical so easy to relate to. The first of these was the appeal to basic human emotion through the use of “motifs” of what people seem to instinctively pity. In particular, this was done using children. Kim’s (the main character’s) son served as a projection screen for much of her emotion: he represented her lust for her lover Chris, her absolute certainty that she was married to him despite the lack of legal documentation, her total conviction that she and he had to be together and that they had to find each other again and that she had to leave the real life dystopia that was Communist Vietnam. Since we are all aware of that deep, intimate bond between mother and child, this made her emotion even more real and painful than it already was.

The second factor is something to which I would like to devote a fair amount of discussion: the set of the musical. It was spectacular. I am not the slightest bit familiar with the technicalities of staging and set design, but the versatility of the set, the way in which it could transform from strip club to barracks to traditional village to hotel suite and back again, showed a really smart design. There were two scenes in particular which I felt used staging to capture emotion perfectly. Firstly, there was a scene near the beginning of the play showing some sort of Communist military parade, which I think was to display the brutality of the war and the conviction with which the Communists executed this brutality “for the greater good.” The sides of the stage were lined with Vietnamese Communist flags – red with a gold star in the centre – and soldiers clad in identical military uniforms embossed with a red star marched across the stage, forming a shapeshifting block of khaki, as a large golden bust of Ho Chi Minh’s head watched over the scene. The lighting was harsh, the music thumped and periodic bursts of smoke provided regular “jolt-up-in-seat” moments. It was an “all-out” show of military splendour and the glories of collectivism, and even with knowledge of the atrocities of Ho Chi Minh’s regime one couldn’t help but admire and anticipate the revolution.

In contrast to the brash, upbeat strength of this scene, the other scene which particularly stood out was the one during which the American soldiers were evacuated. This scene was particularly hard to set, since there were many emotions and senses which all had to be conveyed at once – the rush of the evacuation, the desperation of the soldiers, the roaring chaos of the surrounding war, and the slow breaking of Chris and Kim’s hearts as they found out that they wouldn’t be able to reach each other. This was accomplished by a riot of loud bangs, shouts, flashes and, ringing out above all this, the two lovers calling to each other in vain. The scene was complete with a genuine helicopter dangling above it, whose sounds filled the room.

In terms of the music, I didn’t find that the songs from this musical were anything special; I thought that the dialogue and scenery were a lot more powerful in terms of conveying the emotion of the story than the songs were. The one song which I did really enjoy was, incidentally, one which I sang two-and-a-bit years ago at the Performing Arts Workshop at my school: the Wedding Song. I’ve yet to find out what the Vietnamese words in it actually mean, but it was wonderfully delicate, with beautiful harmonies: a musical monument to love at its purest. Perhaps this is my obsession with foreign music speaking, but I wish there had been more music in Vietnamese: from what little I have heard of the language outside of this musical, it really is quite beautiful and romantic.

Although Miss Saigon is, for the most part, a love story rather than an insight into sociocultural contrasts, I was pleased to note that there were a good few cultural phenomena on which to comment. The main cultural conflict here was classic Cold War stuff: a counterposition of American, capitalist values and the Communist – and, paradoxically, more traditional – values of Vietnam. There was one song by the strip club owner, who was a born capitalist (and who got too much screentime, in my opinion), which was a huge, showy dance number with feathers, stilettos and money-throwing and epitomised capitalist culture, contrasting sharply with the military parade: an epitome of Communist culture. In Vietnam, falling in love with someone from the West was being “a traitor to your country”; in the US, men deliberately went to Asian countries to meet women. And a considerable part of the central plot stemmed from a cultural misunderstanding: Kim thought she was married to Chris after a traditional Vietnamese ceremony, while Chris, being American, viewed marriage as primarily a legal matter and proceeded to legally marry someone else back in the States two years later. Another interesting thing to note is the idealisation of the United States – throughout the musical, despite having just lost a war, the United States remained the stuff of particularly good dreams for every Vietnamese character in the play. All the Communist, anti-Western propaganda seemed to be futile. Interestingly, in today’s world such propaganda is much less prevalent than during the Cold War, but America is the world’s most hated country according to ABCnews.

So overall, I did really enjoy Miss Saigon; it was poignant, raw and cleverly put together, and contrasted well with the other pieces of art which I’m reviewing for this project.

(I hope y’all enjoyed the lack of political bias.)