“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Tuesday, June 17, 2003


Casualty report for today: a sniper killed an American soldier in Baghdad -- an incident that has received a surprising amount of news space. Perhaps it is gradually dawning on the news agencies that post-hostility Iraq is full of... hostility. Still no discussion of the condition of American troops in Iraq -- by all accounts they are very bad. The military is forced to recycle tired troops into campaigns of local repression; at the same time, the troops are being used in various "reconstructive" projects for which they are not trained, and for which, frankly, there is a huge pool of Iraqi labor. And still, there is not a peep about this from the Dems.

Now let's talk about archaeology.

There's a startling story in the Guardian about the putative looting of the National Museum. This story, for the belligerents, has assumed the same function as the story of Jessica Lynch, for the anti-belligerents: an example of suspicious media hype. In brief, the first accounts of looting at the Museum stated that there was a huge loss, and these reports got amplified through the usual channels -- like NPR. In Sunday's Washington Post NPR's favorite lachrymose source, John Malcolm Russell, a professor of art history in Boston, acknowledges that he wept a little too copiously over the losses:

"For two weeks after the looting I must have been known as the weeping archaeologist, regularly breaking into tears on air when asked to describe my favorite things lost in the looting, pieces I have come to cherish in more than two decades of visits to the museum. As it turns out, some of my favorite things are still missing."

I remember him comparing the loss to the burning of the library of Alexandria. The Wash Post article is a little bizarre -- Russell keeps referring to his favorite pieces, "some of my favorite things" - as though he were the Bernard Berenson of Babylon, or that woman in the Spoils of Poynton. The National Geographic, god bless em, mounted a loss survey which showed that the real looting was at various important Iraqi sites outside of Baghdad.

LI interpreted the re-interpretation of the National Museum looting as proving that Saddam was, at least, prescient enough to secure his nation's stuff against the assaults of bombs. There is one fact in this mess that is beyond dispute -- or at least it hasn't been disputed so far: the US military refused, in the first days of the Baghdad occupation, to guard the museum. So one figures that the looting was, ultimately, profitless to the profiteers because the staff of the museum was vigilant and smart. But the Guardian article disabused me of this confidence. This was, after all, Saddam's Iraq. In the end, dictatorial regimes depend upon a complicity in corruption that is positively fractal, seeding mirror images of the central debasement in little cells of activity all throughout the society. The looting seems to have several levels, one of which might just be the sale of various pieces by higher ups in the Museum directoriat to various international dealers. In particular, the Guardian fingers the director, Dony George:

"Iraq's national museum, home to many priceless artefacts which were thought to have been looted after the fall of Baghdad, has been plunged into a new crisis because of a revolt by staff. More than 130 of the 185 staff of Iraq's state board of antiquities office in Baghdad, which runs the museum, have signed a petition demanding the resignation of its directors.

Staff said they believed that some of the thefts from the museum were an inside job. They also accused Dony George, the board's head of research, of arming them and ordering them to fight US forces."

The news we get from Iraq, and the way we interpret it, reminds me of that Kafka story, At the building of the Chinese Wall. The narrator of that story observes that the wall's piecemeal construction seems counter-intuitive, especially in the face of its ostensive purpose: to guard against the invasion of the Northern People. He also observes that, in the South, the Northern People are only known through old books and tales. He adds that even if they invaded, the South is so far away that the horsemen of the North would die trying to get to the South. And then he contemplates the intersection between distance, power, and knowledge:

"If you ask me, one must inquire among the people, since it is among them that the kingdom has its final supports. Here I can clearly only speak of my own home. Outside of the Field Gods and the beautiful, seasonal ceremonies that fullfill the requirements of our worship, we think only of the emperor. But not the present emperor; or rather, we would think of the present emperor if we knew him, or knew anything specific about him. Of course, the curious among us are always trying to learn something about these matters, but curious as it may sound, it is hardly possible to learn anything -- for it can't be learned from pilgrims, even if they traverse distant lands, and it can't be learned from neighboring villages, or even ones further off, and it can't be learned from ships, even the ones that sail not only our own streams, but the sacred distant rivers. One hears a lot, but one can't really comprehend a lot. Our land is so great, no folktale spans its borders, and even the sky has a hard time spanning it -- and Peking is only a point, and the emperor's palace only a point within that point. The emperor as such manifests his greatness through all the structures of the world. But the living emperor, who is a man like any other, probably lies on his richly appointed bed -- or possibly it is a narrow and small bed. He stretches out his limbs like us, and he is very tired, he yawns with his tenderly drawn mouth. But how are we supposed to know anything about it -- when here we are, thousands of miles to the South, bordering on the Tibetan highlands. And besides, if a report happens to reach us, it will arrive much to late, it will be, in all likelihood, obsolete by the time we hear of it. The emperor is surrounded by a sparkling, and yet somehow obscure, mass of courtier bureaucracies-- evil and hostility garb themselves in the clothes of friends and servants -- the counterwieghts of the Empire, always trying to knock the emperor from the scale with poisoned arrows. The Emprie is imortal, but individual emperors fall and decline, even whole dynasty sinck lower, in the end, and breath their last. From these struggles and sorrows the People never learn anything, like those who come to late, or like strangers in the land, who have wandered down to the end of winding side paths and sit there, quietly eating their little messes, while their masters are at that very moment being executed in the center of the town square.

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