On polarisation

One on one confrontations have a certain appeal. It’s grand final day, and a 50/50 chance of either team winning. Who do you back? Us vs Them, and a sense of clarity.

We like to polarise – as does our media. Yet I tend to prefer triangles. They’re more stable, more fun, and allow for a bit of play.

Often, polarisation is a matter of framing. We choose to see the world as polarised, based on the categories we use. Recently, two maps I saw circulating on social media captured this very clearly.

The first was looking at the now-usual US vs China narrative, and how the latter is threatening to take over the world from the former. A scary shift from the blue world to the red world.

Yet a second one painted a different picture. I saw it on my friend Ray Taylor’s feed – Ray is and effective altruist, working with Allfed on global food solutions for catastrophic scenarios, and generally a good source of insights. So, the map he shared was this. (The source is unknown, but Google searches have yielded somewhat similar maps)

Here, the polarized world order is replaced with a three-kingdom narrative: US, China, EU. Fair, yet the result of a deliberate choice. The story now is very distinct. Not a global take-over in a game of economic go, but a shifting balance between three poles in a multilateral world order.

I like this map, because it reminds me of the role and values of Europe, as a beacon of global peace. In visual terms, it shows how the EU can serve as a global balance, and counter the war of superpowers – if we recognise its existence, as a coalition of states. The map tells a story of hope. It serves as a precious reminder that polarised situations are so because of the categories we use – hence, we may defuse them by inserting a third term.

Together, those two maps also serve as a reminder that images fascinate. There is a self-evidence to maps and graphs, pressing pause on critical thought. Yet just because a map or graph tells a compelling story, does not mean that story is true, or the only one. And because there is such strength to images, the best way to defuse them is make others. In other words – cultural work, artistic work, aesthetic work, is a critical part of peace making.

What’s a doctor? On original knowledge

In 2020, I completed a PhD. My thesis maps an emerging ecosystem of digital Chinese language learning. I started the research in January 2015. At the time, the PhD was a way to fund my work on Marco Polo Project. Short-term, through a scholarship; longer term, by looking for ways to build partnerships either with universities or other digital platforms. Then life knocked on the door, and messed up with the plan. I was offered a COO gig with the China Australia Millennial Project, then a seat on the THNK School of Creative leadership, then a job as editor in chief with the Global Challenges Foundation. My skills, my interests and my perspective evolved, impacting both the PhD research proper, and the motivation for it.

I decided to stick with it though. This was my second PhD. I enrolled in one from 2003 to 2008, at Paris Sorbonne University, exploring collective nouns in contemporary English. I was on scholarship, and expectations were that I would get a role at a French University right after finishing – although life came knocking when I met my Australian partner in 2006, and messed up with the plan. Still, I completed my thesis. I was due to defend in early September 2008, a few weeks before leaving Paris for good. The research was ‘stimulating and original’, yet two of my assessors had found that the thesis fell outside of disciplinary boundaries. My supervisor had been aware of issues, I learned later, and conducted backdoor negotiations, but would not force things. Bad reports would stand in the way of any future academic career. There was an option to stay in France for another year, rewrite, and try again. I had planned a move Down Under, and wanted a fresh start, so I let it go.

It left me with a sense of caution regarding universities, and PhDs, but also with the sense of something unfinished. When I decided to try again at Monash, on the very first conversation with my prospective supervisor, I shared the story of this debacle. I was also very clear that I did not want to work in academia, but was genuinely committed to the sharing of knowledge. Gloria was wonderful, and fully on board. I knew better what to do this time – and was more closely guided – so, despite occasional bouts of ‘I should quit’, I completed the second PhD, through the pandemic.  

Why did I bother? Sure, there is a title, photos with a floppy hat, and the job done. But I also did learn certain things that – maybe – only doctors know. Reflecting on that question, it strikes me that we put so much focus on the product, the thesis, and forget about the person. It’s not just about having a PhD, but becoming a Doctor. So, what have I learned by becoming one? And how is that valuable? Since the purpose of a PhD is to articulate original knowledge, I think I did learn something about knowledge – and originality. In a knowledge economy, this is probably  valuable. But let me dig deeper.

We know less than we think

Education is always about confronting one’s own ignorance. Writing a PhD means confronting collective ignorance. I realized this most clearly when I tried to answer a seemingly simple question: how many people are currently learning Chinese around the globe? I had always assumed that we – somebody, somewhere – knew the answer, and everybody could get that answer if we – myself, anybody keen to find out – simply knew where to look. I had also assumed my supervisors, experts in the field, could direct me to the right source. No such luck. All sorts of figures floated around the Internet – 40 million learners now, 100 million soon, typically. But when I tried to confirm those numbers, the tracks lost themselves after some late 2000’s newspaper article from Canada, or a vague unsourced mention of ‘Hanban’.

I once wrote, in a moment of annoyance, that much of academic writing is not original thought, but platitudes with footnotes. I have come to appreciate the value of footnotes. At least, you can check where ‘facts’ come from. If a statement is not congruent with the source, you have grounds to start doubting the author. It takes effort, sure, but ensuring that facts and assertions at least can be verified is some protection against fraud. It also keeps in check the drive to cut corners and put forward unverified assertions in order to make a point. 

Now, I have also learned to be cautious of footnotes. Not everyone follows the rules in spirit. When trying to figure out how many people are learning Chinese, I found an article – somewhat by chance – by Professor Hyeon-Seok Kang, called ‘Is English being challenged by Mandarin in South Korea? A report on recent educational and social trends involving the two languages’ (published 2017). The paper had a reference to ‘Lei & Cheng, 2010’, stating that there were 40 million Chinese learners around the world in 2010. Curious, I went to check that Lei & Cheng source. It was not, as I naively hoped, a solid survey from a pair of serious researchers from a serious university, but an article from China Daily online, attributing this figure to Hanban, with no source. Innocent overlook, or underhanded rebrand of hearsay? We shall never know.  

When I look back, I think: of course, nobody knows how many people are learning Chinese. It’s incredibly difficult to assess. For one, what do we mean by ‘learn Chinese’? Is it anybody enrolled in any language class? Of any age? And for how long? Plus, how do you aggregate figures from around the world? How do you keep the numbers up to date? At best, we might have educated guesses (which I attempted – my rounded estimate is 6 – 17 million).

Yet before the PhD, I had an illusion that there was knowledge – illusion fed by the Internet, where figures were quoted in apparent confidence. On this point, and on many others, I was convinced that someone, somewhere, must know the facts, and the truth. This is a dangerous illusion, which I am now less likely to fall prey to.

So, learning #1: we know less than we think. If I don’t know, maybe nobody does. And if you’re ever doubtful, check the source.

It takes effort to build knowledge

Ignorance is uncomfortable. It brings feelings of shame, and anxiety. Research demands courage: willingness to face the chaos of radical uncertainty, and associated social ambiguity. It also demands endurance. Contemplatives are at risk of sloth – acedia, the noon-day demon of depressed procrastination. ‘Just write’ said my supervisor. I did, mostly. It was not my first rodeo, I wrote four novels (one published), and one thesis before. I have also written and edited hundreds of shorter texts. From experience, though, I know there’s a big difference between a 1000-word essay or short-story, and an 80,000-word document. A PhD thesis is not something you can physically complete in a burst of inspiration, or over a couple of late evenings. It is mainly perspiration, and you cannot afford to burn out.

Yet there is something about completing a PhD that differs from other long-form writing – say, novels. It’s not just about endurance, but patience. You must accept others’ unbearable slowness. Academic degrees up to Master’s level have skills and knowledge assessed by people who know more than the student. As a Doctor, author of original knowledge, you are by definition the world’s foremost expert in your topic. Meaning, you’re assessed by people who know less than you. Not in absolute, just on your topic. Still, this marks a step-change, directly related to my first insight, that we know less than we think.

So, learning #2: a doctor has shown capacity to present original knowledge to the next most knowledgeable audience, and convince them to reorganize their understanding of the world on the basis of that presentation. Doctors reduce ignorance, absolutely.

Knowledge does not exist in a void

New knowledge is not another brick in the wall. When I was a teacher, I used the following mental model: that my students already know everything. Except, that knowledge is vague, and mainly incorrect. Early in my candidature, I remember identifying the KPI for a successful thesis as: it will prompt readers to reshuffle their mental library. Incidentally, this is the purpose of the literature review – a section that gives a brief overview of relevant writing on the topic. It’s a trust building exercise, demonstrating homework done. It’s also there to assist the reader in this mental reorganisation: help them identify where to place the thesis and its original insights.   

This was a piece I had to do right. My first attempt at a PhD failed for overstepping disciplinary boundaries. Academic disciplines are branches of knowledge: conventional ways of describing an aspect of the world, what counts as a fact, and how to gather valid data. They’re also social constructs – people working in different buildings, reading different books, and writing in different journals, with different funding streams and criteria. I’ve come to think of it like sports. Each discipline has its own rules, its own league, and its own champions. Sure, you won’t get anywhere unless you’re generally fit and coordinated, but it’s not the same skills, or body types, or attributes, that make for success. So, each discipline gathers different types of people, who have spent years honing a very narrow set of skills.

When you start a PhD, you can choose to play by the rules. Pick your sport, find a good coach, train hard, and if you’re good enough, with a bit of luck, you’ll make it to the league – i.e. tenure at a university. That’s disciplinary research. There’s another approach though, which is about figuring out what discipline – what methods and models – will be most useful to better understand a part of the world, or solve a complex problem. In academic jargon, that’s ‘transdiciplinarity’. It’s not a good bet for a research career, but if done well, it’s useful ‘out there’. It’s also what my research does. It tries to make sense of ‘what’s happening’ in that part of the digital world where people learn Chinese – what that part of the digital world looks like, who’s creating and maintaining it, and what we could do to make it work better. It’s about tech and education. It’s about digital communities, startups, and geopolitics. It’s looking at companies and people, websites, apps, and social media streams, and how all those pieces combine. It’s about what is there, measured against what was, and what could be.

Now, a PhD – whether ‘trans’ or not – goes beyond insights and good ideas. It is a question asked well, and a detailed protocol to reach an answer, with a lot of referencing in the middle. It involves not only reading piles of books and papers, but also gathering ‘data’ from the world, then analyzing it, in line with a defined method. Each discipline has its own key concepts, methods and benchmarks. Each sees ‘the world’ differently, and gathers different data. In my case – in ‘trans’ research – part of the work is precisely figuring out what to do. There was no ‘state of the field’ I could question or build on, nor a clear method to follow. So, there were wrong starts and double-ups. I observed, I interviewed, I reflected, I read. Methods attempted yielded insights which suggested other methods. Not all the data was entirely consistent. And there certainly wasn’t a neat linear process, following a clear-cut hypothesis-method-gathering-analysis-conclusion sequence. Describing this was embarrassing: it was not grand, and it was certainly not clean. Yet – and here I was very well guided – I had to be precise. ‘What did you do? Just write that’. I interviewed people. ‘How many? Where? For how long? Why them?’ I spent a few hours using a range of apps, read through the ‘how-to’ guide, and associated social-media feeds. ‘Which apps? Why those?’ I unlearned habits developed at innovation events – always present your best angle – and listed exactly what went into the sausage. I was terrified it would cause horror. It didn’t, and I strengthened my honest muscle in the process.

The final layer of work was to put the research into words: order the argument into chapters, and make sure all key terms were rigorously defined and consistent. In early drafts, I used ‘agent’ and ‘actor’ indifferently. Surely, the reader could figure it out? It was a firm ‘no’. Different disciplines use different words – or worse, the same word with a different meaning. I should not leave ambiguities, and always make it easy for the reader to ‘get it’. The same ethical drive towards maximal comprehension impose the drudge of formatting standards. You’re asking people to change their habits of thoughts, by reading a very long, very detailed argument – so please, be consistent with your style at least. Common courtesy, really.

So, learning #3: the reader is not you. If they miss the point, don’t blame them, write better. Leadership 101.  

This process, of course, is extremely slow. It is made even slower by the machine, the very bureaucratic university with its many dysfunctions, ‘tick-the-box’ exercises and arbitrary deadlines. Waste of time? Well, a friend once put it this way: ‘creating a new product and selling it on the market, that’s easy. We all have desires and too much money to spend. But having one person really see the world differently, and change their minds, now that’s hard.’ I’m not one to praise impatience, and even – not always, but sometimes – found freedom in the deliberate slowness imposed by academic procedures. I rediscovered the world of otium, open intellectual leisure, that I first encountered in Year 12 philosophy. Here was a space where I could be free from the dominant logic of business. I would get no reward for ‘saving cost’ or ‘bringing revenue’. Quality standards were non-negotiable. This caused frustration, yes, but also protected my freedom to think, and for this, I am very grateful.

When I was close to completing, and at peak frustration, I described the PhD process as a deliberate exercise in humiliation. In retrospect, I think I was onto something. There is no good research without radical humility: that we know so little, that knowing is exhausting, that others resist correct knowledge. In the words of Pascal, that truth has no force of its own. Yet on the other end of humility comes deep self-confidence. With courage, and efforts, and discipline, I have touched on a solid kernel of correct knowledge. Others have seen and recognised it. So, whatever comes next, I’m probably not up to the task, but I might well be just as good as it gets. And that’s a doctor for you.

Reflecting on Default Settings

Inventing a new form

Default settings was an experimental project exploring questions of reflectivity, discourse, polyphony and audience agency. We invited a digital audience and a small cast of diverse associate storytellers to reflect on the various intersecting story-worlds that they inhabit, and stretch their capacity to create a common world by interweaving different stories, stemming from different languages and traditions.

The Default Settings experiment was designed by Julien Leyre and Matthew Ziccone, through the Marco Polo Project, with support from the City of Melbourne and the Victorian Multicultural Commission. It was produced by Maddy Bean, with participation from Associate Writers Declan Fry, Kay Stravrou and Xueqian Zhang.

The Default Setting experiment consisted of two prototypes and one pilot. The format involved five Associate Writers and a Producer, engaging online with an audience located around the world. Associate Writers were invited to prepare a 22’ sequence on the basis of a one-word prompt, in a format and language of their choice. The prompts chosen for the experiment were ‘plastic’, ‘vessel’ and ‘seed’.

Here is the rundown of the format we adopted. After a short meditative segment led by the Producer, Associate Writers share their stories in five parallel digital breakout rooms. During this time, audience members are shifted from room to room, every two minutes. As a second part to the event, audience and writers are guided in a reflective process to make sense of the experience. The process aims to build awareness of the ‘default settings’ guiding our digital lives, and stretch our capacity to follow and weave multiple narratives in order to make sense of the world.

Conversational norms, prevailing stories, and narrative freedom

The Default Setting experiment responds to the radical shift prompted by the COVID pandemic. Our professional, social and emotional lives are increasingly unfolding in digital environments: we interact with the world, with our colleagues and with our friends and family through screens. Unless we actively learn how to build meaningful connections in this virtual world, we are at risk of disconnection and alienation. So, we must explore and invent new ‘codes’ to interact online in an effective manner.

This shift is a source of tension, but also a great opportunity. In our multicultural societies, multiple parallel stories and value systems always circulate, manifesting in the way we talk and interact with others. Most of us inhabit multiple such story-worlds, and hop across them depending on the setting – one for family, one for work, one for friends, etc. Deciding what story to follow in order to make sense of the world and guide our action – and along with that story, what value system, what identity, what style, what tone – is our most fundamental political, social and ethical decision. Yet often, this decision is not consciously made. Rather, it is imposed on us by the force of habit and peer pressure. To that extent, awareness of the stories guiding us in any situation, so that we can actively choose to embrace them – or otherwise reject them – may be the root of all freedom.

Conversational default settings, the format of public events and mediated interactions, are an expression of power relationships. Some people speak, others listen, in an implicit but culturally defined manner. A language is adopted, others are silenced, or interpreters serve as go-between in a pre-defined mode. Body language and rhythmic pauses define turn-taking rules, guided by a default cultural norm. Those who have not mastered the norm, or take half a second more to process thoughts in that language, lose their turn and stay in the shadow. This is the offline world. Online, ingrained patterns lose their edge. Who never said ‘Sorry, you go’ when talking over someone else on a zoom call? So, here is an opportunity for reinvention – and newfound freedom.

Embracing chaos

Default settings was a deliberate attempt at relinquishing control. In the design phase, Matt and I held each other back: ‘Yes, you could lead that section, so could I, but let’s have Maddy do it, so none of us takes over.’ When two neurotic writers actively give over control to someone else, you know something interesting is happening. In the same manner, we let go of our desire to control narrative form. Associate Writers were given complete creative freedom over the story they wrote, and the language they chose to perform in. We would not even give them pointers, other than one single word.

This deliberate looseness triggered hiccups of course, but those became part of the experience. Stories did not transition smoothly, the experience was jagged. Participants experienced the virtual world of ‘Default Settings’ as chaotic: things were messy. But that turned out to be OK. Participants did evoke a sense of FOMO – they would get into a story, then be shifted to another room, and need to let it go. They also shared how they quickly learned to deal with it, and find joy in that letting go. Various analogies emerged: ‘It’s a bit like zapping’, ‘like a great dinner party’, ‘like a train station’, ‘when people start talking to you in public, and you shift across different conversation’, ‘like chatroulette’. Ultimately, learning into the chaos was comforting: ‘I loved the impression of complete freedom that I got from it’, shared Jasmine.  

As a storyteller – and designer – I became keenly aware of that digital chaos myself. Ten minutes into the first prototype, my Zoom suddenly disconnected. I didn’t have the link ready, so fumbled back through my emails to find it, clicked, and waited to re-join the room. It took a few minutes, and completely threw me off. When I was disconnected, there would have been audience members alone in my breakout room, with no explanation. What would Maddy decide to do? Where would I pick up my story? Would everyone be shifted one room over? Should I pick the story where I left? Would we all speak for longer? I had no idea, and no way of interacting with anyone to check what was happening, as we were all focused on keeping things going, in strictly separate rooms. This was ‘show must go on’: I had no choice but to rely on others continuing without me, and that things would be fine.

It’s hard for a designer and writer – it’s hard for me – to let go of control and responsibility. Yet it’s crucial that we learn to do that! It wasn’t just the zoom incident. I had invited friends to take part. Some weren’t able to connect on time, or were just normally late, and tried contacting me through Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp or SMS after things started. I was performing, on camera, and couldn’t handle them at the same time. I chose to ignore them, and focus on the present: a deliberate exercise of mindfulness. As it turns out, they didn’t mind.

An invitation to authenticity  

Key to creative freedom is the capacity to stay in shapeless, ambiguous, uncertain modes of thought, so things have time to settle and crystallise. This is all very good, and I can do that anytime with my eyes closed. Yet for extraverts like myself, the question is rather: how do you gain the energy you need from the outside world while things settle? It’s awkward to share unformed stories – yet when I don’t share for too long, things may well die for lack of nurture. This, I realised, is what Default Settings resolved. I would have no clear idea whether my story as a whole ‘worked’, of course, since I couldn’t follow reactions. But there would be some extraverted energy here and, well, with two minute sequences, I didn’t feel too bad sharing something half-baked. 

With that came one surprisingly moving element. It was the first time since I migrated to Melbourne twelve years ago that I performed in French to my local friends, and experienced a sense of connection. Migration had demanded a shift of language. There was joy in that shift, and a stimulating design challenge. How could I recreate my French self in Australian-English? Likely, I chose to keep a touch of accent for that reason, and accentuated my body language. But also, adopting English as my new default meant, there was an aspect of me that my new friends would never get to see. Comfortable and gently shady French-speaking Julien would disappear. With Default Setting, I felt comfortable bringing him back on stage. I knew my audience could not follow what I said, but imposing that person for two minutes at a time was short enough not to be obnoxious. And so, that part of me was seen in this country for the first time.

Another reason I was comfortable speaking in my first language is that the setting freed me from the need to compete for attention. The audience would be brought to me by design and technology, in a group small enough that I could rely on their attention. It was like a dinner party, sure – but one where you wouldn’t fear losing your counterpart to more glamorous conversation partners. ‘Nice talking to you, I’m gonna get a drink now’. Guaranteed attention kept the competitive ego in check, leaving room for creativity.

New rules for audience engagement

Theatre hinges on a paradox. Here’s a real human talking to real humans in real time. Here’s an actor on the stage, radically separate from the audience. In a Zoom breakout room, what model applies? Each Associate Writer took a different approach. Some were strictly performers, told their story and then, when it came to an end, smiled silently. Others interacted, inviting feedback or asking questions. ‘Which part of my story have you heard already? Should I sum it up for you?’ Kay, I heard, even complimented Maddy’s flatmate on a painting in their room. This is the magic of Zoom. We’re not in the theatre, but inside each other’s intimate space. With this comes a radical reset of the relationship between performer and audience.

Default Settings was designed to prompt equality. For this, we programed a moment of facilitated reflection. People were gathered at random in breakout rooms, audience and performers mixed in, and invited to share their impressions on different aspects of the experience, what moved them, what irritated them, how it resembled other aspects of their lives. Prompts and small groups freed participants from the fear of ‘not knowing the rules’, and associated silence, prompting exchange and connection.

Each Associate Writer had invited their friends and contacts, from Australia and around the world. Zoom has this magical quality that it frees us from the constraints of geography. What this meant is, people from different periods of my life were part of the same event, talking to each other, meeting and exchanging. This only should happen at weddings, funerals or graduations – well, also with Default Settings! My ex in France, a facilitator friend in Cambodia, a neighbour in Melbourne, sharing appreciations of stories they just heard. And now, when I mention one in passing to the other, I get a nod of recognition: ‘oh Patrick, he was in that event you organized, wasn’t he?’

Literacy for the digital world

As our lives shift to the digital world, we must not only design new ways of engaging with each other, and with the stories that guide our lives, but we must actively learn to navigate the digital chaos. ‘It’s so easy to misunderstand someone when you pass judgement based on such a short interaction’, reflected one of the participants. This experience in fragmented storytelling would change the way they thought of the news, inviting more caution. ‘There is a lot of literacy work to be done. We haven’t been taught that stuff. And it’s important.’  

But it’s not just about our capacity to think and engage. It’s about our capacity to perceive beauty, and connect through shared aesthetics. ‘I had this sense of you when you came on the screen’, said Jasmine, ‘you were calm, and even if I couldn’t understand, there was a rhythm. Each speaker had theirs.’ Then a moment of pause, and someone else chips in: ‘It’s like, when you’re driving in the country, and you tune into different frequencies on the radio. You don’t follow the song to the end, but somehow you know what each station is about.’

We tend to put a lot of emphasis on narrative arcs, the structure of an argument, the logic of exposition. And so, we fear fleeting attention, because it threatens misunderstanding. We compete for it – and so get trapped in our ego. Maybe, the secret is to shift emphasis, away from the rational, high-level arc of our thoughts and intention, into micro-structures of expressions, subtle rhythms, intonations, breathing, all this defining a style, a way of showing up, that is instantly recognisable. Maybe, to thrive in the digital world, we must embrace the wisdom of American minimalism, lieder-cycles, or concept albums, where the fragment reflects the whole, style is substance, and art an invitation to flexible attention, lifting the fetters of self-evidence.

Looking back at my 35 year old self – #14

In 2013, I spent a term of studies in Nanjing, supported by a Hamer Scholarship. This was a transformative experience, and a moment to pause and reflect after an intense early period of migration. At the end of that year, I wrote down a series of journal entries, one-per-day, capturing my thoughts. COVID gave me the chance to revisit them: I was somewhat moved at meeting a younger version of myself. Now that I near the end of my PhD and a major book, and begin a new major venture in green energy, I realised patterns and struggles remained oddly similar. So, I thought I might share this journal here over the coming weeks – who knows, it might resonate with someone, trigger a useful insight, or just a passing moment of self-compassion.

29 december

In March or April this year, I sat down at a Turkish café inside the Queen Vic market, thinking of what I really needed to accomplish this year. At the very top of the list, I wrote, learn Chinese. Now, I believe I have done that. I can keep up conversations with Chinese people for four hours or more, I can read, I can write small messages and emails. I still need to improve – but I have become operational.

This has been the biggest change in me this year – I learnt about China, I integrated the country deeply. This scholarship and these four months have radically changed me and what I feel that I can do. I am now someone who can speak Chinese.

I also feel very drained, more tired than I was the previous years – cautious about my health, I should be. My brain and body are tired – I have lived on very limited income for 18 months (though I relaxed a bit during the time of my scholarship), and this has taken a toll. I have also lived with high uncertainty – where the money would come from, what would happen next. Am I losing faith in what I can do, or just getting old?

I have largely confused work, life, holidays – I don’t say I don’t enjoy it – but it’s making it very difficult to identify socially, what I do, how I generate income. Maybe it’s OK? Or I can learn for it to be?

Looking back at my 35 year old self – #5

In 2013, I spent a term of studies in Nanjing, supported by a Hamer Scholarship. This was a transformative experience, and a moment to pause and reflect after an intense early period of migration. At the end of that year, I wrote down a series of journal entries, one-per-day, capturing my thoughts. COVID gave me the chance to revisit them: I was somewhat moved at meeting a younger version of myself. Now that I near the end of my PhD and a major book, and begin a new major venture in green energy, I realised patterns and struggles remained oddly similar. So, I thought I might share this journal here over the coming weeks – who knows, it might resonate with someone, trigger a useful insight, or just a passing moment of self-compassion. [This text was originally written for myself only, and some of the sections therefore referred to personal interactions. I have given myself permission to leave them out – and so jump directly from December 17 to December 19] 

19 December

The need to consume is a strange thing. I spent over 100 yuan today, when I could have spent half that. 10 for a first coffee, 18 for a second, 30 for a third. 16 for a cake-treat. 11 for food. And 18 again for my evening milk tea. Yet these expenses were social. The second coffee – 18 – was to chat with Tristan – and had a positive result: he’s offered to join Marco Polo Project and do work for the Festival. The third coffee – 30 – was fruitful: I chatted to Zhang Jiajia’s assistant, and had in-principle agreement for him to join our festival. The tea was good spending: I watched a movie for cheaper than the cost of my 3G stick at home, and I actually relaxed. I had to pay for food anyway. The cake was the special treat. But hey – I did good and I deserved it

Could I have done things differently? I could have chosen better. I got coffee because I was lazy – I had too much, four cups in total, and might find it difficult to sleep. Intoxicating myself for the sake of ‘my work’, like people drinking at business dinners. Paying for my own intoxication. I remember at Hub when Jules had ‘peppermint’, not ‘coffee to be cool’. And how the café down from Hub closes at 3pm, because you shouldn’t have coffee later than that.

When I go back to Melbourne, I will have to watch my spending again. In the last month and a half – or since I came back from Beijing – I started spending more. ‘Lubrication spending’ I call it Not really counting when I have coffee. Eating out. Inviting people. Cinema. Books. Trips. I should slowly start cutting down on some of those things after the new year – to get back into the habit when I reach Melbourne. But then again – I’m in China, I’m learning, and networking, and running three projects – and I’m trying to cope.

Strange though, how ‘trying to cope’ – or finding balance – goes through spending.

Mapping Europe over Asia

There is an idea that cultural resemblance operates by proximity. That, therefore, there may very well be differences between the French and the Germans or Italians, but those pale in comparison to differences between ‘Europeans’ and ‘Asians’.

Now I remember a guy once telling me that he’d been on a trip to Vietnam, and was amazed at how close the two cultures were. This is how he made his assessment: he went to see a French comedy, and people were laughing at all the right places. This would make sense: when the French established colonies in South East Asia, they chose the Vietnamese to rule over others – hence ongoing problems in Cambodia today.

We might make other comparisons. England and Japan: an obsession with rules, people moving away so they won’t come too close to you, high levels of personal repression, except on booze-fuelled evenings to release the tension. Punk teenagers and suited businessmen. Or Northern China may be like southern Italy: Harbin is the closest thing to Naples I’ve seen. People shouting out from their balcony to the street, addressing you spontaneously as you pass. A massive yearning after social contact.

So, rather than Europeans vs Asians, there may be just patterns of internal differences that we can trace on both continents, in an effort to better understand each culture’s own centre of gravity.

Corona thoughts: whose voices are being heard?

“In the digital era, whose voices are being heard?’ A few years ago, I posted a question on my Facebook wall, asking friends for advice on good historical writing about the Australian pre-federation period. One of the comments was from a cousin, who wrote – in French – ‘bon, tu arrêtes ton charabia, et tu parles français comme les gens civilisés’.

As a French migrant to Australia, the multilingual internet is a fact I remember every time I post on Twitter or Facebook. My friends and family do not speak English well. My Australian friends do not speak French.

It’s happened that I’ve read good articles in Le Monde or French blogs and wanted to share them, but they wouldn’t make sense to my Australia friends who do not speak French. And China – well, it’s a different beast yet. I have WeChat on my phone, and check Facebook on my computer. One device and platform per country. Sharing from one to the other is very unwieldy.

The internet offers a strange meeting of local and global. When Marco Polo Project was running its digital magazine, we had readers in over 1000 cities around the world. I have multiple blogs in multiple languages, and their audience is international. As Australia becomes increasingly multicultural and multilingual, how will we listen in to these non-English language conversations? How will we explore the new forms that evolve in certain countries?

Much of the internet is real time. A few years ago, I hosted a visitor to the Emerging Writers Festival. A literary reviewer from the UK, she had issues sleeping  in Australia – she felt obliged to take part in Twitter conversations, and listen in for urgent emails or calls for work on UK time. Others follow conversations in New York, 14 hours difference. Meanwhile, who knows what’s being discussed up north, in Japan, China, Korea, Indonesia.

In Covid-19 times, this becomes an issue. What do we know, us non-Chinese readers, about the Wuhan experience. And I’m not even talking of censorship, but direct testimonies of the people there, or medical reports, even research from China? What do we know of the deep conversations in Italy, Spain, South Korea, Japan? Only what correspondents will share, in English. How can we develop a deep, global sense of the present crisis, in a linguistically fragmented Internet?

There is no clear solution – and this piece isn’t offering one. Only that we probably need to reflect more on language, writing and ideas. Language is the medium of any writing – well, of any articulated thoughts – and if we do not go beyond English, we will remain unaware of our own enormous blindspots. In times like these, a terrible missed opportunity.

Conflict of duties – a vegetarian insight

I became a vegetarian just over two months ago, after spending three weeks living in a vegan household in Stockholm. I took the first step last year – cutting off all seafood (except oysters and mussels) and strongly reducing meat and dairy – when I drafted a section of the Global Challenges Annual Report on ecosystem collapse. This three-week meat-free stint with a bunch of effective altruists convinced me to take the next step, and entirely cut off meat (I did sneak out at times, and bought a yoghurt from the supermarket, a buttery Danish, or even a four-cheese pizza – each time, with a delightful sense of doing something very very nasty). It seems, I have now developed a level of empathy for other sentient beings, and no longer feel indifference when eating meat (and even feel some residual guilt when eating eggs and dairy).

I extended vegetarianism in settings that I would once have found rather challenging – and with great results. I am writing this on a two-day stopover in Guanghzou, notorious for a diet that includes all things that breathe – and famous for its seafood, pork and chicken. So far, I managed an exquisite range of snacks and meals, from BBQ’ed eggplant with garlic to sautéed peppers in black bean sauce, Portuguese egg tart, red dragonfruit, and a fabulous not-on-the-menu baked rice with egg and mushrooms at a street stall who responded creatively to my ‘no meat’ request. I flew China Southern here, and for some reason, wasn’t able to book a vegetarian meal on the website for that leg of the journey. I hesitated – would I get the beef or chicken – but instead, asked the stewardess if there was a vegetarian option. There wasn’t, but they made one for me: I had a special meal delivered on the first service, and on the second, was kindly handed over one of the crew’s fruit platters with an extra bread roll – and had not only my healthiest meal, but also one of my best ever experiences of bonding on a plane.

I did, however, consciously and deliberately broke my vegetarian diet on two occasions. Both times, I was taking people to Chinese restaurants: two visitors from Singapore to my local Sichuan, and a gourmet friend to his first encounter with DongBei cuisine. In both cases, we would be sharing dishes, I was hosting, and meat should be part of the full experience. On other occasions, when I joined large meals at a Chinese place, I gently mentioned that I no longer ate meat, and refrained from dipping into some of the dishes. But as a host, I felt it was my duty to politely say that I ‘ate meat only on special occasion’ – and that my guests offered such a special occasion. I experienced a conflict between two duties – respecting the life of other sentient beings and hospitality to fellow humans – and in both cases, the latter trumped the former.

I reflected on this while eating my baked rice with egg and mushroom. Why do people keep eating meat – why do people more generally keep on making all sorts of other choices that harm ecosystems and ruin the global climate? And when I say people, I think of myself too. Simple words come to mind easily – selfishness, indifference, ignorance. But, I wondered, could the answer be different? Could it be that we maintain environmentally harmful behaviours for an entirely distinct reason, because we encounter a conflict of duties, and a certain other duty trumps our responsibility to the planet.

What could it be? Well, I thought, there could be duty to friends and family for all meals taken in common – a duty to conform, a duty to let others have their way, or even a decadent ‘duty to celebrate’ translating as constant collective excess. But when it comes to meals taken alone – and to account for conformism defaulting to meat – I realised there could be something else: a certain ‘duty to oneself’, to look after one’s health, under the deluded belief that meat is essential, but more deeply, that I must ‘look after myself’. I have long cherished those words by Andre Gide, ‘it a duty to make oneself happy’ – but how easy to deform. For we live exposed to non-stop propaganda, telling us that such happiness will come from consumption, giving in to passing whims and desire, embracing convenience and constant hedonism. And so, when meat is advertised, convenient, appealing, no more expensive than alternatives, it becomes a – mistaken – ‘duty to ourselves’ to choose it. In the same way that single-use plastic bags, private cars and holidays overseas are not an expression of selfishness, indifference or ignorance, but the result of a conflict between ‘duty to the planet’ and ‘duty to ourselves’, where the latter trumps the former.

Or – and this is a much darker prospect – is it possible that we live such alienated lives that hospitality, calling to sacrifice an animal whenever a special visitor is sharing a meal with us, now applies for every single meal, with friends, with family, and even with our very self.

On 智

From Easter to Bastille Day, I will practice and write about the five Confucian virtues: 仁,,礼,智, . I am conducting this project alongside Patrick Laudon, Frenchman based in Tokyo. We will spend three weeks with each virtue, following the same protocol: first explore its meaning and relevance, then articulate and adopt a daily practice to cultivate that virtue, finally reflect on the practice and share this in two parallel blog posts. This is not a solid introduction to the Confucian framework of virtues – but rather, a prototype attempt at connecting classical philology to practice.

This round started with linguistic confusion. The process has been this: I found a digital version of the Analects, and used the search function to select passages where the virtue that I was practicing, using the browser search function. But when I put in ‘智’, wisdom, nothing turned up. I remained perplexed for a while, but as I scanned through the text, I wondered: there is another character with the same pronunciation – 知, to know – what if the two got somehow bundled. Bingo! now there was over 100 occurrences to scan through, which I filtered as best I could – and selected a few passages that seemed more particularly to reflect on the virtue that I was aiming to understand.

This passage offered a simple starting point, showing potential overlap between 知 – knowledge – and 智 – virtue: “I listen widely, select the good and follow their ways. I observe broadly and contemplate. This is the second level of knowledge.” [7-28] (多闻、择其善者而从之。多见而识之。知之次也。).  Wisdom is explicitly presented as derived from experience, more specifically from a process of observation, selection and imitation, applied to people.

Wisdom, indeed, appears not to be derived from the natural world, but other people. “Fan Chi asked about the meaning of ren. Confucius said “love others.” He asked about the meaning of “knowledge.” The Master said, “Know others.” [12-22] (“樊迟问仁。子曰。爱人。问知。子曰。知人。” But it goes beyond, and entails judgement, discrimination, followed by action.

Something about wisdom has to do with effectiveness: it is about doing the most we can with our time and energy. ” The Master said: “When a person should be spoken with, and you don’t speak with them, you lose them. When a person shouldn’t be spoken with and you speak to them, you waste your words. The wise do not lose people, nor do they waste their words.” [15-8] (子曰。可与言、而不与之言、失人。不可与言、而与之言、失言。知者不失人、亦不失言。) At first reading, this may sound harsh, but the passage echoes the fundamental optimism of all educators – and managers – that with the right attention, by carefully guiding our interaction with others, and identifying their passions and characters rightly, it is actually possibly to transform situations and the people themselves. Following the passage above, we read: “Fan Chi couldn’t get it. The Master said, “If you put the honest in positions of power and discard the dishonest, you will force the dishonest to become honest.” [12-22] (樊迟未达。子曰。擧直错诸枉、能使枉者直。)

 

Before starting reflection on this virtue, I had been attending an international conference on governance innovation. The key message was that it is easier to criticise than constructively develop – but that our collective goal at the conference was to do the difficult thing, and start building. At the conference, and later when I spoke about it with friends and family, I noticed a certain recurring type of response: people – often intelligent people – harnessing their analytical skills to demonstrate that the work we were doing was impossible, and why. When digging through their underlying assumptions, I found this: a belief that ‘human nature’ is ultimately both dark and unchangeable, that ‘people are like that’ or ‘things are like that’. Analytical cynicism then becomes an easy refuge for strong egos – and offers a rhetorical position from which they can avoid the difficult question – ‘so human nature is dark and unchangeable, people will not cooperate or rationally try to do good together – does that apply to you?’

By contrast, Confucian wisdom signals a fundamental optimism about humanity. Some people may be led by dark negative purposes, situations may be adverse. But if we can identify the character of people around us, and if we can wisely choose who receives power from us – starting with the more fundamental power that we have, the power of giving attention – then we can change not only the shape of a situation, but a person’s very character – including our own.

Wisdom perceives the world as liquid, changeable, and a space for joyful human activity : “The Master said: “The wise enjoy the sea, the humane enjoy the mountains. The wise are busy, the humane are tranquil. The wise are happy, the humane are eternal.” [6-23]  (子曰。知者乐水、仁者乐山。知者动、仁者静。知者乐、仁者寿。) The practice I derived from this analysis was a deliberate attempt to exert a sharper form of discernment in my interactions with people – a difficult task, I realised. It revealed that I could err on the side of softness, and invited me to think more about the tension between benevolence and wisdom – and in the Catholic framework that I explored last year, between prudence, justice and charity.

All translations of the Chinese in this text are from Charles Muller

On 礼

From Easter to Bastille Day, I will practice and write about the five Confucian virtues: 仁,,礼,智, . I am conducting this project alongside Patrick Laudon, Frenchman based in Tokyo. We will spend three weeks with each virtue, following the same protocol: first explore its meaning and relevance, then articulate and adopt a daily practice to cultivate that virtue, finally reflect on the practice and share this in two parallel blog posts. This is not a solid introduction to the Confucian framework of virtues – but rather, a prototype attempt at connecting classical philology to practice.

‘Li’, variously translated as ‘ritual’ or ‘propriety’ – written 禮 in the traditional form, and礼 in the simplified form – represents the third of the five Confucian virtues, and the one most often typically associated to some ‘Chinese’ spirit. Before delving into the Confucian texts, and basing myself on pure generalisation, I considered this relationship to ritual as the condition of possibility for a certain eccentricity that I noted among my Chinese friends. If external behaviour is not about expressing an authentic inner truth but performing a ritual, then in areas that are not strictly determined by ritual, it is possible to be radically free.

However, when I started reading Confucius more closely, I realised that this interpretation was somewhat superficial. “When Confucius entered the Grand Temple, he asked about everything. Someone said, “Who said Confucius is a master of ritual? He enters the Grand Temple and asks about everything!” Confucius, hearing this, said, “This is [precisely] ritual.” [3-15] (子入大庙、每事问。或曰。孰谓邹人之子知礼乎。入大庙、每事问。子闻之、曰。是礼也。). The linguistic form of 礼is not imperative, but interrogative. 礼 is also, therefore, present and relational: it emerges in the course of an interaction between two people. There is a certain naïve, post-romantic way of understanding ritual as a pure act of mindless repetition. This may be ritual in the 19th century, but it is certainly not 礼.

I practiced the virtue while on a work trip in Stockholm. I was living in a friend’s home with four other people, and working with a multicultural team on a major global forum. Questions of protocol needed to be resolved in both settings, and I had little immediate cultural understanding to guide me. I embraced 礼, and asked. This I realised: at first, I imagined that the purpose of this questioning was for the other to share their predetermined understanding of what was expected – allowing me, then, to comply. But instead, often, the question elicited a new form of shared understanding on matters that had not been properly thought through. This was the case at home, but also during the forum. There was no mastermind holding every detail of what should happen and how. Rather, knowledge of rules and rituals required by the event were distributed in the team. There was no proper way to behave that existed as a preconceived idea to follow: proper behaviour – 礼 – emerged as a shared conscious decision through the act of questioning.

There is a measure of collective magic to ritual. “If you govern the people legalistically and control them by punishment, they will avoid crime, but have no personal sense of shame. If you govern them by means of virtue and control them with propriety, they will gain their own sense of shame, and thus correct themselves.” [2.3] (子曰。道之以政、齐之以刑、民免而无耻。道之以德、齐之以礼、有耻且格。) If we know that our behaviour is exposed to questioning, self-regulation emerges naturally – and both parties eschew selfishness for mutual benefit. This understanding of ritual, in turn, opens a new way to understand justice. ”The Master said: “The noble man takes justice as essential. He actualizes it through propriety, demonstrates it in humility, develops it by truthfulness. This is the noble man!” [15.18]  (子曰。君子义以为质、礼以行之、孙以出之、信以成之。君子哉。。 ) Justice actualized is precisely the collective construction of a shared world.  Eliciting assumptions as to the right action in a certain circumstance, and making assumptions as to the right behaviour conscious, is a way to surface underlying patterns and reveal the underlying order of this shared world.

礼 does more: it allows us to stand firm. “Structure yourself with propriety” [8.8] (立于礼) encourages Confucius. We all run the danger of becoming trapped in our own nature. “Studying liberal arts broadly, and disciplining yourself with propriety, it is easy to stay on the narrow path.” [12-15] ( 子曰。博学于文、约之以礼、亦可以弗畔矣夫。) )“The noble man who studies culture extensively, and disciplines himself with propriety can keep from error.” [6:27] (君子博学于文、约之以礼、亦可以弗畔矣夫 。) 礼 frees us from tyrannical self-attachment, and the associated risk of drifting off into self-delusion. Ritual reveals the structures of the world -– the bones of social relationships – and thus makes flexible practice possible. “In the actual practice of propriety, flexibility is important. This is what the ancient kings did so well— both the greater and the lesser used flexibility. Yet there are occasions when this does not apply: If you understand flexibility and use it, but don’t structure yourself with propriety, things won’t go well.”[1:12] (有子曰。礼之用、和为贵。先王之道、斯为美、小大由之。有所不行。知和而和、不以礼节之、亦不可行也。)

Ritual does more: it not only makes practice possible, but provides a sense of historical continuity,whereby practice gains meaning. “Zi Zhang asked whether the state of affairs ten generations hence could be known. Confucius said, “The Shang based its propriety on that of the Yin, and what it added and subtracted is knowable. The Zhou has based its propriety on that of the Shang and what it added and subtracted is knowable. In this way, what continues from the Zhou, even if 100 generations hence, is knowable.” [2:23] (子张问:十世可知也 子曰。殷因于夏礼、所损益、可知也。 周因于殷礼、所损益、可知也。其或继周者、虽百世、可知也。) Here again, however, careful reading is required, and yields a surprising interpretation. Rituals do not evolve over time in a Darwinian fashion, shedding elements least adapted to the circumstances through the pure passage of time. Rather, ritual past and present is an act of ongoing questioning and emergence: so it was with the Yin, so it was with the Shang, so it was with the Zhou, and so it is with us. We are at great risk of projecting perfection on the past. There is no reason to believe that the past was any less chaotic than the present, nor that our ancestors – and with them, any people we think of as representative of an ‘old culture’ – simply repeated an inherited script, while we moderns are living in an age of free collective decision, where the sense of ritual got lost. No, what 礼 reveals is that all human societies – past and present – are at equal risk of chaos ,unless we make the concerted effort to build a common world through the questioning act of ritual. And by keeping this in mind, we are protected from the dangerous myth of a golden age.

All translations of the Chinese in this text are from Charles Muller