The Payback II

Sticker demanding reparations for Haiti (valued 2003 at 21,685,135,571.48 USD)
Photo: Dan Hetherington

Responsibility for the spoof Bastille Day announcement promising the repayment of Haiti’s ‘independence debt’ to France (covered in an earlier post) was claimed by a group called CRIME.

The original website at was taken down by the authorities, but was quickly replaced by one at and the video of the announcement can now be viewed here.

On 16 July, a message from the @DiplomatieFR twitter account stated:

« Le Comité pour le Remboursement Immédiat des Montants Envolés » d’Haïti (CRIME) takes credit for a hoax carried out on July 14.

The acronym works in English too, standing for the Committee for the Reimbursement of the Indemnity Money Extorted from Haiti.

At a press conference in Montreal on 22 July the group promised more action according to this report in the Winnipeg Free Press. And then the issue seemed to disappear from the news.

But on 16 August an open letter to Nicolas Sarkozy was published in the French daily Liberation urging France ‘to pay Haiti, the world’s first black republic, the restitution it is due.’

The letter was reprinted on CRIME’s own website, both in Frenchand English with a full list of signatories. The issue was also covered by BBC News, the Guardian, and the Toronto Star.

That the signatories included French scholars such as Alain Badiou, Etienne Balibar and Jacques Rancière may have brought some comfort to Tontongi, the author of La France doit restituer à Haïti la rançon de l’indemnité (which seems to have been written before the letter was published), who noted the disappointing response of formerly progressive intellectuals such as Régis Debray and René Depestre to Aristide’s renewal of the claim for restitution in 2003.

The substantial article draws on the detailed arguments made by Anthony D Phillips regarding Haiti’s Independence Debt and Prospects for Restitution (pdf) which demonstrate the solid legal case behind Aristide’s claim. In 1825 President Boyer ‘agreed’ to pay a 150 million franc indemnity to compensate French planters for the loss of land and slaves as a result of Haiti’s independence.

The legality of this agreement could be challenged on several grounds: the fact that negotiations were shadowed by the threat of French military force; the dubious basis on which the amount of the indemnity was arrived at; and the already-established consensus among the colonial powers that slavery and the slave trade were morally wrong – as evidenced by the abolition of the slave trade by Britain and the United States in 1807, the commitment to extend abolition in the Treaties of Paris that ended the Napoleonic Wars; and even the (albeit short-lived) abolition of slavery by the French government itself in 1794.

Furthermore, when it became clear that Haiti could not make the scheduled repayments (it had to borrow the first two installments from French banks), in 1834 the government appointed a commission to review the arrangement. Although the Dalloz Report declared the original ordinance unlawful and argued that it was the responsibility of the French government to compensate the planters, a replacement treaty imposed a schedule that was scarcely less crippling.

Phillips examines the legal grounds for restitution in the light of successful ‘unjust enrichment’ claims made by Holocaust victims against Swiss banks, and by American states against tobacco corporations. He concludes:

In the recent movement toward addressing historical injustice through legal and political action, Haiti’s Independence Debt makes a compelling case. The historical background presents a sympathetic story of profound tragedy and unfairness. The story well fits the traditional elements of a cognizable unjust enrichment claim and presents strong arguments against dismissal on procedural grounds. As part of a concerted, multi-disciplinary approach, a claim for the Independence Debt could realize some relief for the modern-day people of impoverished Haiti and perhaps deliver justice for one of history’s most tragic wrongs.

The Christian Science Monitor reprted on 17 August that the French Foreign Ministry had dismissed the petition. But the article makes the following interesting observation:

French officials did not address the legitimacy of the debt, with analysts saying such an admission could open a flood-gate of former colonial claims. France, for its part, has steadily requested that Moscow recompense a group of French investors that prior to 1917 put vast sums into the Russian rail system. Lenin declared the debt void under Soviet rule. But recently Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin agreed to reopen negotiations.

According to a post on The dangers of sovereign debt default, the Soviet government settled with British holders of these so-called Czar Bonds in 1986 ‘because the Soviets wanted to get hold of large amounts of Czarist money frozen in 1917 that was still sitting in British banks.’ And while the Yeltsin government compensated French bondholders to the tune of $400 million in 1996, many have argued that the amount should have been much larger. And the Association Fédérative Internationale des Porteurs d’Emprunts Russes (AFIPER) continue to press for what they argue is full restitution of the bondholders’ investments. (See also this article in Le Figaro in July this year).

If the holders of Czar Bonds are as much victims of violent breaches of international law and custom as the Haitian government, then there is an embarrassing inconsistency in the French government’s response to their claims for restitution. But even if the Haitian petition that the government ignores is based on arguments as strong, if not stronger, than those that led to Russian compensation in 1996, what makes such claims compelling is not the logic of their arguments but the relative standing of the two parties in the dispute. In some circumstances, France can compel Russia to bow to international pressure in ways that Haiti could never duplicate in her dealings with France.

But this is not something we are likely to hear the Foreign Ministry say in so many words.

Currently Reading

I’m normally reading two books at any one time. Sometimes three, and occasionally four if I have a collection of poetry on the go or a new issue of a journal I intend to read cover to cover. But right now, for a variety of reasons, I seem to be mid-way through more than a dozen. How did this happen?

Some of them go back to last year. Ian Baucom’s Specters of the Atlantic: Finance Capital, Slavery and the Philosophy of History (2007) was a recreational read – recreational in the sense that it was not directly related to anything I was currently writing. And I’m not sure what prompted me to buy it (although I’m glad I did). Possibly I thought it might help me think through some of the issues to do with representations of time in an essay on Moby-Dick I had set aside since giving a talk about it in 2004. The bookmark – a folded sheet of A4 scribbled with pencilled notes (such as ‘IB’s own reconstruc of the Zong case & its participants is an actuarial one – Qbp46’) lies between pages 54 and 55, as it has done since December when I needed to begin work in earnest on several projects with looming deadlines.

First I had to make some final revisions to an article on a vodouchant in response to comments by the editors and the publisher’s anonymous readers. One suggested I refer to Madison Smartt Bell’s All Saints Rising (1995), the first volume of his trilogy on the Haitian revolution, because it quoted the chant in question. I knew of the book, and had been meaning to read it for years, so I now had the excuse I’d been waiting for. The chant did indeed appear on page 118, although I’m not sure there was anything unusual about it that would merit more than a passing mention in a footnote. I ploughed on for another twenty pages, according to the slip of paper, hardly scribbled on at all, for I don’t take easily to historical novels. And this one seemed to take just a little too much pleasure in the depiction of violence and suffering, and robbed the story of the narrative impetus I was expecting. I found the non-fictional accounts of historians more gripping, even if C L R James’ The Black Jacobinsor Aimé Césaire’s Toussaint Louverture only hint at the nitty-gritty detail of the day-to-day struggle.

Other things I wanted to revise in the paper included my translation of a passage from Frédéric Marcelin’s Thémistocle Epaminondas Labasterre (1901). The scene, featuring the adolescent protagonist’s encounter with young women washing clothes in a river, appears quite early on and I’d sped past, firmly intending to finish the novel at the time – two summers ago now – but, well I must have been sidetracked by something or other. It’s a fascinating read, reminding me a little of Flaubert’s L’Education sentimentale, and while I did tinker with my English version, I didn’t have time to resume the narrative, and this will have to wait until later this summer.

With the vodou chant out of the way, two other obligations took their place. One was a paper on the ‘Liberty or Death’ motif in the Age of Revolution for the Caribbean Enlightenment conference at Glasgow University in April. I never got to deliver it in the end, as I was taken ill two days before and spent a week in hospital. I’d completed the reading I had set myself for this, except for Laurent Dubois’ A Colony of Citizens (2004). I notice I was still several chapters short of the one entitled ‘Vivre libre ou mourir!’ when Haemophilus influenzae type b breached my defences. I’ll return to this when I return to the draft in October and begin to work it into a more substantial piece, if I can.

Alongside my wanderings in the world of political slogans and the Hegelian dialectic, I had been converting a conference paper into a more substantial essay on the literary geography of a tropical hotel. For months I’d been pursuing various themes (the hotel in fiction, travel writing and cultural theory; the philosophies of space; acoustic geographies; heterotopia) like a pup licking bone. Now the full-length text has been emailed to the editors (to be returned for revisions in due course, no doubt), a few half-chewed morsels remain on the bedside table.

One is Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space (1958), a classic that has some intriguing remarks on sounds that I never used: ‘It is a salutary thing to naturalize the sound in order to make it less hostile,’ he writes, thinking of the way the noises of Paris that keep him awake at night can be transformed into an ‘ocean roar.’ It is waiting to be resumed at page 38 at some point later this year.

Another is Paule Marshall’s The Chosen Place, The Timeless People (1969): an enormously rich narrative that takes off from the arrival of a US-funded research team hoping to make a difference to an impoverished community on an island in the Caribbean. Project leader Saul, his wife Harriet, and assistant Allen take up residence in a guest-house run by the loquacious Merle, who straddles the racial divisions of the newly-independent country and serves as the ideal ‘cultural broker’ for the visitors.

I had read Marshall’s first novel before, but the friend who recommended this was so on target. I’m only a third of the way through, but it is clear why the guest house should be such an appropriate setting for this Proustian anatomy of the postcolonial condition, this dissection of the souls of white folk. Each time I pick it up, I read less pages, not wanting it to end.

An ongoing project to outline an imaginary anthology of Haitian travel writing – travel writing by Haitian authors, that is, rather than writings about Haiti – has required me to read or re-read a number of fictional works in which the theme of exile and homecoming loom large. But I have also been trying to track down the motif of the everyday in Haitian literature, going back to the oral tradition of the lodyans, recently revived in Georges Anglade’s Rire haïtien / Haitian Laughter (2006), a bilingual edition that combines several smaller collections of these mini stories in one volume.

It’s a book that is best suited to dipping into now and again, which means it will be beside my bed for some time. With Dany Laferrière’s Vers le sud (2006), my task is to compare it with his earlier work, La chair du maître (1997) of which this is a revised version, named after the film that was based on some of the stories in the first. At first glance Laferriere has removed ten chapters and added five, not to make it more like the movie, but rather to respond to it, in turn. A sequel, even.

I have read the first novel in Marie Chauvet’s Love, Anger, Madness (1968) trilogy, now appearing in English translation for the first time, and now anxious to read the rest of it. But I’m not sure if I should really finish Rene Depestre’s Hadriana dans tous mes rêves (1988) first. I’ll decide once I reach the end of Marshall’s masterpiece.

Joe Moran’s On Roads (2009) I’ve nearly finished: a brilliant cultural history of the road in 20th-century Britain, especially the impact of the motorway in the 1960s. And quirky too, from its attention to things normally taken-for-granted, such as signage and road-numbering, to the discreet count-down symbols (used on motorways to mark the approach of junctions) that appear in the page-headers towards the end of chapters.

The poetry volume I have on the go – Sean Borodale’s Notes for an Atlas (2003)– is prose rather than verse, but demanding enough that it can only be read slowly in short bursts. Described as a ‘370-page poem written whilst walking through London’, it is divided into twenty-five sections, capturing the experience in a series of highly fragmentary impressions of things seen, read and overheard that could almost be absorbed in any order, for the pleasure of the text is in the changing rhythms and startling similes and metaphors that endow each moment with a fragile beauty.

Oh, and there are the latest issues of Studies in Travel Writingand Small Axe that I’ve only had time to flick through so far. I am particularly looking forward to the interview with Merle Collins.

Keynotes, Signals and Soundmarks

Today (Sunday 18th July) has been designated the first World Listening Day. An initiative of the World Listening Project it aims to ‘to celebrate the practice of listening as it relates to the world around us, environmental awareness, and acoustic ecology.’

The date was chosen because it is the birthday of R Murray Schafer, the Canadian composer who founded the World Soundscape Project at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver in the late 1960s. His book, The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World (1977) was a path-breaking attempt to create a vocabulary and analytical framework for thinking about – and listening to – the everyday sounds around us. He defined features of the soundscape such as the keynote (background sound, often emerging from the natural environment), the signal (foregound sound, designed to attract attention), and the soundmark (unique and of special significance to the community).

I found some fascinating observations here. I was particularly taken by the idea that the tonal centre of soundscapes dominated by the buzz and hum of electrical equipment varies according to the frequency adopted by the country in question (eg 60 Hz in North America, 50 Hz in Europe, ie. B natural or G sharp).

But his argument is so closely tied to a narrative of disappointment and decline (from rural idyll to urban alienation), Schafer comes across as a bit of a prematurely grumpy old man (the book was first published in his 40s) who is not prepared to appreciate the rich complexity of the sounds of the city.

There are some exceptions. For instance, he does seem to have succumbed to the romance of railroads. And he can’t quite bring himself to condemn the drone – a keynote of industrial soundscapes and yet valued by ancient musics and religions. But when he asks: ‘If we must be distracted ten or twenty times each day, why not by pleasant sounds? Why could not everyone choose his or her own telephone signal?’ – you doubt that he welcomed the ringtone revolution when it eventually came.

The project’s study of Vancouver was documented on a double LP released in 1973, and subsquently re-issued on CD entitled Soundscape Vancouver with addtional recordings made in the 1990s, allowing listeners to register changes in the city’s soundcape over the intervening twenty years.

While a concern to salvage sounds which are disappearing no doubt continues to motivate those engaged in soundscape research, many of them also have an ear for emergent sounds. Not just new sounds or new combinations of sounds that transform the soundscapes we inhabit but sounds which only become clearly audible through the use of new recording techniques. The Interpreting the Soundscape CD curated by Peter Cusack (and included in a special issue of Leonardo Music Journal) – which may serve as a useful introduction to more recent work – includes underwater recordings of the North Atlantic, amplfied insect sounds, and the electromagnetic signals emitted by security gates.

User-Generated Content

Such field recordings remain the province of specialists. But with the wider availability of portable recording equipment (built in to laptops and smartphones) and means of distribution (via email, phone messaging and online public repositories), people are capturing the sounds they hear around them more than ever before. Including myself, though I am fairly new to the game. Three online repositories I have used include:

  • The Freesound Project: field recordings make up a large part of this vast repository of user-contributed sounds. The recordings are often high-quality, you can add geo-tags, and with many uploads furnished with detailed descriptions and useful keywords it is easy – and fun – to search. If you want to listen to station announcements or an indoor badminton court or a hospital trolley or someone passing through immigration at O’Hare airport or (hell, why not) next-door neighbours having sex, this is the place to go. But the interface is forbidding and uploading files is not for the faint-hearted. Those who take online social networking for granted may find it annoying that you can’t flag recordings as ‘favourites’ or ‘share’ them with a single click, and there is no embedded player.
  • SoundCloud: field recordings form a very small proportion of the material uploaded to this site which is dominated by music, but try browsing (moderated) groups such as Binaural Recording or Field Recordings. The quality of recordings is high, you can ‘favourite’ and ‘share’ tracks easily, and a mobile app allows you to listen (but not upload files) away from your computer.
  • Audioboo: field recordings form a very small proportion of the material submitted here and searches for those tagged ‘fieldrecording’ yield only a handful. You can ‘favourite’ and ‘share’ and geo-tag boos easily. With its mobile app you can upload recordings made on smartphones, which seem to form the vast majority and are consequently of low sound quality, and most of them resemble voicemail messages left by mistake. But I do like this bumble-bee and this sumptuous aural panorama from a Tokyo rooftop.

If Freesound is the best place to search for recordings, SoundCloud is probably the best way to share them, and if you have an iPhone (preferably with a third-party attachment that will allow you to use a decent microphone) and want to share some audio immediately, then Audioboo is essential. I have not used SoundTransit or ipadio. The London Sound Survey has made a useful comparison of all these services.

While these repositories are not much more than searchable databases, they do offer ways of easily finding sounds related to a common location or theme, through the use of tags and keywords or (more formally) by creating ‘sample packs’ (Freesound) or user groups (SoundCloud).

But field recordings are often made for (or made use of by) specific projects, which give rise to a more systematic presentation of material. For example, they might be a contribution to a sound map, or document a soundwalk, or form part of a series of sonic postcards.

Sound Maps

A sound map may be something you draw yourself, as a way of focusing your attention on what you can hear around you, following these guidelines, for example.

But sound maps may also be collaborative projects in which users are invited to submit recordings tagged with the location in which they were made, and which are then linked to an online map. Typically, these projects are city-focused, such as those for Barcelona (uses Freesound), the Basque CountryLondonMadridMontrealSeoul (uses Audioboo) and Vienna (uses Audioboo). Soundcities is wider-ranging, as the name suggests, but many clips are very short.

More ambitious and systematic is the British Library’s UK Sound Map(uses Audioboo), currently restricted to the Sheffield area, but with plans to extend across the whole country later this year. Dizzying in its global scope (and randomness) is the Radio Aporee: Maps project, which has made a special appealfor contributions of recordings made today so as to create a mosaic of audio snapshots for World Listening Day.

There are other location-based showcases of field recordings that (so far) have not linked them to online maps, although this would seem to be an obvious development. For example the various ‘favourite sounds’ projects in LondonChicagoBeijing and elsewhere. Or the fascinating collection in Mexico’s Archivo Sonoro (like this recording made in Viveros metro station, Mexico City).


What is a soundwalk?

The soundwalk is a practice of focused listening in which one moves through an environment with complete attention to sound. Any environment, at any time of day or night, can provide space for soundwalking. Sometimes the walks are guided by a written or verbal instruction (a “score”) and sometimes not. The participants may walk blindfolded, or stand still, or move in response to the soundfield. Sometimes the walker activates the soundscape – “playing along” with the sounds – using the voice, musical instruments or objects encountered along the way. On occasion the walks are recorded and other times they are simply free form ambles through sound filled places. The walks are usually followed by an informal conversation about the experience.

This definition is provided by City in a Soundwalk which invites people to follow its suggestions for soundwalks in New York City or offer proposals for more.

There are useful guidelines for undertaking a sound walk on the Urban Sound Ecology website which hosts recordings of such walks in Toronto and plots them on city maps, as part of its ‘research initiative dedicated to exploring, examining, and understanding the sonic spaces of Canadian cities.’ They are now also working on a Vancouver map.

For more general reflections on the subject, the new Soundwalking Interactionswebsite may be worth keeping an eye on.

Soundwalks are usually local initiatives that are not widely publicized, but many are being organized for World Listening Day (follow this comment thread for more details).

And I’m not sure they need to be always on foot. A simlar spirit informs the annual invitation to complete a circuit of Birmingham (England)’s circular No 11 bus route and document the experience.

Sonic Postcards

Sonic Postcards is the name of an education project in the UK pioneered by Sonic Arts Network (now part of Sound and Music). Its aim is ‘to encourage pupils to engage with their sound environment and be creative with ICT.’ The website showcases the results of each school project (usually with several postcards from different pupils) and includes the results of exchanges with schools in China, Switzerland and Catalonia.

But sonic postcards would be a good name for any short recordings, often produced in a series over a period, but not tied (as most contributions to sound maps or documentations of soundwalks are) to capturing the sounds of public places. They might be more interested in sounds of more personal significance – to the individual or community who heard or made them – and exhibit a kind of intimacy that the other forms of presentation lack. Freed from what can sometimes be a curse of trying to be ‘representative’ of a place, they are more likely to give us sounds which are interesting for their own sake.

For this reason, I enjoy Headphone Commute’s sound postcards, which often have tiny stories attached to them, such as the one featuring a busking violinist at Grand Central Station or the close-up of a dog… drinking.

And while these postcards are issued on a seemingly ad hoc basis, there are other similar series which gain impetus from self-imposed rules, such as Taylor Deupree’s 2009 project, One Sound Each Day (with recordings, for example, of him making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in July or misting the houseplants in December).

Or the One-Minute Vacations created by the quiet american. Try out some ‘voodoo ice cream’ in Benin and then join the football crowd in the San Siro stadium in Milan (from Year Five).

Happy World Listening Day!

The Payback

On Wednesday, many people were taken aback by an announcement from the French Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs of a new ‘framework initiative’ that would return the 90 million gold francs paid by Haiti from 1825 to 1947.

This indemnity has long been a bone of contention, pressured as Haiti was to pay ‘compensation’ for the loss of colonial property in return for international recognition of the newly independent state.

When the Haitian president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, brought up the question once more, on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of the death of national hero Toussaint L’Ouverture in a French cell in 1803, his counterpart Jacques Chirac was not impressed.

Even though two years earlier the French parliament had recognized slavery as a crime against humanity, the official response to the bill for $21,685,135,571 and 48 cents (its modern equivalent, with interest) was brusque, even bad-tempered. The foreign ministry commissioned a report on Franco-Haitian relations, which dismissed the claim for reparations as anachronistic and mocked the way in which Aristide had presented it.

There was precious little support even in the left-wing press in France, leading the Haitian writer Louis-Philippe Dalembert to pen an article in Libération wondering why intellectuals in the land of Hugo and Zola had all turned into foreign ministers whose main aim was to defend French interests. Dalembert was no friend of Aristide, and doubted whether Aristide was the best person to raise the issue, but he insisted that the demand for the restitution of an ‘immoral and iniquitous debt’ should not be allowed to be forgotten.

And indeed it has not. So despite Aristide’s enforced departure in the coup of February 2004 and Gerard Latortue’s prompt reassurance that the ‘illegal’ and ‘ridiculous’ claim would not be pursued, when Nicolas Sarkozy visited Haiti in February this year, he faced angry protests demanding that France pay up and help return Aristide to office.

The announcement of 14 July did not, then, come out of the blue. But, only a day after the National Assembly voted overwhelmingly in support of a ban on wearing the ‘Islamic full veil’ in public, it was unexpected, to say the least. And, of course, it was too good to be true.

In a manner reminiscent of the tactics of Les Liens Invisibles or The Yes Men, the announcement was carried on a site imitating that of the French Foreign Ministry, backed up by a news release purporting to be from Agence-France-Presse.

‘Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will,’ goes Gramsci’s slogan. For those with too much of the latter, the news may have prompted a flurry of excitement, but disappointment would inevitably follow. Those with an excess of the former may have taken some cynical delight in pointing out that the website was ‘fake’ or a ‘hoax’, as if it were therefore of no further account.

But both responses miss something interesting. It is no more ‘fake’ than a play or a film. The point of the excercise is not to kid people that something has taken place but to make it seem strange that something hasn’t. We might think of it as a kind of historical re-enactment but of the future rather than the past.

It stages a possible – or alternative – future, by composing a plausible statement that combines the language of neo-liberalism with that of France’s long-standing democratic traditions, without making reference to the claims of Aristide and his supporters.

In doing so, it invites us to imagine a rationale that would allow France to do a U-turn without losing face. Anyone reading the statement would find it hard to dismiss it as giving in to ‘illegal’ and ‘ridiculous’ demands. And thus the demand – whose symbolic importance should not be underestimated – is kept alive.

Sweetest of all perhaps, it has forced the Ministry to deny that it is planning to do anything so noble and to declare that it is considering legal action against those who dare to imagine such a thing.

[See follow-up post to this: The Payback II]

Twenty Days of Aftershocks

A selection of testimony and opinion pieces – reflecting a range of views – which have appeared online over the last three weeks.

Useful sources include the excellent Repeating Islands blog, email bulletins from the Haiti Support Group, and Bob Corbett’s Haiti List.

Edwidge Danticat, A Little While, New Yorker, 1 Feb 2010.

Laura Wagner, Haiti: A survivor’s story, Salon, 1 Feb 2010.

Peter Slevin, As food distribution improves, Haitians want U.S to ‘take over’, Washington Post, 1 Feb 2010.

Nick Allen, Haiti earthquake: voodoo high priest claims aid monopolised by Christians, Daily Telegraph, 1 Feb 2010.

Gary Younge, The west owes Haiti a bailout. And it would be a hand-back, not a handout, Guardian, 31 January 2010.

John Maxwell, Protecting Haiti’s Interest, Jamaica Observer, 31 January 2010.

Peter Hallward, The Land that Wouldn’t Lie,, 29 Jan 2010.

John Pilger, The Kidnapping of Haiti, New Statesman, 28 Jan 2010.

Melanie Newton, World’s Future in Haiti, (Barbados) Nation News, 27 Jan 2010.

Eduardo Galeano, A história do Haiti é a história do racismo, Adital, 25 Jan 2010.

Ker Than, Haiti Earthquake & Voodoo: Myths, Ritual, and Robertson (Interview with Wade Davis), National Geographic, 25 Jan 2010.

Tom Phillips, Haiti earthquake: religion fills the void left by aid agencies, Guardian, 24 Jan 2010.

Rodney Saint-Éloi, La tendresse et l’élégance nous sauveront du séisme,, 23 January 2010.

Sites sur Haïti : témoignages d’auteurs à consulter
, Etonnants Voyageurs, 22 Jan 2010.

Peter Hallward, Securing Disaster in Haiti,, 22 Jan, 2010.

Dany Laferrière, Tout bouge autour de moi, Novel Observateur, 21 Jan 2010.

Amy Wilentz, The Haiti Haters, The Nation, 21 Jan 2010.

Richard Morse, Haiti: My Experience on the Ground, Huffington Post, 21 Jan 2010.

Juan Carlos Chavez, In wealthy enclave of Pétionville, another picture, Miami Herald, 21 Jan 2010.

Andy Kershaw, Stop Treating These People Like Savages, Independent, 21 Jan 2010.

Tracy Wilkinson, Haiti’s Elite Hold Nation’s Future in their Hands, Los Angeles Times, 21 Jan 2010.

Évelyne Trouillot, Aftershocks, New York Times, 21 Jan 2010.

Colin Dayan, ‘Civilizing’ Haiti, Boston Review, 20 Jan 2010.

Dianne Diakité, The Myth of “Voodoo”: A Caribbean American Response to Representations of Haiti, Religion Dispatches, 20 Jan 2010.

Sir Hilary Beckles, The Hate and the Quake, Barbados Advocate, 19 Jan 2010.

Robert Booth, Cruise ships still find a Haitian berth, Guardian, 17 Jan 2010.

John Maxwell, No, Mister! You Cannot Share My Pain!, Jamaica Observer, 17 Jan 2010.

Haïti : le témoignage bouleversant de l’écrivain Dany Laferrière(interview), Le Monde, 16 Jan 2010.

Ruth Gledhill, Voodoo faith ‘could hinder Haiti’s recovery from quake’, The Times, 15 Jan 2010.

David Brooks, The Underlying Tragedy, New York Times,14 Jan 2010. And responses from Matt Taibbi (18 Jan) and Tom F. Driver and Carl Lindskoog (19 Jan).

Edwidge Danticat Voices Haiti, Always, Women’s Voices for Change, 14 Jan 2010.

Tyler Cowen, Why is Haiti so Poor?, Marginal Revolution, 13 Jan 2010.

Alain Mabanckou, Haiti ou l’énigme d’un séisme, Black Bazar, 13 Jan 2010.

Témoignage de Rodney Saint-Éloi (interview),, undated.

The V Word Revisted

There are so many trapped in the rubble of rational thought which tragically collapsed this week in parts of Europe and North America. Can someone help Lord Griffiths of Fforestfach?

I can hear him calling out. What is he saying? ‘The fatalism inspired by the voodoo religion would militate against recovery’.

Unlike, presumably, the fatalism inspired by the removal of a democratically-elected president. Twice.

Nothing he is quoted as saying seems to admit that ‘fatalism’ may have secular as well as spiritual sources. And is it really so inconceivable that people combine vodou – or any other religious – beliefs with activities like making a living, bringing up children, going to school, getting involved in community projects, or pulling people out of wrecked buildings and caring for them? Can’t we at least agree that it just might be possible?

I hear an echo. What’s that? ‘There is the influence of the voodoo religion, which spreads the message that life is capricious and planning futile.’ David Brooks on The Underlying Tragedy in the New York Times. Couldn’t he have said the same thing about the global financial crisis? In any case, it sounds like David Brooks is spreading that message well enough himself.

And then there are Tyler Cowen’s scatter-gun hypotheses that try to answer the rather loaded question Why is Haiti so poor?. They include this intriguing suggestion:

Hegel was correct that the “voodoo religion,” with its intransitive power relations among the gods, was prone to producing political intransitivity as well. (Isn’t that a startling insight for a guy who didn’t travel the broader world much?)

Cowen is actually not the only one for whom Hegel has recently become an authority on Haiti (and I will return to this in a future post), but he is unusual in claiming that this is because of the philosopher’s alleged views on voodoo.

That word again. It’s been around for a while, though it’s not as old as Hegel, at least not in this spelling. In The V Word I tried to show how voodoo emerged victorious in English in the late 19th Century over French or Creole versions like vaudoux or voudou. And in doing so it rapidly mutated as a metaphor that took it far from the island of its birth to refer to practically anything that was inexplicable or malicious or both.

At the same time the religion attracted the interest of more sympathetic scholars (inside and outside Haiti) and by the 1980s and 90s, something of the reality of vodou – to adopt the spelling in the language spoken by most of its followers – had seeped into the Western mainstream, and its difference from the cartoon voodoo was recognized by anyone who gave serious consideration to the matter.

I suggested that the two forms had diverged to the extent that we could afford to relax. Almost no-one used voodoo to define Haiti anymore. The word had drifted away from its Caribbean moorings to harmlessly scare (or lure) a world blissfully ignorant of where it came from. And we could begin to expect that discussions of the religion – given official recognition by Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2003 – would be more likely to dignify it with the name vodou,and treat it accordingly.

But I may have been proved wrong. Last week the ghost returned, as those who sought facile explanations or excuses for the desperate scenes unfolding in the media seemed to find a large captive audience willing to accept them.

How much it will be allowed to haunt the efforts of emergency relief and reconstruction remains to be seen. At least that captive audience is now beginning to answer back.

Retweeting Retrouvé

Three characters on stage, two men in bowler hats either side of a man bending under the weight of luggage.

estragon: What did we do yesterday?

vladimir RT @estragon: What did we do yesterday?

Evan Williams has posted this response to criticisms of the experimental retweeting feature on the Twitter website.

Citing other people’s tweets is as old as Twitter itself and takes many different forms. The new feature is an attempt to provide an alternative to this well-established ‘organic retweeting’ that is easier to use and and that avoids some of the problems associated with it. These include attribution confusion, noisiness, untrackability, redundancy, and the fact that the results are often ‘mangled and messy.’

To me, this doesn’t sound like a case for an optional alternative to organic retweeting but a rather nervous moral condemnation of it. Of all the problems, it seems as if those relating to attribution are fundamental. The post seems particularly concerned that people can be made to say things they didn’t and that things they do say can easily be misread as someone else’s. In other words, the ‘mentions’ in retweeting – the references to the original author’s username (or authors’ usernames if one is retweeting a retweet) – are often inaccurate or misleading.

I think this misses some important aspects of how retweeting actually works. What if we thought of retweeting not as a threat to the integrity of a tweet but rather a creative practice that adds value to it? Consider this fictional example:

hamish Is anything worn under the kilt? Nae, madam, it’s all in perfect working order!

tyrone RT @hamish: Is anything worn under the kilt? Nae, madam, it’s all in perfect working order!

A straight retweet, we might say. But, as the patron saint of retweeters would no doubt remind us, there is no such thing. Tyrone takes this joke from Hamish’s timeline and copies it into his own, giving it a different meaning in a new context. And a meaning that will change as Tyrone follows it with more tweets – or retweets – of his own. Tyrone may be inserting the joke in a series of tweets on a related topic (say, the trials and tribulations of hiring an outfit for a friend’s wedding or amusing photos of his recent Scottish holiday). Perhaps Hamish is one of Tyrone’s followers, and offered the joke as an implicit invitation to retweet it, given its relevance to the subject currently absorbing him. Alternatively, it may serve to purposely lower the tone after a number of what Tyrone fears might have been overly serious or pretentious updates. Or mark the end of a light-hearted sequence before turning to weightier matters. Or Tyrone might be one of those who fires off seemingly random tweets on a wide range of subjects at regular intervals without rhyme or reason.

Furthermore, retweeting is not always an endorsement or appreciation of the original. In this case, Tyrone may be prompted by a desire to share a good joke. But he may wish to remind us of a particularly bad one. In other words, one can retweet ironically – though the irony may be lost on those who don’t follow Tyrone closely. So the retweeter is always – intentionally or not – always adding something even when quoting verbatim. And for that, the ‘original’ author cannot take all the credit. Even when they are the ‘original’ author – which, in this case, Hamish certainly isn’t. Indeed the joke is an old one, and frequently attributed to Spike Milligan.

So when Tyrone credits Hamish, is this confusing? No, because the mentions in retweets are acknowledgements rather than attributions. The difference is important. For something is worth retweeting regardless of who wrote it first. Retweets are not usually intended as (or taken to be) representations of the retweeted, who are often not known to those reading the timeline in which they occur – although they may lead the reader to check out their profile and even follow them. Tyrone makes Hamish’s tweet – however briefly – his own. And immediately makes it available for retweeting again. For this creative quoting and requoting, the @hamish is a nod recommended by etiquette. It should not be expected to meet the standards of a citation required in a research paper.

I would emphasize this is true even when the retweet is verbatim. But, of course, a retweeter may abridge, annotate, paraphrase, tag or otherwise transform the original:

tyrone I’d forgotten this – RT @hamish: Is anything worn under the kilt? Nae, madam, it’s all in perfect working order!

tyrone RT @hamish: Is anything worn under the kilt? Nae, madam, it’s all in perfect working order! LOL

tyrone RT @hamish: Is anything worn under the kilt? No, madam, it’s all in perfect working order!

tyrone RT @hamish: Is anything worn under the kilt? No, your holiness, it’s all in perfect working order!

tyrone RT @hamish: Nae, madam, it’s all in perfect working order!

tyrone RT @hamish: Is anything worn under the kilt? Nae, madam, it’s all in perfect working order! #worldsworstjokes

Abridgements and minor corrections are usually made silently, but annotations and interpolations and additions are more likely to be clearly identified. So the last one might be more fairly retweeted as follows:

tyrone RT @hamish: Is anything worn under the kilt? Nae, madam, it’s all in perfect working order! >> #worldsworstjokes

tyrone Is anything worn under the kilt? Nae, madam, it’s all in perfect working order! #worldsworstjokes (sorry @hamish!)

These often add value to the ‘original’ even if not always appreciated by the first author. And this is complicated by the fact that tweets are themselves compounds and which part of the tweet is supposed to bear the weight of the retweet is significant. For instance, imagine the first tweet came with a link, thus:

hamish Is anything worn under the kilt? Nae, madam, it’s all in perfect working order:

Now this link is to a video clip. One would not be surprised to find it to be a clip in which the joke appears or (as here) in the brief description provided by the person who uploaded it. It could be that the body-text of the tweet serves here as a caption for the clip, encouraging more to click on it (than would if the tweet had consisted only of the link). But equally the clip may have been added almost as an afterthought, as a kind of illustration of the joke.

Tyrone may retweet primarily in order to draw attention to the clip and, not impressed with the joke, may share only the link:

tyrone: RT @hamish:

Or supply new accompanying text of his own:

tyrone: RT @hamish: The Tartan Terrors are amazing:

Alternatively, not impressed by the clip, he may choose to share only the joke:

tyrone: RT @hamish: Is anything worn under the kilt? Nae, madam, it’s all in perfect working order!

Or add a different link:

tyrone: RT @hamish: Is anything worn under the kilt? Nae, madam, it’s all in perfect working order:

Sometimes the changes may warrant a more relaxed via @hamish rather than the more formal RT @hamish. But it is not often clear when to prefer one over the other. There is no obvious marker on what is a continuum of creative borrowing. The finely-tuned aphorism or critical judgement must often be extracted from a longer or less elegant tweet before it is retweeted.

Williams speaks up for those who struggle with what he calls the extra ‘mental parsing’ that is needed to compensate for the scandalous reappropriation of a tweet by a retweeter. The same people, perhaps, who are disturbed when their carefully-chosen friends pervert their own timelines by quoting the words of others. ‘The perfect Twitter would show you only the stuff you care about,’ he writes.

Even if the idea of the ‘perfect Twitter’ weren’t highly dubious, I would hope it would also show me stuff that I didn’t know I cared about, stuff that I never thought I would care about, stuff that I don’t care about but which, unexpectedly, against all odds, move or intrigue me. And what’s why I prefer my Twitter noisy, mangled and messy.