Good morning, Vietnam

It is well past noon when we hurry down a dusty alley in Danang, Vietnam. On one side of the alley, bored women, sequestered behind their piles of brown dried meats and mounds of maroon meat floss, fan themselves in the afternoon heat.

banh xeo, Danang

Where the alley turns right into another row of bored dried-meat vendors, sits a bánh xèo institution. There is a ravenous silence around the sterile stainless steel tables as we stuff rice paper with fresh herbs and leaves and cool raw cucumbers and a tumeric-laced “crepe”, itself already bursting with tasty bean sprouts and shrimp and pork, and dip the whole fat roll into bowls of tangy satay-style sauce.

Little time for chit-chat. Much has already been said about external persecution – beatings and destruction of property and threats, and about internal strife – denominational division and sheep-stealing. Now we need to ride on to Hoi An to meet another group of brothers and sisters.

Hoi An will be our third stop. We are somewhat exhausted from bumpy roads and hard beds, but encouraged by God’s work.

Hoi An lanterns

That evening, after dinner, I speak about the importance of trusting God’s word in the Bible,  of the Bible being both a divine word and a human word, and as a human word – capable of being understood by the normal means of comprehension and consideration of context. Context to be considered: literary context, book context, historical context, and whole Bible context. I see furrowed brows during the hour-long session and pray that God would use this poor dry attempt to somehow help his people.

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God deigns to use his weak vessels. Over little piles of hến trộn the next day, brothers talk about how struck they are that God’s word is primarily about God and what he is doing in the world, and about changing our fallen view of the world – not about going off to do something; and sisters say how mortified they are that they’ve been doing character studies on the life of Joseph.

Oh, that they will see the stupendous banquet that awaits them as they dig properly and heartily into the Scriptures. How much firmer they will be able to stand, knowing that the unspeakable sovereignty of our Father and the eternal salvation wrought by his Son, and the glorious hope of the new creation.

And this we pray too, for ourselves.

Protestant Colonialist Legacies

It would be quite evident, even to anyone ignorant of Vietnam’s history, that the country had once been under French colonial rule.

In District 1, the boulevards lined with tall trees at regular intervals, all radiating from a roundabout, indicated an infrastructural mind of the Parisian mould.

park near Benh Than Market, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)Co-opted by communism, the parks with their wide promenades became communal spaces for group activities.

Just before my trip, WT and I were discussing the differing consequences of British and French colonial rule. Common wisdom had it that countries under British colonial rule fared better than ones under French rule, she’d said.

This paper, Comparing British and French Colonial Legacies: A Discontinuity Analysis of Cameroon found that households [in Cameroon] on the British side have higher levels of wealth and are more likely to have access to improved sources of water (a locally provided public good)[than households in post-French Cameroon].

The authors, Alexander Lee and Kenneth A. Schultz, hypothesized that the British advantage was a combination of “hard legacies” (lack of forced labor, more autonomous local institutions) and “soft legacies” (common law, English culture, Protestantism).

Whereas Césaire described French colonialism, in his Discourse on Colonialism (Discours sur le Colonialisme),  as a relationship based on “forced labor, intimidation, pressure, the police, taxation, theft, rape, compulsory crops, contempt, mistrust, arrogance, self-complacency, swinishness, brainless elites, degraded masses.”

playing the flute in a park near Benh Than Market. Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

Christianity Today’s The Surprising Discovery About Those Colonialist, Proselytizing Missionaries was careful to avoid any triumphalist crowing, but noted:

Few [missionaries] were in any systemic way social reformers,” says Joel Carpenter, director of the Nagel Institute for the Study of World Christianity at Calvin College. “I think they were first and foremost people who loved other people. They [cared] about other people, saw that they’d been wronged, and [wanted] to make it right.

While missionaries came to colonial reform through the backdoor, mass literacy and mass education were more deliberate projects—the consequence of a Protestant vision that knocked down old hierarchies in the name of “the priesthood of all believers.” If all souls were equal before God, everyone would need to access the Bible in their own language. They would also need to know how to read.

“They focused on teaching people to read,” says Dana Robert, director of the Center for Global Christianity and Mission at Boston University. “That sounds really basic, but if you look worldwide at poverty, literacy is the main thing that helps you rise out of poverty. Unless you have broad-based literacy, you can’t have democratic movements.”

And so the old issue that troubles many a thoughtful missionary:

  1. what saves people, ultimately, is the gospel;
  2. pure social action must not be the goal of the church. A social gospel is concerned with attempting to alleviate suffering only in this world – a myopic mission. This world will soon pass away, and all who have not trusted in Christ, rich or poor, educated or illiterate, will face God’s wrath;
  3. yet how can any Christian claim to love another person but share only the gospel with them, not tending to their poverty or sickness or the injustice of their imprisonment?
  4. but surely resources (time, energy, money) are limited, so it would be better to focus on the gospel and their eternal salvation than the here-and-now;
  5. still, who will listen to the gospel being thrust in their face, when a missionary has not shown himself/herself to be a friend in need (…is a friend indeed)?

 

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)Western imperialist graffiti

Brief Layover in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

Ho Chi Minh City.

The official name of a city re-named for the revered revolutionary who defeated French and American powers to unite the country we now know as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

(French and American tourists, of course, still stubbornly call it “Saigon” to this day.)

Looking out the window on the bus to the city centre from the airport, I’d wondered what to make of the eye-catching propaganda billboards in the city I’d worked in so many years ago. How much of an indication were they that there remained a certain innocence in relation to commercial things, a relatively sweet, laid-back calm/inertia from a lifetime of state-sponsored welfare?

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)Amidst the roundabouts of relentless beeping of motorcycles and honking of cars, and the fumes of old exhaust pipes that made commuters cough up phlegm behind their cloth masks, and shiny new buildings jostling against the yet-to-be-bought-out crumbling ones, the Bitexco Financial Tower stood shining in the afternoon sun, holding aloft a helipad – like the Statue of Liberty and her torch.

Bitexco Financial Tower. Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

Thanks to Đổi Mới, perestroika-like economic liberalisation, HCMC had taken on the feel of the capital of her capitalist Thai neighbour, Bangkok.

Commercial signboards and advertising were more in evidence:

motorcycles at a roundabout. Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

And in Ben Thanh Market, where formerly, you had to rouse a sleepy salesgirl to ask a question, you were now preyed upon aggressively once you entered its shady confines. “Hellloooo. You buy something. Cheap!” called out the predators as you attempted to navigate the narrow alleys between stalls. Some reached you in time to tug a sleeve, or thrust a mass-produced souvenir into your chest.

“I give you good price!”, they chorused, making no effort at all to extol the virtues of their wares,”Buy some thing!”

In the food section, my favourite stall had shuttered for the day,

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

leaving me at the mercy of the food touts. I ordered a Bún bò Huế, and sat down. Some time later, I was given a pho bo.

“Sorry I think I ordered Bún bò Huế?”
“Yes, yes.” said the woman, and hurried off. A few minutes later, I saw her waving a menu at tourists. There was no one fixing a Bún bò Huế.
I hailed a man who seemed to be somewhat related to the enterprise.
“I ordered a Bún bò Huế but this is a pho bo.”
“Okay, okay,” he said, and showed me the menu.
“No. This is not Bún bò Huế.”
“Okay, okay, this is Bún bò Huế.” he said, and gestured at what was obviously the wrong colour for such a dish, and left with the menu.
It took a third attempt with a different member of the jolly gang to have someone make me a Bún bò Huế.

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

Bún bò Huế, Benh Than Market, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

It was difficult to tell if this was lack of language ability or an attempt to cheat the tourist. I’d plump for the former, since the man was quite apologetic after.

(What did this mean then for the training we’d done for some local friends? When they’d nodded and appeared to have agreed, could those gestures have meant nothing more than the acknowledgement that we’d said something? Though what, exactly, might have been a mystery to them?)

While this little skit was unfolding, I noticed a stream of people rocking up to the stall across the way. Banana fritters.

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

Banana fritters from Ben Thanh Market. Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)
Banana fritters from Ben Thanh Market. Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)
The woman deep-frying the local bananas smiled with her eyes, and indicated that she was happy for me to take some photos. There was soon a fresh queue of people staring hungrily at the boiling oil, plastic bags ready to receive the golden crunchy snacks.

8,000 VND each (S$0.48, £0.24), the chuối chiên were tummy-warmingly good – the ratio of tasty crisp batter to hot sweet banana was just right.

The squares of recycled English language class notes though, were dodgy. Excuse I, I’m afraid I regret informing you that did not meet my expectations.

Dodgy English language notes. Banana fritters from Ben Thanh Market. Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)
Dodgy English language notes. Banana fritters from Ben Thanh Market. Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

Felt the sting of God’s judgement at Babel quite badly. How marvellous a reversal the gift of tongues recorded in the Acts of the Apostles must have been – to finally be able to tell the good news to other nations. Yet, how desperate it is that such a gift isn’t quite widespread.

An incoming deacon at our small church recently suggested strongly that we stop mission trips to other countries. After all, he reasoned, there was so much work done with very little visible fruit – the translation work, the travelling, the inability to communicate effectively once there… Why not just stay in Singapore where people speak English?

And yet, and yet…
globe roundabout. Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

****************

Logistics:

To get to the city center from Tân Sơn Nhất International Airport, walk out of the Arrivals hall.
bus from Tân Sơn Nhất International Airport. Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

You can either take the air-conditioned yellow 109 bus (mostly for tourists) to the bus interchange across from Ben Thanh market for 20,000 VND (S$1.22, £0.61):

yellow bus from Tân Sơn Nhất International Airport. Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)
yellow bus from Tân Sơn Nhất International Airport to city center. Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

bus ticket for yellow 109 bus from Tân Sơn Nhất International Airport. Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

or just 30m further along, where there are green-ish seats but no ticketing booth, take the local air-conditioned 152 bus to the same interchange for 5,000 VND (S$0.30, £0.15):
green 152 bus to city center, from airport. Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

green bus from bus interchange to Tân Sơn Nhất International Airport. Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)
ticket for green bus from city center to Tân Sơn Nhất International Airport . Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

Conspicuous Authenticity, but not in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), VietnamLondon -> Harwich -> Hoek of Holland -> Amsterdam (Holland) -> Copenhagen (Denmark) -> Stockholm (Sweden) -> Riga (Latvia) -> Moscow (Russia) -> [Trans-siberian or Trans-mongolian Express] -> Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) -> [Trans-mongolian Express] -> Beijing (China) -> Hong Kong (SAR, China) -> Guangzhou (China) -> Nanning (Guangxi, China) -> Hanoi (Vietnam) -> [Reunification Express] -> Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam)

What was refreshing about Ho Chi Minh City (aka. Saigon) was the continued lack of conspicuous authenticity. Being a city just getting a dip into the conspicuous consumption pool, it was still way behind the next wave of status competition: conspicuous authenticity.

park, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
songbirds in a park, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
crickets as food for songbirds, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
mealworms for songbirds, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
exercising in a park, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
dance practice? Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
broom and basket, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
more dance practice, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
exercise equipment in a park, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), VietnamIn contemporary advertising in other cities, a fundamental marketing technique is to appeal to the authenticity of the product.

Andrew Potter, in The Authenticity Hoax: Conspicuous Authenticity,suggests that it is Denis Diderot’s portrayal of the titular nephew in Rameau’s Nephew that transformed authenticity from a quest for individual freedom and self-fulfilment into a marketing strategy. His awareness that his sponging off various rich people was “the beggar’s pantomime”, said G.W.F. Hegel, made him “the avatar of a new individual consciousness” that “looks upon the authoritative power of the state as a chain…obeys only with secret malice and stands ever ready to burst out in rebellion.”

Now however, such awareness is so familiar and ubiquitous that there is no one who does not consider himself to be as Rameau’s nephew, an anti-hero of authenticity. Inauthenticity is a cuss word we use on other people – office drones, government lackeys, yuppies etc.

Perhaps, Joshua Glenn argues in Fake Authenticity, the nephew’s “cultivated alienation and easy nonconformity”, far from making him an anti-hero of authenticity, makes him the archetypical hero of fake authenticity, “the face of hip capitalism, and an architect of consumer dissatisfaction and of perpetual obsolescence”. If one defines authenticity as “a struggle against received truths, inherited contingencies, any ideology (in the Frankfurt School sense of the word) which impedes the possibility of freeing oneself — and others — from all forms of oppression”, then authenticity itself has become an ideology.

Elsewhere, simulacra is what Jean Baudrillard famously calls things that aren’t copies of the real but constructed to resemble expectations of what that the real is to look like, and therefore becoming real in themselves while bearing no connection with the thing it is meant to resemble in reality.

And there is much demand for such simulacra.

tea and sweets, Ben Thanh Market, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
flowers, Ben Thanh Market, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
alleyway of pedicure and manicure shops, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
paintbrushes for sale on a street, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam“Over the course of the twentieth century, the dominant North American leisure class underwent three distinct changes, each market by shifts in the relevant status symbols, rules for display, and advancement strategies. The first change was from the quasi-aristocratic conspicuous leisure of Veblen’s time to the bourgeouis conspicuous consumption that marked the growing affluence of the first half of the twentieth century, a pattern of status competition commonly referred to as “keeping up with the Joneses”. The next change was from bourgeois consumerism to a stance of cultivate non-conformity that is variously known as “cool”. “hip”, or “alternative”. This form of status-seeking emerged out of the critique of mass society as it was picked up by the 1960s counterculture, and as it became the dominant status system of urban life, we saw the emergence of what we call “rebel” or “hip” consumerism. The rebel consumer goes to great lengths to show that he is not a dupe of advertising, that he does not follow the crowd, expressing his politics and his individuality through the consumption of products that have a rebellious or out-of-the-mainstream image – underground bands, hip-hop fashions, skateboarding shoes”. [Comment: oops, i guess that’s all tired and old mainstream now.]

“Norman Mailer set the agenda in the 1950s when he wrote that society was divided into two types of people: the hip (“rebels”) and the square (“conformists”). Cool (or hip, alternative, edgy) here becomes the universal stance of individualism, with the hipster as the resolute non-conformist refusing to bend before the homogenizing forces of mass society. In other words, the notion of cool only ever made sense as a foil to something else, that is, a culture dominated by mass media such as national television stations, wide-circulation magazines and newspapers, and commercial record labels. The hipster makes a political statement by rejecting mass society and its conformist agenda.”

“Cool fizzled out when it was exposed as just another consumerist status hierarchy, and when it passed so deeply and so self-consciously into the mainstream that it became simply embarrassing.” [Comment: hence the very popular threadless T-shirt “I listen to bands that don’t even exist yet“]

“But status, like power, abhors a vacuum…The trick now is to subtly demonstrate that while you may have a job, a family, and a house full of stuff, you are not spiritually connected to any of it. what matters now is not just buying things, it is taking time for you, to create a life that is focused on your unique needs and that reflects your particular taste and sensibility.”

“Do you subscribe to an organic-vegetable delivery service? Do you believe that life is too short to drink anything but wine straight from the terroir? Do you fill your house with heirlooms, antiques, or objets d’art that can’t be bought anywhere or at any price? For your next vacation, are you going to skip the commercialised parts of Europe or Asia and just rent yourself a cabin in British Columbia or a farmhouse in Portugal, away from all the tourists and the people trying to sell you stuff? Welcome to the competitive and highly lucrative world of conspicuous authenticity.”

“Conspicuous authenticity raises the stakes by turning the search for the authentic into a matter of utmost gravity: not only does it provide me with a meaningful life, but it is also good for society, the environment, even the entire planet.”

Andrew Potter then uses organic produce as case study. About 15 years ago, organic food was exclusively consumed by certain enlightened people. It was essential to authentic living and, to quote Mark Bittman, “the magic cure-all, synonymous with eating well, healthfully, sanely, even ethically”. When organic produce became so popular that produce was easily obtained in huge stores like Whole Foods and Walmart, the standard of authenticity shifted: locavores started to extol the benefits of locally grown food as tastier, fresher, more environmentally-friendly (all of which are subject to debate). The 100-mile diet, says Potter, is an illustration of this one-upmanship, “the trend of turning environmental authenticity-seeking into a competitive anti-consumption publicity stunt”.

Authenticity is a “positional good that derives its value from the force of invidious comparison. You can only be a truly authentic person as long as most of the people around you are not.”

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
cooked snails, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), VietnamIn other news, please note how eating local food with the locals makes my travels oh so very much more authentic (tone: dripping sarcasm):
Bún mắm stall, Ben Thanh Market, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
Bún mắm stall, Ben Thanh Market, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), VietnamBún mắm stall, Bến Thành market

iced Vietnamese coffee, iced Vietnamese tea, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnamiced Vietnamese coffee, to be washed down with complimentary iced Vietnamese tea, on a sidewalk

Luong Son (Bo Tung Xeo). Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
Luong Son (Bo Tung Xeo). Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
fried crickets, Luong Son (Bo Tung Xeo), Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), VietnamLuong Son (Bo Tung Xeo)

(On the way home, a Vietnamese girl stopped me to ask for directions in the vernacular. Again, I unthinkingly replied in English. She was so shocked she giggled into her hand and fled.)

Now this guy was authentic:
evangelist, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam“Hello,” he said to an American backpacker waiting for her bus,”I am Vietnam evangelist. I want to tell you about Jesus.”

*part of a read-through of Andrew Potter’s The Authenticity Hoax

**also part of a photo-journal of my journey overland from London to Singapore

Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam

London -> Harwich -> Hoek of Holland -> Amsterdam (Holland) -> Copenhagen (Denmark) -> Stockholm (Sweden) -> Riga (Latvia) -> Moscow (Russia) -> [Trans-siberian or Trans-mongolian Express] -> Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) -> [Trans-mongolian Express] -> Beijing (China) -> Hong Kong (SAR, China) -> Guangzhou (China) -> Nanning (Guangxi, China) -> Hanoi (Vietnam) -> [Reunification Express] -> Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam)

There has been no end of people gushing how my London to Singapore trip, over land, was going to be the journey of a lifetime. I just could not understand it – all I was doing was taking a really slow and tedious route from Europe to Asia.

Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, VietnamAnd many of the epic train journeys, like the Trans-mongolian Railway and now the Reunification Express were just normal means of commuting for many people. Perhaps it wasn’t the cost of train rides that were the issue, but the rarity of the experience in our little social circle?

Continuing my read-through Andrew Potter’s book:

The Authenticity Hoax: The Creative Self

“In the last couple of chapters, we have followed the turn in Western culture that began with an initial, visceral reaction against the three pillars of the modern world: spiritual disenchantment, political liberalism, and the growth of the market economy. As we traced it through the thought of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, this reaction gave rise to the ideal of authenticity, which culminated in a celebration of spontaneity, emotional transparency, and a fixation on the creative powers of the individual to provide meaning in a world that otherwise offers none.

This last development is particularly important. Once the authentic self becomes, in effect, an artistic project, that puts a number of questions relating to art and authenticity front and center. What counts as an authentic work of art? What threatens artistic authenticity?…”

“There is an ambiguity in the way we use the term authenticity when discussing art. The first kind of authenticity, what the art world refers to as its provenance, is concerned with the correct identification of the origins or authorship of an object or work…[the second kind is about] whether the work is a true expression of the artist’s self, her vision, her ideals, or perhaps her community, culture, or “scene”. What we are concerned with in this case is that there is a divergence between the art that is expressed and what we think the artist ought to be expressing, or is entitled to express.”

“The underlying intuition here is that there is an intimate connection between your upbringing and your identity: that the biographical question “Where are you from?” is a reliable guide to answering the existential question “Where are you coming from?” Further, there’s a normative dimension to this, insofar as your background (including your race, your class, your schooling, even what part of the country you are from) frames the scope and limits of what you can legitimately claim to speak, or sing, or paint, or write about.” [Comment: class distinction and social hierarchy smuggled in another form?]

“This intuition manifests itself all over the place. For example, it is what drives one of the longest-running battles in the culture wars, over “appropriation of voice” and the question of when, if ever, it is permissible for someone of one culture or racial background to speak in the voice of another.” [Comment: long-running assumption that “blacking-up” is politically-incorrect, but what about cripping-up then? ask some]

“…what the [Sonia] Sotomayor incident highlights is the way this type of identity politics quickly turns into a form of status competition, where the relative authenticity of one voice over another results in a game of moral one-upmanship.”

“According to the standard picture of cultural co-optation, what happens is an authentic art form emerges organically out of a given subcultural milieu. Eventually, members of the dominant culture (usually rich white males) come along and appropriate the superficial looks or sounds or techniques of this artform while taking some sandpaper to its rougher edges. This softened version is then sold to the masses as the real thing…What happens if we can’t tell the difference between the original and the fake, or between the authentic and the ersatz?”

Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam “We might think it is a straight-forward, empirical fact whether a painting is an authentic Rembrandt, and the connoisseur is the one who can tell us. But in a world where art can be copied, reworked, and reproduced in an indefinite number of copies, the very idea of the “original” work becomes problematic, and by the end of the twentieth century it had led to a serious crisis of authenticity in the world of art.”

“[Walter] Benjamin argues that there is a straightforward answer to the question of what distinguishes an original work of art from the perfect copy, since even the perfect copy is lacking in one crucial element, namely, its “presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be…the sense of awe or veneration we have for an authentic relic or a work of art is captured by more than just its past. What we value is its aura, which consists in the history and individuality of the object, insofar as it is embedded in what he calls the “fabric of a tradition.” That is, an authentic work of art is an object that was created at a certain time for a specific purpose.”

“In secular cultures, the aura is preserved…by what Benjamin calls “the cult of beauty”, the secularised but quasi-religious worship of art for art’s sake.”

“So to qualify as an authentic work of art, it is essential that it be connected in some way to a community and its rituals, and the further removed an object is from this ritual power, the more the aura withers. This is why Benjamin thought that the early-twentieth century debate over whether photography and film are legitimate forms of art completely missed the point. The real issue was the way in which these had completely transformed the entire nature of art by dissolving the relationships within which the concept of the authentic work made sense. The two main solvents at work in the age of mechanical reproduction are massification and commodification.”

“In the age of secularised, commercialised, mass-marketed entertainment, what plays the role of the ritual in preserving the aura of the work is the artist’s life. Their past, their history, their lifestyle or persona is what provides the ballast that anchors the work in some sort of creative tradition or narrative, saving it from the frothy superficiality of mere commerce.”

“…in the age of digital reproduction, we treat art as a commodity – cheap, ubiquitous, and disrespected.”

Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam“…in the age of digital culture it is not just access to art that has been democratized but its production as well…But when everyone is so busy creating, who has time to consume any of it? In an economy where what is scarce is attention, the spoils will go to the artist who is best able to command it, even if this requires some rather baroque or contrived setups to achieve.”

“Across the artistic spectrum, we are starting to see a turn toward forms of aesthetic experience and production that by their nature can’t be digitized and thrown into the maw of the freeconomy. One aspect of this is the cultivation of deliberate scarcity…Another is the recent hipster trend to treat the city as a playground…This fascination with works that are transient, ephemeral, participatory, and site-specific is part of the ongoing rehabilitation of the old idea of the unique, authentic work having an aura that makes it worthy of our profound respect.”

“But in a reversal of Walter Benjamin’s analysis, the gain in deep artistic appreciation is balanced by a loss in egalitarian principle…now it turns out that authenticity is something for which people are willing to spend great sums of money.”

I wondered what people would have paid for a journey from Hanoi to Saigon in a compartment full of sweaty Vietnamese men…if it was sold as performance art or as an authentic trip unlike any other.

My compartment-mates were a few too many – it seemed that they’d only paid for two berths but were 6 (and maybe more). There was an older man in a uniform and two underlings who looked very uncomfortable. And there were three other men who drank frequently from a jerry can of moonshine, smoked cheap cigarettes, and played cards. All the space under the bottom berths and under the table were taken up with their large pieces of luggage. Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, VietnamThey felt at liberty to sit on my berth as well, inching closer and closer to the ball I’d made of myself next to the window, until I told them to please remove their unwashed selves.

Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, VietnamStill, there were offers of moonshine, and then tea as they sought to deal with their moonshine headaches. I wondered how my perception of the situation would change if this were my weekly commute, or if this was the set of a interactive art installation. Food on the train was rather dismal after the tastiness of Chinese restaurant cars: bao and steamed corn for brekkie: Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnama restaurant car patronised only by train attendants, and where it was made clear that I was unwelcome: Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnamafter which I decided to take my chances with the packed food coming round: Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, VietnamThis was the only station we managed to hop off for some food-shopping: Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, VietnamSo, the glamorous authentic adventure of train travel.

*part of a read-through of Andrew Potter’s The Authenticity Hoax

**also part of a photo-journal of my journey overland from London to Singapore

Sleeper Train from Nanning (China) to Hanoi (Vietnam), and Rousseau’s Romanticism

London -> Harwich -> Hoek of Holland -> Amsterdam (Holland) -> Copenhagen (Denmark) -> Stockholm (Sweden) -> Riga (Latvia) -> Moscow (Russia) -> [Trans-siberian or Trans-mongolian Express] -> Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) -> [Trans-mongolian Express] -> Beijing (China) -> Hong Kong (SAR, China) -> Guangzhou (China) -> Nanning (Guangxi, China) -> Hanoi (Vietnam)

train from Nam Ninh (Nanning, China) to Hanoi, Vietnam
Hanoi, Vietnam
sleeper train from Nanning China to Hanoi, VietnamBid farewell to China and headed down to south-east asia by train. First stop, Hanoi in Vietnam.

Ga Gia Lam, Hanoi, VietnamWalked out Ga Gia Lâm,

Hanoi, Vietnam
Hanoi, Vietnam
Hanoi, Vietnamand following the familiar smoky aroma of pork grilling on the street, was heartened to see the familiar roadside scenes and hear the beeps of motos coming in both directions. I couldn’t decide if I’d consider Copenhagen or Vietnam my third home.

Phở bò, Hanoi, Vietnam
Phở bò shop, Hanoi, Vietnam
Phở bò, Hanoi, VietnamThen, the first person I talked to, a phở bò seller, laughed at my very rusty Vietnamese.

Ho Chi Minh's Tomb. Hanoi, Vietnam
communist poster, Hanoi, VietnamHere are more photos of lovely peaceful Hanoi scenes interspersed quite randomly (ah, can anything be random?) with a continuing read-through of Andrew Potter’s The Authenticity Hoax:

The Authenticity Hoax: A False Return

“The Romantic response to modernity was an attempt to transcend or mitigate the alienating effects of the modern world and recoup what is good and valuable in human life.”

“What [Jean-Jacques] Rousseau came to realise is that the gap between appearance and reality is not just metaphysical (as Plato thought) or epistemological (as it was for Descartes) but that it has a moral dimension as well, since it is the source of all that is wrong with the world. Appearance is the realm of guilt, reality is the domain of innocence.”

“The problem ultimately lies not with men and their bad intentions, but with society and the inevitable friction it introduces into relations between people. Society is necessarily the land of appearances, and it is society that introduces evil into the world, in the form of the quest for prestige, status, wealth, and esteem.” [Comment: (i) here Rousseau apparently discounts any responsibility Adam and Eve might have had for eating that fruit. (ii) this was exactly what i thought too as a kid! need to find those angsty diaries.]

“For Hobbes, the state of nature is a large, multiplayer prisoner’s dilemma, where what is good for everyone, collectively, is undermined by each person’s individual rational calculations. Without a coercive authority to enforce cooperation, each of us retreats into tactics of self-preservation that are collectively self-defeating. It is not human nature, but the structural lack of restrictions on people’s behaviour, that led Hobbes to assert, infamously, that life in the state of nature wold be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Rousseau has a rather different account…as he imagines it, it is rather a congenial sort of place, in which man enjoys a life of isolation, equilibrium, and self-sufficiency.”

communal dancing, Hanoi, Vietnam
communal exercises in a park, Hanoi, Vietnam“In contrast with Hobbes’s monotonic “psychological egoism” (the claim that we are utterly self-interested), Rousseau sees human nature as characterised by two basic drives…self-love (amour de soi) and…pity…Rousseau sees self-love as motivated by nothing more than the need to promote the survival and flourishing of the individual, by satisfying each individual’s rather modest needs…finding food and shelter, little else, but even this minimal amount of self-interest is moderated by the second drive, pity.” [Comment: a just-so story? The Bible’s explanation of human sin in Romans 1 is far more convincing.]

“How did we get from the congenial state of nature to the cutthroat selfishness of modern life?”

Hanoi, Vietnam
Hanoi, Vietnam
Hanoi, Vietnami just like the juxtaposition of this evidence of community in Hanoi and Rousseau’s whine

“Before, social intercourse was transient and fleeting. But then these transient relationships started to congeal into a more settled form of life…inevitably, this nascent society led to the idea of comparison, or what Rousseau calls “relations.”…In becoming aware of how they compare with others, men got into the habit of self-regard, and “thus it was the first look he gave into himself produced the first emotion of pride in him.”…The sense of pride…gives birth to a new motivation, and a new form of self-love, which Rousseau calls amour-propre…it is nothing less than the quest for status, from which all the evils of civilization follow.”

“…the real problem with society is not social alienation, but self-alienation. Once amour-propre comes to dominate the relations between men, everyone becomes obsessed with appearances and with questions such as who sings or dances the best, who is the best-looking, or the strongest, wittiest, or most eloquent. Status becomes the only good worth pursuing…”

“In such a world, deception becomes a necessary survival skill. In a society dictated by relations of vanity and contempt on the part of social superiors, and the envy and shame of inferiors, it becomes imperative to appear better than you actually are. The mediated world of seems is now paramount, and the unmediated and unmasked world of is ceases to matter.”

motorcycle jam, Hanoi, Vietnam
on a motorcycle, Hanoi, Vietnam“When it comes to coping with the downside of the modern world, there are two lines of approach. We can try to eliminate the causes of our problems or, alternatively, we can work toward mitigating the effects. That is, we can see about changing society and eliminating competition and inequality or we can focus on building stronger, more self-sufficient individuals within the sphere of modern life. As it turned out, Rousseau thought the second approach had the best chance of success…”

“…Rousseau’s rather dismal account of civilisation…had considerable uptake among his contemporaries. Characteristic of the neo-Rousseauian genre is the work of …Dom Deschamps, who dreamt of a world free of the petty jealousies and enviousness that arose out of prideful men competing with one another in a market economy. In a passage that makes…the Khmer Rouge and the Taliban seem urbane in comparison, Deschamps proposed a world where intellectuals would be banned and everyone would live together in a hut, “work together at simple tasks, eat vegetarian food together, and sleep together in one big bed of straw. No books, no writing, no art: all that would be burned.”…Modern civilization is alienating, while primitive societies promise a return to our lost unity and natural wholeness, where we can avoid the status competition and raw commercialisation of society and embed ourselves in a true community based on simple, nonexploitative relationships. In this view, the search for our lost authenticity is essentially an exercise in retrieval, as we hearken back to our own premodern past.”

“If contemporary evidence is anything to go by, there is nothing peaceful, congenial, or even terribly solitary about tribal life. Instead, it is a world of “despotic chiefs, absurd beliefs, revolting cruelty, appalling poverty, horrifying diseases, and homicidal religious fanaticism” (a state of affairs which has been almost completely eradicated from the modern world).” [Comment: this sort of bunk thinking is truly alive in the present world. Recent examples include the refusal to vaccinate children for measles due to misinformation about children’s “natural immunity” and allegations that it causes autism (what’s wrong with autism? an autistic writer then asked).]

“…a more charitable reading of Rousseau is to think of his state of nature as a “regulative ideal” that is unattainable in practice but that an be used to evaluate actual social institutions and relationships and to measure our progress toward a more egalitarian and less exploitative society.” [Comment: but surely if the basis of the theory is inconsistent with facts, then the purported goodness of such an ideal might not be valid.]

street-side meat seller, Hanoi, Vietnam
street-side meat-griller. Hanoi, Vietnam“…on the living tree of Rousseau’s intellectual descendants, there is one group that has enthusiastically adopted this tunnel vision and developed it into a root-and-branch condemnation of the modern world…Let us call the people who seriously foresee the coming apocalypse “declinists,” and their animating philosophy “declinism”…the rights-based politics of liberal individualism, combined with the free-market economy, have served to undermine local attachments and communitarian feelings, leading us to seek meaning in the shallow consumerism and mindless entertainment that is leading us to ruin.”

“In order to recover from this alienation and restore our lost authentic wholeness, we need to learn “the grammar of harmony”, restore our lost “balance”, and achieve “organic order”, by inventing technologies that “work with the grain of Nature rather than against it.”…It is typical of this genre of critical declinism that any positive programme must remain unstated, and any concessions to the benefits that have accrued to humanity over the past hundred years or so must be grudgingly downplayed or even denied.”

Hanoi, Vietnam
Hanoi, Vietnam“…the central concern of Rousseau’s philosophical project is to distinguish what is natural from what is artificial in the state of men in society. He knows that civilization deforms human nature, but the precise contours of that deformation are unclear.”

“And so the popular, primitivist view of Rousseau’s ambition is mistaken: instead of looking for some sort of modernity-free sanctuary somewhere in the world or in our distant past, he proposed that we look inward and find our authentic self by attending to our most basic, spontaneous, and powerful feelings and emotions. In this view, the authentic person is someone who is in touch with their deepest feelings, whose emotional life is laid bare…Who am I?…Je sens mon coeur…”I feel my heart”…”I truly am what I feel myself to be.””

Bún Bò Nam Bộ 67 Hàng Điếu, Hanoi, Vietnam
Bún Bò Nam Bộ 67 Hàng Điếu, Hanoi, VietnamBún Bò Nam Bộ, 67 Hàng Điếu – my heart says,”Yummy tum-tum, this is delicious”

“The truth is an elusive beast, and one that ultimately Rousseau does not think is worth pursuing…As he writes in his Confessions:”I have only one faithful guide on which I can count: the succession of feelings that have marked the development of my being…I may omit or transpose facts, but I cannot go wrong about what I have felt or about what my feelings have led me to do.”

“He takes the Cartesian search for certainty and completely upends it, so where Descartes concluded that the search for truth could only begin with an indubitable fact (“I am, I exist”), Rousseau says…truth begins with the indubitability of emotions, and only once you know how you feel can you make any progress.”

rattan goods seller, Hanoi, Vietnam
rickshaw riders, Hanoi, Vietnam
overladen vehicle stuck in traffic, Hanoi, Vietnam“Authenticity becomes redefined as the ongoing process of filtering our experiences through our most deeply felt emotions and constantly interpreting and reinterpreting our lives until we find a story that is uniquely our own.”
Huu Tiep Lake and the downed B-52. Hanoi, Vietnam
business tourists and a train track. Hanoi, Vietnam“…it firmly establishes the quest for the authentic as an artistic enterprise. Being true to yourself, in the sense that Polonius intended it, is now a lifelong creative project from which no one is exempt, and it plants the solitary artist at the center of our moral understanding.”

colourful laquered coconut shell bowls, Hanoi, Vietnam
pop-up greeting cards, Hanoi, Vietnam
iPho, Hanoi, Vietnam“This is the Romantic turn in the modern worldview, heralding the start of a backlash against science, rationalism, and commerce. The authentic individual is one who disengages from the deforming forces of society and looks inward, drawing inspiration from the murky depths of the creative self.”

“…it was Rousseau who launched the first serious volley in the culture wars…the dispute between passion and reason, art and commerce, the individual and society, the bohemian and the bourgeois. To be bourgeois is to be alienated from your authentic self, which is just another way of saying that you’ve allowed your creativity to atrophy in the name of comfort and security. You’ve sold out, in other words, and the only way to get your edge back is to become a bohemian, a non-conformist, a solitary rebel at odds and out of step with the main-stream.”

shopkeepers, Hanoi, Vietnam
bamboo sellers, Hanoi, Vietnam
men drinking coffee, Hanoi, Vietnam“An authentic person is one who, almost by definition, rejects popular tastes, thoughts, opinions, styles, and morals.”

Thereby tripping themselves (their real selves?) over.
*part of a read-through of Andrew Potter’s The Authenticity Hoax

**also part of a photo-journal of my journey overland from London to Singapore