The Lay Philosopher

A Reflection on Anon (2018)

On the night of 5 May 2018, I was engrossed in watching Kiwi screenwriter, producer, and director Andrew Niccol’s latest dystopian /noir sci-fi thriller, Anon the principal characters being played by Clive Owen and Amanda Seyfried. Own plays a certain Sal Frieland, “detective in a world with no privacy, ignorance, or anonymity; where everyone’s lives are transparent, traceable, and recorded by the authorities; where crime almost ceases to exist.” Seyfried, on the other hand, plays a certain anonymous girl – outside the prying eyes of the algorithmic dictatorship, of course till she’s briefly de-anonymized. Hence, the name The Girl and Anon in the IRC chatroom.

 The everyday lives of the inhabitants of this fictional republic of ubiquitous algorithm, comparable to Orwell’s omnipresent and all-pervasive and intrusive, Big Brother, is dominated by excessive, an almost complete reliance on Big Data, a quotidian aggregate of metadata or in the form of metatrails, a set of of metadata fragments left here and there as well as consumed to a certain end. In this age, every hunch, every speculation, every articulation and every decisions on a backdrop of certain sets of beliefs is dictated by an Augmented Reality, a parallax reality that combines the evolutionary reality we used to know and a massive analytical power of a centralized Artificial Intelligence (AI), that is controlled by the human brain using the eyes as the interface through which Big Data is aggregated, visualized and shared. Policemen, rather the detectives, of the likes of Sal Frieland, are not the everyday bobbies we used to know but sleuths with an advanced know-how of cybernetics, a skill-set they use to predict and to analyze crimes.To some extent, Frieland resembles the philosophical policemen we stumble upon G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday:

“The work of the philosophical policeman is at once bolder and more subtle than that of the ordinary detective. The ordinary detective goes to pot-houses to arrest thieves; we go to artistic tea-parties to detect pessimists. The ordinary detective discovers from a ledger or a diary that a crime has been committed. We discover from a book of sonnets that a crime will be committed. We have to trace the origin of those dreadful thoughts that drive men on at last to intellectual fanaticism and intellectual crime.”

One distinction that strikes us in Anon, is the prevalence of a basic contradiction – a bitter enmity – between those who would like to impose Algorithmic Dictatorship, granting the denizens with a legally sanctioned digital existence and those who refuse to be part of the algorithmic nightmare, the Anons, with their provocative motto DFE – Delete Fucking Everything – thereby evading an army cyber stalkers – euphemistically, Tech Specialists or technically, Hackers.

In Anon, one theme stands out most – as has previously been postulated by Yuval Noah Harari in his Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow as his public lectures and keynote addresses – that in the foreseeable future with modest certainty of course, “Who Controls the Data, Controls The Future!”, which points to a future where “human decision-making processes, accountability, empathy, trust and even consciousness be impacted by the technological revolution and the rise of artificial intelligence?”. The emotional and cognitive processes of homo sapiens will be determined by the availability or the scarcity there of AI aided data aggregation, analysis and interpretation and as well as who controls the data. Class struggle for the control, distribution and manipulation of data and the perceptions, belief systems and decision making processes of the human race are part of this futuristic society. The boundary between what is real and what is counterfeit, what is tangible and what is intangible is determined not by the age-old notion of empiricism, that “all knowledge is based on experience derived from the senses”, rather by the dogmatic belief – elevated to the status of an authoritarian ideology, that seems to stay with us till the proverbial kingdom come – that all knowledge, all experience is predicated on the data collected through the artificially enhanced, susceptible to corruption (through hacking) bionic optical sensors that supplant the biological eye that we used to know.

The overall crises in the inability to establish causality human intelligence, especially in the area of the most debatable of human proclivities, that is privacy – as in the right to descent anonymity is best encapsulated by the ending scene in the movie, between The Girl and Frieland:

 

Frieland: The more you try to hide,the more attention you attract.
                 Why is it so important that nobody knows you?
                You get rid of other people’s secrets. What’s yours?
The Girl: Does there have to be one?
Frieland: Everyone has something to hide.
The Girl:That’s what you do.
                What you look for every day of your life.
                Why you’ll never understand.
               It’s not that I have something to hide…
               I have nothing I want you to see.

 A recurring theme in the privacy debate, that Niccol has succinctly stated in his recent interview with Thrillist mag:

“That’s the false choice we’re always given: If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.”

In conclusion, despite all this thought experiment not making sense to the vast majority of the people in parts of the world where Digital Subsistence Farming – a la Subsistence Farming – is a perennial fact in tandem with the religious adherence the more often than not imprecise forecasts of so many scientists, as depressing as it sounds or is, the looming threat of albeit gloomy world of AI-ruled regimes will finally come. Of course, all this depends on whether one is closely following – heeding to the clarion calls of the mavens – who at times, tend to deliver their cautionary tales in the most jovial of terms.

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Peter Frankopan: The Silk Road is once more the centre of the world

Successful empires and kingdoms are good at building infrastructure and sharpening the best ideas. The inscription along the magnificent colonnade above the James A Farley building in central Manhattan, the largest post office in the United States, reads: ‘Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.’ Herodotus wrote the words 2,500 years ago, to describe the ancient Persians – who were always on the lookout for innovative technologies and ideas that made it easier to administer their great empire. Getting messages quickly and reliably from A to B in the ancient world was no less important than it is today.

The instant communications made possible by recent technological changes should not make us susceptible to the breathless commentary about globalisation as something new. For more than two millennia, news and information, goods and products, ideas and beliefs have flowed through networks linking the Pacific coast of China with the Atlantic coasts of North Africa and Europe, the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf with the Mediterranean and Scandinavia. Since the late 19th century, these networks have been known as the Silk Roads.

For most, the name conjures an exotic air of a distant past, but not a history. The history of ideas has not admitted the Silk Roads as it links past to present in a chain from polytheism and democracy in Ancient Greece to the arrival of Christianity in Europe, which led to the Renaissance, paving the way for the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment gave birth to political democracy and the industrial revolution, the logical culmination of which is the US and its creed of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Historians challenge and reshape individual sections of this story; but its essential components and trajectory remain secure.

If history, as the saying goes, is written by the winners, it might be why the world, especially the world from the Eastern Mediterranean to the Pacific Ocean seems so unsettlingly difficult to understand.

It is no coincidence that the lion’s share of challenges and opportunities around us narrow down to the old Silk Road. We are witnessing the world’s centre of gravity return to the axis on which it spun for millennia. When viewed from the vantage point of the Silk Roads, the familiar narrative begins to quiver, history itself begins to shift. In fact, to understand the world, the best place to look is not in the centre of the West nor in the heart of the East, but on the old Silk Road where the two come together.

The world’s great religions burst into life in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, as well as Iran, Iraq, southern Russia and the countries of the Levant and the Caucasus. Here Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism jostled, borrowed and competed with each other. It is here where language groups collided, where Indo-European, Semitic and Sino-Tibetan tongues wagged alongside those speaking Altaic, Turkic and Caucasian. Great empires rose and fell here, and the ripple effects were felt thousands of miles away.

The nations of the Silk Roads are sometimes called ‘developing countries’, but they are actually some of the world’s most highly developed countries, the very crossroads of civilisation, in advanced states of disrepair. These countries lie at the centre of global affairs: they have since the beginning of history. Running across the spine of Asia, they form a web of connections fanning out in every direction, routes along which pilgrims and warriors, nomads and merchants have travelled, goods and produce have been bought and sold, and ideas exchanged, adapted and refined. They have carried not only prosperity, but also death and violence, disease and disaster.

The Silk Roads are the world’s central nervous system, connecting otherwise far-flung peoples and places. These networks are invisible to the naked eye – just as the body’s veins and arteries lie beneath the skin. Understanding the Silk Road and its connections provides an essential corrective to established narratives of the past, and more. Understanding central Asia’s role helps developments make more sense not only across Asia but in Europe, the Americas and Africa. It allows us to see patterns and links, causes and effects that remain invisible if one looks only at Europe, or North America.

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 Detail of a Catalan nautical map representing the Asia of the 13th century with a caravan on the way to Cathay on the silk road crossed by Marco Polo. Photo by Leemage/Corbis

Most scholars have neglected these networks for three reasons. First, they challenge the familiar, triumphalist story of the rise of the West. Second, historians today work in crowded and competitive fields requiring increasingly narrow and precise specialisations. To say something new means opening a new field of investigation – which requires turning over a small stone, previously assumed to be unimportant, and assessing what lies beneath. Revolutionising history on a grand scale calls for a braver and more ambitious approach.

Finally, there’s the simple fact that Western scholars’ ability to follow historical connections can be limited by the lack of knowledge of central Asian languages. Few students (and scholars) are able to read languages of the East in combinations that allow grand exchanges to be studied in primary sources. For those lucky enough to be able to study classical languages, Latin is the cornerstone; Greek is taken by a tiny number of students, which means that the crown jewels of the past lie ignored and undisturbed. Medieval Greek literature – such as histories by Procopius, Anna Komnene or George Akropolites – are known to few modern Western scholars. Yet they are invaluable sources for the Byzantine empire, which flourished for a thousand years and is all but forgotten today.

Western scholarly knowledge fares even worse with the Slavonic world. Glorious works such as The Russian Primary Chronicle (850-1110) and The Chronicle of Novgorod (1016-1471) are

Most scholars have neglected these networks for three reasons. First, they challenge the familiar, triumphalist story of the rise of the West. Second, historians today work in crowded and competitive fields requiring increasingly narrow and precise specialisations. To say something new means opening a new field of investigation – which requires turning over a small stone, previously assumed to be unimportant, and assessing what lies beneath. Revolutionising history on a grand scale calls for a braver and more ambitious approach.

Finally, there’s the simple fact that Western scholars’ ability to follow historical connections can be limited by the lack of knowledge of central Asian languages. Few students (and scholars) are able to read languages of the East in combinations that allow grand exchanges to be studied in primary sources. For those lucky enough to be able to study classical languages, Latin is the cornerstone; Greek is taken by a tiny number of students, which means that the crown jewels of the past lie ignored and undisturbed. Medieval Greek literature – such as histories by Procopius, Anna Komnene or George Akropolites – are known to few modern Western scholars. Yet they are invaluable sources for the Byzantine empire, which flourished for a thousand years and is all but forgotten today.

Western scholarly knowledge fares even worse with the Slavonic world. Glorious works such as The Russian Primary Chronicle (850-1110) and The Chronicle of Novgorod (1016-1471) are all but unknown. The same is true of Arabic histories, poems and philosophical treatises, with the works of Muqaddasī, Ibn Faḍlān and Mas􏰀ūdī almost entirely overlooked. The great works of Persian poetry and prose – such as the epic Shāhnāma of Firdawsī or the Ta’rīx-i Jahān-Gušā of Juvaynī, which relates the history of the Mongols – remain a mystery, while texts in Tamil, Hindi, and Chinese – such as the Shi Ji, written more than two thousand years ago by Sima Qian – fare no better. And yet, as King Wu-Ling, ruler of the Zhao state in northern China and beyond more than two thousand years ago understood, it was important to keep up with the times: ‘[A] talent for following the ways of yesterday,’ he declared in 307 BC, ‘is not sufficient to improve the world of today.’ Our television adverts and commentators now constantly invoke the globalised state of the world. It is past time to rethink how we look at the past.

Europe was irrelevant to global history until around 1500 AD. For all the resources enlisted in studying Athenian democracy and Greek art and architecture, the Greeks themselves looked only to the East. For the ancient Greeks, there was one enemy: Persia. When Alexander the Great set out to conquer the world, there was no question which direction he would turn. He had no interest whatsoever in the Mediterranean and what is now Italy, France, Germany and Britain – countries whose built environments owe a great deal to the presumed link with antiquity. All that mattered was taking control of the networks weaving across Asia: the Silk Roads.

The same was true of Rome. Courses on Julius Caesar’s invasion of Britain, the Asterix comic books and the film Gladiator (2000) give the misimpression that Rome’s centre of gravity lay in Europe. Instead, Rome looked to Africa and Asia – above all to Egypt, where the rich banks of the Nile produced crops that could feed an empire, and on the trade routes through the Persian Gulf, across the Indian Ocean, and overland across Asia. So extensive were connections between Rome and the East that the coinage of local rulers in the Indus Valley was soon being re-fashioned to look like and have the same denominations as those in Rome itself.

all but unknown. The same is true of Arabic histories, poems and philosophical treatises, with the works of Muqaddasī, Ibn Faḍlān and Mas􏰀ūdī almost entirely overlooked. The great works of Persian poetry and prose – such as the epic Shāhnāma of Firdawsī or the Ta’rīx-i Jahān-Gušā of Juvaynī, which relates the history of the Mongols – remain a mystery, while texts in Tamil, Hindi, and Chinese – such as the Shi Ji, written more than two thousand years ago by Sima Qian – fare no better. And yet, as King Wu-Ling, ruler of the Zhao state in northern China and beyond more than two thousand years ago understood, it was important to keep up with the times: ‘[A] talent for following the ways of yesterday,’ he declared in 307 BC, ‘is not sufficient to improve the world of today.’ Our television adverts and commentators now constantly invoke the globalised state of the world. It is past time to rethink how we look at the past.

Europe was irrelevant to global history until around 1500 AD. For all the resources enlisted in studying Athenian democracy and Greek art and architecture, the Greeks themselves looked only to the East. For the ancient Greeks, there was one enemy: Persia. When Alexander the Great set out to conquer the world, there was no question which direction he would turn. He had no interest whatsoever in the Mediterranean and what is now Italy, France, Germany and Britain – countries whose built environments owe a great deal to the presumed link with antiquity. All that mattered was taking control of the networks weaving across Asia: the Silk Roads.

The same was true of Rome. Courses on Julius Caesar’s invasion of Britain, the Asterix comic books and the film Gladiator (2000) give the misimpression that Rome’s centre of gravity lay in Europe. Instead, Rome looked to Africa and Asia – above all to Egypt, where the rich banks of the Nile produced crops that could feed an empire, and on the trade routes through the Persian Gulf, across the Indian Ocean, and overland across Asia. So extensive were connections between Rome and the East that the coinage of local rulers in the Indus Valley was soon being re-fashioned to look like and have the same denominations as those in Rome itself.

With peace and prosperity the staple of the empire, new elites began to satisfy their appetites for the fine things in life. None of them came from Europe. The luxuries that counted were all from the East, whether that meant spices and silks, or exotic sexual experiences. Not everyone approved. It was scandalous that women wore fabrics that showed their curves and left nothing to the imagination, wrote the prudish Seneca. Pliny lamented how much money was leaking out of the Roman economy – and into the hands of others, he noted: hundred of millions of sesterii, and all heading East. Recent coin finds suggest he was not far wrong.

Ideas flowed along the same trade routes as goods and commodities. Europeans think of Christianity as theirs, but the religion flowed out of Palestine once missionaries, after the time of Jesus, fanned out in all directions. In fact, Christianity spread quicker and took hold more effectively in Asia than in the Mediterranean and across Europe – not surprisingly, given that the religion was centred on Jerusalem and the Holy Land, and rose within the context and physical setting of the Middle East. Jesus’s teachings spread rapidly across Asia, quickly gaining followers as evangelists, preachers and merchants spread the message along the trade routes. It was not long before there were bishoprics dotted all over what is now Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and even China – which had its first bishop in place before Britain. Until at least 1300, there were more Christians in Asia than in Europe. Then, and again now, Christianity is an Asian religion.

The rise of Islam in the seventh century brought change. The followers of Muhammad quickly recognised that the best path to conquest lay in securing the principal communication routes that crisscrossed Asia. The Arab armies proved singularly successful in taking control of these crucial networks, doing so first to protect existing gains, and then using them to fan out to extend their authority elsewhere. The first Muslims proved highly tolerant of other faiths, especially Christianity and Judaism, to the extent that Muhammad’s earliest successors not only took trouble to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to pray at the site where Jesus Christ had been buried and rose from the dead, but they could also be found in tears when learning that Christians and Jews were converting to Islam. The first Muslims kept themselves to themselves, striking deals that guaranteed the safety of the ‘People of the Book’.

The early Muslim’s soft touch helps explain how they built a vast empire, spanning from Spain to the Himalayas, in just over half a century. The new world emerging in time became self-confident, tolerant – and extremely wealthy. Peace and prosperity brought economic growth as resources from all corners poured into the heart of the world. Trade flourished. Damascus (in modern Syria), Mosul and Samarra (in modern Iraq), Merv (modern Turkmenistan) and other cities boomed. A new capital was built as a trophy at the very centre of the mesh of connections, called the City of Peace. Today it is known as Baghdad.

Almost inconceivable wealth flowed into these cities. With no need to fund armies, expenditure went above all on luxuries. Central Asia, China, and India exported silks, ceramics, spices and textiles in vast quantities to keep up with the demands of the new rich. The appetites for luxuries catalysed a wave of advances in porcelain- and ceramics-production techniques. In China, kilns were developed in the 8th and 9th centuries that could fire 15,000 pieces at a time, all for export to the Persian Gulf and the cities of the Silk Roads.

But the profits made on the Silk Road were not all frittered away on whims and trophy assets. Funding flowed into the arts. From mosques to madrassas, from libraries to bathhouses, magnificent buildings arose. Scholars received patronage enabling extraordinary advances in sciences. Ibn Sīnā (better known as Avicenna), al-Bīrūnī, al-Khwārizmi and other scholars became giants of learning. A thousand years ago, the Oxfords and Cambridges, the Harvards and Yales were in Balkh, Bukhara, Herat and Samarkand, places now largely forgotten and confined to obscurity.

For a long time, much of Europe descended into a period so bleak it’s called the Dark Ages. For hundreds of years, little of note was produced. Europe was a cultural and intellectual backwater, a stagnation that perplexed Arabic writers. Once, the Greeks had been pioneers in mathematics, astronomy and science, they noted. Why had their intellectual life and scholarship all but collapsed? Some had little doubt what was to blame. The problem, suggested one Arab author, was religion. As soon as the Greeks and Romans had adopted Christianity, their appetite for knowledge had disappeared. Blind faith ‘effaced the signs of learning, eliminated its traces and destroyed its paths’. The fundamentalists were not Muslims, but Christians. The open, curious and generous were based in the East – not in Europe. As one author put it, when it came to writing about non-Islamic lands, ‘we did not enter them [in our book] because we see no use whatsoever in describing them’.

By the 9th century, Europe began to rise from the shadows. The stimulus came from the Silk Roads. An influx of silver from the East kick-started the European economies and prompted the development of distinctive and unique elite structures. Feudalism owed much to the way in which European societies controlled their assets – and to the ability of aristocrats to dominate the peasantry. The root cause of these techniques came from rising engagement with the wealth of the Arab world. Unable to offer much by way of trade, the Europeans turned to one plentiful commodity that could unlock waves of silver from the East: slaves. These were not brought from Africa, as happened after Columbus’s expeditions across the Atlantic, but from Ireland and Britain, and above all from the Slavonic populations of eastern and central Europe. Human trafficking in the early Middle Ages was fundamental to the rise of the West.

So too was the development of religious violence as a political tool. As is also obvious today, those who commit acts of terror while claiming to be doing God’s work find audiences equally receptive and horrified. This was nowhere better epitomised than by the Crusades, which saw large numbers of knights seeking to do their Christian duty, while at the same time doing well from establishing a colony to protect the Holy Land. Not all who took part were misty-eyed, or religiously minded. City states such as Pisa, Genoa and Venice kept a close eye on the bottom line, realising that there was much to be gained by securing a foothold in the Levant that gave them better access to the goods that were in growing demand back at home. Ultimately, devotion took second place to cold reality – for despite holding Jerusalem for the best part of a century, the Christians of Europe proved unwilling and unable to secure it properly, and withdrew from the Holy Land altogether. There were better and easier ways to tap into the Silk Roads than fighting for the benefits – as Marco Polo was quick to point out.

The burning desire to get closer to the source of India and China’s legendary riches spurred the age of European discovery. Christopher Columbus did not try to sail around the world to see if it was flat, or to find out what lay across a seemingly endless ocean: his journey intended to find a new route to Asia and a way to access trade networks that might bring untold riches to the rulers of Castille and Aragon in Spain. With Vasco da Gama setting out just five years later to achieve the same ends, the shape of the world changed dramatically: before the 1490s, countries such as Spain and Portugal, the Netherlands and Britain found themselves at the wrong end of the world; it was not long before they found themselves at its centre.

The rise of Western Europe into a group of powers controlling empires across the globe required multiple causes. These include increasing calorie consumption in different parts of the continent, fertility levels, environmental and climate change, sophistication of financial institutions and the exploitation of fortunate local circumstances. Importantly, however, the propensity for violence was also a key element to the success of Spain and Portugal, the Dutch Republic, France and Britain in ruling over land and sea. They refined their facility with violence in the incessant contest against one another for power within Europe. The rhythm of intra-European warfare was relentless, facilitating rapid advances in ballistics, firearms and weapons production. Not all the West’s conquests abroad resulted directly from the use of force: in some cases, such as in Bengal in the 1750s, local rulers hired Westerners as mercenaries, with disastrous long-term consequences when those recruited to help found it impossible to resist becoming masters.

That changed the balance of the Silk Roads, for colonies were seen as soft centres that could provide cash back to the capitals of Europe. Some resisted violently – above all in North America, where the impetus for independence came directly from the way in which other parts of the world were being treated. If Bengalis could be allowed to starve to death, reasoned the Founding Fathers in the United States, then why not those in other regions too? What good was it to be a colony if there was no representation in government back in London? It is no coincidence that tea from India being dumped into Boston harbour proved the symbolic start of the War of Independence: the Silk Roads loom large across all continents and in imaginations the world over.

In the 19th century, as rivalries between the great European powers sharpened, the spectre of control over the heart of Asia proved fiercest of all. British fears over Russian advances towards India, the jewel in the empire’s crown, made nerves jangle, as did the security of the crucially important Persian Gulf, through which large volumes of business and trade flowed back towards London. There was great concern about the way in which Britain was losing position in the East – coupled with the growing realisation that Britain had no cards left on the table to play. The build-up of pressure and the limitations of London’s options proved decisive in the decision to go to war in 1914. The assassination of Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo provided the spark; but the tinder had been laid in Asia. If Britain failed to take up arms, reasoned senior diplomats in the weeks before the First World War began, it risked losing its empire.

The carnage of the Great War led directly to the next. Germany suffered acutely during and after the war from a lack of foodstuffs, something that made a great impression on a young solider named Adolf Hitler. Two decades on, as Europe lurched towards yet another major conflict, Hitler became obsessed by food supplies. It was essential, he told a League of Nations official in Danzig, for Germany to be able to feed itself. This was essential, he said, ‘so that no one is able to starve us again like in the last war’.

The solution lay in the East: on the steppes of Ukraine and southern Russia, home to wheat fields that were meant to serve as the grain basket of the Third Reich for centuries to come. This goal underpinned the invasion of the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941, with plans drawn up by German agronomists who divided the USSR into a ‘surplus’ zone that produced much, and a ‘deficit zone’ that only consumed – and was to be condemned to starvation. It did not take long before it became clear that things were going very wrong. Faced with severe food shortages, the decision was taken to start cutting calories in the rations of prisoners of war and inmates of detention camps that had been set up across Poland and elsewhere. Within weeks, it was decided to cut food supplies to a minimum – and to begin killing those who were too weak to work. Thus the Final Solution was born.

The story of the second half of the 20th century and the first 15 years of the 21st has seen the Silk Roads retain their centrality. Oil, described by one US diplomat in the 1940s as ‘the greatest single prize in all history’, is one reason behind the resilience of the Silk Roads. Another, however, was the Cold War, which prompted the US and the USSR to clash repeatedly across the countries of the Silk Roads, vying for position in Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan, while attempting to improve ties with China, India, Pakistan, and Turkey.

Now, it is possible to follow the disastrous interventions since the attacks of 9/11 in Iraq and Afghanistan in greater detail than normally possible for such imperial initiatives. The accelerated declassification of documents by a US government keen to show it has nothing to hide, and the large-scale exposure of secret papers by both WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden, have made this scrutiny possible. A devastating picture has emerged of how bad decisions were made (albeit often under great pressure), as has a disjointed, often ignorant and, in aggregate, incoherent approach to Central Asia, the heart of the world.

As the world faces uncertainty and choices of massive import, it is worth reflecting on the shift of the centre of gravity back to its long-time home, the Silk Roads. One need only look as far as China’s signature foreign policy – the ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative – to see just how high the cost is of ignoring the countries linking East and West. Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Iran, as well as Russia, India, Pakistan, and Iraq, are rich in fossil fuels and minerals, while China dominates the world markets in rare earths – elements such as beryllium and dysprosium, which are essential for the manufacture of everything from laptops and smartphones to solar cells and batteries for hybrid cars. The countries that form part of the ‘One Road, One Belt’ initiative make up some two-thirds of the world’s population.

These states are today making ever closer ties – which include massive infrastructure projects, such as new deep-water ports, high-speed rail links, and new super-fast 3G networks, as well as oil and gas pipelines. But cooperation extends beyond this to educational projects and cultural initiatives that celebrate common histories and exchanges of the past. Many of those exchanges, of course, did not involve Europe or the West – and the ones that did were not always entirely positive in their impact. It is more important than ever, therefore, to understand the history of the Silk Roads and also to understand how our own past looks from this perspective. The results are often both illuminating and surprising.

As the Silk Roads rise again, it is time to look once more at history, and time for a new narrative of the world. Herodotus would have approved.

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6717336Peter Frankopan is the director of the Oxford Centre for Byzantine Research and a senior research fellow at Worcester College, Oxford. His most recent book is The Silk Roads: A New History of the World (2015).

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Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua, born December 5, 2017. The long-tailed macaques are the first primates to be cloned using the somatic cell nuclear transfer technique, which theoretically allows for a limitless amount of clones to be produced. Photo: Qiang Sun and Mu-ming Poo, Chinese Academy of Sciences.
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Catherine Malabou: Repetition, Revenge, Plasticity

The question of “superhumanity” presupposes that there might exist something other than the human in the human, a presupposition that might be as old as humanity itself. Such an idea has known many returns. It has continuously been addressed within the philosophical tradition, and indeed, it is returning again today.

In October of 1968, at a conference in New York called “Philosophy and Anthropology,” Jacques Derrida gave a keynote address entitled “The Ends of Man.” In it, he insisted on how difficult it is to open a space between, on the one hand, the innumerable differences that hide behind the word “human”—national, ethnic, cultural, gender—and on the other, the universality of the term’s overt signification. Addressing the organizers of the conference, Derrida wrote,

At a given moment, in a given, political, and economic context, some national groups have judged it possible and necessary to organize an international encounter, to present themselves, or to be represented in such [an] encounter by their national identity (such, at least, as it is assumed by the organizers of the colloquium), and to determine in such encounters their proper difference, or to establish relations between their respective differences.

Fifty years later, we are confronted with the same issue. I am necessarily trapped within the paradoxical injunction of articulating my position from a particular place, the perspective of my own culture and identity—that is as a French, or at least European, philosopher—which prevents me from universalizing my discourse, and yet nonetheless hope I to develop something that can be understood by an unknown audience.

If I explicitly present my discourse as a repetition, a reiteration of Derrida’s, it is because I intend to demonstrate that the question of the human is linked with repetition in a very specific way. This is not to say that repetition is specifically human. There are of course innumerable occurrences of animal repetition, as well as many cases of nonliving repetition: automatisms, mechanisms, etc. So the human is not the repetitive or repeating character per se, but its relationship to recurrence is perhaps unique, and can be formulated as follows: the human does not exist prior to repetition, but is designed by it. The human is the product, not the origin, of repetition. What, then, is this plastic operation, according to which fashioning has priority over being? Can it be understood as a mold for the superhuman?

The inhuman (the historical problem of evil), the nonhuman (animal or machine), or more recently, the transhuman and the post-human are all different versions of the same idea, that the human might contain its own alterity. We can therefore say that the human is that which repeats itself beyond, and perhaps even in spite of, all attempts to challenge or deconstruct its essence. The “properly” human relationship to repetition is thus always at the same time a debasement of any “proper” essence of the human.

To return briefly to the title of Derrida’s lecture, we should read the meaning of “end” to be double, both as disappearance and accomplishment. The human is achieved in its disappearance, in becoming inhuman, nonhuman, post-human… Such is the apocalyptic nature of the human: its destruction is its truth, whereupon the unity of death and completion, dissolution and achievement, are to be revealed.

Even Derrida himself presented his own talk as a repetition, which follows in the wake of Nietzsche and his proclamation that a new human was coming. This nonhuman human, the “Overman,” was above all else characterized by its plastic quality; it was the incarnation, the very body of plasticity. Yet if there is something specific to the human for Nietzsche, it is precisely what he calls the spirit of revenge. For Nietzsche, revenge is essentially another name for repetition. Revenge, taking revenge, wreaking, meaning to push, drive, herd, pursue, persecute … The human is the only being that seeks revenge after an offense. This should not be confused with, for example, divine punishment, for gods can punish men, but they don’t seek revenge proper. It has nothing to do with struggle or conflict either: animals can fight and kill each other, but it does not occur out of vengeful instinct. Revenge is human, all too human.

The human is a being who cannot forget offense, who cannot erase the past, and constantly ruminates over it. Plasticity, as we know, designates the capacity to concurrently receive and bestow form. Thus one who creates—the artist, for instance—is simultaneously created anew by their work. Yet as we can hear in the words “plasticage” or “plastic,” the putty-like explosive, plasticity also implies the ability to destroy oneself. We can therefore affirm that each creation is at the same time an explosion of a previous form. While an imprint is kept, it becomes difficult to recognize the past in its new identity. Revenge, on the contrary, implies rigidity, incapacity to change, and attachment to sameness. How, then, can repetition be assimilated with plasticity, if it is in essence nonplastic, mechanical, and iterative? If plasticity implies explosion and forgetfulness, can it be linked with repetition?

In order to answer these paradoxes, we first have to inquire where, for Nietzsche, the spirit of revenge and repetition comes from, about which he is adamant: it originates in a relationship to time. The human is the only being for whom time is a spiritual injury. If there is only one thing the human seeks revenge for, it is the passage of time, and thus, of course, finitude. Having to die is the utmost injury. Time is the utmost offense. In this regard, Nietzsche, through Zarathustra, says: “This, yes, this alone is revenge itself: the will’s ill will toward time and its ‘It was.’”

Revenge is not only revenge towards the past, but resentment toward temporality in general. Here, “past” means “passing away.” Revenge is the will’s ill will toward time, toward passing away, toward transiency. Transiency is that against which the will can take no further steps, that against which it constantly collides. There is nothing we can do against time. Finitude is the unpassable obstacle. Life is short, what is done is done. This engenders resentment. We repeat what we cannot change. We repeat because we cannot change. The essence of humanity is to repeat its anger and dispossession; it is always too late. For a god, it is always early. For an animal, time is always now. But for the human, time is a repetition of instants that each say “nevermore.”

Competition, wars, profit, and labor exploitation are all too human, rooted as they are in the vengeful instinct, the rage against transiency and the impossibility to start again, anew. Yet at the same time, humans are constantly trying to escape the spirit of revenge, to emancipate themselves. In democratic states, for example, law is supposed to guarantee the functioning of justice against any private acts of revenge. The birth of written laws and codes in ancient Greece appeared as the triumph of logos and reason over revenge and subterranean authority. Democratic law is still currently perceived as a rational system that opposes personal, unruly ways of settling conflicts. From the perspective of democratic institutions, for instance, vendetta and other modes of revenge are considered uncivilized. We think that law has won, or at the very least should win, over revenge. But in fact, as Nietzsche claims in the second treatise of the Genealogy of Morals, law is not the end of the spirit of revenge, but rather its very accomplishment. Law, Nietzsche writes, is the institution which tries “to sanctify revenge under the name of justice, as if justice were basically simply a further development of a feeling of being injured, and to bring belated respect to emotional reactions generally, all of them, using the idea of revenge.”

Justice is simply a new, more subtle, refined version of revenge. Reason, law, and morals disguise resentment as ideals. Discourse and code serve to conceal haunting bitterness. Yet in spite of being hidden, repetition repeats in the form of retribution, retaliation, punishment, and the like. The ghost of time comes back again. The human is still there. We are humans, seeking revenge for being human.

While condemning humanity to the repetitive spirit of revenge, Nietzsche also points towards a potential for liberation, and the Overman, or Superman, is its name. “For that man be redeemed from revenge—that is for me the bridge to the highest hope and a rainbow after long storms.”

Emancipation from revenge is exposed in the extraordinary chapters of Thus Spoke Zarathustra “On the Vision and the Riddle,” “The Tarantulas,” and “The Great Longing.” Zarathustra begins the last with the words: “O my soul, I taught you to say ‘Today,’ ‘One Day’ and ‘Formerly.’”

Zarathustra teaches his soul to treat time in a non-vengeful way by reforming its relationship with repetition itself: instead of thinking of repetition as the return of the same—that “most abysmal thought”—he learns to recognize that the space for difference it opens. That is, he learns to affirm what is repeated, thus transforming repetition itself. Instead of passively bearing what happens, one can desire it, plastically.

“Redemption,” Heidegger writes, “releases the ill will from its ‘no’ and frees it for a ‘yes.’” To renounce revenge, that which leads to the Overman, implies what Nietzsche calls “active forgetting” (“aktive Vergessenheit”). Yet is it possible for the human to actively forget what it is? Will we ever be liberated, freed from revenge, and thus from our humanity? Will we ever be able to invent a new relationship to time, to law, to justice? If I raise the question of repetition today, it is not only because the human is what repeats itself, but also because repetition has become paradigmatic of contemporary theoretical and institutional practices. Repetition has, in other words, become culturally dominant. More than ever, repetition has become the raw material of our lives. Is this phenomenon conferring more plasticity onto our humanity? Can it achieve our superhumanity?

In the juridical domain, the issue of return has become crucial: as the return of indigenous lands, as reparations and recognition in postcolonial law, as forgiveness for apartheid, as acknowledgment of war crimes, etc. Questions of memory, ancestrality, and genealogy are acute today, as if what comes back, what returns, what needs to be repaired and restituted, were the most urgent of all problems. As Derrida notes, the urge for repetition, for forgiveness and repair, for repentance and redemption, for remembrance in order to forget, to repeat in order not to repeat, has become so strong that it has become transgressive:

The [current] proliferation of [the] scenes of repentance and asking for forgiveness no doubt signifies, among other things, an “il faut” [moral necessity], of amnesis, an “il faut” without limit toward the past. Without limit, because the act of memory, which is also the subject of the auto-accusation, of the “repentance,” of the [court] appearance [comparution], must be carried beyond both legal and national state authority.

Another striking example of the current thematic insistence on repetition is biology. Repetition plays a major role at all levels of contemporary molecular biology, particularly in genetics and epigenetics. Think of stem cells: these nonspecialized cells, present in every important organ of mammalian bodies, have the capacity to transform themselves into any kind of cells. They also can “self-renew” to produce more stem cells. There are two types of stem cells: embryonic and adult. In a developing embryo, stem cells, called “pluripotent” cells, can differentiate into any type of specialized cells. Adult cells are conversely said to be “multipotent,” meaning that they can transform themselves into a limited gamut of specialized cells.

In 2006, Japanese Nobel Prize winner Shinya Yamanaka created pluripotent stem cells (iPS) from multipotent ones, transforming them back into an undifferentiated state and effectively erasing the difference between adult and embryonic stem cells. This example, among others, characterizes the phenomena of what is today known as “stem-cell plasticity.” The entire field of regenerative medicine is based on the possibility of using stem cells to replace injured organs or tissues. The possibility to duplicate, to repeat oneself has replaced other forms of treatment like grafts and transplants. Plastic self-replacement has become the new paradigm.

Artificial intelligence is another example, as its goal is to simulate, that is, to repeat, cognitive operations. I am referring here specifically to the Human Brain Project, a large ten-year scientific research project established in 2013 by Henry Markram.
The Human Brain Project will develop information and communication technology platforms in six main areas—neuronformatics, brain simulation, high-performance computing, medical informatics, neuromorphic computing, and neurorobotics—with the aim of producing a complete and detailed cartography of the human brain. There are other major large-scale brain initiatives around the globe, such as the Japanese Brain/MINDS project, and the Korean Brain Research Institute, and others currently being planned in both China and Taiwan. As a recent report from one brain project puts it, “it takes the world to understand,” and also to simulate, double, and duplicate the functions of, “the brain.”

The issue raised by all these new occurrences of repetition is not, as we too often think, whether we are replaced or augmented by machines, as the post-humanists predict. It is rather the question of whether we are able to deal with this new urgency for repetition without seeking revenge against it or against finitude. Is the post-humanist claim that human beings will become amortal not precisely a sign of such a revengeful tendency? Are we, the superhumans to come, different from post-humans in being able to open ourselves to the future without developing hatred against time, without trying to crucify transiency and passage? Or in other words, is the plasticity that can currently be found everywhere—in aesthetics, medicine, ecology, physics, psychology, neurobiology—actually what it proclaims to be, or does it merely coincide with flexibility, that sham of plasticity? If plasticity entails the power to bestow form, flexibility only designates the capacity to be molded or bent in all directions without resistance. Will the superhuman be plastic, or flexible?

In a wide-ranging discussion on “the end of work,” Derrida cited The End of Work: The Decline of the Global Labor Force and the Dawn of the Post- Market Era by Jeremy Rifkin, which, he said, proclaims that a new revolution is “moving us to the edge of a workerless world.” In a certain sense, the idea of “post-labor” is a plastic occurrence, to the extent that it is the emergence of both a new form of life and a new form of the subject. Nevertheless, Derrida adds that this new form, which is presented as flexibility, entails the layoff of millions of workers, including, for example, “underpaid part-timers” at universities. Is the same crucial ambiguity between plasticity and flexibility at work in the aforementioned examples?

Returning to where we began—the search for an answer to the question of how it is possible to repeat plastically, how repetition changes and transforms what it repeats—we can look to Nietzsche again:

To determine this degree, and therewith the boundary at which the past has to be forgotten if it is not to become the gravedigger of the present, one would have to know exactly how great the plastic power of a man, a people, a culture is: I mean by plastic power the capacity to develop out of oneself in one’s own way, to transform and incorporate into oneself what is past and foreign, to heal wounds, to replace what has been lost, to recreate broken molds.

“To develop out of oneself” and “to recreate broken molds” implies openness to what makes the routine of time explode, that is, the event. But do we really wish for the other to come? Beneath all of the technological novelties of our time, I am not sure “we” actually want novelty. Yet in the trembling openness of this question appears the possibility of sculpting the human to come, that creator of new genealogies, deprived of originary guilt, ready to play anew—that is, to repeat differently.

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Superhumanity: Post-Labor, Psychopathology, Plasticity is a collaboration between the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea and e-flux Architecture.

Catherine Malabou is a French philosopher. She is professor in the Philosophy Department at the Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy (CRMEP) at Kingston University.

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The Lay Philosopher

From Jerkdom to Natural Freedom through Psycho-Linguistic Terror

Since our childhood we grow up being told what to think, what to worship, what political system we should idolize, what achievements are considered success, which people are inferior and which superior, which schools provide us with the best education, which banks pay the highest and enticing interest rate, which professions are “perfect” for us, what foreign languages make us “stand out from the herd”, what set of values really define “our level of civilization”…blah blah blah…

Cutting the crap, it is somehow no surprise that some of us have developed such an incorrigible cavalier attitude over the years growing up in a society that is under an ever present threat of ignorance, fear, indolence, debauchery and wantonness that gradually results not just in our fragmented society’s decadence but its slow obliteration beyond recognition.

It also comes as no surprise that we’ve indulged in an unbearably nihilist fatalism, that the world we hitherto lived in will one day come to a catastrophic end for there’s no one left with the courage and readiness to preserve it. While we display an unflinching zeal in defending the ideas and idols of aliens, we’ve never wondered how far we’ve consigned our existence to the flames. We dread the very mention of the word originality as in aboriginality, for the world constructed by vanquishers and usurpers is an epitome of the highest level of imagination and creativity, so we’ve been led to believe. As the Russian nihilist writer Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote in his crème de la crème novel The Idiot:

“Lack of originality, everywhere, all over the world, from time immemorial, has always been considered the foremost quality and the recommendation of the active, efficient and practical man.”

As can repetitively be witnessed in the novel, the protagonist Prince Lef Nikolaievitch Mushkin is the most despised and satirised character because of his unrelenting originality, his insistence on not paying any attention of whatever sorts to the perpetual lamentations of the gullible masses orbiting about him trapped in their irresistible and uncontrollable compulsion to repeat others, the so-called are the “expressions of a genteel and civilized society“. And this is what brings us to the beginning of this essay – this self-righteous and inconsiderate mimesis with infinitesimal shades of kitsch to be admired by the dilettante is not self-contained it rather is contagious. And that’s the principal reason we’ve to be reminded day in and day out that we should not believe in the “gospels” of the ironically self-proclaimed “good society” that doesn’t know (1) what it wants & (2) yet strives hard to convince others of the need to “realize their dreams”, “be successful”, “be this, be that”. This by way of a digression brings us to Slavoj Žižek’s psychoanalytic concept of “forgiveness”. Though unorthodox, his bold proposition in his “For They Know Not What They Do: Enjoyment as a Political Factor” that a society should not be forgiven just because it feigns ignorance is what we should exactly do. One way to do this is to strengthen our grip on our cavalier attitude, for it’s at the moment the most potent and effective defense mechanism, a formidable bulwark against the cataclysmic epic flood of ignorance and sophistry. As Žižek succinctly put it in this work of his,

“Ignorance is not a sufficient ground for forgiveness since it masks enjoyment; an enjoyment which erupts in those black holes in our symbolic universe that escape the Father’s prohibition.”

Apart from our nonchalance towards the absurdly asinine mass that thinks ignorance could help ameliorate our condition by getting us out of “solitude, failure and reprobation”, I propose that we keep not just poking fun at it but also meticulously continue prodding its gaping ignorance-inflicted wound. At the end of day, given our individualistic yet unreserved rage to master our ineptitude we could celebrate our victory, of course, “in the eyes of the winner” with the Ancient Persian parable: War Nam Nihadan – We can kill their self-imposed ignorance that blindly goes around trying to “proselytize” us, bury their defiled primitive, Simian corpse and plant beautiful flowers on their grave to conceal not just the pungency of their putrefaction but also their resurrection that might reignite the mass ossification of the credulous and the desperate.

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The Lay Philosopher

A Vicious Cycle of Disenchantment

Those last few turbulent years, it’s as if we don’t have feelings – guided perception- of any sort anymore. Because of this benumbed sensation we can’t even properly articulate, though in non-elitist terms, the myriad of disenchantments we’ve to go through on a daily basis for we’re mostly left with no memory of their very occurrence. Universalized disenchantment with the Order – the Dominant Group, the Political Regime, the Capitalist Economy, the Fake News, the Subaltern Cacophony, the Mediocre Public Service, the Higher Education that Principally serves as the Industry of the Precariat to state just few of our objet petit a of an existentialist frustration – is the rule rather than the exception. As a desperate act of escaping this contagious affliction, we’ve come to espouse fanfaronade – swaggering, empty boasting, the ostentatious display of our poorly constructed, empty-shell persona that feigns invincibility – and molysomophobia, an excessive fear of contamination – by old or new alien modes of thinking, unorthodox use of language, “dangerous” yet meticulous prognosis of the fragility of the immanent contingency of a single object – narrative or praxis – , simultaneously. Hence, we committed an inconsiderate act of concocting a mélange out of oil and water.

The only palatable way out of this conundrum, at least for the time being, apparently appears to be a massive “inoculation” campaign by way of a recumbnetibus, a sudden, wake-up knockout punch both verbal and physical. But this metaphysical vaccination outreach must carefully be under the aegis of personalities with the prerequisite courage and knowledge to call a cunt a cunt, in lieu of a stunt performance for the incurably ultracrepidarian, individuals or groups with an irresistible urge to give opinions and advice on matters of supreme importance such as this, outside of their minimalist, parsimonious, bookish knowledge (or “expert advice” as they prefer to refer to their apparent pseudo-intellectualism and the accompanying insatiable thirst to carpe the troubled diem in light of their “forethought”).

 

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The Lay Philosopher

On the Irresistible Urge to Reflect

The irresistible urge to reflect – to systemically wail, to voice out the uneasily unutterable, to extemporize one’s unbearable existential trite – basically emanates from one’s frustration. One’s frustration apropos of the burden of an imposed living, an inexplicably ubiquitous phenomenon of being tasked with a mission – to satisfy one’s protectors under whose tutelage one is constantly marionetted. One ominously feels the coming of a certain serendipitous calamity to befall him, should he fail to get the pain of the menace inhabiting his conscience off his chest. Hence, the need to displace this geist pronto before it turns into an implosive conflagration.

In a world not of our making or of choosing for that matter we’re consumed by the ever present fear of aphasia, a debilitating infirmity that hampers one’s capacity to reveal as it were one’s phenomenal existence to the world out there and repressive amnesia, the failure to remember one’s apotheosis in the form of anamnesis, an unconsciously driven compendium of piecemeal personal fragments in the form of parables, poems, songs or else apologetic confessions on the deathbed.

If one’s doesn’t engage in the obsessive fabrication and confabulation of one’s nostalgia-dominated subjective perspectives regarding most things in life that might or not matter once in a while, one is inadvertently forced to succumb to the fear of being forgotten by one’s significant or rather insignificant others, those entities that inhabit the wide world outside one’s domain of control, sometimes those of the cimmerii, all those phenomena that dwell in the darkest corners of undiscoverablity at least for the time being or till their hideousness gives way for an unexpected revelation to the light of the observant and imaginative mind of an eccentric persona.

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Courtesy of Unravelling Magazine
External Sources

An Excerpt: “The Silence of Polyglots”

Not speaking one’s’ mother tongue. Living with resonances and reasoning that are cut off from the body’s nocturnal memory, from the bittersweet slumber of childhood. Bearing within oneself like a secret vault, or like a handicapped child –cherished and useless-that language of the past that withers without ever leaving you, You improve your ability with another instrument, as one expresses oneself with algebra or the violin. You can become a virtuoso with this new device that moreover gives you a new body, just as artificial and sublimated-some say sublime. You have a feeling that the new language is a resurrection: new skin, new sex. But the illusion bursts when you hear, upon listening to a recording, for instance, that the melody of your voice comes back to you as a peculiar sound, out of nowhere, closer to the old spluttering than to today’s code. Your awkwardness has its charm, they say, it is even erotic, according to womanizers, not to be outdone. No one points out your mistakes, so as not to hurt your feelings, and then there are so many, and after all they don’t give a damn. One nevertheless lets you know that it is irritating just the same. Occasionally, raising the eyebrows or saying “I beg your pardon?” in quick succession lead you to understand that you will “never be a part of it”, that it” is not worth it,” that there, at least, one is “not taken in.” Being fooled is not what happens to you either. At the most, you are willing to go along, ready for all apprenticeships, at all ages, in order to reach-within that speech of others, imagined as being perfectly assimilated, some day-who knows what ideal, beyond the implicit acknowledgment of a disappointment caused by the origin that did not keep its promise.

Thus, between two languages, your realm is silence. By dint of saying things in various ways, one just as trite as the other, just as approximate, one ends up no longer saying them. An internationally known scholar was ironical about his famous polyglotism, saying that he spoke Russian in fifteen languages. As for me, I had the feeling that he rejected speech and his slack Toccata and Fugue for the Foreigner silence led him, at times, to sing and give rhythm to chanted poems, just in order to say something.

NB: This is an excerpt from Julia Kristeva’s 1991 poetic-critique of strangeness, otherness, “fanatic[ism] of absence”, that is characteristic of the foreigner, the alien. the metoikos, the immigrant, the refugee, the Bohemian etc., Strangers to Ourselves pp. 15-6.

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