Triple lecture day

2005-11-11

in Daily updates, Oxford, Politics, The environment

The Oxford city walls, as seen from within New College

Today’s lectures comprised an interesting academic triptych. The first, on whaling and international maritime law, contained the most that I did not know beforehand. The second, on international organizations, in a general sense, had the most novel form of delivery. The third, on Marxism as ‘the greatest fantasy of the twentieth century’ was the best attended and least fulfilling.

Patricia Birnie’s lecture on whaling covered the treaties and institutions involved throughout the twentieth century, though it clearly could not do so comprehensively in only an hour. Dr. Birnie has apparently written quite an important textbook on international maritime law – another book to add to my aspirational reading list. One big focus of this lecture was the ambiguities in sections 64, 65, and 120 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. I didn’t know that, despite the present moratorium on whaling, there are exemptions for ‘scientific research.’ Apparently, Japan authorizes ‘scientific killings’ on a level akin to that which a commercial whaling industry would involve. Like the great apes, it seems intuitively obvious to me that marine mammals deserve a level of moral consideration that prohibits their hunting for commercial purposes. While I can understand and appreciate the cultural imperatives behind whale hunting in certain communities, it seems to me that no cultural tradition can be maintained rigidly, forever, in the face of new knowledge and circumstances. Hopefully, this is one of many phenomenon that we will see the end of in our lifetimes.

During the event, I met Abigail Powell, who is doing an M.Sc in something closely related to ecology at Green College. She is solidly on the science side of the environmental continuum: the kind of person I am meant to encourage policy makers to understand, and be understood by, according to my research proposal for this degree. As we were enjoying the free sandwiches, I learned that she actually worked for the Secretariat of the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants: the treaty which I researched last year, in the context of the role arctic native groups played in formulating it. With luck, we shall have the chance to discuss it at greater length at a later date.

The second lecture took place as part of our advanced study of IR series and was delivered by Neil MacFarlane: the head of the IR program and a man who speaks in a manner that I would consider absolutely unique, if it wasn’t precisely the same as that of Dennis Danielson, the man who taught the honours Milton class I took with Tristan and Meghan. Given that Dr. Danielson and Dr. MacFarlane are both Canadians who studied at Cambridge, perhaps the similarity is understandable.

Dr. MacFarlane’s lecture was about international organizations and represented an attempt to ‘prove the hard case.’ What he meant by that was that he intended to show how, even in matters of security, where international organizations might be expected to have the least impact and where traditional realist assumptions would be most likely to hold, institutions have had an extensive importance. He outlined six roles that he feels IOs play, then examined them through two cases. He brought up the whole debate about humanitarian intervention and the responsibility to protect as one example, the international ban on anti-personnel mines as the other.

The third lecture also had a Danielson connection, in the form of repeated uses of the word ‘eschatological.’ It took place between Professor Leszek Kolakowski of All Souls, upon whom great praise was heaped, and Professor John Gray, visiting from the LSE. Professor Kolakowski delivered what struck me as a simplistic and overly general criticism of Marxism. Basically, a less refined version of the argument printed in The Economist and previously linked and debated on this page. Perhaps due to the age and eminence of his opponent, the response given by Professor Gray was tepid. The only real objection he raised to Professor Kolakowski’s argument seemed obligatory, rather than genuinely argumentative. At the very least, they should have acknowledged the extent to which the valid elements of the Marxist critique altered the form of contemporary capitalism, thereby making it less likely that some of Marx’s predictions would come to manifest themselves.

In order to attend that lecture, I opted out of the professional training in the social sciences lecture that our notes of guidance indicate that we should attend. Last week’s wasn’t terribly helpful, and it seems to be directed towards much more experimentally minded social scientists, anyhow.

Whenever I am presented with political theory now, I have a tendency to evaluate it as a kind of internal panel. Sitting on it is Milan the provocateur, who tends to defend liberal humanist assumptions and steal arguments from The Economist. Also present are simulated versions of Tristan, Sarah Pemberton, and sometimes others – as the subject warrants. My final judgment has much to do with where the simulated debate ends up.

Between the second and third lecture, I took a bit of a walk with Emily. We returned some books, bought some dinner, and visited the home and workshop of a jeweler who repaired her ring. It was quite an interesting place to see – down in his basement. In particular, I found the stones, sorted and filed throughout the room, fascinating. Heavily represented among them were fossils and plants and animals embedded in quartz or amber. One drawer looked like the cover of the copy of Stephen Jay Gould’s Wonderful Life, which I glanced at so many times back in the days when Kate was still sifting through tiny, prehistoric teeth under the microscope. Emily is definitely a good person to follow about, if you are looking to see interesting and unexpected things.

In the evening, I read from The Search for Modern China. It’s a hefty book, to which I wish I could devote the deserved level of time and attention. As it stands, I shall read it as thoroughly as external pressures allow. The fact that I need to produce a paper on a topic closely related to the book in about ten days time also grants me a certain authority to devote time to it.


Short additions

  • The army is trying to make artificial gills. That would be quite an incredible technology, if it could be made to work.
  • It seems that Sony CDs can infect Macs also. Looks like I’m never buying a CD from Sony Music again. Lots of people in California are suing Sony. The post where I first discussed this is here.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

B November 10, 2005 at 10:53 pm

There are some lovely shapes in today’s picture. It’s a shame it was shot at such a noisy ISO. You seem to have the bad habit of leaving it at 200, even when lighting conditions would allow something much more satisfying.

Anonymous November 11, 2005 at 8:27 am
Anonymous November 11, 2005 at 11:20 am

More info on Sony and Macs. (From /.)

Ben November 11, 2005 at 11:27 pm

I saw the Marxism lecture, but other than always wanting to have seen John Gray, it didn’t look too interesting. Probably as well I missed it – sure I was doing something better, but forget what.

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