Monday, October 26, 2015

This page intentionally filled with words


I love a blank page.

A deadline is a question, but a blank page is a promise. You can stare at it. It will stare back at you.

On a blank page I do my best work. So long as the page is blank, that is. Then I put down the words, one after the other, and it's never great, but it’s my best effort and it will have to do until the next blank page comes along.

I'm a strict postmodernist in this: as soon as the blank page is written, you are no longer the arbiter of what it says. You’re just a reader now. I don't care what your intentions were. I don't care that you think you know what the thought process behind it was. There is only the page now, no longer blank, and that if you’re lucky enough that someone else wants to read it, you'll have to fight about its meaning along with everyone else.

A blank page, when stumbled upon unexpectedly, can be unsettling, which is why sometimes it comes with a warning: ‘Page intentionally left blank.’ Except that makes it no longer blank so the warning makes no sense.

I like the word blank because it comes from the French word for white but it no longer means white. In English I can say that a pink piece of paper with no markings on it is ‘blank’. There is no equivalent word in my language. I’d have to call it a white piece of paper, in spite of the fact that it’s obviously pink. A white pink page. Or a pink page left white.

At school we did these regular in-class written tests for which we had to bring our own special legal-ruled paper. First you had to print your name at the top and then fold the page in half, down the middle, and only write your essay on the left side. The right side, after the fold, was reserved for the teacher’s remarks.

I enjoyed these tests, even though most of the suggested topics were like conversation starters on a panel radio show. But the actual task was to construct an argument inside of three hours. Premise, reasoning, conclusion. I still think of it as the educated person’s most useful skill. And I still enjoy the challenge, although it no longer begins with a legal-ruled blank page folded down the middle.

First you did your draft (la brutta, literally the ugly copy), allowing yourself half an hour or so at the end to produce la bella, ‘the fair copy’.

When she was at school my mother was very good at translating Latin. Sometimes she would let some of her class mates copy from her draft while she worked on her own fair copy, yet invariably their marks were higher than hers. She always put this down to favouritism (or sexism, which was rife). It wasn’t until she got pregnant with me that her doctors diagnosed a congenital meningioma which had gradually shrunk her field of vision. When she copied from those drafts, she would have left words out at the rightmost end of each line – words that her eyes saw but her brain overlooked.

Mum became an Italian teacher, and always valued above all in her students clarity of writing. She never wrote anything after her Master’s thesis, aside from teacher reports. But this is common: it’s easy to forget how much credit goes to the internet for reasserting writing as an everyday means of communication. Only our blank pages are of a new kind. Some are just small boxes, no more than 140 characters long. Some we sometimes still call pages but are gleaming scrolls of near-infinite depth. A succession of pages in a book suggests progress. A web page is really a long descent.

I love a blank page, most of the time. But then sometimes I hate a blank page. The page that resist being filled. The page on which words slide down and fall off, or are gobbled up by the
monster
at
the
bottom
of
the
page.


I asked my youngest child to draw this monster, and he gave me two options. This is the other one.


I love that blank pages for him are full of nothing but possibility. He reminds me that there is no such thing as a ‘blank’ page, really. The page, as a technology, as an object, already contains the intention of future meanings. It exists to be filled, therefore is already filled.

If the colour white is the sum of all colours then maybe the blank page is the sum of all words (and pictures). Borges understood this: there is no possible combination of letters and orthographic symbols that won't have meaning for someone, somewhere, at some time. A blank page just happens to contain all of them.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

On measuring our future



Karl Marx once expressed the belief that the end of the capitalist era and the advent of communism would signal the end of human prehistory and the beginning of history proper. Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and the Futurists, for their part, wanted to destroy museums and libraries in order to usher in a progress contemptuous of tradition and all forms of previous knowledge. It’s hard to think of a way of thinking more alien to the present juncture: that of a long future so assuredly within our reach as to have little or no need for the past.

Five or six generations after Marx’s declaration, we measure the future in decades, running down an array of doomsday clocks. We speculate that the planet might become largely uninhabitable within the present century. We set symbolic deadlines for action. But the ninety-nine months that Prince Charles said were left in 2010 to take decisive action on climate change are down to a mere thirty; in the meantime we’ve done nothing but burn ever greater quantities of carbon.

This isn’t paranoia or an existential malaise: we have solid reasons for fearing that humanity may be headed towards catastrophe. Yet it’s a strange, incongruous spectacle, resembling a crude allegorical fable. We have never lived longer or enjoyed a greater capacity for technical progress. In fact, our single greatest achievement may just be that we can measure the exact speed at which the end is approaching, and with it the shortening of our collective future.

If Marx was right, and if the catastrophe does come to pass, humanity will have ceased to exist before history has even begun. Yet there is arguably no task that we approach with as much urgency as documenting, cataloguing and storing that soon-to-be-meaningless past and the unfolding present. So-called life-loggers like Microsoft engineer Gordon Bell, who wear multiple sensors and recording devices on their persons at all times in order to capture and store every moment of their waking lives, are in this respect emblematic everymen, destined to spend their dying years contemplating a perfectly preserved yet functionally unrememberable past (for memory requires that some things – most things – be forgotten). So, too, we might reach a point where we have perfected the collective archive just as we run out of people to make sense of it and for whom it might make sense.

Yet still some of us dream of a long future.

Just before the turn of the millennium, the American writer and ecologist Stewart Brand suggested – in a book entitled The Clock of the Long Now – that we should take to writing the year using five digits instead of four. Thus the year 1999 would have to be written as 01999. It was a pointed quip to make at that time, just as the world was about to test whether the Y2K bug would make planes fall out of the sky and plunge the capitals of the industrialised world into darkness. Its intent – like the image of Earth from outer space that Brand had used in the Whole Earth Catalog – was to function as a thinking tool: the leading digit, which wouldn’t tick over for another 8000 years, might make people perceive a longer future and hopefully act accordingly, in an ecological sense.

I don’t know how effective that mental trick might be, but I’ve long been fascinated by one of the artefacts produced by Brand’s Long Now Foundation: the Rosetta Disk. Etched with the equivalent of over 13 000 pages of information in 1500 languages, the disk is designed to enable archaeologists and historians of the far future to decipher the scripts used by our civilisation. Being physically as opposed to digitally inscribed, the disk can be read without requiring hardware other than a microscope, while the outer layer – which explains what the disk is for – is visible to the naked eye.

More than the Rosetta Stone to which the disk’s name refers, this linguistic archive resembles an ark. And like an ark, it expresses the belief that there is a future – just not for us. Even the ten-thousand-year horizon of the ecologists is nothing, then, but a way of measuring time on somebody else’s scale, and our history goes back to being a prehistory. Except this time, unlike in the visions of Marx and of the Futurists, the new era to come is not for us to influence or shape. And the present, well, the present is to be treated exactly as we are: as a database or archive, always to be added to but never to be made sense of. A thing to be saved so that someone else some day might reopen it.

Reclaiming a future-oriented politics might also involve rethinking the way we remember the present.


Originally published at Overland

Monday, October 12, 2015

'In Vietnam they killed the Child Jesus'


‘In Vietnam they killed the Child Jesus.’ This phrase does not come from a cruel modern fable, but reflects instead the tragic truth and cautionary moral of a real event that took place in a Vietnamese village, where, whilst a group of people enacted a nativity scene, a brief battle ensued between Vietnam and Viet Cong troops, and a stray bullet hit the infant who stood for the Child Jesus in the crib.

Further to last month's exercise, let’s take a second sample. For what does it mean to say that fascism operated as a cultural logic in the texts that it produced, to the point of making the words of the great artist virtually indistinguishable from those of the great butcher, if we cannot trace in the texts subsequent to the fall of the regimes the absence or reversal of this logic?

Another way to consider this proposition is through a thought experiment. Suppose you picked up a random magazine – for the purposes of this post, La Domenica del Corriere of 26 December 1965 – from a second-hand book stall or in a shop: how could you tell if it belongs to our time continuum, in which Mussolini was deposed and Italian Fascism officially ended in 1943, instead of an alternate universe in which the regime either won or managed by some means to survive the war? What kind of evidence would you look for? How difficult would you expect the exercise to be?

It turns out to be not very difficult at all, on a level. It’s right there in the date: 26 December 1965. Not 26 December 1965-XLIII, which is how it would be written if this were still the Fascist Era, by now in its forty-third year. So we can at least posit some sort of discontinuity. But the easy ride ends here. There is almost nothing in the remaining 63 large-format pages of this – the foremost mainstream weekly magazine in the country at the time – to allow us to conclusively say that the Fascist regime was over at the time it went to print. A mention in a letter to the editor on page 2 of the opinion expressed in an earlier issue by a ‘Socialist MP’ (Mussolini had got rid of those), and some words of censure for the situation in Rhodesia (where, by unilaterally declaring the nation’s independence, Ian Smith ‘imposed the will of 260,000 whites over that of 3.6 million negroes’), are the closest thing to actual positive evidence. But otherwise, and even as it looks back on the key events of the year 1965, La Domenica fails to directly mention a single aspect of the country’s democratic system of government or, more importantly, articulate values greatly at odds with those of Fascism.


In the coverage of new consumer technologies (chief amongst them colour television), the musical scene, cinema, sports and recreation, travel, fashion or money matters, La Domenica is studiously conformist and positively exudes bourgeois respectability, nowhere more so than in the piece on Marco Bellocchio’s debut feature, I pugni in tasca, praised as a dramatic spectacle and not, as other film writers would have it, for its elements of social critique. Saying at once: what critique? And a critique of what? There is nothing to critique, no such thing as bourgeois society.


And then there are the things that would make you almost swear Fascism were still around. Indro Montanelli, who worked for Il Corriere during the war, commands the prime, full-page column spot on page 5. Perhaps most spookily, all of the products advertised are either Italian or German, as if the country were still under embargo. And there is the ad on page 2, above, for a series of special issues of the magazine celebrating Italy’s imperialist wars in Africa. Faccetta Nera, was the title of the series. ‘Pretty black-faced girl’, after the title of the lively song that the Fascist sang as they took the country they called Abyssinia. Then, the blurb: ‘A history marked by great errors but also the qualities and the quiet acts of heroism of our people’. This, as late as 1965, is what remained of the aggression and the genocide, of the massive use of mustard gas during the counter-offensive in Ethiopia, of the concentration camps. Errors, perhaps, some of them – not crimes, no – but more than made up for by the quiet heroism of our people.

This was the manner of our unbecoming. This is how we put Fascism behind us, recycling it into handy booklets of misremembered history. The magazine’s cover story does the rest, reaffirming the bulk of the old values under under an appalling veneer of faux pietism. A baby has died in Vietnam, but it is no ordinary baby: he was posing as the new-born Jesus at a Dominican convent where his mother had found refuge. A nun who has heard this story second-hand says so to the author of the story, Luigi Cavicchioli:
No, he wasn’t a Vietnamese child, or rather, he was, he had the little face of a young Vietnamese child, but he was the Child Jesus… no, it isn’t an expression… he really was the Child Jesus.

Not one of theirs, one of ours: made white, Christian, properly human by a symbolic arrangement of bodies inside a makeshift manger. Mr Cavicchioli proceeds to turn the story from jungle legend to reality. He supplies all the requisite detail. He even writes the scene of the death: amidst the commotion and the sounds of gunshots a little red dot appears on the baby’s forehead, a little red flower whose stem soon grows to reach the baby’s feet, and the mother thinks he’s sleeping, but then when she realisation dawns on her she slumps with a wail near the crib (‘at that moment she was the Virgin Mary holding on to the Cross’).

I could swear at this point that Italy was never liberated, that this kind of story couldn’t possibly be the product of a society other than the one that proudly sang Faccetta nera and civilised the savages with muskets, missionaries and mustard gas. And still I look for signs of what has changed.


Originally published at Overland

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