Monday, March 30, 2009

Zombie Ideas

I recently subscribed, for satirical purposes I assure you, to a service called Plinky, which was designed and developed by people who reckon that our culture doesn't produce quite enough inanity. So what Plinky does is relentlessly provide new conversation starters, just in case you might have been dangerously close to feeling like shutting the hell up for five minutes and, I don't know, reading a book, or picking your nose. I've been dutifully filing the Plinky suggestions under 'Civilisation, Collapse of', with the intention of acting all smarmy and superior about them in a future post, but here's one from last week that is worth offering ahead of schedule:

Not for the first time in the course of the last few weeks, I was left asking myself: what's this thing with the zombies all of a sudden? Between the highly anticipated release earlier this month of this book,

Paul Krugman's invective against the zombie financial ideas embraced by Obama and his advisors, the young Mr. Rae-Brown reviewing this game just this morning, and without even getting into the flurry of recent activity on the silver screen, I'm seriously beginning to wonder if it might be time to board the doors and windows shut.

Every epoch has its monsters. During the blood-sucking Eighties and partway through the Nineties, thanks to the fine work of Ms Rice and others, it was the vampire. Now it's the zombie. What could it mean? Over at Socialism and/or barbarism, Evan Calder Williams finds echoes of 'continued surging anxieties about overpopulation' the "planet of the slums", contaminated commodities from afar, and the ongoing degradation of the global south'… as well as '[w]orld hunger at its most naked, the sick repetition of want let loose on a global scale.' Plus lots more stuff, none more intriguing than the idea that what is being metabolised here by the culture is a surplus of life. It really is a richly layered piece that I urge you to set some time aside to take apart and savour, as it were.

Being far too squeamish to engage in the relevant close readings, I'm going to address this thing in much more general terms, and with one ulterior motive. For I've come in for some sharp criticism over last week's post, and while I don't want to engage directly somebody who chose to make her opinions known away from the spotlight of the comments box, I should really try to account for some objections of obvious merit. Namely: that I failed to make a stand, declare my allegiance to a specific political project at a time that demands more than just a vague nostalgia for a more militant past. And besides, contends my correspondent, nostalgia is reactionary, and we have no use for that. Now the zombie image might help me explain why I think we need imagination and memory alongside staunch resolve and a bedrock of principles.

Let's isolate a key sentence of the Fukuyama essay I went over last week:
The passing of Marxism-Leninism first from China and then from the Soviet Union will mean its death as a living ideology of world historical significance.
The end of history is made to coincide here with the passing of an ideology, which is a most interesting proposition: for how do you kill an idea, and ensure it stays dead? Following World War II some countries, including my own, legislated against the use of the symbols of fascism, not just the promotion of its key tenets, with the explicit aim of removing it from collective memory and prevent the reactivation by means of imagery of the forces that had just been defeated. 'Apology of fascism' in Italy is not the generic indictment of an unsavoury political position but an actual crime, albeit one that gets tangled into questions of constitutional legitimacy that make it hard to prosecute. And, it could be argued by looking at the pedigree of our current ministers, it has helped the country very little. But then unbecoming was always about cosmetic as opposed to substantial changes, amnesties as opposed to historical analysis and the proper apportioning of blame. Look where it got us.

Now it's the turn of Socialism to go through a revival, against the backdrop of the smoking ruins of the neoliberal edifice so dear to Mr Fukuyama. Even if you happen to be amongst those who never thought that Marx's ideas had lost any of their relevancy, you might agree that this historical juncture creates a uniquely fertile ground for creative reinvention. The man himself was obviously quite conscious of the power of imagery, and wrote of ghostly realities and of communism as a spectre haunting Europe, a metaphor that seems almost embarrassingly pertinent these days, as Derrida intuited in his timely apology of Marxism (which is also an invective contra-Fukuyama), elaborated when the rubble of the Wall was still tepid.

Derrida writes of the spectres that haunted Marx, and of Marx as a haunting presence for his detractors and supporters alike. In doing so he creates a space for disimagining capitalism and imagining a socialism no longer under the illusion that the ghosts will completely vanish at a teleologically reached and history-ending moment in time. He writes too about the difference between a spirit and a spectre, and about a mode of life that amounts to survival, a ghostly living. It's a set of images worth reclaiming, I think, as it is done quite self-consciously by various revivalists - think of the very popular political UK blog named Lenin's Tomb. But there is a tension, too: between reinvention and restoration, between accounting for the exact nature of the present challenges and resetting the clock to earlier cultural dominants - say, Modernism, or Realism - perceived to be friendlier to the cause. Except I don't see these activities as mutually exclusive: it is possible to mine the past for tools of concrete present use, not to mention a political lineage made of movements and people worthy of modelling one's activism after, in a way that is not simply retrograde or nostalgic. To the extent that I think that my work on memory has a political dimension, it is it. At the same time, I shall insist that Marxists remain willing to confront their monsters

A lovely day for a stroll by the Volga, comrade Stalin.

and to account for the people who were made to disappear for being regarded as inimical to the cause, or as soon as they stopped being faithful to the line.

Comrade Yezhov, so good to see you again!

That, too, is the proper work not just of history and historians, but of memory itself.

Having evoked this last set of spectres, it might appear a touch glib to appeal to the zombie imagery, but the times demand a little leap of imagination, I think, and fuller use of the considerable power of contemporary mythologies. The opportunity has been staring at us at least since zombie Lenin made his appearance on The Simpsons, circa season nine:

Some years earlier, in 1985, Donna Haraway had told us from the pages of Socialist Review of her 'ironic dream', and proposed that feminists make theirs the metaphor of the cyborg and use it to construct a new political identity. Thus was Cyborg Feminism born. Perhaps our epoch could use some Zombie Socialism.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Looking Good in a Barrel

If you believe, with Francis Fukuyama, that we have reached the end of History and have attained with Western liberal democracy the summit, the endpoint of civilisation, and you also believe, with, let's say, Al Gore, that the clock is running out on the world's fitness for human habitation, you may be feeling sad but also a little proud: what a timely apocalypse! And what satisfaction in going out knowing that we have achieved what God (or Reason) had put us on this world to do. Too bad our children won't be there to see it.

Except dismissing Fukuyama's theory of convenience was always embarrassingly easy, and the disaster in Iraq and the economic news of the last twelve months or so would have convinced even the die hardest of believers that the rumours of the demise of History had been somewhat exaggerated. Which leaves us with undemocratic world institutions, a financial system in tatters, the impending end of days, and nothing to show for it in the ‘perfecting civilisation’ stakes either.

Relegated to historical document of a particular moment in time, however, Fukuyama's essay of 1989, the freeze-frame instant of the triumph of capitalism over its last known enemy besides itself, makes different, and possibly more interesting reading than in its original argumentative, ideology-serving role. There is the bordering-on-racism unpleasantness
For our purposes, it matters very little what strange thoughts occur to people in Albania or Burkina Faso, for we are interested in what one could in some sense call the common ideological heritage of mankind.
The 'I can't believe he wrote that' silliness
But surely, the class issue has actually been successfully resolved in the West. […] [T]he egalitarianism of modern America represents the essential achievement of the classless society envisioned by Marx.
And finally, wrapped in more unpleasantness, a question of historicity that remains worth addressing:
The passing of Marxism-Leninism first from China and then from the Soviet Union will mean its death as a living ideology of world historical significance. For while there may be some isolated true believers left in places like Managua, Pyongyang, or Cambridge, Massachusetts, the fact that there is not a single large state in which it is a going concern undermines completely its pretensions to being in the vanguard of human history. And the death of this ideology means the growing "Common Marketization" of international relations, and the diminution of the likelihood of large-scale conflict between states.

Let's try not to focus for a moment on the fact that Fukuyama is a signatory of the statement of principles of the Project for the New American Century, therefore a believer in democracy so long as it's under the tutelage of the might of the American army, forever destined to be ‘Western’ in structure and purpose, or else. What’s more poignant here is the idea, hardly new or surprising, of course, but whose formulation by Fukuyama may have been the most timely and widely quoted of all, of the death of ideology, the vanishing of alternatives to a political system twinned to its hyper-advanced mercantile economy, both of which ought to henceforth be left free to realise themselves in their purest forms, unfettered, all-conquering, triumphant. Friedman Lives!

Here's the thing, though: following its Athenian inception, democracy didn't make a comeback in Europe for a couple of millennia, give or take. The door could have been closed on it, and the end of History declared, many times over by proponents of theocracy, military rule or feudalism, and they'd look pretty silly to us now. Because democracy survived as an idea and a utopian project under different guises before its modern incarnations culminating in universal suffrage and the various forms in which it is practised today. So immediately one is struck by the narrowness of the time horizon: victory in the cold war had barely been declared when 'The End of History?' was penned, and sure enough, barely two decades on, here’s a random snapshot of the ruins of Fukuyama’s ideal city.

Vanity Fair, April 2009 issue: Looking good in a barrel.

A facile pop reference, yes. But doesn't it also remind us that history is chugging along just fine, and that people will still look for past reference points in a time of crisis, to divine its solutions and possible outcomes? And those parallels will in turn help shape the public mood and the measures to be taken: quite obviously, choosing the word Depression has vastly different connotations and implications from 'deep recession', or the ludicrously optimistic 'crisis of confidence', whereas opting for an altogether new phrase, say, 'credit crunch' or 'financial meltdown', also makes a historical claim - of unprecedentedness - that enters into the discursive negotiations on the page that needs to be turned, or the way out that needs to be found (or the faire that needs to be laissezed, if you happen to be the CEO of something). But of course if you have had the good sense in advance to shut out of History a whole set of solutions and alternatives, the range of responses will be reassuringly narrowed. Hence Fukyama's resolute obituary of socialism, last of the credible alternatives.

As of last year and for the first time since 1948, this symbol is no longer represented in the Italian parliament.

In Italy, where it was comparatively stronger and ought to have been more resilient, less eager to concede defeat in the face of the admittedly significant ebbing of historical fortunes, the Left responded by cowering. Without socialism, an idea of socialism, an aspiration to socialism, politics on the Left became a question of which administrators could best fill the seats of 'il governo tecnico', the technical government, the standard label for a series of broad but rudderless makeshift political alliances that charted the uncertain course from one early election to the next in the frantic transition from the first to the second Republic, circa the first half of the last decade. And for that failure I also blame an uncertain if not duplicitous engagement with history, in the form of decades of ambiguous post-war relationships between the party of Gramsci and Stalinism, which ultimately squandered a base so capable of mass mobilisation, of practising a principled and capillary alternative politics, of furnishing the country with its most vital intellectuals (the chapter on Pier Paolo Pasolini alone would require a barrel of ink or two).

But the base too needs to look at the peculiar ways in which it practiced its own tortuous ways of unbecoming. For being a Marxist in Italy at the time of Fukuyama's piece - and I'm quite determined to speak solely from my limited personal experience and observations on this point - still meant choosing your sub-affiliation, signing up to an interpretation of the doctrine but also a painstakingly selected set of historical circumstances. Repudiating Stalinism was obviously at the top of most lists, whilst the rejection of Mao - still a very commanding figure when my sister moved in those circles, a decade or so earlier - was more complicated and less indiscriminate. We used the word 'counter-revolution' a lot, but it meant different things to different people. And I'm not in turn repudiating all that, except insofar as it got in the way of forging alliances. Yet the analysis that went along with it was necessary work, but it meant continually eliding parts of the tradition, ritually pruning and chopping off after the fact the undesired offshoots of the tree, with a logic that - had it been practised by a political side other than mine - I wouldn't hesitate to call revisionist.

Speaking of revisions, this is not the post I had in mind for this week. It was reshaped by an email conversation with a friend (I'll call him comrade in private session), the reading of a masterly Perry Anderson piece on Italian politics, a brief dig through old emails from the time I left Italy and the time I got here, documenting growing degrees of perplexity and dismay at a broken political stage and the uniformly minuscule stature of its actors. From that came this half-thought-out and unfinished little article, in keeping with the think-in-progress, fail-to-reach-conclusions nature of your less than average blog.

Originally, I meant to write about this book.

A relic of a past crisis, from another swing of the pendulum. 1976, the West in the grip of stagflation and the oil crisis, the Novosti Press Agency sending out despatches from the home of really-existing socialism: a land without a housing problem ('Half the Population Give Housewarmings', announces in slightly perplexing fashion the title of the relevant chapter), a land without inflation, where incomes and purchasing power grow from one five-year plan to the next, where health, social security, gender equality and a modern car are guaranteed to all.

The original caption reads: 'Which of these brand-new cars will they choose?'

But also and more importantly, in perfect counterpoint to Fukuyama's mock-Hegelian edict, a land at the threshold of the end of History:
In a short historical period of time the Soviet people have built an advanced socialist society, and now they have approached the next stage - the building of a communist society.

Under communism the socio-economic differences between city and village, between physical and mental work will disappear. The very nature of work will be changed. Work will be mechanized and automated to the utmost, and this will require from every worker profound knowledge and continuous intellectual work.

The unprecedentedly high degree of development of the productive forces under communism will provide an abundance of material and cultural benefits, and lead to a new form of their distribution - from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.

You know, I still live by that last sentence, or at least aspire to. Finding the political space to even think that way, in a society where increasingly you pay and are paid by the minute, is another tortuous exercise. But it is harder, too, and in a manner that ought to be welcomed, to ignore the history of that project, to read on and not shudder when the Novosti ghost-writers describe the holiday provisions available to the People, the wonderful resorts and the cheap, accessible sanatoriums, at the very same time as Solzhenitsyn was politely asked to pack his bags. At that time too, I remember or fantasise, in the late summer of 1975 and 1976, as a young boy, I would have been consuming fritto di pesce or pizzoccheri at a Festa de L'Unità in the middle of Lombardy, in the company of people of my parents' generation, comrades, my elders, my betters, more passionate and committed and fiercely intelligent than I'll ever be, who yet believed, some of them literally, that a mere couple of thousand miles to the East the end of History had arrived.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Live Bookmark feed has failed to load.

The purpose of this museum is to provide a shelter for strange, unwanted, malformed packets - abandoned and doomed freaks of nature - as we, mere mortals, meet them on the twisted paths of our grand journey called life. Our exhibits - or, if you wish, inhabitants - are often just a shadow of what they used to be before they met a hostile, faulty router. Some of them were born deformed in the depth of a broken IP stack implementation. Others were normal packets, just like all their friends, you or me, but got lost looking for the ultimate meaning of their existence, and arrived in places we should never see them. Every time, we try to find the unique history of their lives, and to make you understand how difficult it is to be a sole messenger in the hostile universe of bits and bytes.
Michal Zalewski, ‘museum of broken packets

One of the upshots of last week’s pronouncement that we’re always waiting for something to load is that sometimes we wait in vain. For a message to arrive, for an application to load, for a link to open in a new page, for a video to start. It is not terribly uncommon, if you think about it, but I would argue that our collective faith in the transformative and all-pervasive power of informatics is largely unaffected by it. At least by comparison to two other spectres that work against the most optimistic narratives of the digital: to wit, permanent loss of data, or virus and malware infection. We began exploring the former with the discussion of Memento and I think you’ll agree that the latter has tremendous psychological and imaginative import - it is, if nothing else, the stuff that cyberpunk is made of, and it'll deserve exhaustive (not to mention possibly exhausting) treatment in future posts.

By comparison, the odd failure to deliver a packet or correctly connect the digital dots gets discounted in favour of the (perfectly reasonable and reality-based) view that things work a lot if not most of the time. Nonetheless, PC users circa 1995 to 2003 or thereabouts will be painfully familiar with this image

The Blue Screen of Death

and could tell you with certainty that the phrase ‘it may be possible to continue normally’ has never once come true in the history of computing. Others whose memories stretch back into the prehistory of DOS have had occasion to ponder the philosophically intriguing triple choice of whether to Abort, Retry or Ignore a stalled procedure, at least until they worked out that retry and ignore always led to the repetition of the question. Lately Microsoft has started tapping into the notion that we are all working for the corporation in the capacity of freelance debuggers without pay, so now when one of their applications crashes you get the extra option of sending an error report to base command, where I imagine it gets swept under a very large rug, figurative or otherwise.

(By the way, do you want to know how I was able to capture the picture above in time for this week’s post? It’s because I can make errors occur at will on several of the applications that run on my computer. Make of that what you will. In this case, I was using the spellchecker on a Word document containing hidden text. The error reporting page dealing with this problem suggests I consider upgrading to a more recent version of Microsoft Office - gee, thanks! And may I say how disinterested of you.)

Notice too the rhetorical shift from the Blue Screen of Death to Microsoft's more recent error dialogs. Firstly, the wording of the blue screen placed the blame squarely on the user. An exception 06 has impersonally occurred, sure, but let's not forget who was using the computer at the time, shall we? Yes, I'm looking at you, and now that I think about it it's only fair that you shall lose any unsaved information in all applications. Exhibit number two, on the other hand, shifts the responsibility to the software ('Microsoft Word encountered an error'), is rather more delicate in breaking the news of the disastrous loss of work you just suffered ('if you were in the middle of something'... 'information might be lost') and offers an apology for the inconvenience. Gone too are the machine addresses indicating where the error occurred that most people couldn't read anyhow, and a laudable effort to assume the existence of a human on the other side of the screen follows thence.

All that said, I for one swear just as loudly and blasphemously nowadays following a system crash as I ever have, attempts to soften me and improve my 'user experience' notwithstanding.

And that begs my earlier question of why the culture's default reaction to the notion of the crashing of software is a whimper or shrug, as opposed to a more existentially pessimistic response with deeper enmeshings in the imaginary. If I'm right, that is: you may well disagree. But I struggle to find examples of this resonance outside of Terry Gilliam's Brazil, whose Orwellian regime is made all the more terrifying by its reliance on a bumbling technology of information which makes its brutal exercise of power not less efficient but rather more arbitrary.

Brazil: The Internet is broken.

Although on closer inspection at the centre of Brazil's plot is an error, not a failure, of transmission (leading to the persecution of a Mr. Buttle in place of Mr. Tuttle), and they're not quite the same thing. I'm thinking then perhaps rather of the fears surrounding Y2K, had they led to anything approaching a coherent and consciously articulated critique of the true faith in informatics.

Why do I think any of this matters? Not because I believe we should all fret needlessly, but rather because the image of the crash could (and should, really) undermine some of the more hyper charged and anti-progressive contemporary narratives that hinge on the faultless operation of the informational infrastructure. Digital immortality, that world of nonsense I tentatively and intermittently began to map in the course of the last few weeks, is one obvious such narrative: for the idea that the application of you could crash, that it could fail to compute, is rightly sobering. But of course the very name of the thing, crash, signifies these days the state of the global economy, and it is hardly a coincidence: for the immaterial, fictive, virtual economy of late-stage capitalism is not only predicated on informatics but is in fact its very articulation. It is an operating system, if you will, running on the communications infrastructure, the densely symbolic systems of financial exchange, a political economy that is synonymous with cybernetics, several more representational layers and finally - but a very distant last - a world of things, the raw materials, the real economy, people at work, us.

Right about now, we're sitting in front of the Blue Screen of Death, some of us still thinking, hoping, that it might be possible to press any key, bail this thing out, and who knows, perhaps

Although I wouldn't bet on it myself.

Monday, March 9, 2009

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Behold, a progress bar. That’s what computing is all about: progress, but also making you wait for things. Older people who approach personal computers for the first time are sometimes bemused by this. My parents for instance couldn’t understand why the operating system took so long to load on the machine I gave them before leaving for New Zealand, and most of their mistakes operating their web browser and email client were simply due to a failure to wait. I guess they were used to information technologies such as the television and the phone, where responses to commands are more or less instantaneous.

Another thing you learn pretty early about progress bars is that they lie. There really is no relationship between the time taken for the bar to get to, say, fifty per cent of the way, and how long it will take from there to reach completion. It’s a fact of life. At Microsoft (motto: “We put the H, the U, the B, the R, the I and the S in hubris”) they like to tell you how long exactly a procedure such as a file transfer is going to take, so in addition to the inaccurate progress bar you get a far more inaccurate time estimate such as 114 minutes remaining, which will quickly change into 12 minutes remaining and then gets stuck on 30 seconds remaining for three and a half minutes. At which point the transfer will hang.

So really the only function of the progress bar is to let you know that things are still happening. The alternative device, the ‘please wait’ dial exemplified below (and sourced here) is altogether more honest, but also more anxiogenic.


For who’s to say that the procedure hasn’t in fact stalled, except for the script that makes the little dot go round and round? Besides, the positivist ethos of the computer age demands that progress be represented in a straight line; the circle is philosophically and existentially far too uncomfortable. There is in fact a third variant, a progress bar in the style of chaser lights that combines a constant loop with a sense of forward motion. But this is a horrible hydra, and the most anxiety-inducing device of all.


Why anxious? Because it reminds us, and here comes a pronouncement, that we are always waiting for something (else) to load. It is the nature of networked computing. Electronic texts are seldom if ever self-sufficient, finite, finished units of meaning. They are interconnected, dynamic, unstable. You read, you skip, you jump. You write, you revise, you prune your dead links. A blog isn't a book, or even a diary: it's more like a pile of paper that gets reshuffled, or added to, for as long as its author(s) are able or willing to do so. Most blogs die of authorial exhaustion, as opposed to being neatly concluded once they've said and meant all the things they were supposed to say and mean. And a Twitter feed is like a bottomless scroll, a mystic roll of paper (in the Freudian sense) that is unwound as it is inscribed, for virtual eternity; and a Facebook page is like a magic blackboard that is constantly written and erased, by yourself and others, again for as long as there are people interested enough and willing to do so.

At the crossroads of all these activities, you're never quite finished reading, and you're never quite finished writing, and furthermore it becomes harder to tell where reading finishes, and writing begins. The simple acts of accessing, searching for something, logging in, signing up, choosing x instead of y, can themselves be authorial acts on a network. You read, you write, you are written. All very Escherly.

M.C. Escher, Drawing Hands, 1948

This may seem a somewhat gratuitous appeal to the man and his coolness, but consider the failure of more contemporary artist and art forms to describe and reflect upon such configurations. Here is for instance the sculpture donated by Alexa Internet (that would be the people behind the WayBack Machine) to the US Library of Congress in 1997, and exhibited for some time in the foyer of said library.

Titled World Wide Web 1997: 2 Terabytes in 63 Inches, the sculpture by artist Alan Rath, flashed pages at the rate of two per second per each screen from the half a million sites gathered by Alexa and stored in 44 digital tapes. You can watch a demo here, and perhaps concur with me that its rapidfire, utterly unconnected sequencing of images has got nothing to do with the sense one can make of, on and with the Internet. It strikes one rather as an unwitting parody, or an equally unintentional Luddite invective. But therein lies the key paradox of digital preservation: in order to save the Internet, you need to take it apart, and I'm not the guy who came up with words such as 'harvesting' and 'ingesting' to describe how it's done. The result, valuable and interesting as it still might be, would be an immense text without context, finite, finished, fully and finally loaded, but ultimately as likely to be understood as misunderstood.


So, then: competition time. When I was endeavouring to work out what RSS was all about and how to implement it on the blog, I came across an article in which it was argued that you really need to come up with catchy, sexy titles for your posts as an added incentive for a site's subscribers to actually click through. It's a veritable key to success, the man said. So naturally it immediately got me thinking of how to achieve the exact opposite, and figure out what titles would be least likely to attract one's subscribers or the people who might stumble upon the feed. Which is how I came up with this week's offering. Next week there will be a follow-up post and the first reader to correctly guess the title in the comments will receive a copy of this here book.

If I had to describe it in my own words, I would say that John Kehoe's international bestseller teaches you practical techniques for achieving your goals by harnessing the power within! This fine, fine book will allow you to acquire potent tools in the areas of visualisation, contemplation, prosperity consciousness, self-image, intuition, beliefs and imprinting, fulfilling relationships and healing yourself.

The competition this time is open to a worldwide audience, with the possible exception of Jake (who might have been told the solution a while ago - then again, if it's not the case, go right ahead). I'd also be keen to hear your entries on dull post titles likely to turn people off (in the spirit of the I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue game where you had to come up with words that wouldn't make the audience laugh), and will select the winner amongst those if the correct one doesn't turn up.

Monday, March 2, 2009


Achille Campanile was an Italian humourist who did his best work in the Nineteen Twenties and Thirties, in novels such as Ma che cos’è questo amore and Se la luna mi porta fortuna. However my favourite writings of his are the very short plays he wrote during that period, and that were collected decades later by Rizzoli in Tragedie in due battute ('Two-Line Tragedies'), a book that my sister found at a remainder bookshop’s and gave me for my birthday in 1993. See, thanks to that inscription of hers I’m able to pinpoint the exact day when I became a fan.

Here’s a typical two-line tragedy:


THE HUSBAND Coming home with a large parcel
I brought the gas masks.

Great. Tonight we can go to sleep with the gas on.

Critic Guido Almansi coined for Campanile the term ‘umorismo scemo’, dumb humour, although he didn’t mean it derogatorily. It had to do with levels of surreality and confounded expectations - the Marx Brothers brand of silliness would be another example. Yet very occasionally there was a little edge in Campanile as well. The above excerpt for instance might seem entirely innocuous to a contemporary reader but at the time would have had a slightly different resonance. Here are two kids modelling the spring/summer fashions in Rome in 1935:

Photo by Adolfo Porry Camporel

Those are uniforms, by the way: the boy is a balilla, the girl a piccola italiana. At different ages you’d graduate to another stage of fascist life. For boys it went like this: at age four you’d become a figlio della lupa (son of the she-wolf - that’d be the kind beast at whose teats suckled the mythical foundling founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus) and wear your first black shirt; then at eight you were made a balilla, at fourteen an avanguardista. For the girls it went figlia della lupa, piccola italiana and then giovane italiana. My mother was seven (hence a daughter of the she-wolf) when she was made to line up alongside the railway tracks outside her village to be part of the cheering crowd that saluted Hitler’s train as it sped past towards Rome during his visit to Italy in 1938. And she would have been wearing a piccola italiana uniform much like the one pictured above some years later, when she was made to greet with a poem and a bunch of flowers her former neighbour, a father of fourteen returning on a train from Russia, minus his legs.

Meanwhile throughout Italy the process of 'defascistizzazione' (literally de-fascistisation, but I prefer Graziella Parati's phrase 'unbecoming fascist') was about to begin in earnest. Mussolini had been deposed a mere twenty-four hours earlier, on July 25th, 1943, when the fellow in this picture started chiseling off the fasces from the headquarters of the national postal service in Milan.

Photo by Vincenzo Carrese

Already the Ventennio, the twenty years of Mussolini’s rule, was well on its way to never having happened at all. A marginally more figurative bracket was about to be closed, in the form of the amnesty of 1946 that bears the name of Palmiro Togliatti.

Except nowadays the spectres and the apologists of the old regime are everywhere, of course, including the seats of government. It will happen when history and memory are not so much repressed as removed, when symbols are banned in place of ideas, when you allow yourself to be convinced (neorealism has a lot to answer for) that we weren’t so bad, that the monsters of history lived elsewhere and spoke a harsher tongue. The circle of reconciliation hasn’t quite been closed yet: we still insist to celebrate and demonstrate on April 25th, on the day of the liberation, only in the name of those who died to defeat fascism; but perhaps it’s only a matter of time before the slogan of the far right Movimento Sociale, ‘Italiani - Dimenticate la guerra civile’, forget the civil war, will reach the highest institutions. Somebody then will have to get up that ladder again and restore the fasces to their original glory, for the citizens pay their taxes and have had to put up with broken buildings for far too long as it is.

And what say you, dear reader, isn’t this a picturesque view:

We’re at Antrodoco, in the province of Rieti, in central Italy. The pine forest above the village was artfully planted between 1938 and 1939 to spell out DVX, that is to say ‘il duce’, that is to say Mussolini. After years of tireless campaigning, local tourism councillor Clarice Serani finally managed to obtain funding from the regional administration to restore and protect the monument. ‘The project had been stuck for years,’ he explained at the time, ‘because people who weren’t from around here insisted to give to this piece of writing an ideological meaning.’

Stupid out of towners

Now can you imagine a portion of the Black Forest spelling out the word Führer, and the local population being allowed to take pride in it and call it a 'monument'? No? Well, the genius of Campanile had foreseen exactly what the Italian reaction to this news would be. Take it away, Achille:


The scene takes place nowhere.

Keeps silent.


The historical images are from the catalogue of the exhibition Fotografia della libertà e delle dittature - da Sander a Cartier-Bresson 1922-1946, Fondazione Antonio Mazzotta, Milan 1995.
On a not entirely unrelated note, Wellington readers ought to make their way to the National Library over the next couple of weeks to view the excellent Welcome Sweet Peace exhibition about the return of New Zealand soldiers from World War I, with materials from the Alexander Turnbull Library collections. I'll put up info on the Web side of the exhibition soon, but it's worth seeing it in person - closes March 14. A guided tour with curator and all-round nice guy Andrew Francis is scheduled for 12.10 pm on Thursday 12th.

Update: You Cannot Press a Flower Between Two Web Pages*

This is little more than a placeholder, but I quivered in my boots (unseasonable, I know) when I chanced upon the hand crafted books of Pania Press, and had to wave frantically to you all about it and at least point you to their Web front, for you to visit forthwith. Here's an image from their most recent creation, Minotaur, reproduced with kind permission.