Monday, April 27, 2009

The Seven Words You Can Never Use on the Web (except, not really)

My grandfather was a lovely and caring man, but he had a filthy, filthy mouth. Think a white Eddie Murphy, older, portlier and more jovial looking, not to mention a lot more Italian. I say Murphy because in my grandfather too the cussing didn't have a semantic value so much as a rhetorical one, having to do with the rhythms of speech. It was his way of making full use of the vernacular.

But naturally I didn't realise any of that when I was a kid. We used to visit him and nonna for the weekend a couple of times a month, and then on the Monday and the Tuesday I had to be patiently deprogrammed from speaking like him. Not that my mates or even the teachers at school would have necessarily understood - mercifully the dialects were different enough. And in truth even I didn't quite understand, they were very flowery words and phrases that I enjoyed uttering and vaguely knew I wasn't supposed to, that it was grown-up talk, but their full and gloriously dirty meaning didn't actually become known to me until some years later, by which time he had passed away.

I think if you swear and don't know that you're swearing, it doesn't count, right?

As a matter of fact I was quite a prudish kid. Which is odd, in that my parents never consciously raised me that way. My nonna, she did have a few hang ups. Some religious weirdness - by which I mean actual weirdness, she wasn't pious or churchy in anything approaching a traditional sense - which might have rubbed off. At any rate in my early teens I didn't wallow in the smut quite as enthusiastically as many of my contemporaries. There was a little time lag there. And I was a bit slower in making full and conscious use of the vernacular, too.

But eventually I caught up. Perhaps because I was a bit older than some by that stage, I can recall the self-conscious feeling. I never smoked, but I always likened the experience: you try some of those words on, it's like puffing on your first cigarettes: you look like a total idiot. It takes a while for the proper gestures to set in and the coolness to emerge; you learn to follow your own rhythms and it becomes a form of expression, for better or worse. In some people, it's an art form (I mean the swearing, not the smoking), and it compels you to stand back and admire. I recall for instance how a friend of my father's who was known for not lacking in that particular area went to Tuscany for a carpentry job and came back soundly defeated: "They have a swear word for everything down there," he said, and gave the example of madonna chiodina, the particular incarnation of the Virgin Mary that you curse when you're hammering away and you hit one of your fingers instead of the nail. That is called being specific.

In one of his shows Roberto Benigni had a rather wonderful monologue in which he just enumerated the words, in Italian but especially in the Tuscan dialects, for the male and female genitalia, some of them highly poetic, others positively painterly. And you only have to think of the rhymes of Dante or the prose of Boccaccio to realise the long pedigree and history of that particular craft, the sedimentary cultural process involved. George Carlin, in thanking the fans who contributed over the years to expanding a similar list of his own to a most respectable corpus of 2,443 Dirty Words, had this to say
But, of course, the real credit belongs to the thousands of people over the centuries who invented these phrases in the first place, folk poets, all. To those who sent me their suggestions, you know who you are, and I thank you from the bottom of my farting clapper.

Carlin's list had begun of course with just seven words, the seven words you can never say on television (transcript: here, and YouTube audio of the original routine: here), from his Class Clown tour and album of 1972, the high mark of a fifty year career of consistent genius, as well as a turning point: for the moment he crossed that line and made his work once and for all a study of the use and misuse language, Carlin embarked in a progressively more embittered and nihilistic, anti-humanist journey that a quarter of a century later would come to be perfectly crystallised in the title of one of his final tours: You Are All Diseased.

George Carlin died in June of last year, JG Ballard just this last week, and it may be timely to observe that they were both reluctant misanthropes; they wanted to love people, and I am quite convinced that they did, but in fact precisely because they did, they just couldn't bring themselves to look away and stop reporting on the atrocity exhibition of the social. For Carlin, it all came under the rubric of what he called bullshit, that is to say the sum of the misrepresentations, the distortions, the lies we tell ourselves and one another. And there’s no prize for guessing the words and phrases that he considered truly obscene. Here's a sampler, from a routine on adspeak in 40 Years of Comedy, but his choice of targets was by no means comfortingly confined to advertising, politics or religion. 'Bullshit is everywhere', he would often observe. And it’s bad for you.

The seven dirty words landed Carlin in some trouble: he was arrested for disturbing the peace while delivering the routine in Milwaukee in 1972, and a broadcast of the same led to a radio station being sued by the FCC in a case that went all the way to the US Supreme Court, which ruled against the radio station in 1978. Pretty ordinary acts of censorship, by most standards, but indicative of the extent in which the modern state still regards controlling public speech as a key to its proper functioning, especially in the area of sexuality. The degree to which the expression of political dissent is tolerated by comparison in Western countries should make us wonder what it is about the language of the body and sex that makes it so dangerous and subversive. Quoth George: ‘These are the words that will infect your soul, curve your spine, and keep the country from winning the war,’ and there must be a number of people out there who believe it to be quite literally the case.

For these people, some of whom happen to be politicians, the Internet represents the ultimate threat but also an opportunity. For the grand contemporary narrative of the migration of the social onto a single electronic platform, no matter how vast, offers tantalising prospects of total control. Suppose you could search for indecent or inappropriate speech, however defined, and selectively switch off whole regions of the Internet. It might just be technically possible, given the right amount of political willpower. Over at Up Front, Emma Hart wrote some time ago and then updated us about one such attempt going by the name of Clean Feed, the Australian government's plan to introduce mandatory filtering of all Internet content at ISP level in order to, as she explained,
remove child pornography. And other pornography. And R-rated content. And violence. And 'inappropriate content'.
You can no doubt see where this is going. But setting aside the implications regarding free speech for the briefest of moments, a glaring problem with filters of this kind is that they don't work: they leave out content that fits nobody's definition of inappropriateness, and fail to catch much content that does. I know because some years ago I experimented a bit with Net Nanny, and then scanned my computer with a now-defunct piece of software called ContentAudit, which produced a host of ludicrous results - files containing the words sex or cheerleader, regardless of context, but also and more entertainingly the word "dice", that in Italian means "says", so as you can imagine my hard drive was rife with it. I was promptly flagged as a problem gambler.

Clumsy and clunky and ultimately useless as it was, ContentAudit did have something going for it, the following delicious piece of advertising from 2002:

So much stuff going on there, a whole world of fear and ambivalence, of self-loathing and self-surveillance. One possible reading is, I am an Internet user, with no interest in anything remotely inappropriate, and yet porn is so darn insidious it found its own way onto my computer! Somebody please help me get rid of it. And another is, okay, I frequent the odd pornographic website, but I'm a father, respectable, well dressed, good hair, Irish! I couldn't allow it to be found on my machine. How can I be sure that I've deleted it all? Somebody please help me conceal the true me!

There are tools these days that help you manage your inner conflicts and public personae, and keep your Dr Jekyll at an arm's length from your Mr (or Mrs) Hide. The PrivateBrowsing feature of Firefox would be one of them, and its dedicated wiki urges us not to assume that its sole purpose is to view pornography: you may want to enter a private session to organise a surprise party for your loved one, or make arrangements to cheat on them. It's really up to you. And I welcome that, and think that it provides a helpful counter-narrative to the madness of the Clean Feed. For there is no such thing as a global filter for culture, communication and expression: what is objectionable to me might be perfectly appropriate for my neighbour; my medicine is bound to be somebody else's poison. And a trip in the dark woods can be an opportunity for self-exploration, too. There is nothing inherently wrong with going there, having a private space, and feeling that you don't need to always leave a trail of breadcrumbs, a cached trace. PrivateBrowsing is all of those things.

But beyond that, as Carlin reminds us, 'words are all we have, really'. It will do no good to demonise them, to sanitise them, to regulate them. Words will find a way, mutate if necessary. Here's Emma, again, in an email conversation she allowed me to quote
One of the things we get [at Bardic Web] is that people invent artificial languages - conlangs like Klingon - for their characters, and the first thing they do is come up with a word for 'fuck'. Frack or f'nark or skag or skrun goes through filters, and also fails to offend people who'd be offended by the use of the word 'fuck', even though the meaning is the same.
In order to fool word recognition software, both the computer's and the one we keep in our skulls: that's how we got pr0n, that most postmodern of idioms, filter-fooling, speech-empowering, playful and naughty, signalling awareness, a shared understanding of the means to sully the feed, as it were. For I would like to propose that pornography is one thing, pr0nography another. The former is entirely consistent with the neoliberal ethos and there is nothing remotely subversive or morally threatening about it: its consumers are credit card holders, its owners pay their taxes, its deployment is strictly metered. The latter is produced and shared freely and with consent, unregulated, subversive insofar as it leverages a self-conscious and critical sexual politics, if at times uncomfortable and often problematic. Try this blogger for size if you think that an easy distinction can be made between dirty and clean, appropriate or inappropriate, damaging and empowering.

I think the distinction between porn and pr0n has memory implications, too, for while we wait for the revolution of semantic search engines, word recognition, for better or worse, is what enables recall on the Net, as well as erasure and enforced amnesia by means of censoring filters. It plays out therefore the same tension between the desire to remember and be remembered, on the one hand, and the fear of leaving too revealing and permanent a trace, on the other, that accompanies all our digital journeys, and needs to be laid out for us whole, unfiltered, so that we can understand what we're about.

Hence I'm breaking out a new tag this week, and shall come back to it, but in the meantime you could do worse than bookmarking Emma's blog. She's by no means a single-issue blogger, but you won't find many more engaging writers or better guides in this area, and I recommend her from the bottom of my farting clapper.

Monday, April 13, 2009


Living through or learning about the history of post-war Italy has always involved the painful cognisance of two sets of intertwining dates, of natural disasters and acts of mass murder. It goes something like this. 1947: Salvatore Giuliano's men open fire on a group of marchers celebrating workers' day at Portella della Ginestra, killing eleven people, including two children. 1963: a massive overflow from the basin of the Vajont dam floods the valley below, killing 2,000 people. 1969: sixteen people are killed by a bomb planted at the Banca dell'Agricoltura in Piazza Fontana, Milan. 1976: the Friuli earthquake kills nearly one thousand people. 1980: a bomb kills 85 people at the railway station in Bologna. 1980: the Irpinia earthquake kills over 2,500 people. 1993: in two separate bombings the mafia kills judges Falcone and Borsellino, along with their police escorts, for a total of eleven victims. 2009: the earthquake in Abruzzo. Those familiar with the history will know just how many dates I left out in order to get to the events of this last week in reasonably short order.

The toll of the earthquake that hit L'Aquila and its surroundings stands currently at 294. The Italian word for toll is bilancio, as in the balance of a ledger, and has in common with its English counterpart the sense that in such events humanity pays a price that needs to be accounted for. It's the cost of modernity, of living vertically, of occupying shaky grounds, in the same way that the road toll is the cost of the most convenient means of personal transportation ever designed. It gets factored in, and whether you or any of yours will fall one day on the wrong side of the ledger, is a largely if not entirely a matter of fate. That is why it is an elementary matter of respect that people don't seek to apportion blame in the aftermath of such disasters, but rather unite in mourning and expressions of solidarity.

Or at least that is what eminent columnist Indro Montanelli and others wrote in the days after the tragedy of the Vajont dam, fulminating against the local activists and journalists who had told the rest of the country of the many warnings gone unheeded about the instability of the mountain sides surrounding that great public work, pride of our construction industry. Warnings to which Sade-ENEL, the partly state owned company in charge of the project, responded by accelerating the filling of the reservoir. And it was during the filling that a block of approximately 270 million cubic metres of rock detached from one wall of Monte Toc and slid into the lake at velocities of up to 110 kilometres per hour, causing a 250-metre high wall of water that came crashing down the opposite side of the dam, burying Longarone and its surrounding villages under a river of mud. "Everybody Knew", ran the headline in the opposition paper L'Unità. "Vultures", responded Montanelli, soon echoed by the electoral posters of the ruling Christian Democratic party.

"Jackals! [that is to say, vultures]
On the tragedy of the Vajont the Communist Party has woven a despicable political speculation.

I shall not bore you (nor, alternatively, outrage you) with the history of the criminal trials that were to follow, except to note that by cruel coincidence at one point the proceedings, in order to shield the judges and investigators from political pressure, were moved from Rome to L'Aquila and to the very buildings - the court, the public prosecutor's office - that today lie in ruins. So even as I write this the L'Aquila investigators are forced to work in public squares, or in their cars, to write up a new inquest and pin down other culprits, the builders of modern hospitals, public works and apartment buildings that had no business crumbling the way they did in an earthquake of that magnitude, and that caused much of the loss of life of this past week. Early examinations speak of smooth steel, of concrete reinforced in name only, or mixed in with beach sand to cut costs (but beach sand contains sodium chloride, and in time will corrode the nearby iron). Some of these practices, no doubt, will turn out to be barely illegal, or not illegal enough. Some of the firms will have ceased to exist, or their owners will be dead or impossible to find. Should anybody be brought to trial, it will be years from now, and their sentences inadequate. It is how these things work in a country where even disasters have very little that is natural about them.

And that is in fact one thing the items on the list at the top of this post have in common: the sense of justice denied, not only to the victims of calculated murder by also those who died so that the country could produce more energy, or the cities expand more quickly and cheaply. A justice that arrives too late, or not at all, while the State watches from the sidelines or connives with organised crime in order to profit from the reconstruction funds, leading to the disaster in Irpinia being eventually renamed "the never-ending earthquake". All in the name of the country that we aspired to be, the Italy of the economic miracle. And here's another thing that the items in the list have in common: for the cowardly, premeditated killings aimed at spreading fear and quelling social unrest ultimately served the same narrative as the unregulated construction of mega-dams or unsafe buildings. Let Italy be a modern country, a rich country. Let us embrace progress. Let us be creative and hard-working, not rebellious or backward looking. So that we can finally cease to be our atypical, folkloristic, lovable and more than a little laughable selves and be more like them.

They, them, the others, the modern free-market democracies Italy has looked up to for quite some time. There is a sense in which the crumbling ruins our frantic and unsustainable development become inscribed into a greater phenomenon, the international crisis of political and economic institutions. It is from this broader perspective that it becomes difficult not to read the images from L'Aquila also as an allegory of a shaken faith in the core engines of economic progress such as real estate, obviously, but also the car industry,

fashion and advertising,

as well as the state of our governing institutions.

Italo Calvino saw all this in 1957, and turned it into a novel entitled La speculazione edilizia. This most Italian of phrases for the phenomenon of uncontrolled and unregulated building has no equivalent in English (just like its cousin cementificazione selvaggia), and was abysmally translated as A Plunge into Real Estate. The novel remains very much a lesser known work, departing from Calvino's previous journeys into the imaginary to tell the very ordinary story of two business partners in a booming seaside town in Liguria, and of a wretched real estate project, but also the story of the price that the country was being asked to pay to belong, to be forward-looking and enterprising, and of the difficulties in articulating an effective opposition when the ideals of progress and work were so cherished on both sides of the political divide.

What I have always taken the book to mean was that la speculazione edilizia was the real article one of our constitution, the way out of poverty and into affluence for a country that couldn't possibly afford it. We wanted to own the land, and the land has been reminding us of the true order of things ever since.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Reverend Awdry's Revenge

A little over a week ago I suffered an injury that was as painful as it was embarrassing. I walked barefoot off a step and landed with all my weight on the pointy wooden base of a toy tree left lying about. Cue some loud bilingual cursing, mixing the short, harsh-sounding and fricative laden expletives of my adoptive tongue, with some flowery, blasphemous and occasionally filthy choice hits from the lingua a me sì tanto cara. And later a trip to the medical centre, stitching, crutches, antibiotics, the works.

I'm really going to have to repackage this unseemly incident as some sort of war wound when I eventually sit down to write my autobiography. But for now it has to go down as karmic revenge for some things I've said in the past, seeing as the offending toy (that I'm not showing here on account of its grossness) belonged to a wooden set headlined by this pair:

My nemeses

Few words could adequately describe my contempt for Thomas the Tank Engine. 'Contempt', obviously, would be one of them. But even that, and the periodical mental outbursts along the lines of 'you've got to be kidding me' that punctuated my early readings to our first-born, weren't enough to ultimately persuade my partner and I to withhold the works of the Reverend W. Awdry from said child, and now his siblings. For one thing, we are not absolutely militant in our selection of the correct set of messages with which to raise the children; for another, there is likely something more insidious in the faux multiculturalism and carefully packaged cuteness and educational content of, say, Dora the Explorer, than in the crudely reactionary parables penned by the reverend. Plus it was simply too popular amongst Joseph's peers, and he enjoyed it very much.

To give a feel for the thing, let us take a minute to examine one of the opening instalments in the literary series, which actually predates the appearance of Thomas himself. One rainy day Henry, a steam engine working on the island of Sodor, enters a tunnel and refuses to come out the other side, fearful that the rain might ruin his beautiful green coat of paint with red stripes. After unsuccessful attempts to plead with him, or pull him out with the help of a nearby engine, without so much as a ultimatum the Fat Director, owner of the local railway, orders that he be walled into the tunnel, and left there 'for always and always and always'. The story ends thusly:
They took up the old rails, built a wall in front of him, and cut a new tunnel. Now Henry can't get out, and he watches the trains rushing through the new tunnel. He is very sad because no one will ever see his lovely green paint with the red stripes again.
But I think he deserved it, don't you?

In a later story we encounter Henry still stuck in tunnel, being taunted by other engines as they pass by ('Poop! Poop! Poop! Serves you right!' bellows Gordon, worker solidarity being at a premium on Sodor) and with no steam left to answer. 'His fire had gone out,' writes Awry, possibly intimating more than he intended. Finally, Henry is let out in order to rescue another engine in trouble, and comes back a changed train, full of discipline and good will. Lesson learned, and with interests, for he's understood in the bargain how to properly look after his appearance:
He is very proud of [his new coat], as all good engines are – but he doesn't mind the rain now, because he knows that the best way to keep his paint nice is not to run into tunnels, but to ask his Driver to rub him down when the day's work over.

'The Sad Story of Henry' comes from a collection entitled The Three Railway Engines, written in 1943 and published at the end of the war. Later stories crystallised the appearance and demeanour of the steam engines, who in the main are children, as well as the figure of Fat Director or Controller, a stereotypical but by no means satirical figure of industrialist in charge of the main piece of infrastructure at Sodor. The titular hero of the modern cartoon and toy empire, Thomas, turns out to be an insufferable character with an inflated sense of self and an overriding desire to grow up to become, in the words that he often parrots from his master, 'a really useful engine', and therein is encapsulated the bludgeoning moral of conformity and compliance of the whole thing. Add some dodgy imagery surrounding the otherness of the diesel engines, or the thuggish underclass status of the goods wagons, not to mention the fact that the only females in the original set of stories are carriages who can aspire at best to be pulled, and the discomfitingly retrograde picture will be complete.

It's just as well Justine and I don't put too much stock in the powers of moral suasion of these early narratives, so long at least as you manage to mix them up with more positive or nuanced messages. That said, our determination to allow the children to grow up bilingual in an English speaking country, which meant that a good proportion of the books and most cartoons available to them would have to be in Italian, forced us to do some especially conscious selections, and naturally we gravitated - or tried to - toward stories that emphasised imagination and possibility, as opposed to instruction and the imperative to fit in and comply. In some cases, we fell back on the stories we loved as children. Justine was recently delighted for instance to find Maurice Sendak's Nutshell Library still in print in the original format, and I've been similarly pleased to rediscover some of the staples of my preschool years, most of which, as it happens, were authored by some seriously militant characters. The little dog Pimpa, who animates all things with her imagination and whom our children adopted in a flash, is the creation of Marco Tullio Altan, whose satirical work in newspapers and weeklies of the Left was headlined in the same years by the legendary factory worker Cipputi.

But a dearer place in my heart will be forever occupied by the poet, short story writer and lifelong member of the Communist Party Gianni Rodari, whom I discovered - and it isn’t really a coincidence - at the same time as I learned to comprehend the power of words to create imaginary worlds and hopefully change the one we've got. Il libro degli errori (The book of mistakes) and Favole al telefono (Fairy Tales over the phone) are books that I reread nowadays with genuine pleasure that borders sometimes on the wonder and exhilaration of way back then.

And just last year I finally discovered, thanks to the extraordinary translations by Anna Sarfatti, the often overtly political but in any case always delightful works of Dr. Seuss, and what a fortunate, happy encounter it was. Lucia subsisted on an almost exclusive diet of Green Eggs and Ham for weeks on end, while her current favourite is the incomparable The Sneetches.

This is really not to say very much at all, except that there is a fine tradition of militant leftist children writing and it's not something I was more than implicitly and vaguely aware of until I had children of my own. Whether these literary encounters will help lead to a set of moral values rather than another, it's doubtful, although I figure they probably won't hurt. But at the same time as I marvel at the extraordinary selection of stories that we are privileged to be able to choose from, and that is likely unprecedented in the history of both our families, I regret the loss of oral tradition, in the mould of the very many rhymes that my grandfather knew, and the few that my father could remember, but especially the well-honed ability that other parents no doubt still have, but that I am completely inept at, of improvising stories on a theme, making do for the lack of an established repertoire or simply for the joy of creating in the moment. That's probably just as well, insofar as Lucia will get extremely cross if we get so much as an adverb wrong when we recite one of her few favourite books or songs, but perhaps that too is a function of the fidelity to such sophisticated texts that we have chosen to be bound to. And that is where the whole 'freedom to imagine' narrative can become conformity of a kind.

My old wooden train from when I was a lad. No tracks required.

A railway is a fine metaphor for the divide in children’s literature between the stories that tell you what kind of child you should be, and those that suggest the kinds of person you could become: for if you’re a train, the only alternative to staying on track is to go off the rails, so it’s either conformity or all-out anarchism and likely destruction. Like in the Jethro Tull song Locomotive Breath, dating back to my childhood but that I discovered some years later, or Francesco Guccini’s coeval La locomotiva, a classic much-bellowed during our family car trips inspired by the true story of anarchist fireman Piero Rigosi, who one day in 1893 seized an engine and sent it crashing at full speed against a stationary carriage at the station of Bologna. That too was a formative text of sorts.

And of course another anarchist sympathiser was Carlo Collodi, the author of Pinocchio, but that - as he himself would most assuredly write - is a story for another day.