The conductor Carlos Kleiber emigrated as a child from Nazi Germany to South America, spending his teenage years there. To judge from Youtube videos of rehearsals, he spoke both English and German fluently but with an accent. Perhaps his Spanish was word-perfect, but what does that mean? Alan Turing proposed the test named after him, that if someone talking to a computer through a link couldn’t tell it from a human being, then it could be considered sentient. Judging a person’s linguistic competence by their ability to “pass” is similarly unreflective about what constitutes the achievement in question, though in either case it’s a tough challenge. I recently met an Englishman — unmistakeably, uncontestably so by that criterion — born and bred in Paris, to English parents. Having lived in Brazil for eight years or so, my own English has had little recent fresh input, and there were a couple of occasions during the conversation when we both stumbled. The accent is so telling because it is part of one’s social and cultural identity, within a language as well as between languages, and it’s surely for that reason it is unusual for adult learners of a new language ever to “pass” for native. But it is a marker of native competence, not its substance. That is made up of tranches of lived experience in the language in question such as having passed through the education system speaking it, as well as reading and writing more generally. The monoculture of the nation-state favours the concentration of identity and experience within a single language for each individual — the melting-pot washes away difference in three generations — but it was not always so and need not always be today. Woodrow Wilson’s criterion of linguistic self-determination to reshape the map of Europe a century ago instituted rather than reflected the sweeping away of the cosmpolitanism of two defunct empires, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian, with messy and ugly consequences up to the present.

The carnival of Recife and Olinda bears little resemblance to the floats and samba of Rio commonly associated with it abroad. Typically, a small group of people gets together to pay for the band of musicians that goes at the front of the “bloco”, headed by a standard-bearer. If you buy the T-shirt (which pays for the music and other trappings) you’re a member, so the bloco may grow considerably larger over the years. I don’t know how many there are, but it feels like hundreds. On the day everyone gathers at the starting point, then eventually they head off around the city, the band leading the way, singing their song. This generally occurs once at the “preview” during the weeks leading up to carnival, where there will be more space and time, and then again in the city centre during the four days of carnival proper. Carts and stalls appear selling beer and snacks. The whole thing is in principle regulated by the municipal authorities, with agreed routes, but the impression is one of utter anarchy, in its element in narrow, winding streets rather than processing along an avenue. It is the city’s Saturnalia, a safety valve. Despite the democratic symbolism of the people taking over the street — good luck to you if you are caught up in the middle of it in your car — there aren’t generally any obvious political overtones, though I’m told that was more common in the past, and there is almost never any trouble. Carnival continued every year throughout the miltary dictatorship (1964 – 1985).

Photographer unknown

Photographer unknown — Recife Antigo

Over the past twenty years the city has grown vertically, the height of apartment blocks in proportion to advances in construction techniques and the inflation of property prices. The seafront is a particular hotspot, and the logical conclusion of the process can be seen in Boa Viagem, the city’s main beach, which is now obscured by shadows just after lunchtime. The view from the apartments that cause them must be spectacular. A number of new projects of forty storeys and more, such as the twelve-tower “Novo Recife” on Cais Estelita, are in the pipeline for the old city centre. If they are built they will transform and dominate the skyline, not with new civic buildings, nor the engines of commerce (in the spirit of the World Trade Centre in New York) — but with lavish accommodation for the city’s most privileged individuals, turning their back on it to face the open sea.

Photo by Edinéa Alcântara

Photo by Edinéa Alcântara

While the symbolism of such developments is important, their impact is also very concrete. As a housing model, they are predicated on the car, surrounded by high walls and electric fences, creating an urban desert around them, with no contact between residents and neighbourhood. These streets are not only unattractive and unwelcoming, but dangerous. They create the divided, walled-off city as well as symbolising it. This social deficit is compounded by environmental ones: increased traffic, higher flood risk because of the displacement of green areas, and large temperature increases for the same reason, compounded by reduced ventilation. These costs affect everyone but are ignored by the developers, who benefit from such infrastructure as the city has as a common good, but put very little back.

Photo by Catarina Cabral

Photo by Catarina Cabral

It is a classic market failure, where the absence of effective regulation means the leading criterion for housing and other projects is the developer’s profit, not the collective impact on the shared space of the city. More dwellings do need to be built, and the private sector needs an incentive to do so, but this change in the urban landscape should take place in a coherent manner that takes account of the needs of all social groups and that will make the city a more pleasant place to live in the long term, with diverse and bustling thoroughfares and open spaces. Neither a developer nor the architect nor the prospective purchaser can easily have such an all-round view of the city as the complex social system it is, and so there is a need for effective, transparent and robust planning.

Photo by Leonardo Cisneiros

Photo by Leonardo Cisneiros

Protest in Latin America tends to be associated with revolution, regarded as a challenge to the political order rather than a sign that it is in good democratic health — or one of the checks and balances needed to stop government drifting towards an arbitrary, authoritarian stance and being hijacked by special interests. “Empatando tua vista” [blocking your view] is a new carnival bloco advancing just such a local, specific protest about the unsavoury property speculation that is tearing the city apart. The format departs from tradition in that the participants, dressed as indentikit skyscrapers in pastel shades, go to other carnival events where they tower over the crowd, blocking the view and discussing the issues with all comers.

Photo by Leonardo Cisneiros

Photo by Leonardo Cisneiros

My wife, Edinéa, is in the thick of the action, helping make the costumes and rallying the troops, so I really had no choice but to get involved. As a result, I’ve seen a lot more of carnival this year than of late, and spending it in such company does seem to show it in its best light, just as carnival itself flourishes at the intimate scale of the traditional urban fabric that is under such threat from bland development centred on individual aspiration, rather than a sense of community and place. That community — the human face of the abstraction “civil society” — is also a concrete thing, or perhaps it would be better to say flesh-and-blood, embodied in the conviviality of the streets. This city could do with much more of it.

Photo by Ana Videla

Photo by Ana Videla

See also the video version here.

What a wonder if my dogs could receive the gift of language for a day: I could explain to them why chasing cats is bad, how to approach roads, and the point of taking bitter pills. Man and dog have no magic to bridge the gap between their different minds and we have to make do with guesswork and persistence, unable to share each other’s outlook. Some time ago while reading J.M Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello I posted about Nagel’s essay on ‘What it is like to be a bat’, which I bought, skimmed through, and mislaid before I’d picked up the thread. As far as I remember, the bat question is just a foil to questions Nagel has about possible knowledge of other human minds: we will readily assent both to the unattainability of bats’ subjective experience, and the fascination it has, preparing the way to let go of some cherished intersubjective illusion. I lay these cards on the table in case of any resemblance beween Nagel’s argument and the insight that occurred to me when thinking about the intransigence of dogs — and people, too. If only they could see things from our point of view, difficulty and disagreement would melt away: loud music played by teenagers, conflict between pedestrians, cyclists and motorists, domestic discord, office politics. Through some one-off telepathic epiphany harmony and order would be instantiated. But this is not possible. Understanding comes from the effort of embodied communication through the Byzantine contrivance of words. The poverty of words allows them to bear your meaning and mine though we can’t enter one another’s minds. Their public, impartial flavour means they can be used as neutral tokens to negotiate a shared understanding that did not exist prior to them. Indeed, the game isn’t ever played fairly, but fairness is its regulatory ideal. (I’m thinking of Rawls’s prelapsarian colloquy on justice and Habermas’s uncompelled reasonable discussion.) As fairness recedes and the gloves come off, eventually the talking stops.

This suggests telepathy is impossible in the same way and for fundamentally the same reason as knowledge of what it is like to be another species. We cannot even know our own minds in that way. Mind is material, not in the sense of a reduction to grey matter, but because it can only travel when embodied acoustically in molecules vibrating in space and time — or of course markings inked on paper or gouged out of stone. From the necessity of embodiment follows the public nature of the tokens as well as the need to play out their exchange in real time, in the flesh. For ethological reasons, that generally feels most comfortable in gatherings small enough to fit round a table; the very fact that it takes a certain amount of time to walk out of the room affects the tenor of the conversation.

This blog frequently refers in passing to Christian scripture and concepts that may disquiet the secular liberal humanist reader and appear to suggest a certain religious allegiance. The second effect may be an unavoidable consequence of the first, but if so, it is a sign of the times and their philistinism. The dominance of Christianity in the West over two thousand years means the Bible shaped thought and sensibility ten times more deeply than the secular canon of Greece and Rome. The meagre threadbare phrases of the gospel are hooks for whole bodies of reflection that followed afterwards, just as they look back to the verbal and spiritual riches of the Hebrew scriptures. That was the natural framework and background for grappling with any question whatever, about society, politics, character, and the human condition with its feet of clay. The English language bears witness to it in every sentence, but because we no longer bring up our children with the words of scripture, those thoughts may become fuzzy and terminally indistinct. My occasional foregrounding of these references to our common heritage is a gentle plea for cultural literacy. It will be plain enough to those who have studied theology what personal religious commitments, if any, this entails; but that’s beside the point of these posts. All the same, I can well do without readers who would turn up their nose at a writer just because of his faith.

I thought I’d posted about “entitlement”, and came to write a new post bouncing off that one; but I can’t find it. Perhaps it’s buried in some other topic. Anyway, the gist was to note the usage of the word to mean practically its opposite, particularly in the States: someone who you say is “entitled” (not to anything in particular) has in fact, you feel, a misplaced sense of entitlement. Not specifying what to only underlines the gargantuan proportions of such a freeloading attitude. It’s further implied that a sense of entitlement is always essentially misplaced; people should have the get-up-and-go to solve their own problems (or perhaps rather the humility to accept them; it’s usually other people we are talking about). The idea of legitimate entitlement to anything is recast as a foil to fecklessness. The very fact that you lay claim to something puts you in the wrong.

What I wanted to add today (after so long without posting) is a generalisation of this Catch-22 thinking. First, another example: according to the Twelve Steps, you are either “in denial” or “in recovery”. The idea of healthy moderation — let alone Dionysian exuberance — is excluded; laying claim to it condemns you from your own mouth. This looks like an expression of Puritan distaste for all worldly pleasure, and it would then figure that the various “Anonymous” movements are particularly at home in the US. The classic example is alcoholism, but there are any number of others, including such nebulous pop-psychology as ‘co-dependency’. Any such theory offers a total explanation of the sphere of human life it covers, in particular of disgreement with the theory.

Moving further afield, three heuristic life tools including the same mechanism are Marxism, feminism and psychoanalysis. The catch in the first two cases is when the situation of the subject is used to delegitimise disagreement: you would say that, wouldn’t you … I rush to affirm my sympathy with all three, albeit guarded. Although I think I might well be among the first against the wall when the Revolution comes, and prefer my radicalism from the armchair, because the cleansing apocalyptic fire is after all destructive, I believe in the possibility of the psychotherapeutic relationship as a humane discipline. It’s just that it’s open to misuse. This can most easily be seen in the vulgarisation of Freudianism in popular discourse, of which I suppose the term “in denial” is an example.

The false dichotomy of Matthew 12:30 is an archetype of this form of thought: “He that is not with me is against me”. Jesus of course also said “he that is not against us is for us” (Luke 9:50) — a less paranoid strategy, but the same insistence on the importance for others of one’s own question. Religious matters (in the sense in which Christianity or Judaism are religions unlike Graeco-Roman polytheism) are by definition personal, not to say existential; it is all about who we are and where we stand, which are the legitimate business of psychoanalysis too. But only if we choose to enter into that therapeutic covenant. In the public forum all must have equal standing be they black or white, man or woman, stoic or epicurean. No-one stands in judgement over their neighbour, whatever they may think of them privately.

This piece in the Guardian looks like a version of Jonathan Franzen’s preface to his translation of a selection of essays by Karl Kraus. Franzen draws an analogy between Kraus’s critique of Viennese slickness a century ago and the glossiness of Apple’s products, as opposed to their main rival; just as Germanic plainness is preferable to superficial French chic, more honest, less diabolical, so PC clunkiness is more appealing than the sulphurous smoke and mirrors of the ergonomically superior Mac. Kraus is not being jingoistic because really, he has nothing against Gallic sophistication — just what passes for it in his own cultural sphere.

The waters are now muddied because although Microsoft can never catch up nor entirely shed its basic charmlessness, it has followed the same path towards a better-greased ride for the user. To see what Franzen is getting at — why he would knowingly choose a worse tool with which to exercise his craft — it helps to see Apple’s anti-PC advertising campaign. The following from his novel Freedom is tangentially indicative, too. Richard is on a train:

[...] his non-Apple MP3 player was loaded with a track of pink noise — white noise frequency-shifted towards the bass end and capable of neutralising every ambient sound the world could throw at him — and by donning big-cushioned headphones and angling himself toward the window and holding a Bernhard novel close to his face, he was able to achieve complete privacy until the train stopped in Philly. Here a white couple in their early twenties, wearing white T-shirts and eating white ice cream from waxed-paper cups, settled into the newly vacated seats in front of him. The extreme white of their T-shirts seemed to him the color of the Bush regime. The chick immediately reclined her seat into his space, and when she finished her ice cream, a few minutes later, she tossed the cup and spoon back under her seat, where his feet were. (p. 371)

The passage is all about the colours.

Franzen’s choice omits the third contender, Linux. It too can now be pretty slick, and needs many fewer hardware bucks to achieve that bang. But as I said, the waters have become muddied: Linux is the original Cinderella or Cordelia of the OS family tree. The dominance of computers and other electronic gadgetry over human life and culture is so recent that some historical background may be in order. When I first saw the point-and-click interface in the early nineties (it was an early Mac) I was convinced the gimmick would never catch on. Those ‘folders’ and ‘icons’ are merely a visual representation of what is still the underlying structure where files (whether data or programs) are organised in a hierarchy of directories (PC: folder). The concept is recursive: a directory may contain files or yet more directories, and so on. It is much more efficient to navigate up and down them with text and keyboard than with a mouse, but that black screen has no immediate visual appeal at all. It is über-clunky. The genius of the mouse is that it is easy to grasp; the learning curve is short and shallow, all thorns tastefully removed, as enticing as the road to hell. There is even an element of manual satisfaction about it, like a video joystick. It’s child’s play, though it’s telling that the appeal only tends to take hold as the latency phase draws to a close.

This graphical interface truly facilitates some tasks, above all those that would be inconceivable without it (such as architectural design), but it has opened the way to ease of use in the sense of being able to do something (“make a home movie”) as easily as falling off a log, without understanding the process, which is given as little salience as possible: easy, that is, as in facile, with very limited control over the result, like the difference between an SLR camera and point-and-snap, where whatever is least out of the ordinary is unobtrusively, silently preferred; creative alternatives (such as depth of field) are kept in the box, making it harder to master the true range of possibilities. On the other hand, function creep leads to the accumulation of clutter, like a cheap stereo with a pointless graphical equaliser, so that a word processor tries and fails to do DTP, offering features far beyond the needs of someone writing a letter or a report for the office, but without the precise control of layout and the disposition of elements across the page that would make them meaningful. Such fool’s gold doesn’t just obfuscate, it corrupts, drawing our eye away from whatever we might usefully be doing. Whether the computer offers too little or too much, it enfeebles.

Though Linux too is now clothed in a graphical layer of some sophistication, this is done (for the most part) more transparently, and the substance beneath is easily accessible. Indeed, in the case of Windows from Vista on, that substance (DOS) doesn’t even really exist any more; there’s Faustian pacts for you. The same is true of the iPhone (so I am reliably informed by an app developer from Palo Alto). In sum, Jonathan Franzen, you should use Linux because it works better than Mac and is more honest than PC: your cake and eat it. It is not an unrelated point that Linux is fully open, it does not keep its workings hidden away (though they are likely to keep turning over quite well unattended and unremarked); indeed it invites scrutiny. I will resist the urge to step up onto the open source evangelical soapbox — it is a reasonable enough starting point to want the machine to “just work” — but the affinity between ergonomics, feel and ideology is elective, that is, no coincidence. If the user is infantilised and encouraged to be passive, click and consume, a shadow is cast over the soul. After all, that’s why one might prefer the hair shirt of worse over better, seen purely in terms of effectiveness as a tool. If slick smells of sulphur, follow your nose before the enchantment dulls your senses.

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