Infernal architecture

There are few descriptions of the afterlife in fiction that can’t be traced back to Dante’s imaginative journeys. The whacky afterlife universe depicted in the movie R.I.P.D (Rest in Peace Department) can’t shake off the legacy.

Robert Schwentke’s 2013 fantasy comedy R.I.P.D would be a total waste of most people’s time it it weren’t for its Dantean inspiration. Instead, the movie is just a waste of time. Another reason why good literature doesn’t always lead to good movie-making.

When a Boston police officer is killed by his renegade partner, he is immediately whizzed up to a questionable Heaven where he discovers that everyone has to answer for past crimes in the thereafter – or join R.I.P.D, Inferno’s police force. The task of the R.I.P.D is to catch ‘Deadoes’, the souls of the deceased who refuse to accept their fate and instead return to the world of the living in order to spoil it.

The ascent to where R.I.P.D resides is a helical ride for the recently departed, a cocktail of two shots of Inferno, half a Purgatorio and one of Paradiso.

Sitting under the department of ‘Eternal Affairs’, R.I.P.D is run by a female chief whose role is to give the new recruit a Vergilian tour of the establishment. The movie seems to suggest that if you’re not simply visiting Hell (like Dante the pilgrim), then you’re either a convict or an (infernal) law-enforcement officer, whose job is to keep the damned away from the living.

Dante’s circles of Hell are alluded to in the prison cells of the R.I.P.D precincts and in its staff’s crammed offices. Hell is other people – working in the next cubicle. Something even a film as bad as this one can have us ponder.

Changing the culture

Culture is a delicate thing, but also very stubborn. To change it, it’s never enough to will it, never enough to do one’s best to get it done. In fact, no-one really knows how things change. We have theories, explanations, which, by virtue of being what they are, always look back on the fait accompli. If we understood culture and cultural change, we’d be able to predict it effectively.

Culture is also a mess, most of the times, no matter where we find it, in the household, in the organisation, in the country or in the world. The mess notwithstanding, we cling to meaning trying to understand how change happens, and over time we have come up with some pretty obstinate ideas about how cultural change works. One is the role of the individual; the other the inevitability of positive change. The first gave us the hero, the second gave us progress.

That change starts with an individual is perhaps one of the most tenacious ideas our culture has ever engendered. Once the province of the traditional hero, the job is now open for all. Everyone can contribute, everyone may become an instrument of change. We are all called to change our culture, to act on the belief that we are creatures of tomorrow, and that tomorrow is always better.

It takes a lot to come to the conclusion that change is inevitable. For most of documented human history, change was synonymous with danger and potential harm. The indesirability of change in ancient times has been replaced in modernity by its inevitability – the unreserved conviction that things are going for the better, that the past performance is, this time, a guarantee of future results, that the engine of history lacks a reverse thrust.

Easy target

Why does conflict flare up so quickly on social media compared to other forms of interpersonal communication?

Responding publically on social media platforms is easy. Easier than writing a letter, or showing up to a meeting where the target might be speaking or mingling. And I’m sure very few people agree that an online melee would have equally happened in a room, somewhere, with people around. I’ve been on social media long enough to know that the liberties people take there aren’t transferrable to a physical environment. You may snap at me in a comment, but if you meet me at a post-conference cocktail party, you’re unlikely to behave the same.

Communicating on social media is as remote and mediated an interaction as it can be. Faces (despite Facebook’s ironic branding) dissolve into pixellated avatars and personal, binding names into ‘handles’ and other cute euphemisms. It’s true, Facebook insists on keeping our own names on, but that may be more out of a concern for surveillance than a willingness to bring the platform closer to offline communication modes. The risk and consequences we usually associate with conflict tend to disappear on platforms where the worst that could happen is to get insulted or threatened in writing. As it’s not a big deal, anything goes.

Writing isn’t easy

It’s far easier to learn to read than it is to write. I remember the first word I read on my own before anyone tried to teach me to read. It was the word ‘STOP’ off a traffic sign. The second one was ‘pharmacy’ through the car window. Suprisingly, my parents didn’t take that as an early manifestation of a sense of precaution, one which would never truly come to live in me.

I still remember how I felt when I read those signs. But I don’t remember learning to read. I didn’t wake up one day and said to myself, yesterday I didn’t know how to read, today I do. It just happened.

Writing, on the other hand, was a toilsome operation. If I can’t remember learning to read, I certainly remember learning to write, the endless hours of elementary-school calligraphy, the silky track of cursive script on the heavily-ruled practice page, the exhausted fountain pen findings its feet under the Mordoresque eye of the schoolteacher.

I learned to write in a cursive, ornate hand before I knew how to do a typographic a and b like most of us write today. The ornate hand is now gone and what is left is a hobbling penmanship dragging, instead of having found, its feet across the page.

Reading with the eyes

While watching a movie or listening to a concert may be sharable activities, reading is not. You may get together to watch Netflix, or sit next to each other in a music hall for a symphony (discounting Covid, of course). But you won’t gather in front of a book to share a read.

Reading is an individual activity for as long as it remains visual. Listening to an audiobook, for instance, is not reading. Reading to your kids is not reading, at least not for them. Reading together from a prayer book in church is not reading, either.

Reading is all about the eyes. A page is read differently by everyone, so it can’t be shared. The eyes move differently across the page, the mind might stop here and there, but never in the same places for everyone. Reading a page is a totally different experience from watching a moving picture of a similar duration. Watching a video is a sharable experience because the eyes are captive to the rolling frames. In the case of reading, the page is captive to the moving eyes. As each reader brings different eyes to the page, no single text can be read by two or more people together.

It is no surprise then that reading has always been associated with solitariness. For better or for worse. A wholesome place of refuge or an escape from human company.

The god of reading is a selfish demiurge.

Hanging by a thread

The binding of a medieval manuscript, Lausanne, Bibliothèque cantonale et universitaire – Lausanne, V 1762

Knowledge has always hung by a thread. The threats to the transmission of information from one generation to another, from one culture to another, from one individual to another, have inspired innovative ways to help preserve and recover the vehicles of knowledge.

The flood of information and the apparent boundlessness of knowledge available in almost every medium almost everywhere on the planet can blind us to the distressing fact that knowledge is precarious, and that it takes very little to erase it out of existence. Now more than ever before, as physical media is abandoned in favour of digital forms. And the digital condensation in our hovering clouds can evaporate really quickly.

As the data servers are slowly becoming the new dusty old shelves capable of storing the legacy of the past, we have to wonder to what extent we are meeting the demands of good custodianship. Is hanging by a thread better or worse than hanging by a few electrons?

The written knowledge of the distant past has made it through almost every kind of disruption and destruction over the centuries. Are we sure we can guarantee a similar measure of survival for the knowledge handed down and over to us?

Translation as revelation

If translating from one language into another is, as for Giacomo Leopardi, being “in the shadow of a a language” due to the scale of the task and the irreducibility of one scriptural Lebenswelt to another, then the duty of a translator is not so much to create as to reveal. Reveal other worlds, disclose unsuspected integuments without breaking them, school the mind to become ever more hungry for distant nourishment.

Translatus in Latin means ‘carried across’, and is constructed using one of the most common Latin verbs, fero, to carry, also the root of ‘transfer‘. A translation ferries the reader on the next shore. A translator schleps the cargo of a worldview to homebase.

Some translations are better than others. Some capture more colour, more vividness, without contaminating it too much. But some contamination is inevitable. Every translation bears the sign of the translator, however secret.

The story of Europe is an exciting tale of translations and translators, shadows pilled upon shadows of texts. Rome and Greece, medieval science and the Islamic world, scholastic Europe and Aristotle. Each age is marked by the texts it translates, the worlds it absorbs, the dialogues it mediates.

The writing is on every wall

No cultural shift has been more consequential than when some societies decided that the ideal way to prepare an individual for social life is to keep her in school for 15 years of her life or more.

Modern society prizes cognitive development more than any other type of human development. We are not deemed ready to live with others until we’ve spent a big chunk of our lives rearing our brains. And for most of us in the West, it means spending many years of our lives surrounded by books and people who point us to more books.

The book experiment is extremely recent at the scale of human evolution. Yet the acceleration of visual learning in our culture is remarkable. Five hundred years ago, having access to a book was expensive at best and exceptional at worst. Today, most of us could afford putting together a small private library (though bigger than anyone else’s in the ancient and medieval period), but many choose not to. One of the reasons being that books are everywhere. Information is everywhere, and if books are vessels of information, than the electronic revolution has taken away much of the allure and perceived need of owning books.

It’s been estimated that the average person in an urban milieu encounters between 6 and 10,000 ads every day. And most of these ads will contain text. The writing is on every wall. One reading of Western history is that culture evolved from little to always more text in the life of the average person. That every century brought with it more literacy, more books and more text. That the modern world signaled the banalisation of the written word. That seems to be true nowadays, and the questions we should be asking is, what is next?

A story of numbers

Arabic numbers in use in a 15th-century French manuscript ( Bibliothèque Nationale de France, BNF Latin 14481) 

Imagine the things which could have been achieved if the Arabic numerals had reached Europe sooner. If instead of being developed in the 5th-6th century AD, the Hindu-Arabic number system we now call Arabic had become mainstream in antiquity.

The precursors of the Arabic numerals in Europe had been the Roman numbers, a rather simple system which the Romans had inherited from the Etruscans and upgraded for their own benefit. Thanks to Swiss watches and poor tattoos, the Roman numbers are still around us today.

Ancient and medieval European maths and science had long acknowledged the weakness of the Roman numerical system. Arithmetic was painful when done in Roman, while astronomy, chronology and other early branches of scientific thought suffered a great deal because of their reliance on Roman numerical signs. And when we think of how easy it is to mistranscribe numerals made up of Is, Vs, Cs, Ds, Ls and Ms when copying manuscripts, then the harm is compounded.

This explains how quickly Europeans were to adopt the Hindu-Arabic system. An early form of Arabic numerals reached Europe via Muslim Spain in the 11th century. By the 13th century, Arabic numbers had been comfortably used in scientific writings. By the 14th century, they fed into other types of writing, including the ‘page’ numbering of manuscripts. Towards the beginning of the 15th century, no author of sound mind would think of writing maths with Roman numerals.

Arabic numbers made maths easier. Nay, they made modern science possible.

Where the streets have no name

An idealist’s worst enemy is reality.

The lyrics of U2’s song ‘Where the streets have no name’ may have been inspired by the segregated streets of 80s Belfast, where each street had a religious-economic identity. But 40 years later, we’re far from releasing our streets from the grip of power struggles. There are calls for more and more streets to be renamed so as to conform to the l’air du temps. Why the big deal?

History is a living and breathing thing. The past is all around us, embodied in every particle that gets handed down. Streets are no different. Or should I say, hodonyms, or street names, are no different.

The Romans liked to name their streets. Every Roman town grew around the intersection of two streets, the cardo (north-south axis) and the decumanus (east-west). But most streets had names, like Vicus Sobrius (Sobrius Street), Vicus Piscinae Publicae (Public Pool Street) or Vicus Minervi (Minerva Street). Street names were used for localisation, but also for setting culture in (paved) stone.

Streets reflect the local culture and its people. They create culture by memorialising the achievements and ideals of a community.

I grew up in post-Communist Romania, where streets had been renamed during the 50s and 80s to fit the ideals of the new regime. Street names such as ‘Triumph Avenue’, ‘Labour Boulevard’, ‘Solidarity Street’, ‘Freedom Plain’, ‘Cooperative Way’ or ‘Production Street’ helped communism get off the ground by cementing it into the ground. The memory of a people erased to make room for new memories. The palimpsest of urban spaces.

Bono’s wish was not for nameless streets. Instead, I think it was a desire for demilitarised hodonymy.