Wallander’s beach

August 4, 2014 § 3 Comments



Can you imagine a community? The title of Benedict Anderson’s influential book, Imagined communities, suggests so. For Anderson, a nation is ‘an imagined political community – and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign’. A community, in other words, that is not dependent on regular face-to-face interaction, on physical gatherings of people. Is it really possible, though, to imagine, to picture such a thing? And does it matter if we can’t? The ‘online community’ of users of social media has become a commonplace in our language. Yet I’ve started wondering if the communities established over Facebook or Twitter really serve the same function as their ancestors, which had physical centres in the forum, or the church, or the pub.

I suppose the suspicion I am harbouring is that virtual face-to-face interaction (an encounter that you can simply switch off) doesn’t provide the same exposure to other people, to the annoying fact of their existence, as its real-life equivalent. I’m thinking here along lines drawn by the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, who ascribes a particular ethical force to the face of the other (though his conception of the face is rather complex, stretching beyond the visible). In our digitised age, we can manipulate our Facebook news feeds to remove unwanted faces and presences, unfollow people we no longer like on Twitter.

At this point I should declare my particular position: I am writing this from a place which can be seen as a remnant of the sorts of ‘old-fashioned’ communities I mentioned above: a Cambridge college (St John’s). So perhaps that is skewing my viewpoint somewhat. There is certainly a danger of drifting into nostalgia here. The human impulse to look wistfully back on an imaginary whole is well known, and communities that appear perfect and homogenous were (are) frequently founded on exclusion. At St John’s we were reminded of this in a sermon given by Teresa Morgan at the annual Commemoration of Benefactors service in May. Professor Morgan insisted that we remember, along with the members of the college who died in the First World War, those people who because of their social background, or gender, could not even dream of being a member of the college.

I am certainly not advocating a return to the intensely stratified society of the 1910s, or earlier. But I will admit that I am glad to be able to belong to an easily identifiable body of people. I worry that when our belonging becomes ever more mediated by various forms of technology, it also becomes more superficial. The powers of empathy involved are diluted. When, for example, you can add your name to a political petition at the click of a button, are you really joining a community? To what extent are you really involved? And what are you involved in? Is it possible to picture it?  These questions seem important to me. Then again, perhaps my longing for bodily participation and belonging ignores the fact that we are all now cyborgs (in Donna Haraway’s terms), beings for whom there is no clear dividing line between body and machine. Nonetheless, I am doubtful of the efficacy of our technological prostheses, however advanced they may be (Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus virtual reality technology was widely reported).

Strange as it may seem, I recently found an elegant example of a nostalgic desire for unproblematic, whole communities, and hint of their impossibility, in the  the Swedish detective drama Wallander. In the final series of this drama, which is based on Henning Mankell’s novels, Kurt Wallander’s life slowly and inevitably falls apart as he comes to terms with the fact he has Alzheimer’s disease. This is interesting from our perspective as Wallander is often presented as taking the side of those excluded from full participation in society, such as a young offender released from prison, or an Eastern European prostitute. Yet his efforts to remedy their situations are thwarted, more often than not. Though some critics therefore see Mankell’s work as longing for an impossible wholeness, it seems to me that Wallander’s failures, and his Alzheimer’s, are a tacit recognition on the part of his creator that such unity is always imaginary, even when it relates just to one person.

What I mean by this is that we are never entirely ‘at one’ with ourselves. The image that we present to others (and to ourselves) of who we are can never be definitive, and at times we are so different from day to day that it is a struggle to claim our actions as really ours. Social media exaggerate this process, creating stark divides between our online selves and the ones we inhabit. The stubbornly liminal existence of both community and self in Mankell’s world is apparent in the TV series through a recurrent visual motif: that of Wallander wandering along a beach, gazing out to sea. The implication might be that we always feel, to some extent, that we are poised on the brink of nothingness, that our communities or selves are on the edge of disintegration, or already fragmenting. Alzheimer’s disease is a particularly brutal realisation of our fears.

This all seems very gloomy. Yet it is possible to see this a more positive light. At the end of each episode of Wallander, a song by Ane Brun & Fleshquartet filters its way into the soundtrack: ‘When there’s so much darkness closing in / Just swerve around slowly / You’ll find an opening. / A light will appear like an animal between the trees / There you’ll find your pocket of peace’. The accompanying images are, frequently, of the detective on his beach. So if we and our communities are disintegrating, splintering into hi-tech fragments, perhaps this process provides us with an opening to redefine some terms. If we want to keep the concept of community alive beyond 2014, we need to consider what we want from it.

Dancing in the Cathedral

September 8, 2011 § Leave a comment

I’d thought of writing a post about what tango means today in Buenos Aires – whether it was just a half-dead tradition kept on a ventilator for the tourists, or something more vibrant. I’m not going to go into any sort of detailed discussion, though, because a) I don’t know nearly enough to make it worthwhile, and b) Wikipedia is always close at hand.

So I’ve gone for a bit of story-telling instead, which should hopefully shed some light on tango too. Last night, some friends from my house asked me whether I wanted to go to a milonga (a gathering in a café or bar where people listen and dance to tango). This wasn’t a difficult decision to make, and I ended up trumping  their offer by saying I’d go a bit earlier to the place for a dance class and meet them when they got there.

The venue, La catedral, is a warehouse in the district of Almagro which rests, like half of the city, under a web of coloured graffiti. It deserves its name, though. Going inside felt like stepping into a temple to tango, in an alternate dimension. Behind the rusted metal door to the street, I encountered a fat bearded man squeezed behind a shabby table. I asked about the 9 o’clock class; I was just in time.

“The nine o’clock class starts at ten.”  Unforgiving looks from both the man and the cat curled on a half-collapsed sofa in the corner. Fine, I could come back in an hour.

“Or you could take a ticket now and wait upstairs.” Not a question, this. It all seems a bit obvious in retrospect – of course the class would be an hour late, of course I’d have to take a ticket and wait, like you have to for everything else here. I went to buy a magazine to read, paid my 20 pesos, and went upstairs.

The portal to the other dimension must have been just before the first floor. Once through, I found myself in a colossal dance hall with a wooden floor and an enormous vaulted wooden ceiling. On the walls, next to pipes and wires, hung guitars, paintings, bicycle wheels, photographs (I spotted Che, of course). Above the dancefloor, an improvised metal candelabra housed multicoloured bulbs.

I sat down near the bar, changed chair for one that seemed less likely to collapse, and ordered a coffee. There wasn’t enough light at my table (barrel) to read by, but luckily enough my coffee came with a candle. I remember thinking that people must have ruined their eyes in the past. I was just thinking about how the ceiling and its beams reminded me of a Cambridge college dining hall when I noticed that in my copy of Newsweek Argentina there was an article by Lord Eatwell, the President of my college at Cambridge. Strange coincidences, in this dimension.

The tango class was not exactly a success – it took me far too long to work out that my legs are about 50% longer than anyone else’s – but afterwards I found my friends from the house, and we sat drinking wine and watching the dance. It’s wonderfully intimate, and watching couples of all ages enjoy the music and each other’s movements seemed really heart-warming (or maybe that was the wine). A bit later there was a live orquesta típica and singer on the stage, which was piled with layers of boxes, and topped with a enormous poster of the inescapable Carlos Gardel.

There were a fair few tourists there, but plenty of porteños too (and not, I think, just men investigating foreign talent). I decided, at about 2am and with the help of the wine, that tango is in a sense for tourists, that not all young people like it, but that it is clearly a whole lot more than that. Between the music, the lyrics to the songs, and the dance, all of which are constantly changing, there is an entire culture.

So why are you studying here?

August 16, 2011 § Leave a comment

…I have been asked several times in the three weeks I’ve been here. Not an unreasonable question, and one with no immediately obvious answer, beyond the fact that I had to do something, somewhere for a year. But as it turns out, I think the faculty of philosophy and literature at UBA (Buenos Aires’ public university) will work quite well for me. There are some great teachers and courses – and it’s not quite like university at home, which I reckon is a good thing.

In fact, one of the more common discussions I seem to have with friends and family in the UK is over what a university should be for, what ‘university’ really means. This may not the place to wade into the depths of that debate (but please comment if you disagree!), one thing I have clear now is that ‘university’ in Argentina means political activism, or an appearance of it, on a scale quite unlike anything in Britain. Here are a few photos of my faculty to illustrate (not mine – from here):

As the last photo suggests, it’s not just a question of politics, but of very left-wing politics: lots of slogans about revolution and solidarity. In the run-up to the elections this past Sunday, I was a bit bewildered by the sheer variety of different socialist parties on offer: the workers’ movement, the socialist workers’ party, the ‘Consequential Left’ (my favourite). Admittedly I don’t think any of these have much force in the country or even the city, but they clearly mean something within the faculty.

Do I wish Cambridge was more like this? Not really, but it makes a refreshing change from the dinner jackets at the Union. And it’s nice to know that some people in the world are daring to think beyond the standard Western capitlalist framework (regardless of whether you think they make any sense). Oh, and they have a good sense of humour:

This is not a chair

Of course, you might equally say that they’re conforming to a standard student type in an entirely predictable way. Once I know some more people there I’ll have to ask – though from what I’ve heard from other porteños (Buenos Aires residents) the faculty certainly has that reputation.

The other reputation is has, which I’ve already had confirmed through personal experience, is that of organisational chaos. Last Friday afternoon, I was scheduled to have a class in ‘Problems in Latin American Literature’, but five minutes after the lecturer had started, an alarm went off. A student popped round to tell us to evacuate the building, and everyone grabbed the things and sauntered downstairs, merrily commenting that it was another bomb alert, what a nuisance, and that we’d have to wait a couple of hours for the police to come. So wait we did, hundreds of people completely blocking the street outside, but at the end of two hours the police hadn’t come and the impromptu group I’d become a part of decided to call it a day.

As far as I understand (and no one was really sure what was going on), it was nothing more than someone calling the police for a laugh. But I also gather it’s a pretty frequent thing (‘practically every Thursday last term’, I heard someone say) – not that the police can ever just discard it. One day there might be real wolf…though I suspect it would probably pick some juicier targets first.

What else have I been up to in the last few days? I’ve seen a couple of films (one – Ausente – excellent, and the other – Copie conforme – good but utterly bewildering). We had a somewhat larger than expected party at our house on Saturday night, and I have generally been enjoying the company of locals and fellow foreigners. I looked back at an old message from a friend about BA the other day, where she said she thought it was impossible to be lonely here. I’m sure that’s not quite true, but from my own experience of people’s warmth and buena onda, I can’t really help but agree.

Bubble problems

January 18, 2011 § Leave a comment

Entirely predictably, I’ve let this slip a bit since getting back to Cambridge. The world of the university, in a rather hackneyed turn of phrase, often referred to as a bubble. This is a pretty accurate description though, at least for me. It’s as if entering the boundaries of the university puts the rest of the world on hold, or at least more difficult to access mentally. Between you and any ‘outside’ concern or desire,  there’s always an essay, a translation, or the threat of one. Either that, or some piece of bureaucracy (invariably involving emails, and lots of them). And the weird thing is that simply getting out of the city, piercing that wall, puts you in more direct contact. In less pretentious terms, it helps you realise that Cambridge is not the centre of the universe.

Right, clichéd rant over. So what’s been occupying my thoughts, through the barrier? I’m still reading Howards End, and still loving it. But mostly I’ve been thinking about walking and folk songs. There is a thin trace of connection between the two. The first I am dying to do some more of in the next holiday – it’s like the opposite of the impression of Cambridge I gave above. Walking in the Lake District, which is what I hope to do at the end of March, is pure openness and freedom. You can wander off the paths, peer over edges, encounter a stranded sheep or two, swim in a lake if you want. There’s nothing between you and your thoughts, just as there’s nothing between you and the sky (this sounds overly poetic and Forsterian – I definitely assimilate the style of whatever I happen currently to be reading). And the English Lakes are, well, so English, a part of the national imagination thanks to poems, paintings etc. They appeal to the same part of me as the things I talked about in the last post. Again, an encounter between the personal (the cold in your fingers, the wind in your face, the water seeping into your boots) and the immense exterior (the imposing mountains, the imposing names: Helvellyn, Skiddaw, Blencathra, Scafell).

There was an idea I found in Sartre’s What is literature? which really struck me (this study business does have its uses). Sartre writes that the poet considers words as things, that for him or her language is a ‘structure of the exterior world’. This is a different instance of the feeling I was getting at just above: it’s treating all words the way we treat those strange names of hills. Marvelling at the sound of them, not understanding the effect they have on us. That (tenuous link alert) is  partly why I’ve been enjoying folk songs so much lately – the primacy of the language, the sense of national tradition. Two current favourites:


I will declare a vested interest in the choice – I am ever so slightly in love with Laura Marling.


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