Monday, December 18, 2006

what spain is & isn´t

yesterday i met up with friends Joerg and Concha, and we spoke about i.a. the movie "Goodbye Lenin", and of how one of the things that surprised or struck me in the movie was the lengths the son went to in order to pull the wool over the eyes of his mother. using that phrase makes me seem critical, and it isn´t so. rather, i was struck that he went to all that trouble motivated by his love for her.

that then made me think of my conversation with Nasima, also this week. i mentioned how the first scene in the movie "love actually" is really enchanting (me encanta). the scene consists of people hugging and greeting one another. the accompanying voice-over tells us that we are watching an airport arrivals hall, and tells us that for all the usual lifelessness of airports, the one thing that is striking is the amount of love on display when you watch such scenes in a typical airport arrivals hall. anyhow, the consequence of remembering the latter is that now i have the song from the movie in my head, and it goes "Love is all around me, And so the feeling grows, Its written on the wind, Its everywhere I go".

to return to the topic of this blog then, what strikes me when in spain is how amazingly cariñoso my friends are here :)


the other day someone i don´t know, but am in e-mail contact with via a group, sent a message enquiring about travelling with a spanish airline. the person ended their message with "given the price of the ticket, will i end up sitting between a nun and a goat?" or some such. i felt deeply offended by this, and ended up telling the person that their notion of spanish society was completely outmoded. the latter somehow added fuel to a fire in the sense that when i returned from madrid on my previous visit, i was rather annoyed with how people were asking me whether i had drunk a lot of sangría and partied whilst here, as if thát was all that visiting spain should amount to. i also heard similar kinds of skewed views from other persons i´ve bumped into, and this does bother me, if only because it perpetuates a stereotype of a people. for i know spanish people who do really good work, and more than that, work extremely hard over here, so it is very annoying this generalised anglosaxon view that all spain is about is fiesta, sangría, and siesta.... 0kay, i´ll stop griping now...

that said, the other day i´d bought a copy of an anthology of essays dating to 2005 re the view of Spain from abroad. i haven´t read it yet :-)
speaking of buying books. today i bought "Los Fantasmas de Goya" which is the story underpinning the latest Milos Forman movie (see Jean-Claude Carriere, Milos Forman ); also "Entre la soledad y el amor" by Alfredo Bryce Echenique
Holiday reading :)
Love it!

besos, J

Sunday, December 10, 2006

those "c" words

there is a distinct difference in what the terms "liberal", "socialist", "democratic" (to name a few) can mean, depending on which part of the planet you happen to find yourself in, and also, depending on the linguistic-environment you find yourself in. i felt this often enough when living outside of anglosajonia (the English-speaking world).

i try to read both spanish and uk newspapers. this is so even though i do find (and have thought so in the past) that the papers here have that annoying mix of high-on-drivel and low-in-intelligence in the reporting. the english journalistic tradition is like that to be found in south africa, which is one of the less attractive aspects of the south african newspapers: too much navel gazing and not enough of an outward gaze + a level of analysis in the reporting which leaves much to be desired. "but this is what sells", you will tell me. "local content, local interest, etc". oh, think of it this way: when i was in madrid in 2000 i learnt more there about the goings-on in Africa by reading the El País, than I would have gleaned from a week´s worth of reporting from a local South African newspaper/daily. Go figure. Since then the South African newspapers have changed their editorial stance, but still there is a dearth of reporting on Africa in SA papers.

what is interesting is to see the euro-skepticism over here in the UK vs. my experience of the spanish newspaper view of the EU, where the stance is pretty much pro. In Spain, the EU is a given. In the UK it seems to be seen as a somehow necessary evil. In the UK the EU is like that relative you invite over to family functions if only to avoid that there be bad blood in the clan...

But switching then to a different medium but still news reports:

my sitting down to write this blog was prompted by my seeing news reports of Pinochet´s death. newsfeed reads, variously "that the Fascist dictator has died"; "it is unfortunate that he has gone to his death without a conviction", etc. Switch to my Google newsfeed and The Guardian opines "the anti-communist dictator has died". At which point I go "huh?" For how could Pinochet have been anti-communist when Salvador Allende (the person he had overthrown) was a socialist? So, if you write it that way as The Guardian has, does this make Pinochet a good guy? As if to say "he was not just any dictator, cos that´s just baaaaaaaaad. no, he was anti-communist, so --say it with me now-- that makes him aaaaaaa gooooood guy." The other thing that was striking is that the newspaper goes on to assert that "Allende committed suicide" as if some indisputable fact. The journalist does not bother to add that the latter has been questioned by many, for many years after the 1973 coup. My point is not that I am pro-Allende, rather that there are these tiny opportunities, in day-to-day journalism, where one can educate the public, and write in a style so that you have a more critical citizenry. But no, rather, it is simpler to dish up everything as if uncontested fact.

so, considering other "c" words, and i don´t mean that word so often used in spain it has lost its meaning almost entirely: coño. nope, i am referring to Capitalism. much in the way in which one can have a heated argument in spain and still walk away not having ruined the friendship + still having your dignity intact, one is able to engage in talk about systems of belief etc. with the same kind of non-attachment. i will return to this point later, but first a detour into SL.

some weeks ago i wrote about my experiences in Second Life. i did mention then about the fencing-off of property which seemed prevalent. but more than that, i wondered about this tendency to suffer some punitive consequence if you expressed a more communal kind of ethos. ("what´s she on about" you wonder). i mean, quite simply, i´ve seen, the few times that i´ve been in SL, that if you go looking for freebies the scripts if clicked on tend to suggest that doing so will result in some loss of one kind or another. e.g. if only to explicate, click on that there freebie-like offer and the next you know you´ve lost all your gesture-scripts in your inventory. at first this may strike you as nothing unique; merely the usual kind of pranks one can find, etc. but why the need to punish s/one if they are looking for freebies? why should loafers and free-riders be punished? can´t they just be allowed to happily co-exist with the rest who are spending their linden dollars on s e x , gambling, or shopping? which brings me to another point. look at the popular events listing and what you can do is either s e x, gambling, or shopping. to which i responded "oh, great, i can shop`til i drop in SL! whoopee! (yawn. oh blah)". so i logged out of SL thinking that it was merely some digital instantiation of a capitalist ethic. yeah, let´s call it "EXTREME CAPITALISM". the fiscal equivalent of extreme sports!? hhhmmm. then i happen across a Fortune article on SL "No, Second Life is not overhyped: Is it a game? No. Is it a marketing opportunity? Yes, but who cares? What matters most is that it may point to the future of the Net, says Fortune's David Kirkpatrick."
I am a Fortune subcriber; have been for many years, and i like Kirkpatrick´s articles, but i am suitably sceptical whenever i see anything which proclaims or even whispers "it may point to the future of the Net". also, the business press, unlike the general press, can be brimming with intelligence while also behaving in a very lemming-like way.
Kirkpatrick writes "Yet Second Life may be more important, longterm,... because what it really may represent is an alternative vision for how to interact with information and communicate over the Internet...In Second Life everything you do is done in a social space, though you can get privacy if you want." He goes on to say that the web as we know it mimicks a print model, and that SL makes you realise what another vision of the web could look like. He continues "There's no reason why some version of a 3D world couldn't eventually offer as much functionality as we get today on the Web, and more....Every day more big companies turn their attention to this new medium, realizing that it really represents something new....But we're seeing something new and important. If you want to stay abreast of what's happening in tech, you need to get inside Second Life." Of course I don´t agree with that last statement. SL is not the whole picture, after all, w.r.t. what´s new in tech. also, who´s to know whether 3D worlds presages a view of digi life to come. it is too early to tell. but, if the social (+ other?) context is visualised, what does that entail for our notions of the "semantic web"? for, after all, isn´t the semantic web also very much text-driven and so resting, by proxy, in a print model?

what Kirkpatrick´s story made me think of is that it seems that CEO´s start to have some kind of SL presence, and so that if you want to really aprovechar (take advantage), it would be good if you could practice your "elevator pitch" for SL! I guess that would not be so difficult to emulate cf. to the virtual mechanics of getting spanked... which is what i last witnessed (yes, witnessed, not experienced) over there.

well, to return to the start of this posting re spots on the planet. i then, in a meeting, of a day, made mention of this extreme capitalism notion vis-a-vis SL, which, much to my surprise, resulted in some uncomfortable back-and-forth looks among the group i was in. i shan´t reveal whom i´d been talking to; that is not so important. rather, what seemed so clearly signalled was that to mention that c-word (capitalism) in this my english-speaking world, could end with you being branded with that other c-word (communist). that is how it seemed to me. then, the point after all, is that i could say the equivalent in a spanish-speaking context and that, for sure, i would not initiate a similar round of uncomfortable looks.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Conferences, dialectics, nomenclature, and jargon; and then mandarin again

it is high time that i post a follow-up to the 6 december posting re the STAIR conference. but first some general notes/thoughts.

scatter cushions: these are those cushions that one scatters on sofas. they´re usually small, square, get in the way, take up most of the sofa space, etc. but lots of people have them. well, when i first arrived at oxford i remember attending lectures where students would then say and describe which particular school of thought they were focussing on in their legal studies. what struck me was that everybody sounded so súper-confident, throwing about jargonny words, many of which i did not understand, and some of which i´d never heard of before. but what was particularly striking was the confidence with which they spoke. but always when people start to use these incomprehensible-yet-used-so-often-hence-meaningless terms i have this image of scatter cushions being tossed about. one scatter cushion per term. i always sit there and think "i don´t have a clue what you´re saying. i know the words but they are meaningless. if i don´t know, do you know, really? or are these words like crutches that you use to prop yourself up with?" maybe this is the trap we all fall into at some point; or is something we should guard against. well, the latter came to mind during the conference during one particular talk. so.

one other meta-level comment is that i wondered how one-sided my reporting would be here. for, after all, i am interested in the papers based on where i am coming from with my own particular set of research questions and curiosities. my aim, then, in writing the blog is not to provide a comprehensive summary. pah! that to me would be pointless. quite possibly the reader would gain something, but the end-result would be some dry piece of writing, me thinks, with only a modicum of interest/value to me in the end. [and you are probably thinking: look, she has posted so late; probably she has been out drinking... well, no. in fact, my ebullience is due to a combination of cake, tea, some chocolate, and good conversation with friends. an event which ended some time ago.]

i´d already mentioned symptomology, which was Der Derian´s term used that day of the conference. what was striking was his distinction between real vs. artificial life. why "artificial"? i thought to myself. what does he mean to designate? artificial = virtual? if so. why can virtual not just be a different kind of real, instead of its being "artificial"? isn´t that increasingly our experience of online environments? that they become part of one´s reality; are different but still "real"? the latter is also what i felt with the talk on citizen journalism. the speaker spoke like someone outside of this world which was the object of study. maybe this was an academic requirement (some veil for distance which denotes then rigour). but all i was left with was an impression of voyeurism. and that can be friqui in some regard. but really, the talk became interesting only when the speaker, instead of maintaining this academic distance, in fact revealed some things about her personal behaviour and affinities, in the environments under study (that is some funny english for "en el ámbito bajo investigación" it seems to me. )

i enjoyed the talk by Paul A. Taylor. he´s a huge Zizek fan; even disported a t-shirt. well, I like Zizek´s work too. on 29-Mar-2003 i posted Zizek´s essay re the Iraq war on my then web site. it was funny, when listening to Paul A. Taylor, at some point he referred to "courtly love", but with his strong accent i didn´t quite get it the first time around and in my notes i´d written "courtney love (???)", which seemed out of place, but hey, the guy was stringing in a whole host of (post-modern) philosophers, so why not some indie music folks too? he´d said "Baudrillard had spoken of the loss of seduction." unlike in days-of-old the scenario of courtly love is lost. the image of courtly love being the guy waiting/pining underneath the balcony, waiting for his love to appear, and to finally be with her (but seldom is this satisfied, if ever). that the latter scenario entailed (a certain level of) seduction, but that all of this had been lost in the society we live in. i´d wanted to say to him "move to spain; you will think differently. just because courtly love has been lost in the english-speaking world, does not mean that it has been lost globally", since i´d recalled, in my chronicles of life in Madrid (sent via e-mail to friends i.e. not blogged), i had made mention of this tendency, this playfulness in both genders in potential romantic relationships. in, what i then termed "anglosajonia" (the anglo-saxon world), courting (if it exists even) is far more straightforward. anyhow, to not stray too far from the topic...
Taylor characterised the culture industry as pornographic and prudish, and art as being ascetic and unashamed, and that we have "a culture that can no longer think intelligently about symbols". [which reminds me of signifier vs. signified, and that i saw a post recently on the HUMANIST list that it is 100 years since Saussure´s seminal lectures, the Cours de Linguistique].

too many asides = picture of my brain :)

back to STAIR: the afternoon lectures on internet governance i enjoyed. some useful links and leaps made there. we´ll see where i go with that.


about the mandarin: since i wasn´t going home and working diligently on that each evening, i kept getting to the class the next day feeling that i knew a little bit less (cf. fellow classmates) as the course and days progressed. few things are as humbling as learning a new language. and i think this is especially so the more specialised one becomes, since being súper-comfortable in one´s (quite separate) academic domain, it is very humbling (and unfamiliar), this sense of feeling like a complete and utter idiot. yet, all was not lost. i could have given up, but didn´t, despite my knowing that i would progressively each day look like more of a fool whenever the teacher asked me to give answers to the questions she posed. aye, those characters/sinograms!

Claire, the teacher, said "the characters are like people´s faces you recognise, but you don´t always remember their names". yep, that would be a very accurate assessment. and yet, languages are about pattern recognition. so, after a while, being familiar with enough pattern pieces, i could start to see entire patterns. yet, it is difficult (i.e. not very useful) if you recognise the signifier, but forget what it signifies! even so, i think the big leap comes when you start to feel that knowing a language is useful. yes, one can always know this in theory, but the day you experience it, you instantaneously feel more motivated. so, what happens but that someone from Japan visits at the OII on thursday evening, and gives me her business card, where I am able to recognise two or so characters. and thát felt like real progress.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

STAIR / OII conf - The Internet: Power and Governance in a Digitised World

am at the abovementioned conf. and some notes on the keynote by Der Derian, which I would characterise as having been...

but first

rewind to my experience when attending the play on saturday "the ppl next door". 16 or 17 year old girl sitting behind me in the audience, comments on the music being played in the background as we wait for the play to start. it was that song by Ms Dynamite, and as I sit there tapping my feet she exclaims in the direction of her friend: "i love this song. my dad just loves it. it´s such a dad song!!!"

at which point i wondered whether i should stop tapping my foot, thus not showing my obvious enjoyment of the song.

ok, skip back to today:

I am at the above conf. so far so good. in my comment on Der Derian´s keynote i wonder whether i will sound like the 16/17 year old audience member on Saturday, when I say "Der Derian´s talk was such a baby boomer talk." It was, in effect, an academic talk (though that does not imply any inherent dryness) with a fair mixture of references characteristic of the liberal arts scholar, along with a fair number of pop culture references. key phrase for me: symptomology.

ok, i´ll log off now. i don´t like blogging and conferencing at the same time. or maybe it is something i need to get used to (????)...

Monday, December 04, 2006

mandarin: wo shi nan fei ren

years ago, when i´d started with my undergraduate degree, i recall that in my first semester, all students studying languages had been sent a flyer for the mandarin course at UNISA. given my interest in linguistics, the ability to learn a language which was so different from that which i already knew, seemed entirely fascinating. the sad thing was that i didn´t have time to study yet another language, as it does take a considerable investment of time and effort, so i put that aim on the backburner, telling myself that someday i would get around to studying mandarin. then, some weeks ago i received notice of intensive one-week courses happening at the language centre here, one of them being mandarin. i signed up, and voilà. today I attended my first lesson. as we´d started, part of me sat there feeling pretty pleased with myself for finally having gotten around to acting on this desire. another part of me wondered "how many years will this take?" as i got to grips with my first few chinese pictograph characters. oh my goodness. how my head hurts! i am soooo attached to my latin alphabet i find, for i can easily remember the phonetic (pinyin) forms, and their significance, but oh, those characters! what helped greatly was that i was able to, more or less given fuzzy memory, transcribe the sounds phonetically.

what was really amusing was seeing video of a group of six year old Chinese kids learning the language in school, since one looked at them and thought "right now they know more than what i do". Even funnier, was that we learnt some helpful language learning technique from them: they made gestures to accompany the four tones. it seems so rudimentary and so disposable, but it does help if you wave your hand (horizontally; then 45 deg angle from left to right (acute accent) ; then in the shape of a "v"; and finally in a 45 deg angle from right to left (grave accent), but the accompanying gesture is more like a salute since the sound is short/abrupt) whilst attempting to emit the four tones.

i guess i´ll post an update by the end of the week...

Some useful URLs:

Oxford: Centre for Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language
(pronunciation resource)

Mandarin Chinese Phonetics (Patrick Hassel Zein)

Writing Chinese Under Windows 2000 Professional/XP

btw: the image above represents "I am South African" in pinyin

Sunday, December 03, 2006

xmas party + web site redesign

i´m just back from a graduate xmas party organised by fellow grads here at college. mulled wine, mince pies, stollen, and xmas pudding. nice. (thanks Yaqoob). also especially nice to see some friends, since i haven´t seen many of them for some time due to my having kept a rather low profile (read for that, studying).


this weekend i had the idea that it was time to change my web site, and i did so, but only for the homepage, and now, given the resultant/current disjunct between the now-changed homepage, and the rest of the site, the poor thing, it looks even more neglected than it did prior to the weekend. usually the homepage elements are key in my deciding what the rest of the site should look like. so, though i´ve changed the picture, and the banner, and repositioned some textual elements, i am still not happy with the end result...there is a decided lack of coherence in the design, but i´m not sure exactly what it is that i want to change. hhhmmmm.

the &c

yep, i left that out in the previous posting. it´s a mixed bag, really.

for one, england always feels familiar, much like the netherlands, because of the historical/colonial links with south africa. how this expresses itself would be place names, surnames, and products (or brands) that are the same. all so familiar.
place names: claremont, worcester, mowbray
surnames: i see my mom´s maiden surname (Pearce) a lot. and then also Phillips, though not so much. Phillips was my maternal grandmother´s surname. She was Emily Phillips. Well, to digress, judging by grandparental distribution, I am (in no particular order):
25% German-with-Dutch-ancestry
25% Indigenous South African
25% Irish
25% Indigenous Australian
oh, but what a silly little matter of mathematics this seems to be. how neat. if only it were so simple.

products: marmite, bisto, weetabix (except in SA it was called Weetbix), worcestershire sauce,...


anyone know how/where to get a copy of the song that Tom Waits sings in the Roberto Benigni movie "The tiger and the snow"? funny thing is i was reminded of Tom Waits earlier this week when s/one i know was playing some music that sounded like Tom Waits, and i then remembered how much i liked that song. i checked itunes, but ...nada. and today, on the cover of the El País magazine, there is the mug of Tom Waits.


On the same magazine cover there is a reference to Chavezlandia, which also reminds me of a story I´d seen earlier in the week, re the availability of "Hugo Chavez" dolls. I thought to myself then: I wonder if one could get one on eBay... Oye, porfa, no soy fan, ¿entiendes? Se trata más de un rasgo del mundo en que vivimos. The availability of these dolls is like some extreme expression (symptom) of the crazy world we live in.

the people next door &c

last evening i went to watch a play at the O´Reilly Theatre here at my College (Keble). I´ve never been a big theatre buff. When in SA it always seemed like such a schlepp getting to the theatre - small productions in intimate little theatres aren´t the norm (well, especially not in Cape Town). So, on the one hand one´s options felt limited, and on the other the tickets were expensive, and it somehow invariably felt that you went to the theatre not because you had an overt interest in the dramatic arts, but mostly because going to the theatre was what the hip, educated set would do. In sum, you went "to be seen". Yawn. Well, this isn´t always so, but it was so often enough. And apologies to my theatre-loving and theatre-going friends in SA who might not agree with my assessment.

So, last night I went to watch "The People Next Door". It was a small play, and very very good, in the sense that the actors (all four of them) had a good command of their characters. They were convincing. The lead character was a fellow called "Nigel", and how interesting to see how thoroughly ensconced the actor was in being Nigel. So much so that, in one particular scene, where "Phil" intimidates "Nigel", who then goes into a nervous-fit-slash-temper-tantrum-slash-meltdown, you could see that the actor playing "Phil" seemed slightly astounded, and bemused, by "Nigel´s" antics, as if he´d not seen this - the force with which "Nigel" reacted - coming.
What makes for a serious topic, and something difficult to address (since we are still so "in the thick of things" and somehow we forget how to laugh at ourselves), was handled very well. The story has a good denouement (I won´t give the game away, of course!). Below, some additional info:

Name: The People Next Door
Tagline: A brilliant, shifting panorama of contemporary British life.
Host: The People Next Door - 8th Week O'Reilly
Type: Music/Arts - Performance
Time and Place

Start Time: Tuesday, November 28, 2006 at 7:30pm
End Time: Saturday, December 2, 2006 at 7:30pm
Venue: Keble O'Reilly Theatre
Contact Info Phone: 01865305305

Set in a council-flat staircase in a big English city, it charts what happens to the more-or-less friendly relations among the residents – confused half-Asian Nigel with his history of mental health problems, unhappy 15-year-old kid Marco and feisty Scottish granny Mrs Mac – when their peace is invaded by a psychopathic plain-clothes cop called Phil, determined to get results in the war on terrorism. In next to no time, fragile Nigel is down at the local mosque under instructions to spy on the Muslim community, and discovering there’s more to the Koran than meets the eye; Marco is worried that Nigel’s new faith will turn him into a fundamentalist; and Mrs Mac is prowling the stairs with a poker, under the impression, cultivated by Phil, that Nigel is using his sheltered flat as a bomb-factory.

And the result is a brilliant, shifting panorama of contemporary British life, in which terrific one-liners zip around the stage like unintentional fireworks unleashed by the pressure of the situation, and each character’s psyche becomes a comic battleground between Phil’s rampant Daily Mail world-view on one hand, and – on the other – a dose of practical common sense, oddly boosted by the emergent liberal folk-wisdom of Britain’s soap-and-chat-show daytime television culture.

Nigel - David Bernard Snower

Phil - Tim Hoare

Marco - Athel Hodge

Mrs. Mac - Amy Porteous

Director - Corinne Sawers

Assistant Director - Alev Scott

Producer - Isabel Ridley

Saturday, December 02, 2006

leonard cohen tiene la culpa

this morning i stepped out in search of a book for a friend. i stopped by at the bookstore to enquire. after very diligent searching on the part of the shop assistant, i went away with some useful info. on my way out of the store it just so happens that there was a copy of leonard cohen´s latest anthology of poems (book of longing) published in May of this year. I leafed through the pages -- he writes so well after all -- and read some beguiling verses. and the more I read, the more the tears started to well up in my eyes. And I stood there, not caring too much that I was almost-crying in public. Almost-crying, in public, in England. I would think that´s a no-no. But then again, I´m in Oxford. Which is something different altogether.


this reminds me of what i wrote after my recent visit to spain in early-November. i had had a falling-out with a friend. yes, a friend, not a boyfriend, nor partner, nor even anything conceptually close to that. and it wasn´t so much a misunderstanding that we´d had, but rather a disagreement, unfortunately to the extent where the friendship had fallen apart.

and i wrote later:

after, i went to the uni; made my way to the computer lab, and sat there working. but the tears welled up, despite my efforts to prevent them from flowing. the lab assistant noticed; but i was in spain, and it was okay for me to cry in public. no-one would be too disturbed by that.