July 30th, 2010

[LINK] "Vilnius: The city as object of nostalgia"

3 Quarks Daily pointed me towards Tomas Venclova's essay how the city of Vilnius, now the capital of independent Lithuania, has long been the object of desire for numerous competing (but potentially complimentary) nationalisms.

The text of Vilnius has been abundantly discussed on many occasions, though the term "text", now widely exploited in cultural studies, may not always be used. The text of Vilnius is undoubtedly among the most interesting in Europe and has features we would not find in other larger and more influential texts. Vilnius is often said to be mysterious and magic, eccentric and peculiar, the inspiration of myths and poetry. A particularly strong connection between the city and its surroundings is frequently mentioned, too, allowing us to see Vilnius as a pastoral city with "wild" but idyllic nature intruding into the city centre and adorning its baroque décor. Another feature of Vilnius, which has recently become particularly fashionable for its "political correctness", is its multicultural, polyglot nature, linking the Lithuanian capital to Czech Prague, Italian Trieste or Bosnia and Herzegovina's Sarajevo. The text of Vilnius is composed of smaller texts, written in different languages, sometimes rich in code-switching, as for instance the seventeenth-century Jesuit dramas, where Lithuanian cues are interwoven with Polish ones.

But there is more than just linguistics involved here. Most varied stories and cultural discourses overlay one another, letting dissimilar, even competing myths sprout from the primeval mythological trunk. The national identity of many residents of Vilnius is similarly complicated: the same person can simultaneously belong to several cultures, which is why she or he sometimes stands aloof from the rest of society, suffering from an inner conflict and an urgent need to choose. According to Milosz, a resident of Vilnius is neither Lithuanian nor Polish nor Belarusian. I would suggest that he or she is in some ways reminiscent of Kekstas – Lithuanian poet, Polish soldier and Russian prisoner.

What probably marks Vilnius most strongly is the fact that the city is almost always construed as an object of nostalgia. The text of Vilnius is created by people severed from their city and thus extremely sensitive to the particulars of its everyday life: at this point one should remember Kekstas and his extraordinary letters, but also more prominent personalities, for instance, Czeslaw Milosz or Adam Mickiewicz. There is a similarity between Vilnius and Warsaw here, but in the text of Warsaw, nostalgia surfaces either during the war years as, for instance, in Julian Tuwim's and Aleksander Wat's texts, or marks the longing for the past, for the irrevocably destroyed pre-war city. In the text of Vilnius, such emotional complexity is also present, but nostalgia here is more frequent, more deeply rooted and more multilayered. And – this is probably the most important aspect – it affects not only individuals but entire ethnic and national groups. I suggested a long time ago that the Lithuanian capital had always been a border city with its border moving from place to place over the years: Vilnius would, for instance, find itself close to the lands of the Teutonic Order (Prussia – ed.) or, in the interwar period, some 30 kilometres from independent Lithuania; now, too, it is located 150 kilometres from Poland and a mere 30 kilometres from Alexander Lukashenka's Belarus and thus at the eastern border of the European Union. This bordering frequently cut off the nation nostalgic about the city considered theirs: before World War II, these were the Lithuanians; now they are the Poles, Belarusians and Israel-based Jews.

[BRIEF NOTE] On Catalonia, the bullfight, and the good sense in making nations with humane symbols

The Globe and Mail's Anita Elash writes how the ban by the Spanish region of Catalonia of bullfighting reflects local nationalism as much as it reflects animal rights.

Once hugely popular, bullfighting has lost much of its following in recent years. Polls show that only about a quarter of Spaniards are interested in the corrida, down from more than a third in 1999.

But nowhere is it less popular than in Catalonia, which has led the fight to do away with what many Catalans see as a pointlessly cruel pursuit. In 2003, the region passed a sweeping animal-protection law that banned towns without bullrings from building them and prohibited children under 14 from attending. The following year the capital, Barcelona, declared itself an “anti-bullfighting” city. While the only bullfighting ring left in Catalonia is in Barcelona, it stages just 15 fights a year (out of about 1,000 nationwide) and is rarely sold out.

The initiative to ban bullfighting picked up steam about 18 months ago, when the group Prou (Enough) launched a petition that attracted more than 180,000 signatures.

In the last few months, the debate has become a flashpoint in the ongoing argument about Spanish identity and how much autonomy the 7.5 million people who live in Catalonia should have.

Bullfighting, which one Spanish news website says is appreciated for its “fertility, sovereignty, pride, manhood and potency,” has been ingrained in the Spanish psyche for centuries. Right-wing dictator General Francisco Franco promoted it as a unifying spectacle and the national government still offers financial support. While Catalans fought to ban bullfighting, local governments in Madrid and other areas have declared it an integral part of the national identity.

Myself, I'm of the opinion that basing Spanish national identity on the bullfight is as fundamentally stupid as basing Newfoundland identity on the seal hunt. As in other areas of life, if you try to force people to choose between loyalty to an abstract and tangibly humane behaviour, they often opt for the latter. The opinion offered by this person interviewed in the National Post, suggesting that national identity must be eternal and unchanging and that any changes invalidate it, is just the sort of thing that makes edifices crack.

“In this case, banning the bullfight has a lot to do with Catalonia saying, ‘Look, we are not Spanish,’ ” says Carrie Douglass, a cultural anthropologist at the University of Virginia who specializes in Spain and is married to a Spaniard from Madrid. “Because if Spain is associated with or equal to the symbol of the bull and the bullfight, and the Catalans are prohibiting it then they are saying: ‘We can’t be Spanish. And we should be separate.’ ”

[. . .]

“Can you have a fiesta in Spain that claims antiquity — a patron saint festival — without a bullfight?” Ms. Douglass wonders. “In Spain, you can hate the bulls. But your fiesta — like the Fourth of July — is more than just corn on the cob and a band and some watermelon.”

You might well not be able to have such a "legitimate" fiesta in Spain. Catalonian fiestas could, though.

[BRIEF NOTE] On some irreducible minima

Another Charlie Stross blog post, "Insuffucient data", picked up by Marginal Revolution and over at james_nicoll's blog (among other places), started up a very interesting thread. How many people would be necessary to keep our high-tech civilization running?

Around 1900, it took the effort of about 20-30% of a nation's work-force to provide food for everybody; and another 30-50% working in factories to produce clothing, machinery, and processed materials like bricks and billets of pig iron. Today, we only need 0.5-1% of the work force to feed everyone, and another 1-4% working in industry to produce the basics — but the microspecialities have exploded, to the extent that a lot of our needs seem to require a trans-national economy to provide. There are only two vendors of wide-body airliners on any scale today, Boeing and Airbus, and both of them are effectively multinational consortia (more than half the components of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner are produced overseas, and shipped to Seattle for final assembly). There seems to only be room for one vendor of super-Jumbo airliners — if Boeing and Airbus tried to exploit that niche simultaneously, they'd both starve — so they appear to be avoiding conflict in that (and some other) area(s). And so on.

So. I ask: how many people does it take, as a minimum, to maintain our current level of technological civilization?

I'd put an upper bound of about one billion on the range, because that encompasses basically the entire population of NAFTA and the EU, with Japan, Taiwan, and the industrial enterprise zones of China thrown in for good measure. (While China is significant, more than half of its population is still agrarian, hence not providing inputs to this system).

I'd put a lower bound of 100 million on the range, too. The specialities required for a civil aviation sector alone may well run to half a million people; let's not underestimate the needs of raw material extraction and processing (from crude oil to yttrium and lanthanum), of a higher education/research sector to keep training the people we need in order to replenish small pools of working expertise, and so on. Hypothetically, we may only need 500 people in one particular niche, but that means training 20 of them a year to keep the pool going, plus future trainers, and an allowance for wastage and drop-outs by people who made a bad career choice. Higher education accounts for 1.8-3% of gross spending in the developed world, with primary and secondary education taking a whopping chunk on top of that (if you spent 10 years in a school with a staff:pupil ratio of 1:10, then you soaked up a person-year of time; there may be more labour going into pre-university education than goes into agriculture and industry combined).

This has obvious implications since, as Charlie and the commenters note, our civilization has any number of irreducible complexities, and necessary redundancies to compensate for all manner of losses (people deciding they don't want to follow particular careers after all, say). A hundred million people might--if everything's well planned--be able to sustain a technologically advanced civilization, a world that's overall much more modern than ours might be able to do what we do with less, and a world that simply has a small population would likely do a better job than a world depopulated by catastrophe, but still. For progress, you need people, all kinds of people.