Can Clarks shoes inspire young people to read and write? Er…no.

The (very) Portuguese writer José Saramago opened his Nobel Prize for Literature acceptance speech with the words ‘The wisest man I have ever met didn’t know how to read or write’. The term for that in Portuguese is analfabetismo, or in English illiteracy. Saramago’s highfalutin homily about his illiterate grandfather, who on the final day of his life went round saying a tearful adeus to all the trees on the land which had sustained him throughout 90 or so years, wasn’t meant to suggest that it’s a waste of time learning to write or read, although anyone who’s tried to get though the novel ‘The Elephant’s Journey’ will have experienced that sensation at some point. Saramago meant that books are not the only means of experiencing reality, and that someone who some might be inclined to regard as an ignorant old peasant was just as sensitive and articulate as, well, a Nobel Prize-winning author.

Not knowing how to read and write does not imply being unable to express oneself verbally. While the ability to speak develops organically, most people learn the technical skills of literacy at school, and although their lives are generally vastly improved as a result, it doesn’t necessarily make them more intelligent or a better person – as a case in point I’d just like to mention that the novel ‘Atlas Shrugged’, whose author (Ayn ‘Medicare‘ Rand) was, significantly, never nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature, is over 1,200 pages long.

The worldview (apparently) espoused in that book – that there are no values, only prices, and that those who have money are better than those who don’t – is one that warms the blood of the kind of lizards who are appointed to cabinet positions on Theresa May’s cabinet. That’s presumably why, when tasked with addressing falling levels of adult literacy, the Minister for Children and Families, Nadhim Zawahi immediately thought of the buying and selling of footwear. After, all if it’s not a exchange of cash for goods and services, what’s the meaning of any human endeavour? Her idea (and I am absolutely not making this up, it was in The Guardian yesterday) is to train the staff of shoe shops to engage young people in conversation while selling them shoes, thereby improving their language skills and making them into literate adults.

Of course, there has to be a commercial interest involved, so the scheme is a tie-in with, er, Clarks. After all, we all remember (how could we ever forget?) the horrifying images of smashed and looted branches of Clarks shoes during the 2011 riots. If there’s one thing that interests young people nowadays apart from their phones, it’s the thought of the latest range of sensible footwear from…

Hold on, there’s also their phones. Young people probably spend more time reading and writing nowadays than they ever have before. Granted, they may not be using the standard variety of language – in fact, just like when they speak – just like, in fact, when any of us speak – they and we draw on a huge range of codes, styles, registers and other semiotic resources including emojis. This is, after a fashion – and young people tend to take fashion quite seriously, which is why they don’t shop in fucking Clarks – literacy in action, and if schools want to develop their pupils’ ability to read and write – as they should, and they do, in ways that way surpass whatever sub-‘The Thick Of It’ brainwaves pass through the mammon-fixated minds of government ministers, then it’s that they should be seeking to work with.

Let’s return to the original and universally accepted definition of literacy: the ability to read and write. Let’s expand it a little to include knowledge of what the word ‘literacy’ actually means. I put it to you, then, that the Minister for Children and Families, Nadhim Zawahi, is…illiterate.

As long as Trump plays ignorant, his supporters will too

The psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan came up with the concept of the ‘subject-supposed-to-know’, an impersonal and intangible entity which carries knowledge on our behalf. As I understand it, this relates to the conscience. When we feel morally guilty, what authority is it that knows we have done something wrong? For many, the answer is an omniscient god. Lacan’s insight is that we all in a sense believe in God whether we like it or not.

This raises two questions for me. In a heavily mediated society where even our most intimate thoughts and gestures are mediated back to us even while we think and act, could a mediating institution play such a role? Or perhaps a political tyrant, as George Orwell posited? Social media could well come to embody the two, in that so many of our experiences are thought of in terms of their value, evaluated as potential cultural capital, and also because the affordances it offers to directly repressive regimes are boundless.

The other thing that concerns me ( in fact I now see that the idea actually came from Slavoj Žižek) is what we can call the subject-supposed-not-to-know. For example, most of us have grown up in the light of terrifying facts regarding the climate which, were we to take them seriously, would compel us to transform every aspect of our lives*. Instead, we deal with the question as we do with death, pretending it’s not real and dealing with each instance of it as though it were occasional and incidental, with no implications for how we ourselves should think and act. There is clearly some sort of (as Lacan calls it) ‘Big Other’ that embodies and excuses our lack of awareness, an authority which, unlike us, is truly ignorant of the problem. Here we can see that these tools are particularly useful for understanding the role of mass and social media in our lives.

The other pressing instance of the subject-supposed-not-to-know is directly related to this: supporters of Donald Trump. In a way unerringly similar to that of a cult leader, Trump acts out their ignorance and thus allows them to continue with a kind of hysterical blindness. This is true not just of the climate, but also of his own behaviour. If we want to understand why they are so resistent to acknowledging his failings while so ready to blame others, this provides an answer. As long as he pretends that the allegations (including admissions he has himself made in the past) don’t exist, it’s as if they’re not real. He is aided in this by partisan media outlets and social media platforms which facilitate tunnel vision/amplify our blind spots and enable wilfull ignorance of that which their participants do not want to acknowledge. Trump’ s supporters embody an increasingly prevalent condition which affects us all, just in a more extreme form: they and we are effectively, as José Saramago pointed out, blind.

*The now-ubiquitous term ‘triggered’ (as in provoked) actually describes an effect of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. What else is this trauma which we’re so keen to avoid addressing that we displace our fear and stress onto substitute targets, eg race?

Saramago and the City – My Master’s dissertation


“O disco amarelo iluminou-se” is the first sentence of the first novel I read in Portuguese: ‘Blindness’, by José Saramago. It means “the yellow light came on”, and (although it took for a few seconds to work this out at the time) it refers to a traffic light. The first driver in a line of cars has suddenly been struck by a mysterious blindness which will go on to infect all but one of the inhabitants of an unnamed city, causing the authorities to panic and impose martial rule as society breaks down more or less overnight. One key to the novel lies in the fact that the Latin word for ‘city'(civitas) is also related to ‘civilisation’; when the basic signs and codes that regulate civilised behaviour lose their meaning, we may as well all be blind. ‘Blindness’ is probably the novel I’ve read more times than any other. I’m always slightly surprised to come across people who haven’t heard of it as it has always struck me as a fundamental insight into the times we are living through.

Both the city and the country in the novel are unnamed, and the film of the book was shot in Tokyo, Toronto and São Paulo. Three of Saramago’s subsequent novels are set in similarly anonymous urban environments: ‘Seeing’, ‘All the Names’, and ‘The Cave’*. When, in 2006, a particular set of circumstances led me to take a Master’s course in Portuguese Studies which entailed writing a 15,000-word dissertation, I decided to connect those novels with an area I was becoming increasingly interested in: Urban Geography. I read writers such as Henri Lefebvre, Mike Davis, Teresa Caldeira and learned about the notion of the right to the city in a world increasing divided between neoliberal dreamworlds on the one hand and nightmarish slums on the other. The thinker I learned most from, however, was the world’s leading urban geographer, David Harvey, who actually looks a bit like a cross between Karl Marx and God. There are passages of his books you could dance to, punching-the-air kind of dancing. This video is a great visualisation of how his lucid style makes it beautifully easy to understand complex subjects.

The Master’s course was, then, a pretext to learn about the world through the prism of a limited range of countries. Learning about Portugal’s history of empire and loss of empire helped me reflect on my own country’s shameful past. Going back to writing essays after a 13-year break also made me reassess my relationship to ‘my’ language. My dissertation supervisor, who was from Mozambique but had lived and worked in English for more years than I had, once corrected something I had written, changing ‘in doing so’ to ‘in so doing’. Given that my livelihood is based on claiming authority over the English language, it was quite a salutary moment. (The difference is actually one of formality, but I thankfully had the humility not to try to pull rank.) Writing such a long-form piece helped me reflect on my command of written English. My natural style is actually not that different from Saramago’s, one which some people find rambling and irritating. The original title of ‘Blindness’ was ‘Ensaio Sobre A Cegueira’ (an essay on blindness), after the style of Montaigne, and his novels read like extended reflections, conversational in tone and consisting of digressive explorations of ideas rather than compelling plots and detailed characterisation. Writing about his work in an academic setting forced me to employ a more direct approach than I’m naturally inclined to adopt.

Throughout the course modules and during my dissertation research I learned about the depth and contours of my ignorance of the world and tried to fill in some of the massive gaps. The experience helped me learn that not everyone knows everything, and that knowledge in an academic context is often very specialised**. In around 2008 I got talking to David Harvey himself at an annual summer conference in Central London, and over a couple of pints and a LOT of crisps he said that my topic sounded interesting but he’d never heard of Saramago. I meant to put this information in the essay, along with a footnote boasting that it was revealed in a personal conversation, but sadly I forgot.

For a while I planned to turn my dissertation into a PhD but, although I did discuss the possibility during trips to Coimbra and Rio, it didn’t happen. Maybe that’s a good thing – I could quite happily waste the rest of my life in a good university library. While a friend of mine took 14 years to finish his PhD thesis, I reckon I would be the first to take 1,400. I did, however, end up back at the same university (King’s College London) in a working capacity. Last summer I was preparing Chinese students to take postgraduate courses, so I thought it would be fun to show them the short essay I’d written exactly ten years earlier when I was applying to do a Master’s at the same institution. (The essay is here, but it’s a bit crap.) Towards the end of the course, as we were working on writing abstract-style summaries, I proudly showed them the one I’d written for my eventual Meisterwork and was simultaneously chastened and impressed when they pointed out that among its 150 words there was a blindingly obvious typo.

I was already thinking that it might be fun to write something here about Saramago when it struck me as weird that something that took me so long to write has been read by so few people. Therefore I’m posting it here for the ages. It’s never been published (for at least two very good reasons) so it may be that someone researching or just interested in the topic will find it useful. I’m sure there are bits of it I would now change, with some sections underdeveloped and some overreliance on and/or misrepresentation of other people’s ideas, but in any case here it is, verrugas e tudo.

*Not that those are necessarily the best Saramago novels to start with, I would recommend ‘The Double’ if you’re not familiar with his work as it’s much more of a philosophical pageturner.

** For example, geologists often know almost nothing about climate science, especially those who are being specifically and handsomely paid for their ignorance of the topic.

Continue reading “Saramago and the City – My Master’s dissertation”

Electoral tantrums

15027720_1717325948595069_1370096760084389534_nBilly Bragg is spot on here. A very great deal of people were just dead set on voting for whoever the ‘political establishment’ told them not to vote for; the more obnoxious, unsuitable and irresponsible the better. The poster on the right is from Italy in relation to the upcoming constitutional referendum. It pretty much speaks for itself: people are being urged to vote against ‘Them’, in this case the banks and finance system (the hint of anti-semitism is no accident). The fact that the NO campaign is also supported by the far-right parties is irrelevant. The electorate doesn’t care. While millions are righteously angry that their economic plight and their inchoate fears of the future are entirely glossed over in the media spectacle, the only response they have come up with so far is a series of massive electoral tantrums. Continue reading “Electoral tantrums”

Seven Stories About Language and Identity

China Miéville’s recently published (and much, and rightly, lauded) novel Embassytown concerns a far-flung species of alien on a planet colonised by humans, aliens who speak a language in which they cannot lie. Not only can they not say what is not, they can also not say what things are like. The existential crisis provoked by this inability to express themselves figuratively eventually causes a majority of the species to tear out their hearing organs to escape the prison of their Language, while others manage to survive, painfully, by learning to express their experiences through the use of similes. When they finally manage to do so, there is an explosion of poetic language:

‘Before the humans came we didn’t speak so much of certain things. We were grown into Language. After history we made city and machine and gave them names. We didn’t speak so much of certain things. Language spoke us… when the humans came they had no names, and we made new words so they would have places in the world…Language took them in.

We were like hunters. We were like plants eating light. The humans made their town in our town like a star in a circle. they made their place like a filament in a flower… we spoke the name of their place, but we knew it had another name, sitting in the city like an organ in a body, like a tongue in a mouth.

You have not spoken before. You will. You’ll be able to say how the city is a pit and a hill and an animal that hunts and a vessel on the sea and the sea and how we are fish that swim in have never spoken before’.

In the novel we at no point encounter a description of the aliens themselves. We learn of some of their physical characteristics but we never find out what they look like. This seems apt.

In this spirit of the recognition of likeness I wanted to draw a series of comparisons and make explicit what my experience and interpretation of certain ideas I have encountered in certain books is like.

In the novel Blindness by José Saramago the characters in an unnamed city lose their ability to see and henceforth to recognise one another. A mysterious epidemic deprives them of sight, and all social bonds and connections are broken. Civilisation collapses as the individuals are no longer able to acknowledge to themselves that the people who surround them and on whom they depend are like them.

Blindness is like the novel New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani (the inventor of the language game Europanto) in which the main character wakes up on a quayside in Trieste during the Second World War with no memory of his identity or his language.  He is mistaken for a Finn, taught the language and sent to Finland in order to allow him to discover his identity and his place in the world. He eventually realises that he has no means of recovering his true identity and enlists with the Finnish armed forces to fight on the border against the invading Russians, never to return.

New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani is like Austerlitz by WG Sebald, in which the main character, who grew up in Wales but has no memory of his origins, follows an impulse to go to Prague, where he discovers that he speaks the language of the city from which he was exiled from his Jewish parents on a Kindertranport at a very young age.

Austerlitz by WG Sebald is like the novel Budapest by the Brazilian songwriter and novelist Chico Buarque, in which a ghost writer travelling back to Rio de Janeiro passes through the eponymous city and resolves to stay until he has mastered the language from scratch. He invests all his energies in his quest for a new identity, abandoning his life back home in Brazil, but comes to experience a crushing personal defeat whe he is told that his voluntary exile has been in vain, that the poems that he has so painstakingly created under the pseudonym of a moribund Hungarian poet ‘read like they were written by a foreigner’.

Budapest by Chico Buarque is also like another two novels written in the Portuguese language, one which, like the Marani novel, was written by an Italian. Afirma Perreira by Antonio Tabucchi tells the tale of a newspaper editor in Salazar’s Portugal of the 1930s, who comes to identify with an exiled Italian dissident and then to take enormous risks on his and  his comrades behalf, putting his own life in danger and finally engaging with a society from he had previously felt almost entirely detached.

And Afirma Perieira is like (indeed too similar, according to the author) another Saramago novel, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, in which one of the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa’s heteronyms, the eponymous poet who has previously been exiled to Brazil, returns to his native country and also becomes drawn into a plot against the regime in which his own sense of detachment from the world around him must be sacrificed together with his freedom if the life which he has lived is to have (had) any meaning.

None of these novels are particularly like the short story by Will Self, Story for Europe, in which a young couple, concerned that their child has not acquired the ability of coherent speech, take him to a specialist in child language acquisition on Harley Street, who listens to the burblings of their son for some minutes before declaring solemnly that their child only appears to be able to communicate in Business German.

Perhaps this could be a challenge for another Diego Marani or George Perec: would it be possible to write a novel in the ‘business’ version of a language, if such a thing actually existed? Unlikely.

Denial 1: On denialism

mmezqI mentioned to a friend that I had foolhardishly bought a ticket for a full showing of the nine and a half hour long Holocaust documentary Shoah. He responded that it would be effective aversion therapy for a Holocaust denier. Now personally I have never thought of myself as a Holocaust denier, but I guess there must be a reason why I have decided not just to subject myself to presumably the most upsetting and depressing celuloid experience of my life but also to pay a much delayed visit to Auschwitz this summer. Maybe, deep down, without knowing it, I am a Holocaust denier. Or maybe my interest is more casually macabre, like this guy (or on another level WG Sebald may have something to do with it). Perhaps we all are Holocaust deniers, in that most of the time, we go about our daily lives not reflecting upon the import not only of that most base of human achievements, but all the horrors that we know full well are going on around us, some of which we know at some level that we are deeply implicated in (and the means we increasingly use to try to escape from this reality allow us to also avoid our ethical responsibilities: a friend’s facebook profile reads, ‘Zen is not some kind of excitement, but concentration on our usual everyday routine…’…hmm, no need to worry about the ethical consequences of what we do all day at work then). Perhaps, as someone wise once speculated, we simply choose to be blind.

As Zizek pointed out, some traumas are too, well, traumatic to be integrated into the human psyche. There is no rational or appropriate response to knowledge of the Holocaust. It simply defies our categories of knowledge and belief, shatters the coordinates of our reality. In a very similar way, there would be no appropriate response to the coming horrors of climate chaos, and no visible means by which we can alert ourselves, those we love and those who do not exist yet in order to somehow prevent it from happening. So we all, at some level, deny it is happening.

Speaking of the holocaust, the French philosopher Raymond Aron articulated very well how ideology works today: ’“I knew, but I didn’t believe it, and because I didn’t believe it, I didn’t know.” Sven Lindquist said something similar: “You already know enough. So do I. It is not knowledge we lack. What is missing is the courage to understand what we know and to draw conclusions.” George Marshall of the Climate Outreach Information Network makes a similar point with reference to Climate Change: we need to stop calmly telling people about what is happening and concentrate on showing them how scared and angry we are. Actually, he didn’t say scared, I did. Here is a video in which he explains what he means; you can find much more of this sort of thing here:

José Saramago’s ‘Seeing’ and the Middle East revolutions

Events across the Middle East have echoes of one of the later novels by José Saramago. On the BBC World Service just now in response to a question about who is running the city now that Gaddafi’s authority in the area has collapsed, a Libyan interviewee proudly reported that he has never seen the city so clean; the people themselves have swept the streets. John Rees reported that the same had happened in Cairo after the authorities had abandoned the city. In Saramago’s ‘Seeing’, the government leaves an unnamed city in an unnamed country to its own devices in response to a more gentle and mysterious kind of democratic revolution:

‘…at midday exactly, while all this was going on, from every house in the city there emerged women armed with brooms, buckets and dustpans, and, without a word, they started sweeping their own patch of pavement and street, from the front door as far as the middle of the road, where they encountered other women who had emerged from the houses opposite with exactly the same objective and armed with the same weapons…they were not just looking after their own interests, but after the interests of the community as well. It was possibly for this same reason that, on the third day, the refuse collectors also came out onto the street. They were not in uniform, they were wearing their own clothes. It was the uniforms that were on strike, they said, not them.’

What is the cause of the strange and sudden outbreak of blank voting that causes the Government to leave the city without a shot having been fired? The explanation of the Government is clear: the normal functioning of the democratic system has been subverted, owing to a nefarious and possibly foreign-inspired plot which must be uncovered and quashed if ‘democratic normality’ is to resume. The effects of this purported conspiracy are described as an ‘infection’, a ‘modern day black death’ and a ‘tumour’, which has been introduced into the democratic system by ‘vandals, barbarians, savages’ and ‘wretched rebels’. The entire city has been contaminated by this moral pestilence, and the best solution, the authorities conclude, is to lay siege to the city and force it to see the errors of its ways.

The Prime Minister feels nostalgia ‘for the happy times when votes did as they were told’: the voters are seen as puppets that can be easily manipulated. Their ‘normal’ role is simply to periodically cast a vote in order to legitimise the continued existence of the political system. It is their refusal to play this role and by so doing create a legitimation crisis that throws their purported political representatives into turmoil. The high-blown and paternalistic rhetoric of the political parties appears to have no impact on the level of disengagement of the electors from the political system. The political leaders talk of civic duty, the ‘vital importance’ of the elections, and the urgency of a return to ‘normal’ political realities. They are portrayed as motivated purely by their own political survival. They contest among themselves the meaning of the results, with the left-wing party claiming it is a mislaid protest vote for their cause. But all three parties agree that they are facing a crisis and that normality must be restored at any cost.

The citizens react with an ominous silence to the Government’s attempts to identify its cause of the rebellion and its perpetrators. They respond blankly or brusquely to inquiries about how they voted. This refusal to engage with the system in its search for a way to address the crisis is understood by the increasingly desperate authorities to be more of a threat to the legitimacy of their power than electoral opposition could ever be. The citizens are violating the implicit rule that interprets any measure of participation as an act of affirmation of legitimacy. The ‘movement’ has no representatives or spokespeople with whom the Government can come to terms; indeed it is clear that in addition to having no figurehead, the ‘movement’ does not exist. It is made up of ‘thousands of people who do not know one another’ who, with no prior agreement, decided to cast a blank vote and who now respond to attempts to persuade them to engage in a dialogue with the same formula: ‘We don’t owe anyone an explanation’.

This new state of affairs is described as ‘mysterious’, ‘new and unknown’, and ‘threatening’. Eventually it transpires that the reason they cast blank votes was because they were ‘disillusioned’ and ‘could find no other way of making it clear just how disillusioned they were’:

‘They could have staged a revolution, but then many people would undoubtedly have died, something they would never have wanted, (…) all their lives they had patiently placed their votes in the ballot box, and the results were there for all to see, This isn’t democracy, Sir, far from it’.

Since this new state of affairs has, in the words of a newspaper editorial, ‘complicated public life to an unprecedented degree, corralling it into a dark alleyway from which not even the brightest spark (is) able to see a way out’, the Government turns to desperate measures in deciding to abandon the ‘rebel city’ to its own devices. As the Prime Minister explains:

‘…our aim is to isolate the population and then leave them to simmer, sooner or later there are bound to be fights, conflicts of interests, life will become increasingly difficult, the streets will fill up with rubbish…there are bound to be serious problems with the distribution and supply of foodstuffs, problems which, if necessary, we will take care to create…’

The President appears on television to notify the country of the Government’s decision to withdraw their ministries and the forces of law and order. He warns the city ‘The streets will be yours, they belong to you, use them as you wish’.

The siege that they plan to impose on the city will ‘inevitably seriously hamper the smooth functioning of an urban area of such importance’, and the Government expects that within a short period of time lawlessness and social breakdown will ensue and the disobedient population, trapped in its ‘unhappy prison’, will learn its lesson and overcome its ‘wicked obstinacy’. However, as soon as they learn that the authorities are gone, the people of the city take to the streets:

‘The streets, which, up until then, had been almost deserted…filled up with people within a matter of minutes…they resembled two rivers, one flowing up and one flowing down, and they waved to each other from river to river, as if the city were celebrating, as if it were a local holiday.’

No-one goes to work, and despite the hysterical predictions of the Government and the press, ‘there were no thieves or rapists or murderers’: It seems that ‘the police were not, after all, essential for the city’s security’, and the traffic flows smoothly. The predicted collapse into chaos does not occur.

One of the key moments of the novel takes place soon after the Government and the police have  withdrawn from the city. After the announcement of a Government-orchestrated strike by the refuse collectors, a Government-friendly newspaper publishes an editorial predicting that the rebellion will end in a bloodbath, a message which is broadcast and discussed on TV and radio. As if in response:

‘…at midday exactly, while all this was going on, from every house in the city there emerged women armed with brooms, buckets and dustpans, and, without a word, they started sweeping their own patch of pavement and street…they were not just looking after their own interests, but the interests of the community as well’.

It is as if the people of the city have adopted the President’s ironic injunction to make the streets their own and turned it around in order to claim the streets as their own common property in an act of autogestion. With the authorities gone, the city begins to look after itself. Its citizens have shown themselves to be ‘determined to change their lives, their tastes and their style’. Not only have they ceased to play their part in the charade of representative democracy, but their interest in reading newspapers has also greatly declined; the ideological hold that power has had over them is losing its grip. They are gaining autonomy in various areas of their lives, and rather than relying on the abstract entity of the state to take care of the common areas of the city, the people have begun to take matters into their own hands. In Lefebvrian terms, what was the abstract space of state jurisdiction has been appropriated and transformed into lived space. The Government has made a ‘grave error leaving the city unsupervised’.

Henri Lefebvre regarded the street as the place where spontaneity can express itself, ‘an arena of the city not completely occupied by institutions’. It is not so much public as common. As a result of the political crisis and the Government’s departure from the city, social space begins to assume new meaning. In the protests that take place the streets are explicitly reclaimed by the citizens. The second demonstration takes place after Government agents have bombed the metro station in a failed attempt to provoke recrimination and division. A sea of people floods the street in a silent demonstration that makes its way to the parliament building in a clear example of what David Harvey calls ‘targetting power in place’. The street has become a space of meaningful interaction, and the attempts at dividing the besieged city against itself do not succeed, as the city is experiencing the ‘birth and growth of an atmosphere of social harmony, (of) unequivocal solidarity’. Examples of solidarity abound, such as when, to the shock and disappointment of the watching media, those who have returned to the city after their failed attempt to escape are not greeted with hatred and violent recrimination.

Clearly something unprecedented is happening; according to the Minister of Justice, it is as if an epidemic of clear-sightedness has succeeded the epidemic of blindness that struck the city four years before, and over which has lain a code of silence. Whatever this new plague may be a symptom of, it raises questions of urban governance. By whom and for whom is the city governed? It seems that suddenly the governing class are no longer seen as the natural leaders, and that a transition is underway to what the Prime Minister calls ‘something entirely new and unknown, so different we could probably have no place in it’. The authorities see it as crucial to re-establish their rule and to avert what they see as the horror of the subject classes starting to take care of themselves.

There are a number of echoes in the novel of recent and not so recent events in cities in the real world. In his recent book ‘Violence’ Slavoj Žižek makes reference to Saramago’s novel in the context of a discussion of the riots in the banlieues of Paris in 2006, arguing that rather than a revolution, the act of political defiance is one of a purely negative character, a refusal to continue to cooperate with a process that they have come to regard as a charade. It is a movement with no leaders and no demands and as such it can neither be defeated nor incorporated into the system itself. It is a phatic act of rebellion which expresses no deeper meaning than that of mere refusal, ‘reject[ing] the very frame of decision’.

Nevertheless this argument fails to acknowledge that the act of returning a blank vote is not a passive act of pure negation, but a performative one: a subversive act of returning a ballot while withholding a vote. What the Government is faced with closely resembles the legitimacy crisis which Jurgen Habermas argues that government institutions in modern capitalist societies face. Significantly it was also published shortly after the farce of the election count in 2000 in what is purported to be the world’s largest democracy.

One of the clearest historical echoes in the novel is of the Paris Commune of 1871, an event that Lefebvre describes as ‘a spontaneous reaction against the programming and control of [the people’s] lives’. David Harvey records that:

‘When the rural army of reaction was assembled on the outskirts of Paris in 1871 poised to engage in the savage slaughter of some 30,000 communards, they were first persuaded that their mission was to reclaim the city from the forces of Satan.’

The siege of the city in Seeing is a similar struggle over the control and meaning of urban space between the state and what is seen by the authorities as a demonic rabble that has taken over the city. Almost one hundred years after the Paris Commune, the events of May 1968 would be inspired by ideas of reclaiming and appropriating space and time in the city, creating lived space and lived moments, liberating time and space from the confinements of the bourgeois order. Lefebvre wrote of both events that:

‘In 1871 the entire people took to the streets; the bourgeoisie had already left the capital or was preparing to do so…in March 1871 as in May 1968, the people come from the periphery, assembled and headed toward the urban centres in order to reconquer them’.

Another echo which can be interpreted as significant given Saramago’s controversial support for the Palestinian cause, is of the siege of Gaza, which partly results from the refusal of the Western powers and Israel to recognise the results of the election of 2005 in which Hamas was elected to govern. The Israelis continue to besiege and bombard Gaza in the attempt to persuade its inhabitants to vote more appropriately and obediently in the future. The Government’s contempt for the voters in Seeing also recalls Henry Kissinger’s alleged remark in relation to the election of a socialist Government in Chile in 1973: “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its people.”

Are the citizens who, in the absence of the state authorities, take command of the city in the novel rejecting the notion of democracy per se? It is useful here to consider a rhetorical question posed by Pierre Bourdieu in relation to neoliberalism, urban life and democratic accountability:

‘It can be shown, for example, that the problems seen in the suburban estates of the cities     stem from a neoliberal housing policy, implemented in the 1970s…This social separation was brought about by a political measure. [But] who would link a riot in a suburb of Lyon to a political decision of 1970?’.

Both Bourdieu and Saramago are fiercely critical of the neoliberal model of democracy, with its ideological glossing over of social problems caused by political decisions based on narrowly-defined economic criteria. Bourdieu writes that ‘all the critical forces in society need to insist on the inclusion of the social costs of economic decisions in economic calculations’. The concern in the novel is for a more meaningful form of democratic participation in the life of the community, the city and in society. The anodyne model of democracy which is explicitly rejected in the novel is a managerial one, which is concerned primarily with the reproduction of political power, and not with specific problems and possibilities in the life of a city. A politician from the the right-wing party is described as having been ‘appointed to administer’ the city; the dominant attitude of the politicians in the novel is that of cynicism and self-interest. The democratic system is shown to be merely a machine to produce the illusion of democracy.

Alain Badiou makes the point that capitalism is worldless, in the sense that it is divorced from any specific social field of meaning and can operate with any set of values, adapting easily to purported ‘Asian values’ (supposedly collectivist and authoritarian) rather than being entrenched in the liberal, ‘democratic’ and individualist traditions of the West. The city as we first encounter it in Seeing, as in the other three novels under discussion, appears to have no distinguishing features: no past, no place, no landmarks, and no names. It is the bland landscape of liberal-democratic capitalism, with all distinguishing historical and geographical features and social particularities eliminated, not anchored in any specific time or landscape. It might therefore be thought of as a Fukuyamaian post-historical city. Apart from the designation of three political parties, from the right, the centre and the left, ideology plays very little role, and politics is merely a matter of administration.

The pre-rebellion city in ‘Seeing’ can thus be categorized as another non-place; although the politicians insist that the municipal elections are vital for the future of the city, their rhetoric rings false, as the city appears to have no past, and how can a city with no past have a future? The ‘gentle rebellion’ occasioned by the blank votes, however, awakens the city to its past, to its repressed traumas, but also to new possible futures.

These possibilities can be glimpsed in those moments in the novel where the city itself appears to become the agent of transformation. Previously the citizens have not had ‘the healthy habit of demanding the proper enforcement of their rights’, but after they rebel and the Government deserts the city, the city itself becomes subjectivised in a process which Badiou might well classify as an ‘event’: a collective political phenomenon which seemingly emerges out of nothing, and which then opens the way to new possibilities. The city  is said to ‘[take] the matter into its own hands’. Useful here is Lefebvre’s concept of ‘counter-spaces’: spaces which ‘resist the dominant organisation of space around the requirements of political order’, and which can also be categorised in Foucaultian terms as ‘heterotopias’. The action of the citizens in reclaiming the streets creates spaces from which formal power is excluded. Fran Tonkiss writes:

‘Taking to the streets or the square is both a tactical reworking of space – the embassy or the government building is no longer simply a site of official power, but also a site of protest or resistance – and an enactment in time’.

A heterotopia is a kind of ‘effectively enacted utopia’, and those moments in the novel in which the possibility of a genuinely humanizing urban experience is glimpsed can be characterised as utopian in the sense that they offer what Marx described as ‘fantastic pictures of future society’; a vision of what humans can collectively achieve once their ‘slumbering powers’ have been awakened. For David Harvey:

‘The figures of “the city” and of “Utopia” have long been intertwined, visions of utopia assuming an urban form. In remaking the city we remake ourselves, or as the situationist slogan says, ‘changer la ville, changer la vie’.

In those moments in which the citizens express solidarity with their fellow inhabitants and begin to appropriate and produce their own space, the city becomes a place of meaning: in an echo of the closing pages of Blindness, it also becomes a place of ritual. The moment in which the superintendent drinks from the fountain in the park is described in quasi-religious terms.

It is significantly the only one of the four novels in which the city has a clearly defined centre. As we explored in the chapter on The Cave, within Lefebvre’s notion of the ‘right to the city’, the right to centrality, of access to and participation in the life of the city is key. Writing on the Paris Commune, Lefebvre argues that the workers return to the centre, conquer the city. This renovated centrality is a crucial element in the transformation of the city in Seeing. The people of the city produce their own space, creating a kind of experimental utopia of which Lefebvre would surely approve:

‘[Lefebvre] envisaged a ludic city, such that work would be organised around residence, and in which everyday life would be transformed, and people would be in charge of their lives.’

‘José Saramago in the Land of the Blind’, by me

In the course of José Saramago’s ‘Blindness’, a euphorically pessimistic novel about a sudden and unexplained epidemic of blindness in an unnamed city and country, he makes some remarks about blind people which, in the context of a plague which has left all but one individual without sight, make a lot of sense. His essential argument has to do with solidarity making human society possible, so it seems reasonable to speculate that in a situation where nobody could actually see the Other, human feelings would take second place to a feral need to survive at any cost, which is what we witness throughout the novel.

There are, however, a couple of moments in the book where he seems keen to take it a little bit further and actually state quite baldly that the only reason that blind people have any feelings at all is because we are there to help them out. Which seems a little harsh, and perhaps a bit rich seeing as he himself wears a particularly thick pair of spectacles.

I don’t know if many blind people have read the novel. I did find one comment from a ‘visually impaired’ person who felt that ‘blindness operates in his text as both an intertextual sign and as a referent’, which is of course helpful, but may as far as I know not actually mean very much. Anyhoo. For it to be read widely in the, ahem, ‘blind community’ it would have to be published in Braille, and I don’t think it has been. Maybe, if it ever is, he might one day face a Salman Rushdie-style Fatwah, with copies of his and probably other books being burnt in obviously carefully controlled environments and our TV screens filled with the faces of angry blind people holding up photos of camels and Paris Hilton and proclaiming with fury ‘THIS MAN MUST DIE!’.

I digress. Here, in all it’s not-really-worth-reading-if-you-haven’t-read-the-book entirety is an essay I recently wrote about the novel, upon reading of the which (?!) they agreed to let me back into University, which is where I’ll be from October and hopefully up until the end of my life in, ooh, dozens of years’ time. I would particularly appreciate hearing any constructive comments from any blind readers out there, but unfortunately my experimentary attempts to make it easier for them by simply writing have sadly proved as fruitless as, erm, my daily diet.

Alors je me tais.

Would you consider H.G. Wells’ dictum, “In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king” an appropriate epigraph to ‘Blindness’ by Jose Saramago?

The mock-biblical quote with which Saramago chooses to open ”Blindness’ is instructive and ambiguous: ‘If you can look, see. If you can see, observe’. The verb he chooses to employ, ‘reparar’, has two meanings: both to take note of something and to remedy it. The conflation of seeing and understanding is one deeply embedded in our languages and our cultures, and Saramago makes it even more explicit on the final page of the book:

‘I think we didn’t go blind, I think we are blind, Blind people who can see, Blind people who can see without seeing.’

Saramago is very fond of aphorisms and sayings, of what ‘someone once said’. At two points in the book HG Well’s quote is mentioned: one of the internees’ attempts to apply it to the world in which they find themselves is rejected by one of his companions:

‘Someone once said that in the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king, Forget about what someone once said, This is different, Here not even people with one eye would be saved.’

Also, towards the end of the book the doctor’s wife, the only person who retains her sight throught the epidemic, herself claims that she is neither the King nor the Queen of this ‘land of the blind’:

‘None of you know, none of you can know what it is to have eyes in a world of blind people, I’m no queen, no, I’m simply the one who was born to witness the horror.’

The initial structure of ‘Ensaio sobre a cegueira’ reflects that of several other Saramago books in which unexplained cataclysmic events give birth to a crisis of government and a social breakdown. In ”The Stone Raft’ Portugal and Spain become detached from the rest of Europe and float off into the Atlantic. In ‘Seeing’ a political crisis is engendered by a sudden and unexplained surge in the number of blank votes at a general election, leading to Government panic and martial law; and in his new book death ceases to kill, and once again the authorities are forced into desperate and hollow measures.

In ‘Blindness’, as with the aforementioned two books, the story is set in an unnamed country with characters known only by the descriptive epithets ascribed to them on their first appearance. Several of the characters comment that ‘blind people need no name’. It is also unclear if in Saramago’s novel he is talking about a ‘land’ of the blind or about an epidemic that infects all humanity across the world.

It is clear, however, that the ‘white blindness’ that keeps them from seeing is not conventional blindness. Something is profoundly wrong and in depriving all but one of his characters of vision, Saramago enacts a metamorphisis which inverts that of both Franz Kafka in ‘Metamorphisis’ and of James Kelman in ‘How Late it was, How Late’.

The vision of the world he wants the reader to witness is profoundly troubling and, insofar as it can be seen as an allegory, deeply pessimistic. In an interview with the magazine ‘Visão’ in 2002 he expressed the belief that ‘the world conjuncture at present is absolutely terrifying’. His intention is to make us ‘re-see’ the world; he told the Observer in May 2006:

“The painter paints, the musician makes music, the novelist writes novels. But I believe that we all have some influence, not because of the fact that one is an artist, but because we are citizens. As citizens, we all have an obligation to intervene and become involved, it’s the citizen who changes things. I can’t imagine myself outside any kind of social or political involvement. Yes, I’m a writer, but I live in this world and my writing doesn’t exist on a separate level. And if people know who I am and read my books, well, good; that way, if I have something more to say, then everyone benefits.”

His books, then, have a very clear political point to make, a vision of the world we share which is intensely politicised. He told another interviewer in Spring 2002 that ‘I am not a novelist, but rather a failed essayist who started to write novels because he didn’t know how to write essays.’

The powers-that-be in his books are shown to be wanting. The authorities in ‘Blindness’ – as in both ‘Seeing’, ‘The Stone Raft’ and his latest novel – are hapless, cynical and ultimately unable to deal with the situation. They are seen trying to deal with the latest developments in the crisis and to save their own positions by immediately turning to the most authoritarian measures without thinking of the possible consequences:

‘Where are we going to put all these people, We’ll sort it out, occupy all the dormitory wards (in the asylum), If we do that the contaminated will come into direct contact with the blind, They’ll probably, sooner or later, go blind anyway, And what shall we do with the drivers of the buses, Just stick them in there too.’

A concern of the novel is the question of how the blind can organise themselves. As soon as those infected arrive in the asylum, attempts are made at organisation but the one person capable of establishing and maintaining order must hide the truth from her companions because, as her husband puts it, ‘they will probably turn you into their slave’. The repeated appeal for organisation goes largely unheeded.

When all order breaks down in the asylum, some of the internees attempt to establish their own authoritarian order. This, it is eventually revealed, is mainly due to the presence of someone who was formerly blind – not, of course, a one-eyed man, but someone with an obvious advantage:

‘Lucky so-and-sos…they can use him as a guide, a trained blind person is worth his weight in gold.’

The rule of these bullies is horrifyingly brutal but short-lived. When the central group of characters manage to leave the asylum, the doctor’s wife is able to find shelter and food, but the world that greets her eyes is one in which ‘time is ending, the rot is spreading, diseases find the door wide open, the water is running out and the food is turning into poison’. Here the central character is the only seeing person in a world entirely populated by the blind.

The characters have to try to survive in a world where ordinary day-to-day life has become impossible. Part of that day-to-day-life is based upon notions of paid work, private property, the commercial distribution of food, public provision of transport, health care, and the utilities and the maintanance of law and order. Also essential to our way of life is a belief that things are improving and will continue to improve in the future. The problem the novel poses is what happens when we can no longer depend on all of these things. This is part of the novel where the allegory with our present times is particularly precise and intense; the account of what the doctor’s wife sees is reminiscent of recent newspaper reports from parts of the world devastated by war, man-made famine or environmental cataclysm. Saramago urges us to confront the question of what alternative sources of authority we might look to in a world where our political leadership has utterly failed us.

One possible answer is that religion might provide a refuge, or at least some comfort, in desperate times. But the scene in the church, where all the icons and images are revealed to be blindfolded, is possibly the centrepiece of Saramago’s vision, of a world he exhorts us to ‘reparar’. God, he tells us ‘doesn’t deserve to see’ what we have witnessed. It is possible to see the preceding scene, in which the doctor’s wife sees the dancing flames from the supermarket basement and smells the burning bodies of those trapped below, as a vision of hell. The remaining humans are blind, burning in a subterranean hell, and there is no God to witness or to save them. Is it this realisation, and the fact that ‘the streets were looking worse and worse with each hour that passed’ – simply that things cannot possibly get any worse – that causes the epidemic to suddenly end?

In the HG Wells story the visitor to the ‘Land of the Blind’ sees a land where the inhabitants have managed to adapt and live without sight, but in Saramago’s much darker story a lack of vision is only compensated for by solidarity. At the start of the epidemic the first blind man is told by his rescuer ‘today it’s you, tomorrow it might be me’, and this sentiment is echoed throughout the book, for example when the doctor’s wife tells her husband:

‘Today is today, tomorrow is tomorrow, it’s today that I have the responsability (…) What responsibility, The responsibility that comes with having eyes when others have lost them, You can neither guide nor feed all the blind people in the world, I should.’

It is no accident that Saramago chooses a woman as his central protaganist. He seems to suggest that women are more capable of ‘seeing’ other people, whereas men tend to resort to brutality and attempts to exploit others. Often this selflessness on behalf of his female characters grates somewhat, but then his archetypal characters are rarely granted complex sentiments, instead exhibiting a certain naivety, particularly in the case of the men. When it has become clear to the reader that the man who helped the first blind man to his house has taken his car keys in order to steal his car, the latter remarks:

‘He probably just forgot, took them without realising.’

To some extent Saramago is setting his hapless protaganists up for a fall, for the moment when it will become clear that the powers-that-be have betrayed and abandoned them, and that all they have to depend on is each other.

Saramago believes artists share the responsibilty of all citizens, a responsibility to remedy the wrongs that we see around us. In another popular Portuguese proverb that he choses not to use in the novel (‘Eyes that don’t see, heart that doesn’t feel’) this common blindness prevents people not only from seeing, but also from feeling. In the land of the blind, people leave their houses and are unable to find them again, lose contact with their families, are forced to live a feral existence which precludes human sympathies. For Saramago, unlike in the story by HG Wells, it is impossible for human beings to live without the power of sight, but the central argument of his essay about blindness is that mutual understanding and a sense of solidarity with one another is what makes us human.