Bangalore Literary Festival 2018

I still have Indian dust on my shoes from the city of Bangalore, where I spent almost a week at the international literary festival. 

    I was mind-boggled at the scale of this national Indian event: literature, politics, activism, feminism.  There was music and even street art, but what a crowd. Sixteen thousand highly literate participants, roaming from one outdoor stage to another, and engaged with every atom of their souls. 

    Literary culture persists in this part of the world, where people still believe that leafing through books is a transformative spiritual experience that can change the world. 

Authors of the first world, beset with Internet and economic crisis, often seem like plastic vanity-toys kept past their sell-by date, but maybe what they lack most keenly is a creative readership.   As a passionate reader, I often claim it is more difficult to read a book well than it is to to write one. As a less passionate writer, I know that even one ideal reader is enough to motivate a decent book.

    The beautiful literary carnival —- held on the broad, leafy grounds of one of Bangalore’s finest hotels, an oasis of glamor and privilege —  contrasted with the crooked streets of Bangalore where the sacred cows, pariah dogs and torrents of honking traffic live with a passion for survival. This was not my first visit to India, so I was ready for the epic scale of grandeur and abject poverty, but it was still a culture shock.  

    The jet-set’s digitized skyscrapers tower like phantoms over vast bazaars seething with a seize-the-day human vitality. It’s reflected in Indian literature,  where the English language, global yet somehow frail, towers over sixteen vernacular publishing scenes.  In the Bangalore festival, professional writers traded erudite quips in English because thats how one gets it done, but they were singing in the English-speaking choir, and they knew it. The seething, vibrant life in those modern Indian streets, half chopped coconuts and half cellphone components, is never taught at Oxford.
     All over the world we women haunt conflict zones, and India, which is vast, has plenty of them. The gunfire tends to sound the same but the conclusions are different.  The national patriot woman works to support her brave men at war; the peace activist withdraws support from men who aren’t brave enough to refuse the uniform and leave the slaughterhouse.  There is one common ground, though: whether life is called “peace” or “war,” the women always struggle in a trench.  

    The ongoing #metoo scandal in India is briskly spreading all over the country through social media.  It started with celebrities — actresses and directors, but spread through media centers, universities, publishing, wherever women get sexually harassed by wealthy and powerful men, which is to say, all over the place.  It’s evidence that complaints of Western feminism have a universality, and wherever women don’t speak up about the suffering of women, it’s not because the oppressions aren’t noticed; it’s because the complaints are repressed.   It’s taboo to speak up, and even a small distance in cultural mores can make the speakable unspeakable.  

  Women are keenly attuned to what can be said in what conditions.  At the festival, one female mystery writer complained that she simply can’t bear to read a “classic English whodunnit novel” which is set in Scotland.  All those careful cultural assumptions about who gets battered to death by the butler with the fire iron, they are fine in a homey English county but just don’t work in distant Glasgow, which seems as incongruous as Bangalore, almost.  This may be indeed be a literary problem, but it doesn’t explain why crime and detective fiction thrives inside India for Indians, because it does.  

     At the festival, a female science fiction writer complained: why must I be targeted as a woman when I write fiction about science? I may be a biological woman, but why should that restrict what I can write? I remembered that as a young writer, and as a young woman, I shared her frustration, but I gave it up as soon as I realized that my writing didn’t emerge from some gender-neutral science laboratory. 

    When women were not on the page, it was an absence.  My favorite writers of novels missed the women’s perspective. My own life experience was visibly missing from classical novels.  The women characters were lame, my world was not that world of canonic literary classics, I was invisible there, and not withstanding the fact that literature was my safe place, and a source of worldly education, I was  miserable. I had no power, I had no words. My experience and wisdom had not been captured in those novels I read. It was in my body, as in every other living woman through history, outside of genre, in a gender gap.

    As a woman without a fatherland and without a mother language, my own literature had to be born ante literam. The luxury of writing without a gender also has a gender, it is male “mainstream.” But the stream is not the ocean, and dams can break. 

    In Bangalore I did a “book signing” without books! My books have never been in print in India, but I do have website with many of my books online,  and an old fashioned pen in my hand. A handshake, a signature, and a hug for a book from a website address! It was fair barter.
    Bangalore has many temples, small and big, fancy and clean, awkward and trashy.   The whole city conveys the impression of a temple on the move. The pavements are broken by banyan roots, the skies are speckled with vultures, the soil is overrun by small but aggressive striped squirrels, so watch your step! 

    The traffic is Los Angeles times ten, with no lane or crossing discipline.  Pedestrians including the numerous cows and dogs simply amble through the noisy torrent of motor-rickshaws, endless scooters, bikes ringing, cars honking, trucks blasting.  Traffic policemen occasionally shake-down the worst offenders, who can either appear in court or else cough up half the cash on the spot, for cop’s pocket.   Somehow the whizzing vehicles respectfully avoid killing elderly women and small children.

    In the old summer palace of the Sultan Tipu, a historic structure which in  Italy would be guarded relentlessly with video cams, the local people sat on the gleaming wooden stairs, meditating, solemn. A little girl danced as endlessly as an extra in a Bollywood movie, gently applauded by her neighbors. 

     It is a densely crowded, communal life in India. Most every task that might be done by one person in the West is parceled out among three or four people, then performed for an audience.

    In a coffee shop I simply asked for a cold soda.  The waiter conveyed the request to the boss; the owner gave the waiter a key to the refrigerator; another waiter opened the fridge, yet another retrieved the bottle  and, finally, my original waiter, with a flourish, brought it to me, opened it and carefully poured it out for me. Then I drank it in a rather showy fashion, because, after all that fuss, I felt obliged.

    People want to listen and to serve: in my hotel the Don’t Disturb sign is replaced by the written board: Please let us clean the room soon, our pleasure is to serve you. As a writer, as an activist, I confess I feel much the same.

    I feel edified and cleansed after being in Bangalore. In India, people check on your condition all the time, emotionally and materially. Then they certify your stay with a nice red stamp, ink in your passport,  or henna on your body.

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Trans Jesus Perfomance

live amsterdam

TRANS-JEZUS-PERFORMANCE from Jasmina Tesanovic on Vimeo.

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Villa Diary July

Villa Diary July

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Entry Three , La villa

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Interview With Glamorous Ghosts

Jasmina Tesanovic and Bruce Sterling are currently writers in residence in the “Vigna di Madame Reale,” a baroque villa built in Torino in the 1650s. For this newspaper, Jasmina and Bruce are interviewing the patroness and the interior designer of the villa.

“Madama Cristina,” Cristina Maria di Borbone-Francia, is Duchess of Cyprus, Princess of Piedmont and Queen of Cyprus (1606-1663). Her master builder, chief dramatist and long-time companion is the Count Filippo San Martino d’Aglie (1604-1667).

JT: Your Majesty, and Signor Count, thanks so much for letting us write our novels in your beautiful hillside villa! We’re the “Globalisti a Torino,” and we met each other in Torino, and we got married. So it’s great to be here in your palace, which is the site of your famous Turinese romance.

BS: We’re also grateful that you were somehow able to return from the dead in order to talk to an Italian newspaper.

Fd’A: That feat was not easy. I haven’t appeared as a ghost in Torino since the late 1970s.

MC: I haven’t been seen in Torino since the night that I died, and I flew across the River Po in a flaming carriage drawn by four flaming horses.

Fd’A. I saw Her Majesty performing that spectral feat, by the way. In fact, I was living in this villa at that time, and this is the place where she last came to me, in her flaming ghost carriage.

MC: I wanted to say good-bye to him, in the special place where we were most happy.

JT: That is so romantic! (she chokes up) That makes me want to cry!

BS: (handing her a tissue) You two hardly seem dead at all, to us. I’m from Texas, and I can see that you two are living presences in this city. Especially you, Madama Cristina. The San Salvario district has a big, long street called “Madama Cristina.” An excellent street! Really nice shopping!

MC: I command you to address me as “Your Most Serene Highness.”

BS: What?

MC: This is a royal audience! A reigning monarch must be addressed in a polite and courtly fashion, such as: “If it would please Your Most Serene Highness to offer us your wisdom on the following topic,” and then, and only then, do you presume to pose any question to me.

BS: But this is a newspaper interview! Newspapers don’t have enough space for polite, elaborate Savoyard court rhetoric. The people need to know the facts!

MC: I know what a newspaper is! We had a newspaper in Savoy. One only, and it was controlled by a Jesuit.

JT: Your Most Serene Highness, may I presume to ask if you read that newspaper?

MC: You’re a foreign woman from the Balkans, am I right? Yet you’re also a writer? A woman, who writes?

JT: Yes! Yes I am!

MC: Then I command you to read “Astrae,” by Honoré d’Urfé. It’s the best novel ever written at my court. It’s thousands of pages long, so the court ladies can read it aloud to each other, all winter. It’s a romance, so you are sure to like it.

BS: Count Filippo, what do you think of that romance novel?

Fd’A. I’m not a novelist. I’m a man of action, made for festivals, choreography, costumes, opera, ballet, and tournaments. And architecture of course. And I did a lot of urban planning.

BS: So, you were pretty much the one-man government of all Savoy, then.

Fd’A (nodding) At Her Majesty’s command, of course.

BS: Yet you don’t have any street named after you. I’ve noticed that Prince Maurizio and Prince Tommaso, who were bitter rivals of yours — they both have streets in modern Torino. But not you.

MC (warningly) Sir, you are pressing on his sore spot here.

BS: Count Filippo, let’s be frank here. You were the court favorite of your Duchess here, her secret lover and basically the powerful Prime Minister of all Piedmont, but there seems to be some shadow over your political achievements as a statesman. The Turinese should have properly named a whole city square after you.

Fd’A. My San Martino family, they have their street named in Torino.

BS: But not you. It’s about the scandalous royal romance, isn’t it? You two were in a settled, intimate relationship, but you never married. Because she’s a royal Bourbon princess from France, the sister of Louis XIII, but you were just a modest Piedmontese country gentleman. But you shared a bed in this villa, against all propriety. Is that why you were denied your proper fame and glory?

Fd’A: Look here, presumptuous foreigner: you many think you understand Turinese baroque politics, but you have it all wrong. I don’t need any fame and glory. Her Majesty already has all that — she was born into that condition! As for me, I manage all the grandeur and magnificence. I design the glorious sets, I choreograph the famous dancing and public festivals, but personally, I’m modest and humble. Like a Capuchin monk, almost.

BS: You don’t appear very humble. You have beautiful lavender silk clothing and all kinds of gold rings and royal medals.

Fd’A. Ridiculous! This color isn’t “lavender!” This is a special tint called “gridelino” or “mauve gray.” It’s Her Majesty’s signature color! As her minister, I always dress in “Cristina Gray.”

JT: We’ve noticed that your big villa here is full of that ‘gridelino’ color.

Fd’A. Because I decorated it myself! Of course, the Vigna di Madame Reale doesn’t look as grand today as it did when I managed it. I gave Her Majesty huge formal gardens, a band-stand, a dance-floor, and her own zoo.

MC (to JT) He’s so nice to me.

JT: I can see that.

MC: He’s just so charming. And so handsome, too. The “Bel Filippo,” they called him. Every woman in my court was in love with him.

JT: That must have been troublesome.

MC: Yes, I had to put up with a lot of trouble to keep him always at my beck and call, but he was worth it. Filippo d’Aglie is absolutely the most entertaining man in the world. He was the greatest creative genius of Baroque Turin. He was inventing ballet, and also opera, just for me. He could play ten musical instruments and write poetry for me in four languages.

Fd’A. All part of my day’s work, Your Majesty. It was my privilege to serve you and my native realm, the Duchy of Savoy.

MC: You can see how good he is.

JT: Yes. I married a guy who is sort of entertaining, but he’s Texan. In your age, all the Texans were naked savage cannibals.

MC: Your Texan still seems rather rude and brutal. You should make him sit up straight and comport himself more like a gentleman. Does he speak any Latin?

JT: Not one word of Latin! I’m a literary translator, but Texans are terrible at languages. He’s writing a book about you, but if this villa was still in Baroque Turin, maybe he could clean out the palace stables for you. Other than that, a Texan would be no good at all.

MC: Well, you seem a bit better than him. My father-in-law, Duke Carlo Emmanuel, had a chance to become King of Serbia. Then I would be the Queen of Serbia, and your people would have been my loyal subjects.

JT: Really?

MC: Why not? My sister was Queen of Spain, my other sister was Queen of Britain. I was Queen of Cyprus, even though I never saw Cyprus. A small, primitive Balkan country like yours would be easy to conquer. Serbia just needs better administration. Then it would be less ugly and backward, and more grand and magnificent, like Savoy.

BS: Your Most Serene Highness, that’s some impressive political acumen.

MC: I pick good servants. The key to governance is delegation. Giovanni Botero, the geopolitical strategist of Savoy, was the best political thinker in the world.

BS: I don’t know much about Giovanni Botero. I’ve seen his street in Torino, though. It’s right downtown.

Fd’A. You must read Botero’s treatise, “On the Grandeur and Magnificence of Cities.” That was our manifesto for Turin. Everything we built here, every map, every street, every citadel and artillery firing station — it all relates to that plan.

BS: Wow! Thanks a lot, Filindo! That’s a great tip!

MC (to Fd’A): He knows that my pet name for you was “Filindo.” How does he know that?

Fd’A. From books, probably. Books can outlast great buildings, sometimes. Not very often, though.

MC: Why must we suffer as fictional characters? Isn’t it enough, for you and me, that we suffered as historical characters?

Fd’A. Your Majesty, I was just thinking that myself.

MC: Every relation between mortal man and woman has a sadness to it, because it must end. Journalists, I must dismiss you. This audience is at an end.

JT: Oh no! Please! You can’t! We were just getting started!

BS: There’s so much more we still need to know! What about the time you were kidnapped? Did you really start your love affair during the Black Death? And what about the Compagnia di San Paolo?

JT: It’s too late! They’ve dissipated into air, like spoken words… There’s nothing left of two of them, but one small, mauve gray fog…

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Phoenix Renewed

The “Phoenix Renewed” Project
by Bruce Sterling and Jasmina Tesanovic
Villa Abegg, Turin, April 18, 02018
JASMINA TESANOVIC. Ciao a tutti, we are the “Globalisti a Torino.” I am Jasmina Tesanovic from Belgrade Serbia, and this is Bruce Sterling from Austin Texas. We first met here in Torino.
BRUCE STERLING. Torino is the city of our romance. We are two writers, and we both write novels, but in Torino, we have adventures. In Torino, we are constructive. We curate events here, and we build projects. Our new project is called “La Fenice Rinovata” or “The Phoenix Renewed.”
J. Our project was named by Filippo San Martino d’Agliè. He was the original interior designer for this building. He also created a great many operas, ballets, festivals and tournaments here in Torino. We know a lot about him because Bruce is writing a fantascienza novel about the Count Filippo d’Agliè.
B. In fact, both of us are writing novels about Torino now. These novels have been slow and ambitious projects for us, because in Torino, we do strange things such as creating the “Casa Jasmina House of the Future” with the Torino Fab Lab and the Arduino company. In Belgrade, or in Austin, we would never establish a writers’ office and a creative residency inside a baroque royal villa. But it’s true; here we are.
J. For the “Phoenix Renewed” project we will occupy an office on the top floor of this palace. We will finish our two novels in here, with the kind hospitality of the Company di San Paolo. My own novel is not about Madama Cristina, but about Turinese women who were famous or anonymous, queens or women of the street, whose history has been forgotten or misrepresented. It’s an atemporal fantasy.
B. So, our goal in this press conference is to explain to the press, the public, in Torino, in Italy, and everywhere else in the world, a few things about this building, which is our new creative headquarters and inspirational work-space. This place is called the “Villa Abegg.” When it was first built, 375 years ago, it was known as the “Delightful Vineyard of the Royal Madame Cristina of France, Duchess of Savoy, Princess of Piedmont and Queen of Cyprus.”
J. So for our new roles in this palace, Bruce will be the “Visionary in Residence.”
B. Jasmina will be the “Royal Madama Jasmina.” Instead of having a “house of the future,” here will have our “palace of the past.”
J. Until recently, this palace was an archive. So it really was a ‘palace of the past,’ but now it is necessary to move the archive and find a new use for this building. Someone needs to move in here, maybe a foundation, or a library, or an international culture group, or a global charity — this building has already had all those uses, because it is almost four centuries old. This building is a phoenix that must be renewed.
B. Since we are the “Globalisti a Torino,” we have volunteered to occupy part of the building ourselves. We could just write fiction about the royal palaces in Turin. We write a lot of books, all kinds, as you can see. We’re literary people. But in Torino we become practical. In Torino we live the dream. We perform the art. We meet each other in Torino, and after that, we even got married. Because we are committed. That is why we have to exist in this palace!
J. And we will tell everybody we know that we are doing it. In books, in magazines, newspapers, and on websites, social media, even on video. We will bear witness to our experiences in renewing this phoenix. Hopefully, we will finish our two novels about Torino, while working here in this beautiful villa.
B. The ‘Vineyard of the Royal Madame.’ Why us, and why here? Our romantic fate has brought us here. This is an act of Turinese conceptual art. We have no salary for this project, we have not been hired to do this, we are not renting this palace, and no money has changed hands. We are the new tenants of this historic villa, and we are fantasists.
J. We know that this project may seem like a prank idea by Italo Calvino. We expect to enjoy ourselves in this villa and on these beautiful grounds. However, we have a mission. We are doing this as an act of profound respect, and we are grateful for the privilege.
B. We want to declare our passionate solidarity with the people who first created this building. That would be the Royal Madame Christine, Duchess of Savoy, and her boyfriend and master builder, the Count Filippo San Martino d’Agliè.
J. These are two Turinese people who knew about war, plague and international struggle. They were people from the turbulent era of Manzoni’s great Italian novel, “Promessi Sposi.” Her father was stabbed to death in the street. He was kidnapped and had to spend years in a foreign prison. They were aristocrats, but they also suffered. One of their sufferings was that they were secret lovers who could never marry.
B. This is the place is where they lived together: Christine and Filippo. They built this palace in a vineyard well outside Torino, so that they could meet here quietly, and discuss their great schemes for reforming and constructing their royal capital.
J. She was a royal widow, and he was her lover, her court favorite and basically her Prime Minister, her Master of Fabrication. They were secret lovers, but they worked hard in here. As long as they were both alive, they never gave up building.
B. Then she died, and this is where he spent his last years: on these grounds. This was the retirement home for Filippo d’Agliè, he who was the “Bel Filippo,” “Filindo Il Constante,” the greatest creative genius of Baroque Torino. He and his royal mistress were building Turin for magnificence and grandeur. We think they would want us to help to renew their glorious phoenix. We consider this a moral duty for guests in Torino like ourselves. And, also, we consider this a kind of esoteric invitation. We never asked for this situation to arise, we never planned for this to happen, but it has arrived for us as a happy opportunity. Only in Torino do such things ever happen to us.
Thank you, and now we will take questions.
Jasmina Tesanovic. Ciao a tutti, noi siamo i Globalisti a Torino. Io sono Jasmina Tesanovic di Belgrado, Serbia e questo qui e Bruce Sterling di Austin Texas. Ci siamo incontrati per la prima volta fisicamente, qui a Torino.
Bruce Sterling. Torino e’ la citta’ della nostra storia d ‘amore. Noi siamo due scrittori, scriviamo tutti e due romanzi, ma a Torino viviamo delle avventure. A Torino siamo costruttivi, curiamo degli eventi e facciamo dei progetti. Il nostro nuovo progetto si chiama “La Fenice Rinovata” o “The Phoenix Renewed.”
J. Il nostro progetto ha preso nome secondo Filippo San Martino d’Agliè. Lui ha fatto il design interiore di questo palazzo. Ha creato pure come ben sapete tante opere, balletti, festival, tornei, qui a Torino. Sappiamo tanto di lui perche’ Bruce sta scrivendo un romanzo di fantascienza su Conte Filippo d’Agliè.
B. In effetti, tutti e due in questo momento stiamo scrivendo dei romanzi su Torino. Sono dei progetti lenti e ambiziosi dato che a Torino facciamo delle cose strambe come costruire Casa Jasmina, la casa del futuro, con il Fab Lab di Torino e la compagnia Arduino. A Belgrado o Austin, non avremmo mai un studio da scrittori e una residenza creativa dentro una villa barocca reale. E’ la verita’.
J. Per il progetto La Fenice Rinovata occuperemo un ufficcio sull’ ultimo piano di questo palazzo. E finiremmo i nostri due romanzi proprio qui, grazie all ospitalita gentile della Compagnia di San Paolo. Il mio non e’ proprio su Madama Cristina, ma su tante donne famose e anonime, regine e donne di strada, di Torino la cui storia e stata dimenticata o travisata. E’ un storia atemporale.
B. Lo scopo di questa conferenza stampa e di spiegare alla stampa, al pubblico, a Torino, in Italia e in tutto il mondo, un paio di cose riguardo a questo edificio, che e’ il nostro nuovo quartier generale e lo spazio lavorativo di grande ispirazione. Si chiama Villa Abegg. Quando fu costruita 375 anni fa era conosciuta come “La deliziosa villa della Madama Reale Cristina Maria di Borbone-Francia, Duchessa di Savoia, Principessa di Piemonte e Regina di Cipro, et cetera, et cetera.”
J. E parlando dei nostri nuovi ruoli in questo posto, Bruce sara’ il “Visionario in Residenza.”
B. E Jasmina sara’ la reale “Madama Jasmina.” Invece di avere una casa del futuro qui’ avremmo una palazzo del passato.
J. Questo palazzo fino a poco tempo fa era un archivio. E’ un posto meraviglioso del passato ma adesso c’ e’ l’ urgenza di trovare un destino nuovo per la villa. Bisogna che qualcuno venga qui, forse una fondazione, una biblioteca, una scuola o gruppo internazionale, o un organizzazione caritaria. E un posto ideale per un ritiro contemplativo ed emotivo, atemporale. Ha gia’ avuto tante di queste funzione durante i passati 400 anni. Ma la Fenice adesso deve essere rinnovata.
B. Dato che siamo Globalisti a Torino, siamo pronti ad occupare una parte dell’ edificio. Potremmo scrivere dei romanzi sui palazzi reali a Torino. Scriviamo tanti libri di vari generi, come potete vedere siamo della gente letteraria. Ma a Torino diventiamo molto pratici. A Torino viviamo un sogno. Facciamo arte come performance. Ci siamo incontrati a Torino e ci siamo perfino sposati. Abbiamo una missione. Ed e’ per questo che dobbiamo essere in questo posto.
J. E lo faremmo sapere a tutti cosa stiamo facendo. Nei libri, giornali, rete, social media, anche video. Saremmo i testimoni se non gli attori attivisti della Fenice rinnovata, sperando di finire finalmente i nostri romanzi grazie all’ energia del posto.
B. La Vigna della Madama Reale. Perche’ noi, e perche’ qui’? Il nostro destino romantico ci ha portati qui. E’ la nostra arte concettuale torinese. Non siamo pagati per questo, non siamo stati assunti. Siamo dei fantasisti.
J. Sappiamo pure che e un idea buffa un po’ alla Italo Calvino. Ci divertiremmo qui e passeremmo dei momenti davvero belli. Ma lo facciamo come atto di profondo rispetto e siamo grati del privilegio.
B. Vogliamo dichiarare la nostra appassionata solidarieta’ con le persone che hanno costruito questo palazzo. La reale Madama Cristina, la Duchessa di Savoia ed il suo amante e maestro di costruzione, Il Conte Filippo San Martino d’Agliè.
J. Queste due persone ne sapevano qualcosa delle guerre, conflitti internazionali, gente dei tempi di Manzoni, del suo grande romanzo, I Promessi Sposi. Il suo padre era accoltellato per strada. Mentre lui era rapito e portato in prigione. Anche se erano aristocratici hanno patito. Una delle loro pene era pure che erano amanti segreti che non potevano mai sposarsi.
B. Questo e’ il posto dove hanno vissuto insieme, Cristina e Filippo. Hanno costruito questo palazzo in una vigna ben fuori Torino, cosi’ si potevano incontrare in pace e discutere i grandi schemi per riformare e ricostruire la capitale reale.
J. Lei era una vedova reale, e lui era il suo amante ed il suo preferito cortigiano, in sostanza anche il suo primo ministro, il suo maestro di costruzione. Erano amanti segreti ma hanno lavorato molto qui. Finche erano tutti e due vivi non hanno smesso di costruire.
B. Poi lei e’ morta e lui ha passato i suoi ultimi anni in questo posto. Era la casa di ritiro per Filippo d’Agliè, che era il Bel Filippo, “Filindo il Constante” e il piu’ grande genio creativo di Torino barocca. Lui e la sua amante reale costruivano il magnifico e il grandeur e crediamo che sarebbero contenti che li aiutassimo a rinnovare questa Fenice gloriosa. Lo consideriamo come il nostro dovere morale per gli ospiti di Torino come siamo noi. Poi e’ anche un invito esoterico. Non abbiamo mai chiesto questo, non avevamo un piano, ne l’ idea che sarebbe successo , ma lo vediamo come un opportunita’ felice. Solo a Torino cose di questo genere ci succedono.
Grazia, e adesso le domande.

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Post-Internet Lament

The world hasn’t yet invented the right word for my deep new disenchantment with the Post-Internet.  It has elements of a broken romance, a burn-out,  a nervous breakdown, depression and physical anxiety.    It’s a state of exile from a cyberspace where things became  unfriendly,  where words harm rather than help.  A frontier that defined itself as futurity becomes a dead shopping mall behind  rags and barbed-wire.   

       It’s no simple matter to reinvent oneself, to create a new world of sensibility, in a new place where one is somehow freed of one’s own characteristics, that historical baggage of illusions and emotions.  If you have no illusions or emotions, then you cannot imagine or love, but delusions and lies are a deadly peril to a loving relationship.

       It’s so many years ago, that I can’t even remember when my dry interest in digital communication machines became a real passion.   Somehow, though, I was waking up each morning with true, unfeigned enthusiasm about opening a personal computer.   I took joy in the sound of its automatic dialling and its eerie modem squeal and hiss, which I had learned to recognize as the anthemic sound of connectivity to the world.  It was a digital space, but it was also “the world,” because it the wider globe  beyond the tight boundaries of my small Balkan nation, with its local obsessions, grim news, good guys and bad guys.

       I understood, in a halting way, that the Internet was a product of Cold War military science and was not some etheric digital product made by morally stainless angels.   But I blessed even the military for having invented such a radical glamorous change for good in my own daily life.  As a nomad, as a woman without a mother language or a homeland, cyberspace seemed a proper place  for the likes of me to dwell and conduct her life.   No shouted questions there, no demands for visas or work permits, no fierce identity politics; it was so new and different.

    You all know the story of what happened afterward.  It took about a generation,  with many historical twists and turns, some good some bad.   But these days, I wake up with the grave understanding that the physical world around me, which once seemed so limiting and archaic, is much less menacing than the world behind the screen.   I know perfectly well that search engines, ranking systems, social algorithms and even well- paid thieves, spies,  provocateurs and vandals are very profitably busy there.  

       When I glimpse my own reflection in the screen, I can see I’m not happy.  I have the  guarded look of a Warsaw Pact woman playing it cool at some police checkpoint.   I have a new appreciation for, say, Russian Bolshevik feminists who found themselves, a generation later, in a brave new Soviet world that lacked Czarists but had plenty of gulags.    Of course I built the world I live in now, I was keen to contribute, because I knew it was a revolution, but revolutions aren’t permanent.     

        The squalid, ugly and deeply deceitful Post-Internet situation we have now isn’t permanent, either.   

     My nightmares arise from my post-traumatic stress of remembering how bad things once were.   I overreact because I can see a social sensibility that freed me, that I enjoyed, becoming an oligarchy that is a funhouse mirror of a nomenklatura.   I don’t hear the halting squeal of a desktop modem nowadays.   Instead I find myself afflicted by the endless repertoire of beeps, tingles, and squeaks that are emitted by a device on my own body.   This device is small, fast, relentless, impersonal, has cameras and microphones on board, and  emits these Pavlov noises in order to connect, control, and alert me.  I have no global Internet anonymity; they literally have my number.

     I could turn the beeps off, but I know that the crucial interactions in this device, the activities of genuine political and economic importance in this small but potent device, are mostly silent and deliberately unrevealed to me.   I’m not a citizen of my smartphone; I am its product.  It’s not a personal phone, it’s social.  And it’s not “global” — it is oligarchic.

     Its presence in my life no longer gives me a vicid feeling of agency, connection and protection.  It’s become old-fashioned to think that a portable telephone might make a woman more “safe,” when away from her kitchen and hearth.    I can remember that older social attitude, because I am not young anymore, but now my phones and its many insistent apps feel isolating to me.   Its presence reminds me that my parents are long dead and can’t help me, and that I live far away from the twentieth century’s routines.

     Slavenka Drakulic once wrote a book called “How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed.”  That was true; it was doable.   Plenty of us survived Balkan communisms, from Tito to Milosevic, if we lacked fierce and powerful enemies,  and if we had family friends and some social stability, or some job or social role where we could be useful and could keep our noses clean.   But their was also a pervasive atmosphere of surveillance and repression, carried out by a remote, elite, airtight and secretive apparatus.  You didn’t have to be personally whacked with a baton to know that you were living in a bad scene.

         And now, after a long historic period of relative footloose livability for me, I can feel the trouble.  I’m getting an odd neuralgia, a carpal tunnel, from my daily forced submissions to this small glass device.  It’s bad for my posture; I feel pangs in my arms and shoulders; my busy screen-wiping fingers take on odd arthritic shapes.   The digital world is older now; the normal people around me are older, too; and I can feel this device, with its compulsive jingle-jangle of advertising sounds, aging me before my time. 

        My feeble eyes behind their advanced, lightweight bifocals get swollen and misty from staring at it. I look away, with a vague, unfocussed feeling of dread, but pretty soon, I have to look back. Because I have no other portal of access into my own life anymore. 

        Of course I saw that process happening.  I understood early on that the digital was ridding the world of the analog clutter of material belongings, that apps were swallowing the functions of other devices.   That process was freeing me to prosper out of a global suitcase, even if it took a cruel toll on certain things I loved and cherished, such as newspapers, magazines, vinyl records, antiques, books and my happy memories of an analog world.   I wanted to be free, and I wanted information to be free, and I knew that freedom, especially for a woman, was a stern and demanding state of affairs, that it always had a cost. 

          It’s easy for an early adapter  to lament about a mainstream situation, but the mistake is thinking that history has some happy end.   History is not soluble, it is one damned thing after another.  No cure is permanent and there is no Silicon Valley solution to the human condition.   Even science is nobody’s rational utopia, it’s an “Endless Frontier,” as Vannevar Bush remarked not long after his crash course in creating nuclear war.   

          So I’ve learned to trust my instincts and look for the comic relief in smart mistakes.

          Recently, my smart phone misbehaved.   I was on the road, between flights, between countries, working hard.   I had no time to fix my phone’s obscure glitch, which was buried deep in some OS compost heap of pull-down menus.

         Instead,  my phone anxiety just detached, somehow.  My frustration and rage drifted away from the surface of the malfunctioning phone.   My technical troubles lost their grip on my psych.   I was out of their loop. 

      Instead of drowning in the black-screen ocean of lost connectivity, I realized that I could swim.   I even enjoyed it.   Of course I felt a spasm of work-guilt, because I was the chattel who had let go, downed my tools, denied the unspoken command to be instantly available 24-7, and defected into the 404 world of not found, user error…

         But I had also broken a bad habit.  Of course the people traveling around me didn’t see this tiny act of rebellion; no, we the livestock of Big Tech are much like a some ancient feudal clan with rigid customs and superstitions engrained by centuries of dysfunction.  But even feudal peasants have black sheep.   The bullshit floats to the surface eventually: the nakedness of the imperial social networks comes to light.

        Then I realized that many behaviors I once saw as my virtues were in doubt; they were indeed virtues once, because it took a lot of tech education, discipline and craftsmanship to learn them, but the moral context around these behaviors had changed.   It was like some act of comfort — like an adult daughter pouring grandpa a nice shot of vodka — that had turned into vicious enabling behavior.    

     Why did I dutifully answer every entity, all the time, on all social media?   Were all those bots or paid social PR really friends, inhabiting my reality, to which I wanted to be connected?  Wasn’t I thoughtless applying hard-won habits of personal politeness, net etiquette, and authentic connection in situations where they no longer made any sense?    And wasn’t I inflicting that same behavior on everyone else?

        I needed to pay more attention to my lived experience.  Especially the psychosomatic pangs, which were flinching reactions of my body to a worldless situation, a deep social woe that still lacks any proper political terminology.  Some day I, or more likely somebody else, will be able to verbally package this instinctive loathing, but we’re in the early days of psychoanalysis for our current state of oppressive, feudal, digital sociality.   

      I can’t deny that I suffer, that I am in pain and I feel betrayed and abandoned.  I feel the blueness of a failed love affair, with passion gone cold and a creeping insecurity.  My concept of the routines of a happy life has collapsed. 

        Mind you, I was never a happy-go-lucky type who was happy to be happy.  But when I didn’t cringe from my glass spy device, I had many elated moments in my life.  I hopped from bed most mornings propelled by creative ideas, and keen to see what was cooking, far over the horizon.  My digital actions gave me that satisfaction, in war or in peace,  in relating to friends or  enemies, to close family or utter strangers. 

      Where has that cherished feeling gone?   I won’t find it by tossing my phone aside and going to live in the woods, like Henry David Thoreau.   Nor do I want to start bitterly raging that I’m lost in a world I never made, like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  What was it that I wanted in the first place, and how did I mistake the technical means for the moral end?  
Finally , as a war blogger before the word blog was even invented, when my words went virally online, I believed I saved my life and maybe somebody else’s conscience. But today with Syrian crisis, and the general indifference and web inefficiency, I can honestly admit that I was wrong.

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