This is a transcript I just got around to finishing last night, of a 40-odd minute talk given in the closing slot of this year's Interactive Festival Panels at SXSW. I was privileged to witness this bracingly challenging and not a little moving speech at first hand: as a matter of fact, if I weren't so intoverted and inhibitive about these things, I probably could have introduced the guy, being the only Conference staff on hand as I was standing by to see that he was set up for whatever audio-visual feeds he wanted. But as I warned him, I probably would have just said something ridiculous anyway. Admiration usually gets me that way.
But, you know, before this year, and this isn't the first of Chairman Bruce's speeches I've attended, I think distant admiration would have been the extent of what I would have felt toward this distinguished-authorly type fellow. I mean, from my laid-back, ok, fine, "slacker" Central Texan perspective, "acerbic" wouldnt have even begun to understate the case, at times, and in previous years it would have been easy enough to imagine that the brash, often dismissive intellect that shone metallic and prismatically reflective from his words might just as easily and casually dissect as dissert.
But any residual ambivalence underwent a sea-change for me, this year. I have read some of the reactions others have blogged in the intervening week, and can only agree with the recurring citations of brutal honesty, bravery, and human heart (not to mention some fiercely funny wit) that this challenging communicado embodied. I was, for once, not merely impressed, but truly touched and inspired by the message. Somehow, I have a feeling the Eastern European climate has been a salutory influence. For those with the bandwidth and/or patience, the podcast is available here
, and I'd totally recommend it for emotional immediacy's sake: the man is an excellent public speaker, and his manners of speech convey as much meaning as his words. But for the sake of the great God of Immediate Gratification, here are those words:
Right. Okay! I have managed to turn my wi-fi off, so I will not actually blog during my own presentation. Yes, hello: I am Bruce Sterling. Thank you, thank you. Let’s cut to the immediate chase here, I am sure you are all anxious for the answer to this perennial South by Southwest question, is there a giant South by Southwest party, at my private home, with free beer, to which I will invite the entire audience?
No, this is the largest South by Southwest audience I have ever addressed in many years of doing this. Does not scale, Ladies and Gentlemen. We have reached a limit. Last year, I had a class of design students and corporate backing, and I managed to have, like, a sponsored theme party, this year I’m in a very literary mood, I’m working on a novel, I don’t have any gophers to go be my grad student slaves, and a corporate sponsorship thing kind of violates the groovy spirit of the enterprise, so, no. You are too big, this year. You are too professional, this year. Even the tech panels are no longer intimate and personal, this year. I have been to standing room only Web 2.0 tech panels at this gig; this is a huge gig.
I am in a dark, introspective literary mood, this year; I can’t be the design visionary and party animal all year, every year. I did just have a tech party in Belgrade, which is where I am staying now, during 2006, and about 20 Serbian web-geeks showed up for my party – they actually need a party, there. In 2006, you cats don’t actually need my party. This is the year of Web 2.0. This is the hottest innovative period on the web since the invention of the browser. There is blood in the water… Google’s buyin’. Oh, it does my heart good to see this crowd, you people, enjoying yourselves to this extent, even if it is in a rather muted fashion compared to the golden years of the “Al Gore Era.” Welcome to the Bubble Echo. Enjoy it while you got it. No, when there is a Web 2.0 Bust… you can come around to my house then. You’ll be welcome to gather ‘round the Shiner beer keg and moan on the Author’s shoulder.
It’s gratifying to see what is happening now, even if I’m not having a party, because I’m too distracted. Commons-based peer production as an industrial method is getting it’s legs under it. This is something I complained about for years. I used to complain that GNU had the wrong name, because the recursive name for GNU is “GNU’s not UNIX.” And I described that as “rather childish.” Because you should not name yourself in opposition to something else, you should have your own name. It’s like, if “GNU’s not UNIX”, what is it?
Well, it’s commons-based peer production. Flikr is not a copy of anything else. It is not a hippie knockoff of a commercial product. Wikipedia is not like anything else. A Wiki is like nothing known to mankind. Collaborative web filters are very spooky things. They are without historical precedent. Websites that throw their API’s open, and turn themselves into platforms, rather than sites - it is a little hard to explain the significance of that to everyday people who are not techies and programmers, but that is a major development. The Net community is no longer hanging on the coattails of Gates. That monopolistic chokehold that did so much to reduce innovation, and to introduce global criminality to hapless Windows users… “Windows Live”… Windows Live, after ten years of trying to build the MSN brand?
You know, it amazes me to see this burst of healthy, popular creativity, considering how awful American industrial policy is, under the Bush Administration. If you’ve got a copy of this South by Southwest guidebook, you should look at this page, for the City of Austin… lists all these nice little non-governmental organizations. The Creative Director page, there. Now, it impresses me very much that Austin has like, a little digital “Creative Director’s” office where you can go out and get a little city sponsorship, that’s very Richard Florida, that’s very Web 2.0. But then, we’re looking at tiny little groups of people, who are trying to wire up the town, or unwire the town, on their own little lonesome selves. Now as an Austinite, that gives me a warm feeling: I would urge you, if you are an Austinite, to go help these little NGO’s, right away. But that is not a sign of creative vitality, that is a scary sign of complete incompetence on the Federal level! Why are towns having to do this? Only in the United States do dying phone companies lobby the Government as if they were Indian casinos.
As you may or may not know, I am spending a lot of my time in Europe this year, after spending a year in California. I get to see America from the outside now – I get to see America as 94% of the planet sees America. And I look at wireless spreading in London, and the spread of broadband in Korea. I’ve got broadband in Serbia, where the phone companies are literally run by criminals in exile … and my broadband in Serbia costs twenty dollars a month. And it works. Our people in Washington are drinking their own bathwater. They have forgotten how to build anything. They are busy monetizing stuff for their reelection campaigns. It is decadent. It is sclerotic. It looks like the Soviet Union.
These guys in power are so eager to monetize the Net, that they are turning the U. S. A. into a banana republic with rockets. Not just politically backward … technically backward. That’s the part that’s unforgivable. The Reality-Based community are fatally easy to push around, mostly because they’re so gentlemanly and ladylike.
But when you actually ignore reality, for years on end, THE PAYBACK IS A BITCH, BROTHER!
And I would know … because I’m a Science Fiction writer.
Now, normally, I would never plug a book during a South by Southwest speech, because when authors do that, it is hopelessly déclassé, and lame. This year, I’m very literary, I’ve gotta plug some books a little. A Science Fiction book, yes, I write them. Here’s one that just came out this month: “Visionary in Residence
.” No, they’re not selling it here, you’ll have to Amazon it. Came out last week. This is some pretty seriously audacious and freaky stuff, I think. This is my fourth story collection. There is some very weird material in here. This is not a Harry Potter book. That’s not the kind of thing you recommend your aunt in Topeka. But that really does have some seriously visionary stuff in it. It has got stuff in it that is way out of left field. It has got 21st Century stuff.
The 21st Century definitely fertilizing my cyberpunk eccentricities. My writing, my living, have taken some very sharp turns in this century. I was always very interested in global political issues. I am an oil industry kid. I used to travel all over the world as a young man. Now I am living in Eastern Europe, because I am married to a Serbian feminist peacenik dissident. And we met because we have computers. She is an author and I am an author, authors are a volatile bunch. I always wanted to know exactly what went wrong in Yugoslavia. Now I know.
I am into the 21st century electronic version of an Eastern European literary café society. I read people like Danilo Kis, Dubravka Ugresic. I read Slavenka Draculic. That’s her name. Slavenka Draculic. Mostly goes by Slavenka Schwartz. She’s a Croatian writer named Draculic. One of my wife’s best pals. You can learn a lot by earnestly studying global trends. Especially trends in an enemy state to your own. Serbia has one of the most dysfunctional societies on the planet. It’s a kind of world capitol of the New World Disorder. They’re burying Milosevic this week. It’s a total circus. I’ve got a ringside seat. People ask me, have you moved to Belgrade now, is this permanent? No, it’s not permanent. It’s just that some of my shoes are there, in a closet.
I live out of my laptop, now. That’s how I live. And so do increasing numbers of my colleagues. I will be meeting Cory Doctorow, that Canadian-British-Los Angeles guy, Cory Doctorow? I’ll be meeting him on three different continents in five months, this year. It’s a world of diaspora and globalization, gypsies and jet-setters, refugees and tech pioneers, and the differences are that thin. Events just like this one, they send me spinning across this planet like a flung rock skipping on water. This year, I’m doing Serbia - Croatia - Sweden - Switzerland - Australia - San Diego - Denmark - Minneapolis.. That’s part of it. Nobody notices that I have left Austin. This is my legal residence, Austin. I get email from the Austin American Statesman, every day. I’ve got the Austin Chronicle online. People write me email, they get what they want, they leave, they never ask where I am. I no longer need to be a resident of any particular city. I don’t make any money in any foreign state. Nothing enters or leaves Belgrade except for ones and zeroes, that’s all. I never stay there long enough to become permanent. I don’t even do permanent. National borders, they’re like speed-bumps.
And because I look over national borders, I can see that it’s depressing, here inside America. It’s like the last reels of Gone With the Wind, here. America is losing it’s cultural cachet. Nobody who isn’t American mistakes globalization for Americanization, any more. They see that as some kind of category error, now. It’s like an empire that lacks any economic base, except for oil, real estate speculation, and blood. It’s a state at war, and it seems to be mostly at war with it’s own majority’s ideas of reality. Americans even look different physically, if you spend time in other countries, now. They’ve always been a very loud, expressive, boisterous lot, but now Americans are fat! By European and Asian standards, the American population is hugely and scarily fat. They literally look swollen up, as if they’d been poisoned, and were about to pop. The Dollar is low, compared to the Euro? The Euro ought to be in intensive care.
I think maybe it comes down to this, do you really believe, I mean really, really believe that Adam and Eve rode to church on Sundays on the backs of dinosaurs? Is that what you believe, do you really believe that about the world, do you consider that to be objective reality? Creationism, that’s your geopolitical realpolitik? That’s what your diplomatic corps is supposed to tell the other diplomats? Your generals in your armies, they’re supposed to tell that to the generals of other armies? Your filmmakers, they’re supposed to make films about that? And people in other countries are supposed to watch those films, and be entertained? It’s an intellectual calamity. Really, the shame is hard to bear. However, American society is in less denial than the society where I live now, Serbian society. It’s very useful to me, to be living in the midst of the true extreme case.
Because as I once told Zoran Gingic, the former Prime Minister of Serbia, before his enemies shot him dead in the streets in an ambush? I told him: you know, the Balkans have so much future that they have to export it to other people.
And they do.
It could be anybody, really. Slovenia? That’s like the part of Yugoslavia nobody ever heard of. It’s the piece that was farthest away from Milosevic. It’s a dull, conventional, harmless little place. It’s like Iowa. Because they’re way into “Serbian Truthiness” there. Not truth, just like, the “Serbian Truthiness.” And, you know, you’ve got to forgive them some of that. I mean, at least they didn’t blow themselves up.
We’re seeing just frantic collisions of fundamentalist delusion, with objective reality. Things like the Arab Port Scandal – of course they own the ports, where do you think all the oil money is going? Dubai has got the biggest skyscraper in the world. They’re buying America’s ports with America’s money. Where are they supposed to put it? It’s going offshore, it’s going to circle around the world and come back. The Danish Newspaper Cartoons. You know, I know cartoonists. I know people like Warren Ellis and Neil Gaiman. They’re like, bright guys. Bright creative guys – you know, I feel sorry for them – Neil Gaiman once said, “We’re the sink that the gutter drains into, in comics.”
And all of the sudden cartoonists are so politically important they’re getting embassies set on fire? Where is that at? Why don’t they get the credit for that, as well as – the mayhem they’ve reached?
It’s like the Witching Hour – we’ve got a death cult, which is like, al Qaeda, like Om Shin Rikyo, or Jonestown, or the Heaven’s Gate cult, except they can, they can just get on Arab TV and just whisper aloud, and the world just sits right up in its chair, as if they were listening to voodoo priests – how many mosques have these guys bombed, now? These “defenders of the Islamic religion”? Nobody even keeps count.
Where are Mladic and Karodzic? This is like the big issue where I live now. These are the two war criminals from Srebrenica, who kind of, accidentally killed 8000 people. Recently, they found a videotape of 8 people being killed – the country pretty much came apart at the seams – the 8000 sort of vanished off camera, but they’ve got the 8 on camera and that seemed to make all the difference. Where are these two guys? Everybody knows. They’re in monasteries. They’ve got religious asylum. That’s why they’re not in the Hague. They’re in a church. Karodzic is writing plays – they’re being put onstage! He’s like Vaclav Havel with a submachine gun.
You know, now I finally get it, about the difference between actual war and global guerrilla war. Because what we’ve got now is not conventional shooting war, with military honor, military ranks, military activity. This is culture war. We’ve got The Troubles. We’ve got The Disorder. And now I really know how that works. No, when The Disorder is over, you don’t get to say: “I proudly served.” It doesn’t matter which side you were on. Because The Disorder is a war on the pride. It’s a war on people’s morale. You don’t get to confront the enemy as an equal. Everybody lives in shadow. It’s always covert, it’s always fake, it’s always trumped up. And no history can be written of it, because it’s all been compartmentalized. Suicide bombers, who are victims, oppressor, and evidence, all blown to pieces in the same neat beltpack. Official denials, star chambers, Abu Ghraibs and renditions, these aren’t accidents, this is the very stuff – of The Disorder. Espionage, black markets, privatization of the military. Secrecy, always and everywhere. No medals for your service, no ticker-tape parade. And no end to it! No formal end. When it finally burns out, even the victor is despised and distrusted.
We’re on a kind of slider bar, between the Unthinkable, and the Unimaginable, now. Between the grim meathook future, and the bright green future. And there are ways out of this situation: there are actual ways to move the slider from one side to the other. Except we haven’t invented the words for them yet. We’ve got smoke building in the crowded theater, but the exit sign is just a mysterious tangle of glowing red letters. I’ll quote Warren Ellis now: he’s this comics writer, whose blog is turning him into a public intellectual. It’s kind of an interesting thing to watch. Warrenellis.com
. He says there’s a middle distance between the complete collapse of infrastructure and some weird geek dream of electronically knowing where all your stuff is. Between apocalyptic politics and Nerd-vana, is the human dimension. How this stuff is taken on board, by smart people, at street level. You all know Bill Gibson’s saw from his cyberpunk novels, that the street finds it’s own uses for things? That still holds, but right now I think there’s an urgency and a sense of envelope-pushing, in exactly what uses are found for these things. That’s where the story lies, Warren Ellis says: in this spread of possible futures, and the people, on the ground, facing them. The story has to be about people trying to steer, or condemn other people, toward one future or another, using everything in their power, that’s a big story.
Well, the Unthinkable, and the Unimaginable are hooked together in some ways. Unimaginable does not mean catastrophic. Neither does unthinkable. China and India right now? Kind of the healthiest success stories of the modern global epic? They’re unimaginable by the standards of Mao and Gandhi. If you took Mao or Gandhi, and put them in the streets of Shanghai or Bombay now, they would have no idea what to make of what has happened to their societies. And those are grim little societies too, in their own ways, I mean, there’s a lot of environmental decline in those two societies. China and India, if you go there, look around, they’re basically barren, strip-mined, polluted messes, in a lot of ways? I mean, basically everything that desperately poor people could do to survive has been done to the environment, in China and India. And yet, they’re booming. And I think the answer is, it’s the people. It’s the people who are doing it. They’ve got lots of people, in China and India.
Ok, now I need to move to a word I have, oddly enough, never mentioned in public in Austin. This is something that’s been a big deal for me, over the past 2 years. It’s a word I made up, it’s a word called “spime.” I want to explain to you what this means because, you know, you’re a techie audience and you’ll kind of get this, this is of direct and immediate relevance to your demographic. Ok, in 2004 I did a speech at SIGGRAPH, ACM SIGGRAPH , the computer graphics thing, about a concept I called “spime.” And then I did a book, in 2005, while I was in residency at Art Center College of Design. Here it is, this really cute book
, which is designed by Lorraine Wilde, it was the winner of the AIGA Medal for 2006, if you’re a graphic design maven. You can’t hang out at a design school without learning these things. Uh, it’s a weird and innovative book, with a really weird and innovative book design. It’s actually a visionary book, in a lot of ways, I would urge you to look at this, just for the graphic design in it, because it’s going to shock you and annoy you, and you need that done. Because you are a philistine, and you have no taste. So have a look at Lorraine’s really top notch packaging in this thing.
But, you know, a book is a book, and a speech is a speech. But the term, “spime”, is not a word. I only realized, two weeks ago, that it’s a tag. It’s a theory object. So, you know, what does the word, spime mean? Well, you know, basically, any word in a language means what the popular consensus says that it means. Like, say, the word cyberspace? Which I can remember seeing for the first time on a manually typed manuscript? Ok, well, if you actually read William Gibson, and you see the term, “cyberspace”, you see that he’s describing a consensual hallucination, ok? Gibsonian cyberspace takes place inside people’s heads. It’s like, an electronically triggered, interior mental experience, it’s like a brain experience. We don’t have any of that. We may never have any of that. But the term cyberspace, the word “cyberspace”, already has a period flavor to it. You know, it’s associated with the boom of the eighties and nineties, it’s sort of the idea that you’ve got something to talk about besides the wiring. Right?
All right, so I’ll give you the spime elevator pitch, although I do not think that this is the shape that the tag “spime” will eventually take, as it’s thrown out into the sort of chalm or the churn of internet commentary. Ok, well a spime is a sort of speculative, imaginary object, that is different from present day objects, stuff like this pen, here. It’s different, in basically 6 important ways, none of which existed, in the 20th century. First of all, it’s got an interactive chip on it, so it can be labeled with a unique identity. Electronic bar-coding, or RFID’s. It’s got a “tag.” It’s got a tag that you can mark, and sort, and rank, and shuffle. That’s a big advance. But it’s only one out of six differences. Number two is it’s got local, precise, positioning systems. It’s got a geo-locative system. So you can sort where things are, and where you are in relationship to them. It’s got Google Maps. Uh, and it’s got a powerful search engine. So you can find out things about it’s such and so, it’s an “auto-Googling object.” It’s got more sorting and shuffling of the data that’s associated with it. And it’s involved in cradle-to-cradle recycling. Because it’s more sustainable, because when you know where it is and what it is, it’s very easy to tear it apart, break it down, and just reuse the junk. It has transparent production. It has taggable, sortable garbage. And then there are two other brand-new factors in the mix. The first is 3-D virtual models of objects. It’s been virtually designed, it was not actually designed. It’s a product of CAD/CAM. It’s scanned. If you want to look at the schematics of it, they’re on the Net. Things are present as virtual objects, in the network, before they become physical objects. That’s how you shop for them. And then, last, it’s rapidly prototyped. It’s a fabject, it’s a blobject. If you saw the speech that Alex Steffen and I gave here last time, I was throwing little fabjects into the audience. If you happened to be there, you could see they were these frail little objects made of wax and plastic and starch; ok, they’re making them out of laser-centered metal now
. You can cast your dreams out in these things and have it clang right on the ground.
And Alex Steffen, who is not here, unfortunately, of WorldChanging
– his book will come out soon. I have read his book. The book, put together by the WorldChanging cadre. I wrote a preface for it; I just heard it’s now going to get a forward by Al Gore. This WorldChanging book is heavy-duty. It’s like an index of ways out of the smoke-filled room. But – you see, my idea is, that if objects, 21st century objects, had these six qualities I just described, then people would interact with objects in a truly unprecedented way. Just really different, a way that’s so strange, so different from today’s expectations, that it’s unimaginable, it’s really hard to describe. And we would think about this prospect better, if this class of object had its own name. So, I called it a “spime”, because it’s trackable in space and time. And then I had sort of various “wise sage on the stage” things to say about it, like: “A spime is an object that ate and internalized the previous industrial order.” Because, if you think about it, what it’s really doing is just sort of attaching all the things to itself that have always been attached to objects, except now it’s open and more participatory: you get to see the plans, you get to see the production, you get to see the garbage. Right? And I also said that “Spimes are manufactured objects whose informational support is so extensive and rich that they are regarded as material instantiations of an immaterial system.” In other words, you look at what’s on the web, and every once in a while, it exists as a physical object. Spimes begin and end as data, because they’re virtual objects first and actual objects second.
Now that’s a lot to swallow. I mean, why would we even want to do such a weird thing, I mean what problem are we solving, by doing this? Well, we want to do it, so we can build an Internet of Things. Not an Internet of data, an Internet of things, objects. So that we can engage with material objects much better, during their life-cycle, from that moment of their invention, to the moment of their decay. Now, that’s the technical reason, that’s the design reason. It’s the environmental reason. It’s a civilizational step forward. But the real reason we’ll do it, if we ever actually do it, is because of the way it will feel. The primary advantage of an internet of things, is that I no longer inventory my possessions inside my own head. They’re inventoried through an automagical inventory voodoo - which is done beneath my notice by a host of machines, so I no longer bother to remember where I put things. Or where I found them. Or how much they cost, or how to get more, and so forth. I just ask. And I am told, with instant, real-time accuracy. I have an internet of things, with a search engine of things. So I don’t hunt for my shoes in the morning, I just google them. And as long as machines are there to crunch the complexities, the interfaces make my relationship to objects feel much simpler, and more immediate. I am at ease in materiality in a way that people never were before.
Well, that was my job, when I was Visionary in Residence at the Art Center College of Design. They wanted me to write something visionary about design. I wrote something visionary about design. That’s designer-speak. But I’m not a permanent design professor, I was just a design professor for a year. And I wrote a little non-fiction book, where I rattle on about the concept, and kind of turn it upside down and knock on it to see what falls out, and it’s a small book, but it’s a really big topic. A lot of people are at work on the Internet of Things, it’s too big for any one thinker to work it through. What it really needs is distributed intelligence, because this concept will only work out in real life when and if the population, the people, buy into it, and find it of some use and benefit.
So, when I made up this word, and attached it to this grab-bag of concepts, I wanted that word to be googleable. So if you google the word spime
now, which I’m sure about 30% of you are doing, you find a company called spime and there’s some mention of Frank Black of the Pixies, who used the term spime once, but most of the online commentary that you would find on the web about spimes necessarily centers around this set of ideas. Because it’s a new word, but it’s also a new tag. The Semantic Web is turning into the wetlands of language. Because a word placed in the semantic web is not just a word. It is a theory object. Which is a tagged idea. Which is not just a meme, or an intellectual conceit, or a literary neologism, it’s a whole cloud of associated commentary and data. Which can be passed around, from mouse to mouse, by people - and linked to, by people. A theory object is a word that’s a platform for development. And every time I go to an event like this, this word, this tag, “spime”: it grows as a theory object. And this is different in language. Just understanding that that is happening is making my own practice as a writer, a commentator, a blogger, a thinker, a public speaker – it’s changing it. It’s unprecedented. It’s really different. The 20th century literally could not think, write, speak, or comprehend, in this way. This term, theory object, is itself a kind of theory object. If you understand what a theory object is, you can create theory objects. Any real theory object has probably got links and trackback, pictures, maybe a powerpoint, a website, an f.a.q., maybe flash animation. It could have a database layer, user-centric graphic web-apps. It’s as if the coffee house chatter at the Surrealist café had been frozen into linkage and faq’s. It’s just a different method of social activism. And others, that do not buy into this, newspapers, for instance, ink-on-paper? A legacy medium. And more importantly, the people who read newspapers and television, and don’t engage in this other activity, and they believe that’s reality? Those are legacy people.
So, I’m trying to write a novel, this year, because … that’s part of my job description. You know - and what is a novel, under these circumstances? What am I doing, I have to wonder? I’m dropping lit matches into the wet bog of language. And the matches go out, because most of them deserve to go out. Most weird riffing is just weird riffing. And the ideas that catch fire become unrecognizable to me. Because of the distributed intelligence, because of the added features, because of all the trackback. These are words that turn on their creators like Frankenstein. And that’s a pretty good word, Frankenstein, because in the original novel, Frankenstein was the guy who created the monster. He’s not the monster – the Frankenstein is Frankenstein’s monster, Frankenstein is the guy who actually made it up, but he’s somehow lost. He’s been packed down by public reaction. It’s the creator who’s Frankenstein, but we don’t see that, any more than we see that Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley was a 19 year old, liberated, feminist intellectual who had just run off with a radical atheist poet.
It’s not enough to sort of virtually, verbally theorize about these issues. If we’re going to get anywhere we’re going to have to become the change we want to see. Become the change we want to see. And if I have learned something from hanging out with the Eastern European dissident crowd: “Make no decision out of fear.” That is their motto. Make no decision out of fear. No, the decline does not hold indefinitely. Because the people tire of the fraud. They tire of the evil. The people tire of the sheer, stupid pettiness of their unnecessary miseries. The people tire of being promised jam and fed ashes. You know, globalization needs to be understood culturally. Because the Great American Novel is over. What’s required at this point in literature is a Great Regional Novel about the planet Earth. A regional novel. And if the inspiration for that is found, it’s going to be found in human resilience, and in the depth of world history. It’s going to be found in the resilience of people.
You know, I’m not one of the sentimentalists who says, “Oh, the people had bad leaders”, when a nation misbehaves. Because the people are not always blameless. Milosevic was a very bad leader. There was horror all over the Balkans because of this guy. Nine out of ten of the baldest and most polarizing atrocities, and there are plenty of people who do them, came out from him, and his own inner circle. He was the kind of guy who would kidnap and disappear the best man at his own wedding. And have this guy disappeared from the street, shot and secretly buried in a lime pit in the forest. And having done that, he would walk around for years, with Lady Macbeth on his arm, saying, “Oh, gosh, I wonder what could have happened to that guy, great friend of mine, my political mentor. Yeah, people said we had a little falling out, but you know, I miss him every day…”
That was him, that was Milosevic. The guy was a serpent. But the people loved him. And a lot of them still love him. A whole lot of them. The best-organized political party in Serbia are the people who believe this guy was a hero and a martyr. And if he did some bad things, he was doing them for us. For us. For us and our “us-ness.” And they’ve got posters in the street for this guy, a mass murderer, a war criminal, he looks like an injured muppet. He didn’t come there as an invader from Mars. He was a product of that society. Because it was a society that preferred to live in a locked closet and feed on it’s own delusions. And the followers of this guy are still full of passionate intensity. Because they’re wild and they’re proud of their wildness. They are the kind of zealots who will cut off their own feet in order to bleed on the doorstep of more peaceable, more rational peoples. And they’re holy too. They didn’t used to be holy, but this is kind of the upward trend: they’re real holy, now. Because there are churches, Serbian Orthodox churches, going up all over Serbia. Kind of giant turnips of nationalist resentment.
Evil has a face in the world today. It’s the person who resents you because you don’t buy into the insane, parochial crap of his ethnic group. “You are oppressing me beyond all reason, watch me die now.” Kaboom. That’s it. And it puts people into a panic stampede, that activity. It’s a thing with legs. That could stalk us for decades if we didn’t get a handle on it. But, you know, the cure for the panic stampede of the moment is historical perspective. That’s how you stop stampeding. Because time passes, you know? You come to yourself, you say, wait a minute, this voodoo curse you put on me, that I feared so drastically, it’s a patchwork of faith-based bullshit. This supernatural scheme you hot-wired together? It’s coming apart in public like a cheap, paper piñata. You imagined you were hammering the world into your own shape, but you weren’t really. You were hammering the electoral districts of Texas into shape.
But, as the American poet said: “…the old anvil laughs at many broken hammers.” I kind of hate to quote poetry in public, especially at a tech gig, because it’s so soppy and author-ly, and déclassé. But you know, Serbia has a very small language, so they still actually have poets. Poets can be pretty famous guys, under some circumstances. They’re almost like right-wing pundit bloggers, in their famousness. When you can comprehend poetry, it means that your heart is not broken. You know, poetry is a big deal in societies like Russia. Because you have poets like say, Anna Akhmatova, who could be standing by the door of the prison house with the rest of the women, bemoaning their lost men, freezing and oppressed. And a woman will go up to Anna Akhmatova, and say, “Could you possibly bear witness to what has just happened to us?”
And she would say, “Yes.”
And it was true.
So in societies like that, they read poetry in public, and people listen to the poetry, and they weep aloud. You know, they’re not Europe, that society, because frankly they don’t deserve to be Europe. But they’re not dead. They haven’t given up. Their hearts are not in the right place, but they’ve got a whole lot of heart. The music clubs are packed, in Belgrade. There are construction cranes, all over the place. The goods in the stores look much better than they did, even a year ago. The gang graffiti is getting scrubbed off the streets. The new restaurants are full of customers – the food is good. Even the pirates, who I thought were going to take over that society, with their forged goods, pirated video, pirated music, and sanctions breaking, are in retreat. They are, as a society, as a nation, a political, moral, legal, and international basket case. And they are about to break up even more than they’ve broken up over the last 12 years. Because now Montenegro wants to leave. And they’ve got every reason. North Belgrade wants to leave South Belgrade.
There are people in the Balkans today who are so thoroughly Balkanized that they don’t know what to do with the warring halves of their own personalities.
But they are a people of resilience, and when a comeback comes, they know how to go with that.
All right, now, I’m going to sew this up, by quoting a poet, now. Then I’m going to go sign some books in the hallway, later. You know, drop by, if you need a word. Allright, historical perspective – 1937. That was a long time ago. The era of Depression. Fascism rising in Europe. World War II at the door. Dot-com busts. People couldn’t get venture capital, back then. Google wasn’t buyin’… All right, Carl Sandburg – somebody you’ve never heard of – poet, some guy from Chicago. I’m going to quote a little from one of his epics, here:
The people yes
The people will live on.
The learning and blundering people will live on.
They will be tricked and sold and again sold
And go back to the nourishing earth for rootholds,
The people so peculiar in renewal and comeback,
You can't laugh off their capacity to take it.
The mammoth rests between his cyclonic dramas.
The people so often sleepy, weary, enigmatic,
is a vast huddle with many units saying:
"I earn my living.
I make enough to get by
and it takes all my time.
If I had more time
I could do more for myself
and maybe for others.
I could read and study
and talk things over
and find out about things.
It takes time.
I wish I had the time."
The people is a tragic and comic two-face: hero and hoodlum:
phantom and gorilla twisting to moan with a gargoyle mouth:
"They buy me and sell me...it's a game...sometime I'll
This old anvil laughs at many broken hammers.
There are men who can't be bought.
The fireborn are at home in fire.
The stars make no noise,
You can't hinder the wind from blowing.
Time is a great teacher.
Who can live without hope?
In the darkness with a great bundle of grief
the people march.
In the night, and overhead a shovel of stars for keeps, the people
"Where to? what next?"