This month I’m following the lead of Carol, one of my South African friends, in participating in a hobby photographers’ activity of posting a current picture for a given theme for each day of the month. I’m pretty sure that the initiators of the event are from South Africa, but there’s a fair number of us from the northern hemisphere also participating. But for today I feel the theme is a bit of a disadvantage to those outside of South Africa: “Dilapidated”. There are probably more picturesque dilapidated buildings, vehicles, monuments and people within any given square kilometer of the Cape Town area than within all of southern Finland.
Thinking about the subject was an interesting way to start the day though. Since I junked my dilapidated old car in February, limiting my access to more remote ruins in the Finnish (and Estonian) countryside, probably the most dilapidated sight I come across on a week-to-week basis these days is the sight of my face in the mirror each morning.
Or is it? Is that really a fair thing to say? What does dilapidated actually mean anyway?
So of course I looked it up. Etymologies are always fun in such events. To dilapidate something literally means to get the building stones –– “lapides” in Latin –– of the property in question out of their proper places. In traditional British law “dilapidation” is the basis for a tenant not getting his security deposit back when he moves out of property left in bad repair. The same could be applied to a parson or other churchman being fined for letting the parsonage or parish properties get run down during the time they were in his care.
So how badly are my own stones, figuratively speaking, shifted out of place these days, and what sort of penalty might I be liable for in that regard? Hard to say. All things being relative, I could perhaps be taking better care of my body, but so far it’s holding together as well as can reasonably be expected at my age –– significant as that qualifier is.
This also brings to mind my recent Zygmunt Bauman readings again. How badly has consumerism and the “liquid modern” situation shifted the foundation stones of contemporary society? What are the most important foundation stones in that regard, for that matter, and what should we be doing to keep them in place? In Liquid Love (2003) –– the last of my Bauman summer reading books, currently late for return to the library –– the old social theory guru takes on perhaps the most fundamental aspect of the human experience: the relationship between love, sexuality and economic self-interest. After exploring the concept of “pure sex” as a commodity in the consumer economy for a while he makes the speculative statement (p. 47), “Intimate connections of sex with love, security, permanence, immortality-through-continuation-of-kin were not after all as useless and constraining as they were thought and felt and charged to be. The old and allegedly old-fashioned companions of sex were perhaps its necessary supports (necessary not for the technical perfection of the performance, but for its gratifying potential).” These stones, however, are rather thoroughly out of such a place these days. Does that mean that sex has become dilapidated? Can the de-commercialization of sex put these stones back into place? Is the de-commercialization of sex merely a necessary condition for some other cultural force, like religion, to reconnect sex with its former necessary “intimate connections”? How willing are we to see the clock turned back in this regard?
One significant part of the question is the extent to which we are willing to defy the capitalist/consumerist status quo. How far can we escape the urge to put a price on everything as the measure of fair exchange? How much can we allow ourselves to give and receive without price “merely” for purposes of having a sense of connection with each other? To do so is to defy the market system’s absolute sovereignty over our lives; to enter into some level of “unofficial” or “underground” economic activity. Not to do so is to accept that our lives have no value beyond what someone is willing to pay for them in an officially recognized “legal tender”. Taken to its furthest extreme, allowing the market to maintain absolute sovereignty might well make human life itself untenable and unbearable. What hope do we have for fixing this? De-dilapidating sex and social life may well, according to Bauman (p. 48), call for “consumer rationality to be deprived of, and to shed, its present-day sovereignty over the motives and strategies of human life politics. This would mean, however, calling for more than could be reasonably expected to happen in the foreseeable future.”
In some regards Bauman is taking this discussion back to Kant. Commenting on Kant’s minor 1784 treatise What is Enlightenment?, Bauman (p. 125) says: “Sooner or later, Kant warned, there will not be a scrap of empty space left where those of us who have found the places already occupied too cramped or too inhospitable for comfort, too awkward of for whatever other reason uncongenial, could seek shelter or rescue. And so Nature commands us to view (reciprocal) hospitality as the supreme precept we need to –– and eventually will have to –– embrace and obey in order to bring to an end the long chain of trials and errors, the catastrophes leave in their wake.” Thus in Bauman’s perspective (and mine) striving to create a cultural atmosphere which encourages treating of others as ends and not means –– loving your neighbor as you love yourself –– considering the well-being of others to be part and parcel of our own well-being –– is the best utopian hope we can harbor for reducing the likelihood of humanity’s self-destruction.
This also relates to the eschatological dystopia spoken of in the Bible’s book of Revelation. The mysterious “mark of the beast” –– the number 666, or some close variation on such –– near as we can tell, was a coded reference to Caesar Nero, in whose honor the most commonly distributed CD-ROM burning software package these days is named. Nero, according to legend, started the major persecution of Christians throughout the Roman Empire as an exercise in scape-goating with regard to the great fire of Rome in the year 64 of our calendar. As the story in Revelation goes, there is a dragon, a beast coming out of the sea, a junior beast and a big statue of the first beast, all being strongly connected with the number 7 (as in the 7 hills of Rome) and the number 10 (perhaps related to the fact that Vespasian, Caesar at the time of the Roman legions’ destruction of the city of Jerusalem, was the tenth Caesar of the empire); who together form the ultimate opposition to the forces loyal to God/Jesus. It is the first beast from the sea which gets the famous triple-six number. This beast is basically considered to be invincible by its fan club, and it comes back from seemingly certain death a time or two. But its trademark characteristics are waging war against the righteous and establishing dominance over economic affairs.
Leaving aside all of the numerological puzzles contained in the text for the moment, assuming that Nero did have a hand in the great fire and that the Christians were innocent scape-goats in the matter, the purpose of lighting such a fire would have been to eliminate part of the city market area that was outside of the emperor’s control and to enable him to rebuild in a way which gave him far greater control over the economic structure of the city. This would fit together quite well with the idea that the human name based code number for the “mark of the beast” was/would be Nero’s name, and that its purpose was/would be to control all economic activity: “…so that they could not buy or sell unless they had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of its name” (Rev. 13:17). The next chapter declares a major curse on anyone who goes along with “the beast’s” economic control program: “There will be no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image, or for anyone who receives the mark of its name” (Rev. 14:11).
There are a number of fantasy interpretations of this text popular these days, as there has been in many phases of the history of Christendom, but I would propose a more practical application, in line with what Bauman has to say about the sovereignty of market forces over our lives: Those who place a higher priority on economic power than on love, loyalty and justice –– who are willing to turn a blind eye to the abuses that are perpetrated by the economic powers that be, which enable these powers to strengthen their grip on things –– create their own personal hell for themselves and set themselves up as the enemies of God/goodness/righteousness/justice. To be on God’s side we must be willing to prioritize non-market values over market values. Not doing so leaves us thoroughly spiritually dilapidated. Meanwhile, while contemplating visual manifestations of dilapidation, I took Luna, the dog I am baby-sitting this weekend, and walked down to the little harbor closest to my apartment. I knew that there is a relatively new breakwater there which is somewhat prematurely dilapidated in the more literal original sense of the term. I also suspected that there might be some boats down there in less than ideal condition. Along the way we went to explore a hilltop ruin of some sort, which at one time would have commanded the best sea view in the district. I can’t say what the original building was, but these days it seems to provide a location for young people and rebels of all ages to party and practice their graffiti skills. It was as definitive an image of dilapidation as I might have hoped for.
This in turn opens another contemplative aspect of the dilapidation question: is it healthiest to sometimes just allow certain stones to slip out of the places we had in mind for them –– to let the dynamics of life to somewhat break free from the structures we try to use to contain them, even if that significantly damages the structures themselves? Sometimes perhaps so.
I appreciated the fact that the ruins I explored today were not entirely fenced off, like some of the more interestingly dilapidated sections of Suomenlinna, the island fortress outside of Helsinki. I respect the local authorities’ judgment calls in both cases though. The ruins above the Haukilahti harbor which I visited today are of little historical value as such. Preserving them in some nostalgic form would not serve to genuinely enable a deeper sense of contact with the struggles and accomplishments of previous generations. One of the most important purposes they can serve is as an outlet for dilapidation as such; a place where those who feel a need to be unruly can be so with relatively limited risk to themselves and others. Outside the opening in the rusty chain-link fence around the ruins there is a sign with a mildly stated warning that there are certain risks involved in exploring such dilapidation, so be on your guard and don’t try to blame anyone else if you end up hurting yourself in here. Suomenlinna, on the other hand, is a UNESCO World Heritage site, with all sorts of associated rules and restrictions and preservation requirements. It also has significantly higher walls over rocky coasts, offering significantly greater risk of self-injury. I would still like to be allowed to climb around in some of the areas they have fenced off these days, and I believe I could do so with relatively limited risk, but I get the idea of why they’d want to try and stop me from doing so, and I’m willing to abide by those limits in that case.
Finding the right balance between keeping our rocks in the places we want them and letting them slide around a bit as they are wont to do –– literally and figuratively –– is one of those matters about which general rules can have limited validity in their specific applications, generally speaking. The important thing is to keep believing that we each have a value that consumerist dynamics cannot quantify, and that we must never allow market forces to take from us.