THE 10 DAYS OF EUROPE | 5: Join the Church of the Concrete
28 December 2010
In the eighties and early noughties as stock market prices soared, we were burning cattle in the fields of Europe. But now the cult of abstract value is giving way to a return to faith in the real value of material things, Portuguese writer Gonçalo Tavares explains.
Once upon a time politics invaded the realm of language, invaded the word and stayed there. And once it invaded politics it went for the economy. For a long time, it’s no longer a matter of shifting material things anymore, of deciding the fate of the human, animal or plant kingdom (whether or not to chop down trees, for instance). Now virtually everything is decided in the realm of signs, of numbers and letters. Hence the return to the world of childhood: here in Europe we believe lines drawn on paper aren’t just lines, but the difference between wealth and poverty.
The old divide between the sign and the thing, signifier and signified. The famous sentence “The word DOG doesn’t bite”: put your finger on the D, the O or the G and you don’t risk a thing, your finger remains unharmed – an old lesson in linguistics. It’s this distinction that ushered in modernity. Primitive peoples didn’t believe that, they didn’t believe in two separate worlds. For primitive man, the sign was already a thing. A drawing of a deer was not a drawing, but a deer. There was no difference between the two.
In a way, Europe increasingly accentuated its primitive side for decades. It began believing in magic again. Practically the whole latter-day economy lies in an abstract world, in the world of letters and numbers – and not in the world of three-dimensional matter.
Europe turned into a New Primitive Continent
The old economy was about two cows traded for a hundred chickens; about factories and machines, about trees bought and sold. Gradually, however, the living elements and the acres of land vanished from the scene, leaving slips of paper covered with signs and numbers. Europe turned into a New Primitive Continent, where people adopt behaviours identical to those of the Amazonian tribes that confused signs with reality and believed the letter A or a drawing could do them in or damn them forever.
Indeed, if we jot down the sentence “This sheet of paper is worth a hundred thousand euros”, we’re certainly not about to believe this previously blank sheet of paper is now worth €100,000. But if we step back a bit to gain some perspective, we will come to realise that the economic decline we are witnessing in our day is partly due to a similar process, on a very large scale.
The abstract economy has settled in right there, in the realm of faith. Those in possession of a slip of paper officialised by some emblem or seal (signs again) from some financial institution believe, if we take shares for example, that that slip of paper is worth €2 one day, €1.50 the next, €3 a week later. For an outsider who doesn’t understand any of it, these ups and downs in share values are something even stranger. This isn’t the unwavering belief in a sign, as it was for primitive man. Now it is a fluctuating belief – which everyday changes the material value it assigns to the sign.
The most absurd thing is that this belief in abstraction, this return to primitive thinking that has invaded the present-day world, was attended by an unprecedented destruction of physical matter. Cattle were slaughtered and boats cannibalised in Europe, tilled fields abandoned, machines destroyed or forced to shut down because they mustn’t produce more than a certain quantity of goods. Year after year, the two processes progressed in parallel: the destruction of three-dimensional things in the world and the proliferation of two-dimensional paper that symbolised wealth. People believed, deep down inside, that wealth was in the signs and that the cattle, boats and acreage were also wealth, to be sure, but old, outmoded, inadequate forms of wealth. Wealth without hygiene, so to speak.
Europeans still need a physical element between their bodies and the sky
And for years paper was traded back and forth. Little sheets of A4, A5 or A6-size paper were passed around and around. And by magic, every time they changed hands these slips of paper seemed to grow in value. Like the passing of a magic baton: A sold a slip of paper to B, who passed it on to C, who sold it to D, and the last in line believed the paper he’d bought was now worth a thousand times its initial value.
In sum, there’s no doubt that the crisis in Europe resulted from many different causes, but part of the problem is that we are now faced with a change of faith. The Church of Abstraction, the faith in paper that is worth money, seems to be heading down a dead-end street, and the ranks of believers are dwindling: some are forsaking it willingly, others reluctantly, many tragically. And perhaps, with the demise of this faith, we are in the process of returning to another faith. With each passing day, the modern-day Church of the Concrete seems to be regaining the firm position it once held: the belief in that which is matter: the belief in cattle, boats, fields and machines – it’s back.
Europe has progressed a great deal, technologically and otherwise, but to keep Europeans from getting wet, they still need a physical element between their bodies and the sky. You can’t take shelter in a drawing of a house. And that’s why Europe seems to be moving forwards and backwards at the same time. What it is trying to do isn’t easy: it wants to leave the primitive world behind and return, once again, to the old modernity. The point is to become materialists again, in the original sense of the word. The old materialism, a good example of which is cattle, heavy and calm: their value is their weight – and it’s better that way.
Translated from the Portuguese by Eric Rosencrantz