Dr. Catalin Avramescu is a Romanian Philosopher whose favourite movie is Batman II, likes watching Animal Planet and listens to Vivaldi and Satie. He teaches Political Philosophy but also quotes William James by saying "If a man's good at nothing else, he can at least teach philosophy." He plans to travel to Lithuania, resents Romania joining the European Union and considers the Romanian political scene a freak show made mostly out of Mickey Mouse parties. His most famous book is 'The Raw Philosopher: A History of Cannibalism' , a unique history of anthropophagy mirrored into philosophy. You can find all these facts and more on his surprisingly personal webpage where he also blogs every other day (unfortunately only in Romanian).
A Country in Lines
by Catalin Avramescu
It started with a detail. We were at Lago d'Orta , visiting the place where Nietzsche had spent some time with Lou Andreas-Salome . On that autumn day there were almost no tourists which explains the speed at which my brother was able to park the car. We were getting ready to disappear into the small streets, when my Italian cousin noticed that the car's tire was on the blue line. My brother protests "But it doesn't cross the line!" She still insists to move the car a few centimeters. My brother was defensive "The parking's empty anyway!" But the otherwise lovely Beatrice concludes "Anyway, it's not allowed!"
I then realized the importance of a fact that was there the entire time, without noticing it before. Immediately after you pass Romania's borders you observe good street markings. Very clearly drawn lines, with reflecting paint. The directions are traced out with cars driving in defined trajectories. But back [in Romania] these lines are faded away, and the drivers ignore even the few, visible ones. Pay attention at any crossroad or at any red light to how many of the cars actually stop on the zebra.
But what I realized that day was the respect towards the line is something beyond traffic regulations. Seeing a foreigner's unaffected, natural observation of the few centimeters on the line from the asphalt, I realized we are dealing with a fundamental difference between cultures. In the Occident almost everything is organized "on the line." Look at the counter lines in a supermarket. Or the lines that mark the "please keep distance" in a bank. Or the yellow lines on escalators that show the part for the hasty. Subway maps or crossroads. Tourist information leaflets. Diagrams with the seat numbers right in front of each wagon on German railway stations.
All of these are just exterior signs. More important is the order that is generated spontaneously, in the absence of the lines, arrows, markings. People respect the invisible lines that mark the distance to an ATM. In England, people stay in line at a bus station. The offices at the city hall are aligned rationally, one after the other, on different floors. In a restaurant, people wait at the entrance to be seated. Looking at that, you realize that there is a real culture of the line. The trajectory of the social players is guided by these real or imaginary lines. Same strictness is applied to time: in Helsinki, the bus comes according to schedule, even in winter, and every Romanian that has a date with a foreigner realizes surprised that for that person "4 o'clock" means what it says, and not "Some time in the evening, if i remember..."
Let's name this phenomenon "social cartesianism". It's origins are perhaps Premodern, Medieval, but not Pre-Christian. A sort of cult of the line was deciphered in the representation of the Labyrinth, which symbolised the road of the soul to Divinity. But certainly it's 17th century, a part of the scientific revolution, that defines the line as an organizing principle of the Universe, both from a natural and social point of view.
First, in the conceptual order, came the reorganisation of mathematics. Descartes is the one who, while laying in bed and watching a fly, is said to have thought of a method to rigorously describe the insects trajectory. This is where the famous "Cartesian coordinates" come from. Another point is the implementation of the metric system, in France in 1799 (system based on an idea of the English mathematician John Wilkins ).
Later, and much more visible, followed the organization of the social space. First the one under the direct control of the King. Le Notre's gardens (Louis XIV 's gardener), are attempts to correct nature in the name of symmetry. French Gardens' were copied all over Europe. In Italy, the symmetric lines of Greco-Roman beauty were reborn the century before in Andrea Palladio's architectural projects.
Modern urbanism was the deciding factor that radically changed Western society and made it what it is today. Ferrara was in Renaissance one of the first towns where the grid, with straight streets and aligned buildings, was implemented. Then followed the big urban evolutions from the XVIII-XIXth centuries which culminated with Haussmann's (who had a real cult for the straight line) decision to inscribe Paris' beautiful boulevards.
All of the above are just general frames in which a revolution of the individual and collective behaviour took place. Markings, signs, and rigorous urban habits became the new mechanical laws of the social actor. At 6 o'clock in the morning, at the entrances in factories, lines of people in the same rhythm. At the entrance of theatres, cinemas, ticket booths--Everywhere signs with precise rules: tram stations, hospitals, schools, kindergartens. Town clocks, sirens, mobile barriers, photo-voltaic systems, access cards--Above all, the final triumph of the line, the bar-code. Millions of strings, pointing arrows, signs; all these form logic gates of life in a society. Look at the plan of a modern city from above and you will be surprised of it's similarity to a microprocessor. Both are, in fact, complicated calculation systems.
This is how Romania's city planners began. During the times of Alexander John Cuza , villages were divided into square sections. Bucharest's boulevards were built under mayor Pache Protopopescu and under Carol I the train stations received timetables. But essential was the rise of a spontaneous order, at a micro-social level, produced everyday by capitalism activity. With its constraints that were very hardly supported by the Romanian who couldn't yet let go to the strange ways of rural life.
Nowadays we live in a social web that seems to be unravelling. We creep through holes in fences to get to government buildings, cars park on the pavement, businesses no longer adhere to regular opening times, the controls in lifts are blocked, signs with missing letters are a common sight. All around us, a micro-anarchy spreads. This is the point at which the reform of our society must begin--the primitive origin of the chaos. Our country is suffering from a lack of lines.
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John Jourden is an (a)rchitect and pathological thinker living in New York.