From Iceland — Ungoo


Published July 25, 2014

Part X: Time to Stage a Conclusion

Haukur Már Helgason
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Part X: Time to Stage a Conclusion

[Continued from Ungoo: Part IX]

Earlier this year, a free-trade agreement between Iceland and China took effect. Iceland is the first, and so far the only, European country to make such an arrangement with the People’s Republic of. No one knows what that means. Literally no one. Perhaps some politicians, administrative staff or business managers think they do: they probably have some rough estimates about the agreement’s effects on our GDP, and at some point may have read an article or two about whether or not China has any imperial ambitions in the arctic. By and large, they would seem to have kept that to themselves, but in any case: none of that makes any sense of the event. Making sense of it would involve a lot of critical work, done in public, by people with various different tools, playing different games —an open discussion, involving more novelists and social scientists, historians, art historians, poets, musicians, political and literary theorists than business consultants, managers or politicians. Is China communist? Is it not? What happened since Mao, then? Can we emigrate there? Can they immigrate? Will there be more Tibetan refugees in Iceland or Icelandic refugees in China? What, in short, is this? We have no idea. Literally —it has hardly entered as a topic of shrugs, let alone of serious debate.

Nor is this an isolated case. After over half a century of military presence in Iceland, the U.S. Navy left in 2006. So far, we have no idea what happened. The impact of the military presence since WWII, was momentous in every sphere of life: economically, politically, culturally. The foreign forces not only constructed the country’s airports, but also highway 1, the first road to make most parts of the country accessible to each other by car. During the Cold War, there was an ongoing debate, of course: should it stay or should it go? It was the central matter of local politics. There were marches and demos. A lot of heat. A lot of exclamations. What the military presence meant, however, and what its departure signifies, is something we haven’t really started talking about. I mean, at all. To ask and probe, not if it was good or bad, but the more elementary question: what was that?

Preliminary Remarks on Lack

Back to the basics. We started with a quotation. A writer claimed that Icelandic culture is shallow. Others then defiantly took to its defense —on Facebook. My claim is that the venue itself signals a lack. Most of the what happened between the beginning paragraphs of this article and its looming end, was just to point out that yes, yes, I know we have this and I know we have that, but nonetheless …. Yet, however and even so: something is not happening right now, that, at least to some extent, used to happen. I think that we would all gain if it started happening again. I am also aware, however, that this desire may not be merely unrealistic, it might even be false: perhaps I don’t want that to actually come about, perhaps I just want to complain about its lack. Better yet: perhaps I don’t even want to complain about it, perhaps I just can, and so I do. If it did come about again, and if, once it arrived, I then gave it any attention, maybe that would be mostly to criticize it, point out all that’s still missing. More obviously still, I could simply be wrong. Perhaps what I perceive as lack, is merely change, even progress: perhaps social media, for example, really provides a much more fertile environment to make sense of things, than, for example, any old-school weekly publication ever did. Maybe editing is always simply a euphemism for censorship. Maybe this whole serialized article is based on nothing but a confused conservative sentiment, an obsolete mindset that doesn’t realize the potential of Twitter. Maybe —and you can tell that this is not sarcasm, because I say so— maybe all I’m saying could be expressed in a tweet, employing hashtags with surgical precision. #gramsci #lesbók #lack #please.

Be that as it may, all the same, having said that. There is a lack.

What is lacking? In terms of textual space, you can call it a common ground. Much has been written in recent years about the commons, in the sense of any goods that belong to people collectively, often even without them, that is us, being aware of them as goods, let alone any sort of property. These range from natural resources, whether local ones, such as rivers, or global, as the atmosphere; to cultural heritage, for example the languages within which we exist. The main reason why the notion of the commons has caught attention and interest, is that our common interests are perceived as under threat by, often more clearly defined and certainly more vigorously defended, private interests.

Everything is Yours

For decades, the commons most highly and constantly debated in Iceland have been fish. As a natural resource, fish are usually referred to in terms of fish stocks. Whom do they belong to? Whose wealth are they? Fish has been there since before any of us came about, glittering, roaming, and relentlessly reproducing itself. Fish doesn’t become particularly useful to people, however, until someone goes fish. Preferably, that involves a boat and various other equipment. Japanese philosopher Kojin Karatani believes that fishing is so demanding in terms of equipment, location and a regular lifestyle that in a recent book, he proposed fishing as the reason why roaming human tribes settled in the first place, and unwittingly set about the chain-reaction we now know as civilization. The most efficient equipment to catch fish remains somewhat expensive. Those who have invested in such equipment claim that thereby the fish is, de facto, theirs. Not just the fish that they happen to catch, but the existence of fish around Iceland in general: fish, as such, from now on. Everyone who happens not to be these people tends to differ.

Some cultural phenomena are sort of like that fish. All sorts of informal, but nonetheless very public institutions, are run by private agents. Cafés, for example. There is no state-café. There is no national café. Through the 20th century, most towns used to run municipal social centers, serving a related purpose, but currently I don’t know of any municipally founded or run cafés. Each café in Reykjavík belongs simply to its owner. Cafés, or the café, as a phenomenon, however, do not. The fact that there are cafés at all, that there are places for people to gather with strangers and share a sense of enjoyable idleness for minutes or hours —that fact, that tradition, desire and institution, is somehow ours. In that sense, even if each café belongs to individual persons, the totality of cafés constitute a public space, a public service, a common good. That doesn’t mean that you can walk in to any of them, and demand your coffee for free, but it does mean, for example, that you can demand not to be discriminated against, to have your coffee at the same price as others, whoever you are. If that consensus is broken, you are eligible to publicize your concerns, which most often would lead the owner to make amends. An owner of such a business can certainly choose the café’s decoration and furniture. He may somewhat interfere with its menu and its prices, but he is not completely free to do with it as he pleases. As soon as a café is run solely to maximize profits, it ceases to be a café. It may look like a café, and serve coffee, but then you get the bill or you notice how stressed and miserable the staff is, and you realize it’s not a café at all, but just another dressed-up excel document. More to the point, however, if one day, all the city’s cafés went bankrupt, and they all closed at once, someone would instantaneously rig up a new one. Until, that is, we tire of that institution, or a ruling majority decides on a prohibition, which could complicate the process a bit, but not really eliminate the sphere.

Freedom from Expression

There’s a lot of such institutions in our societies. To an ever greater extent, they seem internationally standardized. Universities are a recent, historical phenomenon. Every country which has the necessary economic capacity, now has at least one. They can be private enterprises or state-owned. That difference matters in various ways, but in terms of their existence, it is irrelevant: However financed and organized, the institution of/desire for a university finds an expression. What we call social media may have already become such a thing: no doubt, if Facebook went bankrupt tomorrow, a dozen other companies would compete to take its place. Or take sports. When FIFA goes bankrupt, people will still play football. Combined, these sorts of institutions, traditions that find actual expression only through particular agents, but ideally belong to us in common, make up, what has been referred to as civil society. Depending on how long you have stayed in Iceland, it may or may not surprise you that this term has not been aptly translated. Some say Aristotle coined the phrase, others attribute it to the more recent works of Antonio Gramsci. It refers to that flimsy but vital layer of semi-conscious fiction that keeps us from disintegrating into state-goo on the one hand, business-goo on the other. Good politicians respect civil society, bad politicians don’t. The worst politicians really hate it, because it gets in their way. Money, the opposite of sense, our way of acquiring and providing stuff, by and large without the exchange of words, at best doesn’t care about civil society, at worst opposes it. Money involves not so much freedom of expression, as freedom from expression. Which is why it can feel so cozy, but also one reason why money, or money-related ambition, is not enough.

The lack of media, in this instance, feels like a component failure of civil society. Common grounds for an open-ended, seemingly pointless, but ambitious cultural commentary and debate —an open, public arena for thought— serves a vital purpose. To make sense of things. Making sense of things is a common project. It happens through exchanges of proposals: I say that this is this and you refute me, pointing out that this is that. If the topic is interesting enough, a third party will enter to propose that perhaps this is neither this nor that but something more akin to it. Someone then goes meta on the whole thing and claims that the attention we pay to this is symptomatic of our society’s who-knows-what. Were the Icelandic sagas historically accurate accounts of real events or pure fiction? How conclusive is their narrative structure in that matter? Wait, you have an app for that? Well, how important is that question, anyway? What does our obsession with the middle-ages say about us? Didn’t something happen in the meantime? Is Alþingi really a thousand years old or is that just state-propaganda? Some such discourses have no conclusive end, but as an ongoing process they are among those things that keep a society from madness. At times, when the field can be taken for granted, it is an easy target for ridicule. That goes for all such institutions, the whole of civil society: standing on two legs seems to have been hilariously pretentious of you, once you slip on a banana peel. Once such an institution has vanished, however, we are that step closer to barbarism. That step closer to admit defeat and descend back to hands and knees. Crawl, then bark. Play dead. Good boy.

The Conclusion!

It is time to stage a conclusion. So, which is it? Is Icelandic culture shallow or is it not? I’m not sure if the writer meant to play that game. Or does the utterance have that kind of clarity, the kind required by the game of true and false statements? Could it be, that under the right circumstances, in the right playground, such expression might trigger something, be worth something, regardless of its supposed factual truth-content? Did it disturb you? Why? If we only debate the matter on Facebook, we will never know. Even if the next issue of some quarterly periodical includes a lengthy, subtle and brave analysis, we will never know. The total subscribers of any specialized, Icelandic biannual or quarterly periodical, are all Facebook-friends anyway. These publications are important, but their function is different. Their value lies partly in standing out of time. Or perhaps, rather, having a time-dimension all their own. What happens in a quarterly, stays in a quarterly.

You want there to be football? Then you need, at least, some sort of a ball and a demarcated field. Without a minimal framework, people running around by the dozen, kicking and shouting and swearing obscenities, while others blow their whistles and authoritatively lift colored cards to the sky, would be crazy. Likewise, if we want there to be thought, if we want to make sense of things, we need a designated plot of the public sphere for that. It is called media. It doesn’t have to be a weekly cultural supplement to a newspaper. It just has to be independent, open-minded, dutiful, critical, courageous, existentially secure enough to take risks. And, preferrably, multiple. As in more than one. Without that, we become, frankly, more stupid. Collectively. It is a matter of proportions. Stupidity is not the same as having no thoughts. Just too little. We have some. Not enough. Must ungoo.

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Enough. Stop. Now.

Enough. Stop. Now.


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