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Ephemera (III)

Published on 08 August 2014
Updated on 05 April 2024

Two styles of rhetoric

I have just finished a book on the emergence of the Czechoslovakian Army in Italy, at the end of World War I.[1] It contains both documents of the period and current contributions. It allows me irreverently to compare styles of rhetoric.

The wording of a document from 1920 uses verbs throughout. Within the same sentence, verbs follow each other relentlessly, like whitecaps breaking on the shore. These verbs denote action, intention, and ultimate will. The words are all apt, yielding vivid visual images. Qualifiers abound, ornamenting the few substantives like flags in a parade.

As I can gauge from the contribution of a contemporary historian and architect to the same subject, current rhetoric, on the other hand, privileges substantives. In just one (overlong) sentence I counted fifteen substantives, strung together by empty verbs like “have,” “must, should.” Adjectives have disappeared, and whatever verbs may still be needed have been turned into substantives. Sentences of this kind remind me of clothing hung out to dry: wooden cloth pegs firmly holding down each piece, while allowing pointless flapping (furious at best).

Here such a cloth line from the little Italian village of Torcello, near Venice: it is an endless loop strung between two pulleys. From the window, the harried housewife pushes the line along the front of the building, after placing each piece of the wash on it.295b

The image is subtly apt: such substantivated sentences are “endless loops” where different-sounding meanings might be produced by simply interchanging the sequence of abstract substantives. Move the substantives around, and a new sounding meaning words materializes. Replication without duplication: these sentences are good fillers for empty paragraphs, giving the impression of substance. The tendency to break up a flowing sentence into static blocks of substantives has its counterpart in contemporary public works. While 50 years ago, trim elegance at the daring edge of calculations was the name of the game, everything seems more massive nowadays than needed for the purpose at hand. These “big works” imprint the landscape; they signify ownership and monumental power, rather than purpose. They also look obese. Here is a contemporary breaker from Recco, where I vacation at the moment: 295a

Waves no longer explode in breaking against the rocks – they prostrate themselves as they spend their force pointlessly over the rocks.

The wisdom of the junks

“Nobel-Prize” winning economist Michael Spence bemoans in a recent op-ed piece:

“But, at this moment in history, the main threats to prosperity – those that urgently need world leaders’ attention and effective international cooperation – are the huge uncontained negative spillover effects of regional tensions, conflict, and competing claims to spheres of influence. The most powerful impediment to growth and recovery is not this or that economic imbalance; it is a loss of confidence in the systems that made rising global interdependence possible.”[2]

As I was reading this, the “wisdom” of Chinese junks sprung to mind. “The larger ships are over ten metres in the beam and twenty metres long. (…) The hold was divided in many small portions, all of them made so tight, that if a leak should spring up in any of them, it could go no further, and so could do but little damage, but only to the goods in the bottom of that room where the leak springs up.”[3] Sailing safely in the treacherous waters of the South China Sea demanded great skill, which was in short supply. It made sense to build big ships and employ the best pilots. The down-side of building big junks was their instability, should a leak ever spring. Partitioning served to reduce the impact of the inevitable mishap.


The downside of this arrangement in turn was that arming junks with cannon in their hold was not possible. This may have been a reason why all ships in the Indian Ocean and the South or China Seas were unarmed prior to the arrival of the Portuguese (though the crew itself may have been armed against boarding pirates, and ships travelled in Karim covoys[4]). The Western ships, much smaller, but armed with cannon, could easily overpower such lumbering carracks. In the name of freedom of the seas, they brought blue water piracy to the region.

Economists call for the elimination of trade barriers world-wide: let the “four freedoms” prevail. Efficiency is maximized that way – so their models tell them. In a sense they propose creating a cavernous hold in a junk with no partitions. Ferries are such boats, and I hate them. The Spirit of Free Enterprise sank in 30 seconds in the harbor of Oostende, when the drunken captain sailed with the loading ramp in the bow still open (declaring an interest: I narrowly missed being on the ship). Several container ships sank without trace on the high oceans, probably when the water spilled over the side into the vessel, flooding the bilge. The Costa Concordia, once its outer skin was pierced, was capsizing very fast… because its above-water towering superstructure made it unstable (it had been designed to float, after hull failure, for two hours, during which time over 4’000 had to be evacuated). Fortunately it could be steered on the rocks.

Our body is not just a giant undifferentiated blob, but consists of a trillion cells with semi-permeable walls, and a host of interstitial safety mechanisms to stop the spread of disease. Size and structure go together – this is the first wisdom of the junks.

The other, subtler piece of wisdom is the need for a peaceful trading system. Free trade had evolved organically in the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea for more than a thousand years before Western men of war arrived to “enforce” it. Or were they? Grotius (The Free Sea) and Selden (The Closed Sea) battled over the compromise between securing a local monopoly (of spices or fish) both at the point of purchase and sale – so as to obtain monopoly rents – and the need to freely access the point of trade. It was an exercise in hypocrisy.

Economists, and politicians, better take notice.

The myth of the border

With printed maps came “the border” – the imaginary “line of equilibrium defined by opposite political pressures of two states.”[5] In WWI, Italy’s war aims were “defensible” and “ethnically correct” borders. “Defensible” reflected the idea the then conventional view that holding the ridge of a mountain chain or the bank of a river would prevent the enemy from penetrating into the country’s territory. Well, Caporetto put paid to that: any “line” can be punctured, of an army sets its mind to it.

“Ethnically correct” was based on the theory that people had unique identities, and lived in separate communities: hence one could neatly sort people out by tribe. In the aftermath of WWI statesmen were baffled by the fact that this was not possible (ethnic cleansing re-emerged[6] as an expeditious means of achieving “feasible” borders).

Increasingly, the idea of a “unique” and timeless identity is being questioned. “Kraina” or “Ukraina” mean “land in between” – something akin to the Medieval Marches. In these interstitial regions people were able to switch between identities, or hold both, depending on social and economic circumstances. Intermarriage and trade[7] facilitated the process.

I’ve just discovered a new interstitial region: Podravina (which may be translated as Border-Pannonia). Located along the “border” between Croatia and Hungary, [8]


The river Drava lazily finds its ways across it (a river may have been useful from a military point of view, but a waterway has been a major means of communication ever since ancient times). In fact, empires have arisen from such interstitial spaces – Rome being the most famous (Rome’s highest priest was the Pontifex – Bridge builder).

[1] Francesco LEONCINI (2014) (Ed.): Il patto di Roma e la Legione Ceco-Slovacca. Tra Grande Guerra e Nuova Europa. Kellermann, Vittorio Veneto. [2] Michael SPENCE (2014): The global security deficit. Project Syndicate, July 25th. [3] Timothy BROOK (2014): Mr Selden’s map of China. The spice trade, a lost chart, & the South China Sea. Princeton University Press, Princeton; (pg. 93-94). [4] Xinru LIU – Lynda Norene SHAFFER (2007): Connections across Asia. Transfromation, communication, and cultural exchange on the Silk Roads. McGraw Hill, New York. [5] Marina CATTARUZZA (2007): L’Italia e il confine orientale. Il Mulino, Bologna. (pg. 7) [6] Actually, ethnic cleansing was the rule underpinning the Westphalian System. Only is used the PC formulation: cuius region, eius religio (the King decides the religion of his people – and if one does not like it, the answer is emigration). [7] The Radhaniyya – Ladino-Jews – has established a worldwide network of trade in the Xth-XIth centura, from West-Africa to China. See: Xinru LIU – Lynda Norene SHAFFER (2007): Connections across Asia. Transfromation, communication, and cultural exchange on the Silk Roads. McGraw Hill, New York: (pg. 177). [8] https://bit.ly/1pZgyC4

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