Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story...

That last post made me think about one of the founding stories of Swedishness. Therefore, I am going to relate/retell one of the founding stories about how Sweden as we know it came about. After that, I'm going to make some more general remarks about stories such as these. But let's not mince words - a king is about to be made!

It's the early 1520's, and the King of Denmark is making very definite efforts to subdue Sweden under his rule. Becoming a monarch isn't just about marching in with troops, after all. Naturally, there is resistance from every corner, but bit by bit he manages to either convince or conquer. At long last, and after long negotiations, he gives the gathered nobility and resistance forces the offer of amnesty. In exchange for acknowledging him as the new rightful king of Sweden, he lets them keep their lives, titles and freedom, and moreover pledging to forget the whole resistance business. No legal hassle. Just hand over the crown, and all will be well.

They reluctantly agree, and people are going back to castles and homesteads. Grudgingly, of course, and not everyone stops fighting. But most do, and an uneasy peace settles over the lands.

That is, until the new king starts rounding up nobility and resistance fighters in order to swiftly execute them. Which he does with frightening efficiency - overall some 600 people are mercilessly beheaded, and it is said that the streets ran with blood during the bloodbath of Stockholm.

This is very bad news for just about everyone. Especially if you are nobility, have a history of fighting back, or just happen to be around looking insubordinate in general.

Enter our hero, Gustav Eriksson, a nobleman and very active resistance fighter. He is at a somewhat remote family castle when word of the bloodbath reaches him, and with that the news that most of his family had been killed and all of his estates forfeited. With nothing left to lose, and the Kings men surely already on their way, he makes a run for Dalarna (a huge region in the middle of Sweden; the name literally translates to "the Valleys") to gather support for a renewed rebellion. The locals are not convinced, however, and refuses to go along.

Not being deterred by this, he continues onward towards Norway, in order to try the same thing again. After having skied some length in the cold snowy winter, a couple of Valleymen catches up with him and tells him that they've changed their minds. There is going to be a rebellion, and they've already started talking to other angry men in the region.

With the help of these first seeds of rebellion, he is then able to bit by bit bolster his strength and thus reduce the kings forces. After a lot of fighting, diplomacy, and Swedish army men who suddenly discovered they were not as loyal to the new king as they might have proclaimed, he is then able to drive out the Danes and restore a sovereign Sweden again. Under his rule, of course, as Gustav I. (He then goes about securing Sweden's status as a protestant country, and lays the foundation for the military might that will menace just about everyone in northern Europe for the next three centuries. Which is a longer, less motivational story.)

Now, what can we learn from this story, and the fact that this is (more or less) the story that oh so many young ones have heard about the founding of their country?

The exciting part, of course, is when he is just one man, alone, out on an epic quest to restore what has been lost. We can just imagine how millions of Swedes over the centuries has heard this tale and thought - don't give up and surrender, but keep fighting. No matter how hard and impossible things might seem, it is always worth keeping on. In the end, persistence will pay off. Even if you are just one man (or woman), you can make not just a but the difference!

This is then coupled to the fact that the main reason Gustav went out on his epic journey was to ask for help. No matter how great the lone heroic man (or woman) might be, there are times when the only right thing to do is to admit that the problem is greater than one's capability to handle.

Behind all this looms the Bloodbath like a motivational reminder that the price of surrender is death. Taking the easy way out will lead to bad things happening, even if they look promising - so be sure to do the right thing, even when it seems the whole world is against you.

With this in mind, it's not hard to understand how so many Swedes over the years have turned out to be ruthless badasses. The very law of the land depends upon ruthless badassness being applied with no hint of liberal measures, after all.

One can also understand how the rift between young and old in regards to these founding stories can have a profound effect on things. We of the young generation more or less file these stories in the same category as the myths of ancient Greece - as tales that might be interesting to know about, but not the most important or even rewarding thing in the world. The word "epic" either means a tale of unusual length, or just cool in general.

On the one hand, then, we have people who have grown up with this tale (and others of the same bent), and taken heart. And, on the other hand, we have the young ones who would rather play World of Warcraft.

I may not have to tell you about how nationalistic virtues are very much on the way out in my generation. Even more brutally so, thanks to the postnational internet. We may have grown up in the same place as our elders, but it would take quite some effort to convince anyone that we share the same culture.

Now, what I've just said doesn't of course apply only in my situated Swedish circumstances. Rather, it is a part of just about any social condition that has been affected by late modernity. As the old stories loses their grip, they are slowly replaced by television culture and more contemporary concerns. Whatever the old stories might be (in Denmark, the evil usurper king described above is regarded as a national hero), the general effect of having all of these stories and names and cultural context hammered into you is that you feel more at home in the world. You know from where things have evolved, and can thus have an opinion on where things are going.

Most hardcore critiques of religion fail on this count. It is not about whether there really is a God or not, it is about these interconnected stories about how the world works and how a good person ought to be. If you have a frame of reference regarding how to act, you are better prepared to respond to all those situations that life throws you into than if you have to figure everything out as you go along.

If you know that there are Valleymen in the world, and that they are a potential source of help, you don't feel as helpless as if you've asserted all your life that there is no help to get.

I chose the story of Gustavs sojourn for two reasons. The first is that it is relatively obscure in the wider world outside of northern Europe, and that it's fun to introduce things to a wider audience. The second is that the moral of the story is ambiguous. On the one hand, it shows the merits of not giving up. On the other hand, the mode of not giving up is by becoming a ruthless fanatic, whose modus operandi is do or die. This in order to show that you get to choose your adventure. Knowing about potential ways of looking at the world does not mean you are confined to them, after all.

Now, a king is waiting to be made. I wish you luck, and hope I have been of some use to you in your continued walking on this world of ours.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Finding your own language

I just had the strangest linguistical sensation.

You see, my country has a very relaxed way of looking at the whole language thing. Where other countries go for the whole translating things before they are deemed suitable for public viewing, we just take the path of lesser resistance and let it be whatever language it happened to be when it was made.

Which means that movies are shown in English, French, Urdu or [language] on television or cinemas, and helpful subtitles are provided just in case.

Now, given that Sweden is a part of western Europe, most of the imported movies are in English (or, rather, American English). Which means that most kids are exposed to a flood of the English language just by existing in a television culture, and it happens that they learn the language before they learn to read those helpful subtitles.

Which also means that the translating of books will turn into a strange endeavor pretty soon. If the author writes in English, most will just read it in English rather than wait the months or years it takes to publish a translation. Which in turn might put pressure on the publishers to translate faster (i. e. sloppier), which in yet another turn just makes people think that translations are sloppy -

Anywho, sidenote aside. The point here is that exposure to the English language is a very natural part of everyday life.

But. The main, dominating and official language of the land is still Swedish, and that is the language everyone for the most part sticks to. (Even I, judging from how much more attention my Swedish blog is getting from me.) Yet the prevalence of the English language means that words, phrases and idioms are slowly migrating from the one to the other, and it is not uncommon to find that the languages merges in various ways. Such as someone knowing the English word for something, and not quite remembering the Swedish one. Or, in more technical or academic situations, that there just is no Swedish word for something.

You see how the question of language becomes rather complicated here. On the one hand, you get quite along by just knowing Swedish - it is, after all, the mother tongue. On the other hand, the ever increasing intermingling of Swedish and English means that you lose an ever increasing part of the subtext by not knowing English. One example of this is imported idioms that makes sense if you have heard them used in English before, but really doesn't work in a purely Swedish setting.

This, of course, has a whole range of interesting consequences. One of them is that local variations in the use of English occur, that by way of cultural context does not translate well into purely English settings. These variations may seem ever so natural to us locals, but are in fact just that - local.

My strange linguistical sensation, then, was that I for a moment found myself wondering if a particular thing was either a feature of the English language in a broader sense, or a more local variation. And in this moment of uncertainty, I started to wonder if I really understood these languages that I use every day. Of if I only had a very local, very new remix that seems to emerge bit by bit every day.

I'm not sure I'm going to be finished with this thought (or sensation) any time soon.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Skinner box

I have come to think of social media as "the Skinner box". Or, rather, the very arbitrary rewards and punishments they bestow/inflict on us users.

Now, I'm the first one to admit that the rush of getting into a high speed communication frenzy is exhilarating beyond words - especially if it happens to be about something close to my digital heart. There is undeniably something about the act of dishing out messages at the speed of cognition that goes directly to the reward system of the not very digital brain.

And I bet you've been there.

But it's not only the rush of a constant now. It is also somewhat subtler than that, and sometimes somewhat slower. Especially when the punishments - most often in the form of a complete lack of interest from your peers - sets in. Over time, you find that you stop doing those things that get no response, and more often tend to do the things that gets likes, retweets or comments.

Which, of course, is the whole point of a Skinner box. To change a persons behavior by over time administrating rewards and punishments. Though in the case of social media, there is no telos involved. The aggregate of social mediums we use in our everyday lives just happen to reward some activities and ignore others, and it is good to be reminded that there are bigger things in life than arbitrary numbers.

Like the numbers of likes, retweets or comments.