This Summer, I hope to finish
reading Adam Sisman’s biography of novelist and former British intelligence
officer John le Carré. I always read at least one big book: they slow you down,
which is the point of a holiday. I’m looking forward to reading Kate Tempest’s debut
novel, The Bricks that Built the Houses.
I was already impressed with her Mercury Prize nominated rap album Everybody Down; the novel is said to be
its companion piece. She is also compared to Virginia Woolf. I have heard that
one before, but that won’t stop me. Next on my list, and staying with biography
and pop music, is A Man Called
Destruction, Holly George-Warren’s life of Alex Chilton, who fronted the
influential 1970s power pop band Big Star. Last, I will read the new Dutch
translation of Robert Walser’s Jakob von
Touch might be the most important sense we
human beings have. Touch puts us in direct, constant contact with the outside
world. And perhaps that might be the reason why this sense is so problematic.
Touch implies intimacy and closeness, and these are phenomena that the
(Western) world finds increasingly difficult to cope with. On the one hand, we
are no longer sure when it is appropriate to touch someone. On
the other hand, however, the temptation to touch is always present. This is one
of the reasons why New York City Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Chair of the Task
Force on Women’s Issues Aravella Simotas
recently announced the passage of
legislation to assure that a sentence of up to one year of
imprisonment may be imposed for a person “who makes inappropriate physical contact with
another person while traveling on a mode of public transportation.” Apparently people are so eager to touch others, even without consent, that they need a law to hold them back.
Yet, as many studies have shown, physical contact between human beings – provided it is mutually agreed upon – is vital. Physical contact and reassurance will make
people more secure and better able to form relationships. David J. Linden, a neuroscience professor at
Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the author of Touch: The
Science of Hand, Heart, and Mind adds during an interview in The Atlantic: “More
than anything else, what touch conveys is ‘I’m an ally, I’m not a threat.
Touch puts the recipient in a trusting mental state, and anything you can do to
encourage the student to trust the teacher is going to make learning
better.“ And let’s face it: it is often simply very enjoyable to be
touched and to touch someone else.
Interestingly, the way we interact with
non-human entities is increasingly through direct touch as well. Until a few
years ago the way we interacted with phones and computers was by pushing
buttons. And while pushing implies touching too, this interaction remained very
indirect. One never really had the sensation of literally touching the
information that was being manipulated by the touching of buttons. All this
changed with the introduction of the iPhone. One of the reasons this device became such a huge
success was its user interface. Instead of trying to hit the correct tiny
physical buttons in order to write an email, for instance, suddenly the user
could type directly on the screen and had the possibility to literally touch
the Internet via multi-touch. It indeed was a magical experience, as Steve Jobs
liked to stress over and over again.
Nowadays, most phones use multi-touch, and
tablets such as the iPad could not have existed without this technology. So,
what does the fact that we have no problem touching the surface of our devices,
but are very reluctant to touch another person, say about Western society? Have
we arrived at a stage where we are more comfortable
being intimate with our phones than with human beings? When we take into
account that we use these devices to communicate with other people and that
direct personal contact is gradually being superseded by these mediated forms
of communication, the pessimistic conclusion might be that direct interpersonal
relations are indeed becoming increasingly rare, and therefore touching someone
may become the exception rather than the rule.
Plaster archeology is
a perversion. But a truly scientific one at that. It entails the deep mapping
of architectural facades, that is, observing buildings’ walls for information
that passersby normally wouldn’t notice. An inscription of someone’s
initials, a graffiti that’s barely visible, a fading advertisement of a cosmetic
product that no longer exists.
archeologist spends a lot of time walking and staring at walls. The plaster
archeologist prefers walls that are layered, walls with plaster peeling off and
laying bare colors, or texts even that have been plastered over. The plaster
archeologist stops and observes where people normally keep walking, looking
ahead. Consequently, the plaster archeologist runs the risk of being perceived
as a weirdo.
also entails the noble quality of self restraint. For instance, decades of
neglect allow a chunk of the outer layer of plaster to fall off from a façade.
Part of the name of a store that used to be there in the late 19th
century is revealed. The plaster archeologist would instantly feel the urgency
to reveal the full name by removing more plaster. But this is to be avoided.
The plaster archeologist may not damage façades. Instead, the plaster
archeologist goes to the archives and goes through vintage photo collections to
decode what remains hidden behind plaster. And if there is no image, it’s all
well and good.
The city of Budapest,
where I grew up, is the ideal place to become a weirdo—and a plaster
archeologist. The bulk of the building stock of the city was built from mid to
late-19th century, when plaster abounded as a means of covering
buildings. Bullet holes from the war and the lack of means to renovate have
supplied me with ample material for years.
What about Nijmegen?
What about a city where walls are covered with brick and plaster is so rare?
Well, up until now I thought it would be a problem for the plaster
archeologist. But it is not so. The city bares the marks of World War II not
only in the absence of its old architecture in the city center but also in the
presence of scars on buildings’ walls, though one might not notice them at
first sight. The side façade of 4 Prins Hendrikstraat is a case in point. Signs
of a massive impact close to the roof, perhaps housing a machine gun position.
Already walled in, but the scars bear witness. Brick is no impediment to
plaster archeology. Quite the contrary, it may open no horizons to dig.