Category Archives: Literature



Inden året udløber er der én sidste ting, jeg skal nå at gøre.
Hvert nytår vælger jeg et ord, der skal hjælpe mig og guide mig gennem det kommende år. Til dette år valgte jeg ordet Jordforbindelse. Både som en påmindelse om ikke at blive for luftig i mine idéer og projekter, men også for at holde fast i søge mod rødderne.
Derfor har jeg året igennem tænkt og skrevet om vores tilknytning til den jord, vi betræder, og det gensidige fællesskab, som vi indgår i med alt andet levende omkring os. Og om, hvordan denne tilknytning er afgørende for, om vi kan bremse klimakrisen og det økologiske sammenbrud, som vi står midt i.
Men langt det meste af det, jeg har tænkt og skrevet, har jeg holdt for mig selv. Jeg har ikke følt mig klar. Jeg har fundet på undskyldninger for at holde det for mig selv lige lidt endnu. Men det hober sig op i mit hoved, og inderst inde ved jeg godt, at jeg aldrig bliver helt klar. Og derfor afpresser jeg nu mig selv til at dele dette inden året slutter.
Jeg har sat mig for at skrive en bog. Arbejdstitlen er Rodfæste. Rodfæstelse er et gammelt ord for at slå rødder. Så at finde sine rødder er at finde sit rodfæste. Og det er den opdagelsesrejse, som jeg vil skrive om.
Men det at skrive en bog er et meget langt soloridt. Derfor har jeg – inspireret af Rob Hopkins’ blog, hvor han igennem de sidste to år har delt sit arbejde med den nyudgivne bog “From what is to what if” – besluttet mig for at åbne skriveprocessen op. Fra arbejdet med Borgerlyst-bøgerne ved jeg, at det er godt for mig at skrive og udgive løbende undervejs. Hvis jeg ikke afpresser mig selv, er jeg bange for, at det måske slet ikke bliver til noget.
Så hvis du er nysgerrig, kan du læse mere om hvad det er for en bog, jeg er ved at skrive, og følge med på Rodfæ

She staggers to stay upright

Last Thursday I attended a showing of a documentary on the Swedish poet Gunnar Ekelöf. After the film, there was a concert where Ida Bach Jensen, who composed the score for the film, performed.

It was a magic 40 minutes, and it gave me time to digest some of the themes and thoughts of Ekelöfs poetry. The following is a sort of summary of my thoughts.

Ekelöf writes:

Seeking stable ground in life.
Everything is fluid. Everything deceives us. Everything lures us into traps. To misunderstandings. Misconceptions. The only thing that does not waver is death. To think of death. To see life through death is to provide a pedal point to the dizzying uncertain melody we live.

Elsewhere he writes something along the lines of:

She staggers to stay upright

I find that intensely poetic. A condensation of a greater truth: That to be in balance you are always moving towards a disequilibrium. Always compensating to stay upright. Staggering back and forth. Like a tree in the wind. Like a child learning to ride a bicycle. Whether it is staying put or moving forward, maintaining balance requires constant work. To remain flexible.

In the same way, a major theme in Ekelöf’s work is how the good and the evil, the ugly and the beautiful are intertwined. They depend on the juxtaposition, the contradiction. They can exist only through each other.

Nothing can exist by itself. Nothing is pure and clean. Everything is raw, mixed and implacably honest. Like punk.

We may try to ignore it. Filter out the ugly and inconvenient. But it will only make us less flexible. Less in balance.

Instead, we have to see the ways in which the ugly highlights the beauty.

At the concert, the clean, clear almost crystalline spirituality of the music was deflated by the laughter, conversation and clinking of plates and cutlery from the café outside.

At first it annoyed me. But then I realized that it was the very dissonance of the ambient sounds of the café that gave the music its depth. And the ethereal spirituality of the music was underlined by the mundane chatter from which it sought to escape.

The beautiful and ugly complemented each other. It resulted in a calm sense of wholeness. Of balance.

It is the unpredictable, the unfinished, which creates the magic of the moment. We are never ready. We are always caught by surprise. It forces us to recalibrate. To stagger or fall.

On Saturday, I went to see a play that revolved around stories of the sea. As the play ended, they projected big photo of the wide open blue sea onto the stage.

I looked out at the sea. Exploring my newfound sensibility of the imperfect, I sought out the unexpected. The ugly. That which is set apart and breaks the harmony. The crack in the mirror. The matter out of place. That which is not in balance.

At first I couldn’t see it.

The sea is quiet, mirroring the sky in a plethora of blue nuance.
So beautiful. So pure.

Then I realize that the thing that doesn’t belong is me. The man. The boat. The attempt at control.

A tiny speck of intent merely tolerated in this vast aimless flow.

On utopias

Lately, I’ve been reading a book called “The Tao is Silent”. It is a series of reflections on tao and taoism by Raymond Smullyan, a mathematician, musician, magician, philosopher and all-round trickster figure.

Long-time readers of this blog may remember that I blogged about Smullyan’s text “Is God a taoist” ages ago. The whole book is full of witty dialogues and thoughtful reflections trying to map the differences and similarities between western and eastern philosophies.

Smullyan has a lovely little story from the taoist philosopher Chuang Tzu, as translated by Thomas Merton:

When life was full, there was no history

In the age when life on earth was full, no one paid any special attention to worthy men, nor did they single out the man of ability. Rulers were simply the highest branches of the tree, and the people were like deer in the woods. They were honest and righteous without realizing they were “doing their duty”. They loved each other and did not know that this was “love of neighbour”. They deceived no one yet they did not know that they were “men to be trusted”. They were reliable and did not know that this was “good faith”. They lived freely together giving and taking, and did not know that they were generous. For this reason their deeds have not been narrated. They made no history.

Chuang Tzu indicates that there was a “once-upon-a-time” when life on earth was full. A sort of edenic scene. Such ur-topia goes well with the taoist notion that we live our fullest when we are as uncarved wood. Whole and unsplintered. It doesn’t mean that such a utopia has actually existed, but it is a way of describing that true power (or virtue) is within us and that it only requires us to find it.

Now, what I find really interesting is how Chuang Tzu says that in this utopia, there is no history. When all of the people there are living in effortless harmony with the Tao, it is unremarkable in its own right. They don’t consider it a story worth telling.

I think this is a remarkable insight on utopias in general: No one living in a utopia would have a need to describe it. But it is also a remarkable insight on how taoist philosophy transcends morality by suggesting that the considerations of morality lead us away from living in harmony with the Tao. As the Zen poet Seng-Ts’an says:

If you want to get the plain truth,
Be not concerned with right and wrong.
The conflict between right and wrong
Is the sickness of the mind.

Online Ethnography

There was an interesting attempt at a discussion on the Anthrodesign mailing list recently as to what online ethnography actually entails. But the discussion never really seemed to get off the ground, and effectively had died by the time I posted my comment. So I thought I put it up here with a few adjustments:

Online ethnography is a very interesting research practice. In part because you are completely dependent on what your informants are willing to show you. You can only learn as much as they put online, and you have no way verifying that what they say is true. As the classic saying goes, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”


When you’re initiate ethnographic reseach online, you are acutely aware of this fact. No physical context or cues makes it difficult to interpret the actions and motivations of people. The short film “The Parlor” gives a great impression of how these issues.

One ethnography that does well to explore these issues of representation and anonymity is Annette Markham’s “Life Online“. But Markham’s central point is that the net-savvy people that she interviews do not see the Internet as a separate place that they enter when they go online. Rather, “going online means turning on the computer, just as one would pick up the phone.”

Online and in-person are parts of the same domain of social experience. I find that a lot of talk about “virtual ethnography” misses this and instead attempt to explore Internet relationships and behaviour as if they are completely different and unrelated to their informants’ in-person lives.

What I found in my fieldwork is that doing online ethnography is little different from other flavours of ethnography in that you have to examine not just a single aspect of your informants’ lives in order to be able to appreciate their practices and motivations online. This is equally true of everybody else online: Social ties are immensely strengthened by in-person meetings. As Gabriella Coleman has argued, online sociality augments offline sociality, rather than the other way around. In a similar vein, Brigitte Jordan labels this mixing of physical and digital fieldwork “hybrid ethnography” and argues that “the blurring of boundaries and the fusion of the real and the virtual in hybrid settings may require rethinking conventional ethnographic methods in the future.”

I don’t know exactly how ethnographic methods may require rethinking, I can only point to a description of how I combined different research methods, online and in-person in my fieldwork. If you’re curious, you can read my reflections on being in a digital field and my experiences there in my field report [pdf], which I’ve just uploaded for the first time (shame on me for putting it off for so long).

Having said that, I don’t think that online ethnography on its own is without merit. There is plenty of potential to learn from people online from behind the computer screen. But there is one other central issue here: It is incredibly easy to just observe others and not participate online. They can’t see you so there’s no social awkwardness associated with lurking. Not only is it unethical to some extent (just because it’s public doesn’t mean you shouldn’t let people be aware of your presence), but it is also a bad way to do research.

Actively sharing yourself, participating on equal terms is the cornerstone of participant observation, giving you the best possible opportunity to experience what your informants are experiencing. And it is the central way to build trust with people online. Actions do speak louder than words online. Much louder. And it is perfectly possible to do online participant observation. A great example of this is Michael Wesch‘s fascinating study of the Youtube community. Both Wesch and his students shared themselves through videos of their own in a way that garnered both respect and interest in their project. Video is a much more personal and credible way to interact than text online, and it is well worth the time to check out Wesch’s presentation of their study (available on Youtube, of course).

I’d love to hear about others’ experiences doing fieldwork online. So please do share.

Bit by bit – a review of “Two Bits”

I finally found the time to read Christopher Kelty’s book Two Bits – The cultural Significance of Free Software. Kelty is one of the few other anthropologists studying Free Software in general, and his work has been a huge inspiration in my thesis work on Ubuntu, so naturally, my expectations were high.

As Kelty argues, we’ve been drowning in explanations of why Free Software has come about, while starving for explanations of how it works. Thus, Kelty’s focus is on the actual practices of Free Software and the cultural significance of these practices in relation to other aspects of our lives.

Kelty’s main argument is that Free Software communities are a recursive public. He defines a recursive public as a public “whose existence (which consists solely in address through discourse) is possible only through discursive and technical reference to the means of creating this public.”

It is recursive in that it contains not only a discourse about technology, but that this discourse is made possible through and with the technology discussed. And that this technology consists of many recursively dependent layers of technical infrastructure: The entire free software stack, operating systems, Internet protocols. As Kelty concludes:

The depth of recursion is determined by the openness necessary for the project itself.

This is a brilliant observation, and I agree that the notion of a recursive public goes far to explain how the everyday practices and dogmatic concern for software freedom is so closely intertwined in this public.

The book is divided into three parts, each part using a different methodological perspective to examine the cultural significance of Free Software.

The first part is based on Kelty’s ethnographic fieldwork among geeks and their shared interest in the Internet. I found this to be the weakest part of the book. His ethnography does not cover the actual practices of Free Software hackers, but rather on the common traits among Internet geeks, which certainly supports his argument (that they’re all part of a shared recursive public), but doesn’t give a lot of depth to understanding their motives.

The second part is based on archive research of the many available sources within the various open source communities. In my opinion, this is the best part of the book with both deep and thorough analyses of the actual practices within free software communities, as well as vivid telling of the pivotal stories of “figuring out” the practices of Free Software.

The final part is based on Kelty’s own participation (anthropologist as collaborator) in two modulations of the practices of Free Software in other fields, the Duke University Connexions project, and the Creative Commons. These are stories of his own work “figuring out” how to adapt Free Software practices in other realms. These practices are still in the process of being developed, experimented with, and re-shaped – like all Free Software practices. And this part gives a good idea of what it feels like to be in the middle of such a process, though it offers few answers.

Being a completely biased reviewer, I’ll stop pretending to do a proper review now, and instead focus on how Kelty’s analysis fits with my own study on the Ubuntu Linux community. Kelty argues that there are five core practices, which define the recursive public of Free Software. Kelty traces the histories of “figuring out” these practices very well, and I’ll go through each in turn:

Fomenting Movements
This is the most fuzzy on Kelty’s list of five core practices. I understand it as placing the software developed within a greater narrative that offers a sense of purpose and direction within the community – “fomenting a movement” as it were. Kelty has this delicious notion of
“usable pasts” – the narratives that hackers build to make sense of these acts of “figuring out” after the fact.

In my research, I found it very difficult to separate these usable pasts from the actual history within the Free Software movement, and my thesis chapter on the cultural history of Ubuntu bears witness to that. So I am very happy to see that Chris Kelty has gone through the momentous task of examining these stories in detail. I find that this detective work in the archives is among the most important findings in the book.

Sharing Source Code
A basic premise of collaboration is shared and open access to the work done – the source code itself. The crux of the matter being giving access to the software that actually works. Kelty tells the story of Netscape’s failure following its going open source with a telling quote from project lead Jamie Zawinski:

We never distributed the source code to a working web browser, more importantly, to the web browser that people were actually using.

People could contribute, but they couldn’t see the immediate result of their contribution in the browswer that they used. The closer the shared source code is tied to the everyday computing practices of the developers, the better. As Ken Thompson describes in his reflections on UNIX development at AT&T:

The first thing to realize is that the outside world ran on releases of UNIX (V4, V5, V6, V7) but we did not. Our view was a continuum. V5 was simply what we had at some point in time and was probably put out of date simply by the activity required to put it in shape to export.

They were continually developing the system for their own use, trying out new programs on the system as they went along. Back then, they distributed their work through diff tapes. Now, the Internet allows for that continuum to be shared by all developers involved with the diffs being easily downloaded and installed from online repositories.

As I point out in my thesis, this is exactly the case with the development of the Ubuntu system, which can be described as a sort of stigmergy where each change to the system is also a way of communicating activity and interest to the other developers.

Conceptualizing Open Systems
Another basic premise of Free Software is having open standards for implementation, such as TCP/IP, ODF, and the world wide web standards developed by the W3C – all of which allows for reimplementation and reconfiguring as needed. This is a central aspect of building a recursive public, and one I encountered in the Ubuntu community through the discussions and inherent scepticism regarding the proprietary Launchpad infrastructure developed by Canonical, the company financing the core parts of the development of both the Ubuntu system and community.

Writing Licenses
Kelty argues that the way in which a given software license is written and framed shapes the contributions, collaboration and the structure of distribution of that software, and is thus a core practice of Free Software. Kelty illustrates this by telling the intriguing story of the initial “figuring out” of the GPL, and how Richard Stallman slowly codified his attitude towards sharing source code. This “figuring out” is not some platonic reflection of ethics. Rather, it is the codifying of everyday practice:

The hacker ethic does not descend from the heights of philosophy like the categorical imperative – hackers have no Kant, nor do they want one. Rather, as Manuel Delanda has suggested, the philosophy of Free Software is the fact of Free Software itself, its practices and its things. If there is a hacker ethic, it is Free Software itself, it is the recursive public itself, which is much more than list of norms.

Again, almost too smartly, the hackers’ work of “figuring out” their practices refers back to the core of their practices – the software itself. But the main point that the licenses shape the collaboration is very salient, still. As I witnessed in the Ubuntu community, when hackers chose a license for their own projects, it invariably reflected their own practices and preferred form of collaboration.

Coordinating Collaborations
The final core practice within Free Software is collaboration – the tying together of the open code directly with the software that people are actually using. Kelty writes:

Coordination in Free Software privileges adaptability over planning. This involves more than simply allowing any kind of modification; the structure of Free Software coordination actually gives precedence to a generalized openness to change, rather than to the following of shared plans, goals, or ideals dictated or controlled by a hierarchy of individuals.

I love this notion of “adaptability over planning”. It describes quite precisely something that I’ve been trying to describe in my work on Ubuntu. I used Levi-Strauss’ rather worn duality between the engineer and the bricoleur to describe part of this, but I find Kelty’s terms to better describe the practice of collaboration on a higher level:

Linux and Apache should be understood as the results of this kind of coordination: experiments with adaptability that have worked, to the surprise of many who have insisted that complexity requires planning and hierarchy. Goals and planning are the province of governance – the practice of goal-setting, orientation, and definition of control – but adaptability is the province of critique, and this is why Free Software is a recursive public: It stands outside power and offers a powerful criticism in the form of working alternatives.

As Kelty points out, the initial goal of these experiments wasn’t to offer up powerful criticism. Rather, the initial goal is just to learn and adapt software to their own needs:

What drove his [Torvalds’] progress was a commitment to fun and a largely in articulate notion of what interested him and others, defined at the outset almost entirely against Minix.

What Linus Torvalds and his fellow hacker sought to do was not to produce “a powerful criticism” – those almost always come after the fact in the form of usable pasts to rally around – rather, their goal was to build something that would work for their needs, and allowed them to have fun doing so.

I find that this corresponds very well to the conclusion of my thesis: that the driving goal of the Ubuntu hackers continues to be to build “a system that works for me” – a system that matches their personal practices with the computer. A system that is continually and cumulatively improved through the shared effort of the Ubuntu hackers, each adapting the default system to his or her own needs, extending and developing it as needed along the way. As Kelty writes in his conclusion:

The ability to see development of software as a spectrum implies more than just continuous work on a product; it means seeing the product itself as something fluid, built out of previous ideas and products and transforming, differentiating into new ones. Debugging, in this perspective is not separate from design. Both are part of a spectrum of changes and improvements whose goals and direction are governed by the users and the developers themselves, and the patterns of coordination they adopt. It is in the space between debugging and design that Free Software finds its niche.
Free software is an experimental system, a practice that changes with the results of new experiments. The privileging of adaptability makes it a peculiar kind of experiment, however, one not directed by goals, plans, or hierarchical control, but more like what John Dewey suggested throughout his work: the experimental praxis of science extended to the social organization of governance in the service of improving the conditions of freedom.

In this way, Free Software is a continuing praxis of “figuring out” – giving up an understanding of finality in order to continually adapt and redesign the system. It is this practice of figuring out that is the core of cultural significance of Free Software, as we continue to figure out how to apply these learnings to other aspects of life. Kelty does well to describe his own efforts “figuring out” in relation to non-software projects inspired by Free Software practices in the final part of the book. Though these reflections do not come across as entirely figured out yet.

All in all, it is a brilliant book. But given its Creative Commons license, it poses an interesting challenge to me: Remixing – or modulating, as Kelty calls it – the book with my own work (and that of others – like Biella) to create a new hybrid, less tied up in the academic prestige game.

(Maybe then I can change the title, because that continues to annoy me: Why is it called Two Bits? Apart from the obvious reference to computing in general, it doesn’t seem to have any other relevance particular to Free Software?)

Internet tribes

Recently, I read Seth Godin‘s new book Tribes. It is a short clever book full of insights on what it means to build and lead a tribe. Godin’s main argument is borrowed from one of Hugh McLeod‘s one-liners:

The Market for something to believe in is infinite.

Or, as Woody Guthrie put it: “Basically, man is a hoping machine.”

As a marketing guru, Godin’s spin on this is a bit more basic, and goes as follows: Rather than “building a brand” or “marketing your product” or “staying on message” in order to win supporters, customers, members, fellow travellers – or whatever you call the people that you want to interact with you – you have to build a tribe.

A tribe in Godin’s understanding is a group of people with shared interest, shared faith that you do together matters – that is it: A tribe is something to believe in – a group of hoping machines working in unison. And with the proliferation of the Internet, the costs of organizing, building, and leading a tribe has been lowered immensely.

Thus, the book focuses on the non-technical (that is: the social) barriers that remain which is hindering people building or leading a tribe. Reading the book, I underlined a few passages, which I’ve turned into a short one-page remix of the book’s main points:

It takes only two things to turn a group of people into a tribe:
– A shared interest
– A way to communicate

A tribe has three elements:
– A narrative that tells a story about who we and the future we’re trying to build
– A connection between and among the leader and the tribe
– Something to do – the fewer limits the better.

If no one cares, then you have no tribe. If you don’t care – really and deeply care – then you can’t possibly lead.

The art of leadership is understanding what you can’t compromise on.

The secret of leadership is simple: Do what you believe in. Paint a picture of the future. Go there. People will follow.

Leadership is uncomfortable:
It’s uncomfortable to stand up in front of strangers.
It’s uncomfortable to propose an idea that might fail.
It’s uncomfortable to challenge the status quo.
It’s uncomfortable to resist the urge to settle.
When you identify the discomfort, you’ve found the place where a leader is needed.

So what’s holding you back?


But what you are afraid of isn’t failure. It’s blame. Criticism.

What you have to ask yourself is this: “If I get criticized for this, will I suffer any measurable impact? Will I lose my job, get hit upside the head with a softball bat, or lose important friendships?”

If the only side effect of the criticism is that you will feel bad about yourself, then you have to compare that bad feeling with the benefits you’ll get from actually doing something worth doing.

Consider this: If someone gave you two weeks to give that speech or to write that manifesto or make the decision that would get you started making an impact, would that be enough time? How much time do you think you’d need? What’s preventing you from starting right now?

Humble idiots

Not too long ago, I went to see Lars and the Real Girl at my local art cinema. It’s both a fun and a sad film but what sums it up best is that it’s so human.

The film revolves around the unlikely situation where a introvert but sympathetic young man buys a life size doll off the Internet, pretends that she is a real person and courts her (he asks his brother if she can stay at their house, since it wouldn’t be fitting for them to be living together unmarried). This plot premise may sound ridiculous, but the magic of the film is making this situation – and the people involved in it – believable.

Lars is an example of one of my favourite literary archetypes: The humble idiot. The humble idiot typically leads a quiet unassuming life, and is generally dismissed as harmless by people around him. But brewing within him is hope and dreams of something more and else than the life he is leading now, and the story only really takes off when he moves to put these dreams into action – usually in a way that only he considers to be possible, or even sane.

The classic example of the humble idiot is Cervantes’ Don Quixote who has spent years reading chivalric romances, and eventually decides to become a knight himself, fighting giants where others only see windmills.

Another example is Dostoyevsky’s the Idiot, the first part of which contains perhaps the best prose I’ve ever read. The idiot prince Myshkin remains so pure, humble and good throughout the book despite of all the cynical and conniving people around him. His idiocy is proven in amble measure when he continues to defend the honour of Nastasya, who continues to let him down whenever she can.

Yet another example is the main character in the Never-ending Story, Bastian Balthazar Bux, an introvert, unhappy boy who skips school to read this fascinating new book and dream himself away into a fantastic dream world, where he can make a difference.

The most recent book that I’ve read starring the humble idiot is The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Rich in magical realism and wonderful American and Hispanic street slang, it is the story of Oscar, a Dominican kid in New Jersey. Unlike all other young Dominican men, Oscar has no way with women at all. He has no greater goal in life than to feel the soft touch of girl, but he is too shy, too honest and way, way too geeky to achieve it.

Oscar is like a grand wizard of geekness: He writes science fiction novels, watches Japanese manga, and plays table top role playing games. He sinks deeper and deeper into this life of escapism but remains deeply unhappy. But there is magic in Oscar’s life, in the form of an ancient Dominican curse, the fukú, which leads his life in unexpected directions which I won’t reveal here.

What all of the idiots share are some of the most fundamental human qualities: Trust, empathy, humility, imagination, and hope. They share that geek wonder, which leads them to escape into fantasy, only to return to fight the apparently irrepressible evils of the world in their own wonderfully naïve ways. Their true adventure lies in realigning themselves to the real world from a life of fantasy – without losing neither their sanity nor their hope.

Romantic love as perversion

A funny sidenote to my recent review of Bitterfittan: Recently, I read Michael Moorcock’s “Behold the Man“, which contained the following exchange, which offers a rather different perspective on relationships:

“Your trouble, Karl,” said Gerard as they walked along the High towards the Mitre where Gerard had decided to buy Karl lunch, “is that you’re hung up on romantic love. Look at me, I’ve got all kinds of kinks … as you’re so fond of pointing out in that hectoring voice of yours. I get terribly randy watching black masses and all that. But I don’t go around butchering virgins – partly because it’s against the law. But you romantic-love perverts – there’s no law to stop you. I can’t do it unless she’s wearing a black veil or something, but you can’t do it unless you’ve sworn undying love and she’s sworn you undying love back and everything’s horribly mixed up. The damage you do! To yourself and the poor girls you use” It’s disgusting…”

“You’re being more cynical than usual, Gerard.”

“No! Not a bit of it. I speak with absolute sincerity – I’ve never felt so passionate about anything in my life! Romantic love! There really ought to be some law against it. Disgusting. Disastrous. Look what happened to Romeo and Juliet. There’s a warning for all of us.”

“Oh, Gerard…”

“Why can’t you just fuck and enjoy it? Leave it at that? Take it for granted? Don’t pervert some poor girl, too.”

“They’re usually the ones who want it that way.”

“You do have a point, dear boy.”

“Don’t you believe in love at all, Gerard?”

“My dear Karl, if I didn’t believe in some kind of love, would I be bothering to give you this warning?”

Bitter genitalia

This summer I’ve had time to read a few books. And though feminist fiction is not something I usually seek out, I felt compelled to read the recently published Danish translation of Swedish journalist Maria Sveland‘s novel Bitterfittan, which translates as “The Bittercunt.”

A weirdly fascinating title which refers to the book’s main character, 30-year Sara, and her life of balancing being married to Johan, being the mother of 2-year old Sigge, as well as managing her blossoming career. The book describes how she escapes from her tightly-packed everyday life to a week of sleep and quiet reflection on Tenerife, where she can think about her life and how she ended up feeling so bitter despite of all the things she has achieved:

Yes, I am bitter. I’m bitter that my first year with Sigge was so full of worry and unhappiness. I’m bitter that we couldn’t meet and help one another when we needed it the most. That Johan let me down when I needed him the most. That I let Johan down when he needed me the most.

I’m bitter that I almost don’t dare allow myself to use the word ‘betrayal’ when talking about all of this. I am bitter that we have become like all other couples who have children. All those couples I’ve read about, all those who have told and testified to the equality that disappeared when the children came. I am bitter that we aren’t equal anymore. Perhaps we’ve never even been equal?

I’m bitter that I’m bitter. I don’t want to be bitter.

This is the sickly tied knot that she brings with her on that plane to Tenerife. A knot which she spends the week, and the book, trying to untie, to allow her to move on with her life. To realign her political and social belief that gender equality is possible with her own experiences, which show how easy it is to lose that equality when the children come. Her basic question is:

How can we ever achieve equality in our society when we can’t even figure out to live as equals with the one we love?

She describes the scenes in her life which shaped her as a woman. She reflects on all the expectations and dreams that bloomed around her, and which she brought with consciously and unconsciously in her marriage with Johan. She describes how all of these expectations, all of that passion, all of that tension, burst when Sigge was born. How their lives and their relationship changed so as to leave her bitter in this way. And she begins to consider the alternatives to the ideal of romantic twosomeness:

Perhaps it was simpler when marriage was built on reason, a friendly business relationship?

If that was the case, people would at least be rid of all those romanticized expectations. As romance and the myth of love entered the frame and patented twosomeness, so did the disappointment appear. Perhaps it was when free love was kidnapped and reduced to something only meant for two, woman and man? Twosomeness, writes Suzanne Brøgger, is an organized form of un-lived life. A series of non-meetings. And that is almost the most beautiful thing I’ve ever read.

If only I was a religious, silly-happy wife and mother. It is downright detrimental to have a self-image that looks more like the life I lead in the early 1990s before I met Johan. All the parties, all the men, all that time, all that sleep, all that freedom.

Actually, it is just as detrimental to daydream about the 1970s. It is when the distance between the daydreams and reality becomes too great that you become a bittercunt. I try to fight it. But the problem is that there are a number of good reasons to become one that you shouldn’t ignore. Reasons which all lead to bittercunt-analyses. All those conspiratorial facts I read and hear, which confirm what I’ve suspected all along.

She cites a wide range of facts, stories and analyses, which show how women, even in Sweden – one of the most gender equal countries in the world – are subject to sexism and gender repression in various forms, and how it has become difficult for them to raise these issues publicly, as male opinionists balk at the notion that Swedish women should have anything to complain about compared to e.g. Afghan women.

One of these analyses is Swedish sociologist Carin Holmberg‘s dissertation on male and female gender roles, and how they are reinforced through apparently voluntary and unreflected actions:

One of Carin Holmberg’s theories is that women’s voluntary submission makes the male dominance invisible to both genders. Women are constantly ready to cover for or “voluntarily” assume roles and housework in the same way that the spouse of an alcoholic would. […] Carin Holmberg asks, how can it be that men aren’t bothered by their voluntary dominance?

Men do this so effortlessly: They aren’t bothered by petty household details. They aren’t ridden with guilt when they go on business trips and leave their spouse alone with the children. They don’t see the position of dominance that they often acquire merely by refusing to worry. As Sara considers this, she finds it even more incredible:

If I was white and lived in South Africa during the Apartheid regime, and had a relationship with a black man, the fact that we were living in a culture that didn’t see us as equals would pain me to no end. And if I, in spite of these external obstacles kept loving him, I would dedicate my life to the fight against apartheid.

Love – the greatest and most beautiful force of all, the one that really has the potential to heal wounds and change people for the better.

How can it be that men don’t make every effort possible to fight these injustices, this apartheid of the patriarchy, in the name of love? And if they think that it is too difficult for them to change the power structures of thousands of years of patriarchal dominance, how can it be that they don’t even, at the very least, fight these injustices within their own private love relationship?

Good questions, indeed. And Sara finds them to be one of the core reasons behind her bitterness: Why is it that men can maintain their ambitions, their hopes and dreams so effortlessly while raising a family? Why is it that she feels so torn between all her of professional ambitions, her love of her child, and all the other things that she wants to do in her life? Why does she feel like she doesn’t have enough time to herself? Why is it that she feels like she has to apologize for wanting to own her own soul?

It oughtn’t be necessary to apologize for wanting to own your own soul. But why is it so difficult to be loyal to oneself?

Once in a while, Johan asks me whether I’m living the life that I want to live. It is fairly rare that I can answer affirmatively. My vision of a happy life contains so many opposing elements that it is impossible to bring them all together in one image.

I’d like to dance more, love more, spend more time with Sigge and Johan, work more, meet my friends more often, maybe take a painting class? Spend more time in the summer cottage that we don’t have, read more books, change the world, write, take time to listen to music, take time to work out more, take time to take it easy, take time to be happy…

It’s not that I’m not happy. My life is full of small moments where I feel undivided joy, where I experience tiny euphorias through the small, simple and fantastic. To see Sigge run across the grass in the park. To see his concentration when he fills his bucket with sand. To feel his warm body against mine and kiss his neck. Pure bliss!

But even so. If I look at the big picture, there’s so much more that I want to do. So much I’d like to change.

To me, this is the essence of a very worthwhile book, which highlights some of those difficult questions that modern couples face (or will come to face eventually): How do you find the time? How do you take the time? Which compromises do you want to make, and which do you have to make? And how do you find happiness in those compromises and decisions?

These are challenging and worthwhile questions. And they made me consider the differences between the defining moments of a young woman’s life, and my own, as a young man. And I recognize, from my side of the gender gap, how some of the cultural and social norms that she mentions pull us in different directions and shape us in different ways. There are differences. And much of them stem from a sort of voluntary dominance through interests and priorities, which we learn and internalize as we grow up.

This made me think a lot about what it would mean to me and my life if and when I become a father. How it would be just as necessary for me to put other projects, dreams and ideas on hold for a while and dedicate myself to that new role. Not only to be able to spend time with my child, but also to avoid infusing my child with the same unreflected social structures and gender roles, which continue to cause so much frustration.

Apparently, this new wave of self-help happiness courses all advocate being in the present and enjoying the moment that you’re in now. That realization seems doubly true when it comes to spending time with children.

In short, this book is a very thoughtful and personal reflection on the choices we make in our life, and how the affect the conditions for gender equality in our society. About growing up, realizing that you can’t fulfill all the dreams you have. Coming to this realisation doesn’t mean you have to settle for nothing. Rather, that you have to choose, and seek to be happy with the choices you make if you don’t want to end up bitter.

This is grown-up stuff, and I must admit to feeling rather mature in reading and appreciating this book. But even so, I recommend it to the male audience in particular: If you only read one piece of radical feminist fiction this year – make it this one! Though it’s a book, which quite possibly wasn’t intended for you, you can still learn a lot from it – about women, about relationships, and about frustration, anger and bitterness – and how to escape it. All very worthwhile topics if you intend to avoid choking on your own bitter genitalia one day…

Unfortunately, the book hasn’t been translated into English yet. I have translated all of the above quotes from the Danish translation myself. I hope it’ll be translated soon enough, as it deserves a bigger audience.

Le scaphandre et le papillon

I suspect you think that this is an awfully pompous title for a blog post, or a film, or a book. And in a way it is. It is French, and means “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”. And it is the title of both a book and a film. And their subject matter are neither pompous nor awful.

Both tell the story of the French bon vivant and editor of ELLE magazine, Jean-Dominique Bauby, who at age 43 suffers a massive stroke, and upon waking from his coma finds himself suffering from “Locked-in syndrome“: Locked in his completely paralyzed body, with all of his senses and mental capacities intact, he can only communicate by blinking his left eye. By having an assistant read the letters of the French alphabet aloud in order of frequency of use, he can blink whenever she reaches the letter which he wants to use in a word or a sentence. Ever so slowly, he can let his surroundings, his family and friends, as well as his doctors and nurses know how his life is now.


It is in this state that he dictates the book, which he calls “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” in reference to his complete isolation in this vacuum of easy communication, which he fills with his still-sprawling imagination, dreaming of all the things he has lost or never had.


I saw the film yesterday, and it is amazing. By giving the viewer Bauby’s perspective, we too are a dumb and unable to take part in the happenings in front of us. For a while, we share his pain and gain a vivid perspective of life within the diving bell. It’s wondrous.

But even, so Bauby managed to tell his tale, though he died within days of its publication. It reminded me of Jorge Luis Borges‘ short story “The Secret Miracle“, in which Jaromir Hladík, a Jewish scholar and playwright, while standing in front of the firing squad just before his execution, is granted one year of time by God to finish the play he never dared complete. But that year of time is relative. It is basically time frozen for year, where nothing apart from Hladík’s conscious mind is in motion. Unable to write his work down, Hladík is forced to recite and refine the play in his mind, line by line.

When he finally finishes the play, reciting it in full before adding his epithet, physical time resumes and the bullets rip. The secret miracle unobserved and his play unheard.

At least in that way, Fate was kinder to Jean-Dominique Bauby.