April 13, 2010

Not Quite the DaVinci Code


By Sara Holoubek

Ahhh, Umbria

Citta della Pieve is a fairy tale speck on the Italian map, located just over the Tuscan boarder into Umbria. The summer sun is warm, but the altitude of this fortified city keeps the evenings very cool.

This is the week of the Palio, when local citizens re-enact the Renaissance in full costume. Ground level homes are converted into artisan shops, blacksmiths and spice traders. The city dates back to the Middle Ages, and local laws are stricter than a New York City Co-op, to ensure that not a single detail is altered.

During the day, fashionable Italians stroll the streets, taking shots of espresso and enjoying gelato where the rich flavors range from grapefruit to creme anglaise. At night they crowd the streets as local men engage in archery, jousting, and of course, many bottles of wine.


Renaissance, Meet America

Despite grand tradition and style, remnants of American pop culture always seem to pepper the fairy tale setting.

One of my favorite things to do in foreign countries is check out the t-shirts with printed English nonsense. I absolutely love to see some strapping local man wearing tight-fitting garb emblazoned with "Radio Unit Robot, 1974." (There is always a year in there somewhere.)


Citta della Pieve was no exception. How can you not admire the "Dreamed of Say-J" or "Frank Smith Memorial" attempt? I tend to think that it was not in reference to the death of the actor Kevin Smith of Xena and Hercules. (And if it were, that would just be weird.) Were they aiming for that high school look? Or uber-designer Paul Smith? And why in a culture so rich, where few care to speak English at all, would one don a t-shirt with such a statement?


To answer this question, I turned to a polyglot circle of friends, representative of 5 nations. We agreed that the words themselves are not as important as the fact that they are in English. English itself has become a symbol.

To get to the "why," we explored early symbols, such as the sun and the moon, which have come to have little meaning in societies where the lights are on 24/7.

And then there were the gods and religion. In today's age an individual may convert from one creed to another without great scandal. Fashion has also led to the use of crosses, red bracelets and other symbols without any pretense of faith.

National identity was discussed in relation to the World Cup, where a country's flag represents a team, and is completely removed from politics of any sort.

The polyglots were stumped. What is a symbol if so easily removed from original meaning?


Reciprocal Stupidity

I suddenly recalled an article concerning the rise of Chinese and Japanese characters in the American tattoo culture. All across the country, men and women are electing to brand themselves with characters that are simply a translation of that which is universal, such as "love" or "strength." As I recall, the article detailed that burly men everywhere have found themselves shamed upon learning that the chosen symbol, in fact, does not mean what they had been led to believe.

Since these sentiments exist in the Anglo culture and the English language, why seek it out in a foreign translation? Why choose a symbol when there is no cultural reference at all?

Good Conversation, but No Answers

Claudio brought pop culture into the mix, declaring that anything can become a symbol.

A counterpoint was made that a symbol must have some pleasing aesthetic before being chosen.

Guillaume then offered up the concept that individuals are actually creating new symbols every day. We attach ourselves to that which we like, and it comes to develop new meaning. Suddenly we were reminded of the infamous Coke bottle in "The Gods Must Be Crazy."

Self-expression and vanity came into play. Are we running out of culturally pertinent symbols, somewhat like preferred area codes?

Perhaps we are trying so hard to differentiate ourselves that we need to go abroad. And of course there was the obvious point that as soon as enough people adorn themselves with foreign characters, there really is nothing original about it.

The conversation continued on, covering topics from mimesis to Dadaism to "The White Mountains." 3 hours and a 4 course meal later, we concluded that while we still didn't have a "why," we could be quite content with our mental masturbation.


Sara Holoubek is a free agent consultant serving the interactive sector and its investors. She can be reached at saraholoubek@gmail.com.

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