Tocqueville in Lisbon

Tuesday, October 3, 2006 19:00

So it happens that I am in Lisbon after two intensive days of listening to the Jornadas Nacionais de Propriedade Industrial organized by the Portuguese patent office which is officially called the Instituto Nacional de Propriedade Intellectual (INPI). After being at SHiFT last week, the world of intellectual property clearly seems to exist in another world, beyond more than just a paradigm shift. I feel like I am being torpedoed back into a world that I know well, that I appreciate and which I think needs reform. But then, I often think that the established systems need reform. Nothing new here. Still, that is not what has been foremost on my mind.

I am also without Internet. The wifi at the CCL was not open, and just a while ago I went into an Internet café and had a peek into my email. Nothing earth-shattering other than Harald did not quite know where I was. He is having too much fun jetting around Europe and solving automotive lighting problems to read “my blog” and I am not offended. Before taking off to the Museu Nacional dos Coches for dinner I return to “headquarters” in Lisbon – a charming third floor apartment with a fallen kitchen roof – and stumbled onto my copy of Richard Sennett’s The Fall of Public Man. I stumbled on the book while looking for some toilet-seat reading. Needless to say that some habits travel with me, and the one of consuming printed alphabets while sitting on a toilet has assumed ritualistic dimensions. I have dragged this book along on this trip to Portugal with all the best intentions, that is, I want to finally read it. I have leafed through it, I have listened to Richard Sennett on the radio, and he is one of those American scholars that save me from turning in my American passport and renouncing citizenship. Not that I equate myself to Sennett in any way, but as long as there are Americans thinking like him, there is some wisdom in the country, and in my not so modest opinion, not all seems lost.

Each person, withdrawn into himself, behaves as though he is a stranger to the destiny of all the others. His children and his good friends constitute the whole of the human species. As for his transactions with his fellow citizens, he may mix among them, but he sees them not; he touches them, but does not feel them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone. And if on these terms there remains in his mind a sense of family, there no longer remains a sense of society.


With the above quote Sennett invokes Tocqueville in the preamble of his book. However before I get too involved with his writing I tossed those words around as to what they might mean for me in the very context of my life at present. I have never read Tocqueville, thus I am fully aware that I may be entering that domain called ignorance if I do try to make sense of his words as the whole of his context is missing. I am only guided by my own ignorance and misconceptions while trying to make sense of what it is that is happening around me.

I find nonetheless that text to be thought provoking within my own context and the few discussions that I have had during the past few days in Lisbon. On two occasions, once on Friday night and then again on Saturday morning I found myself telling two inquisitive Portuguese that in my view when it comes to interacting with others my starting point is that “nobody gives a fuck about me” and we are all ever so busy thinking and plotting about what it is that we can get from others.

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after dinner reflections

These days have also been an immersion into Portuguese culture. Although I was born in this country, I am foreign to it. Some may think that this has something to do with a common immigrant-mind phenomena that belittles the country of origin and thus rationalizes the departure from the place of birth. Quite the contrary, I love this land, am very impartial to, and ignorant of its politics, and would love to have the opportunity to live here again, even if for all intents and purposes I am often regarded as a foreigner. While my portuguese identity is debatable, my own sense of the portuguese culture is deplorable. I happen to like the land itself, not the country, and love the food while I am at best at a loss what to do with folks populating the place. I am often very surprised how portuguese differ in their sensibilities and reactions. To me, culture is not just the amassed glut of historical, factual and symbolic information, but rather the way that such local information gets contextualized, connected and woven into the stories and behaviour that are the tissue of the local mores and perceptions.

On this trip I have observed the professional portuguese women at the two events that I attended. Of all things, I have watched their shoes and arrived at the conclusion that most, not all, of these women are neither into sensible shoes, nor into physical fitness. Still, like in most societies that I have witnessed, there seems to be a tendency for old money and sound intellect to pay attention to fitness and appearance, while the more recently acquired material or intellectual wealth owners tend to exercise little sensuous discipline and thus suffer all the ill consequences of newly acquired affluence, that is, obesity. Why do these features of life, shoes and obesity strike me in particular about Portuguese society? Is this part of the culture, or is this just part of my own eccentricities and search for identification of some sort? Why shoes? Why obesity?

Statistics across Europe today, here I mean a geographic Europe that includes the white or colorless and unmentioned country right smack in the middle of its territory, that is, Switzerland, clearly show the trend to increased girth and weight of its inhabitants. Indeed this statistic represents a rather serious health threat, especially for those unfortunate children of abundance who at an early age are already plagued by obesity. Not only from an economic stand point will this overtax the national and privatized health insurance systems, it will also lead to a decreased life expectancy and a reduced quality of life. All of this to say that if the Portuguese somewhat missed the industrial revolution, they certainly are having no difficulty joining the age of affluence and surplus.

The thing with the shoes is however fascinating, and it could be that I have noticed that only because although I packed drop dead high hill shoes, when faced with the cobble stones and the tram lines lining the streets of Lisbon, I succumbed to my own comfort and predilection for a good walk. Although I could have done the super model trick of packing the high hills in my bag, it is so that my legs are about twenty centimetres too short for supermodel quality and my bag was already full with a PowerBook. The latter proved to only be useful for taking notes and exercising my biceps as there was no easily available wifi at the Lisbon Congress Center, unlike the situation at the Chancellor’s office of the Universidade Nova where wifi was easy to have once you got past the intricacies of logging on to it. In all fairness, the high hills were not to be seen much at SHiFT, but then perhaps that has to do with the very different nature of the two events.

After that Friday night dinner I was both delighted and perplexed. I had both delightful company and much food for thought. I could observe myself, and I wondered in what kind of film I had landed. Here I can only think of how very descriptive Tocqueville’s words above are of my own experience of the evening.

Souvent, j’ai accompli de délicieux voyages, embarqué sur un mot dans les abîmes du passé, comme l’insecte qui flotte au gré d’un fleuve sur quelque brin d’erbe.
– Balzac

Bias do Sul, Moncarapacho, Algarve


One thought on “Tocqueville in Lisbon”

  1. Came to your blog by hitting the random blog button; I am sincerely jealous at this moment as I remember the wonder that was Lisbon. We spent a year there in the early 90s — I’m sure the entrance into the EU has changed it, but I’d love to see it again. Anyway, enjoy!

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