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Capitalism and You (and I)

The district of Serangoon is abuzz with activity. A new shopping mall, pretentiously named NEX, has opened, and is drawing its virginal crowds like a sprinter draws breath. Situated at the unholy intersection of two ley lines- or what pass for ley lines in the minds of Singaporeans- it is no wonder lunchtime on Monday sees it as crowded as other malls on Saturday evening, something which the latter are (perhaps rightfully) envious of.

The mall itself isn’t much to look at. A giant of steel and glass, the greenery seems gratuitous, like the articles in a lad mag. It is unapologetically blocky, with corners and joints jutting and elbowing their way into your field of vision. And then there are the trappings of modernity- pipes, glass, girders, seemingly-purposeless constructions littering its facade, as though the profession of architecture has become as every bit as arcane and ritualistic as religion, and the weird walls and columns are oblations to their deity.

Its guts, on the other hand, are minimalistic. There is a token landscaped area, but that is the extent of its inner beauty. Every few hundred steps, there is a Frankensteinian fusion of wire and lights in the image of the mall’s logo, and in the spirit of Christmas. On one of the higher floors, there is a ceiling studded with lights (caveat epilepticus), presumably as some artistic statement, and which will no doubt play host to nothing more than advertisements. The rest of the mall is simply whitewashed wall, storefront, and dusty floor. It is unfailingly bare, save where the agency of Man has added to it bells and whistles- literally, as you may find when they ring with a clinical cheeriness when somebody strays into a store. Such are the angel choirs welcoming us into a twenty-first century heaven.

To say that the mall is crowded would be an understatement. It is busier than a dockside bordello when the fleet’s at anchor. All sorts of people fill the halls- the young, the old, the handicapped. If Death would glimpse of all who danced with him, he need but gaze about. There are the giggling girls, the laughing couples, the quiet foreign workers, the boisterous schoolboys; then there are the smiling families, the hobbling old folk, and the occasional prams, presumably infant-filled. Occasionally, there is me, but I can gaze at the floor- and then I am no more. There is only the crowd, which I am a part of.

What is the purpose of such a thing?- its grey bones and clear skin, and its squirming blood?- and there is no answer other than “to sell”. There is no higher meaning to a structure designed to be built as cheaply as possible, maximize the floor area available to stores, and draw the crowds in their teeming thousands. Profit is the god, and NEX is the temple. Its priests ply their wares along its halls, and at the end of every month, its Pope counts the rent.

And we the worshippers. Sometimes, there is really nothing more pleasurable in life than to indulge in spending unabashedly. Stroll and gaze long enough, and the storefronts merge into a blur of colour, such that after you leave, you will struggle to remember anything other than the lights, the whites, and the throngs on throngs of eager shoppers. Time becomes as much a commodity as money, to be spent wandering and wondering. Like any good narcotic, you remember little of what went by, save that it was Good. We say that we go there to buy this, eat that, but we all know we are there because of It Itself, those three totemic letters.

Indeed, Capitalism concerns us in only two ways- money, and time. When we work, we give our time in exchange for money. When we relax, we spend our money on ways to take our time away. In its true form, it is a zero-sum game, and a vicious cycle which we cannot break out of. Really now, should every event in our lives be filled with depth and meaning? Perhaps there are some who can brave that sort of mental fight, but for the rest of us, we just want to while the time away.

Thankfully, we are human, and such economic concepts fail to describe us by dint of their purity. We value things other than time and money. We relish our food and cherish our friends. When we step into that seven-floored sensory-inundation enclosure, we are dimly aware that we are not there as slack-jawed, rubber-necked supplicants. We are there as ourselves, for ourselves, not by the call of Capitalism. Some Odysseuses we are!- but we stroll with our ears open, bodies lashed to the mast. So unlike the crowd we describe- for if we broke it up into the individuals making it up, they would be as human as ourselves- but as a crowd, we are a part of it, yet apart from it.

Well at least, I hope all of us are.


Or: The Beauty of Language

What’s in a word? One might be tempted to say “letters, my dear man”, but as with anything transmitted and given meaning by society, words have a life and a history all of their own, the product of their existence, imagining, and continual re-imagining by us humans. Indeed, the very language we use is older than any of us (perhaps even all of us combined), and it carries so many quirks and coincidences that, sometimes, one can only pause and marvel.

Take the word “test” for example. It is most familiar to us as a tool of judgement, assessment, or trial, and the noun possessing this meaning has been recorded since the 1590s. The verb form of the word has been recorded since 1748, somewhat unexpectedly, but not uncommonly; many verbs we take for granted today have in fact been “verbified” from their parent nouns. This general sense of “test” originates from its usage in the late 14th century meaning “a small vessel used in assaying precious metals”, and has its roots in the Latin “testum”, meaning “earthen pot”.

From there, we get the numerous nuances of the word in contemporary usage, each instance drawing on a different aspect of the meaning. We have “test-tube”, perhaps most closely-linked to the original; we have “test-drive”, certainly not a test in the earliest sense -how would one drive an earthen pot?- but a test in the more abstract sense; and we have “test-tube baby”, signifying the triumph of science over sterility, and interestingly enough, first appearing in 1935, while “test-drive” did not appear until 1954.

One might be tempted to link that first sense to “testify”, and it is easy to see a connection- both senses are linked with the verity of the object in question, be it metal or man. Both senses originate from the late 14th century, but come from different Latin roots. “Testify”, in the sense of “to serve as evidence of”, ultimately originates from the Latin “testificari”, to bear witness. The Latin word itself originates from “testis”, witness, and the root of “facere”, to make; in essence, to make witness.

Allow me a diversion here. The word “facere” is present in more English words than we would think at first sight. As with “testify”, most words ending in “-fy” with a creative (and not Creationist nor even Creative, for those are completely different meanings) aspect ultimately originate from “facere”. Similarly, any word with “-fication”, “-factor”, “-facient” &c. (another Latin loanword!) would have originated from the Latin. Many quotable phrases contain the word, or one of its many, many variations (Latin is notorious for having too many declensions). Perhaps one day, we will look back on this century and utter the words of Tacitus: “Ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant”, or: “Where they create a desert, they call it peace”. Perhaps, when this Universe finally ends, some super-Universal (“super-” in the sense of above and beyond) entity will find it ironic to utter: “Fiat lux”, or: “Let there be light”.

Enough of the unrelated Latin; there is time enough for it another day. There is now a second sense of “testify” having to do with religion, and “openly profess[ing] one’s faith and devotion”; this sense is attested from the 1520s, which coincides with the Protestant Reformation. Indeed, “protest” itself originates from the same root, “testis”, but with the prefix “pro-” signifying “forth, before”. One of the oldest senses of the word is “to protest one’s innocence”, which is still retained in contemporary usage. The sense of “disapproval” originates much later, from 1751, and “dissent from or rejection of prevailing mores” from 1951, in relation to the U.S. black civil rights movement. Still the oldest sense, however, is that of a “solemn declaration”, in the mid-14th century, which is the sense in which Martin Luther protested, even though the verb in that sense is attested only from the mid-15th century.

Perhaps a word closer to the four letters we started out with would show some more similarity- but alas (and to my joy!), English surprises us yet again. “Testy”, meaning “impetuous, rash”, has nothing to do at all with test-tubes or testimonies, although it might explain the need for some test-tube babies. What seems like a contemporary word, if only for its overusage, can in fact trace its history with the oldest of the lot- the first sense has been recorded since circa (another Latin loanword) 1500, and the other meaning of “easily irritated” comes some scant two decades later, in the 1520s. The history of this word is somewhat more complicated than one would imagine lay behind a simple derogatory adjective. It comes through the Middle English “testif”, “headstrong”, via the Old French “testu”, “stubborn” (or literally, “heady”), and ultimately from the Latin “testa”, “skull”. Indeed, the emotional aspect of the word is shared with “heady”, as is its history.

The most interesting word (I apologize to the ladies in advance) has, astoundingly, nothing to do with testiness, although the visual and aural similarities have no doubt contributed to the usage of the latter; indeed, “testes” comes from the same root as “testify”. It is the plural of “testis”, used in the sense of “gonad” since 1704, which makes this sense easily the youngest of all. Astute readers may recognize the root; it is, in fact, usually regarded as a special application of “testis”, presumably because it “bears witness” to virility. Other explanations include a variation of the sense of “testum”, or “pot”, bringing us full circle in the most unexpected way.

It is a testament to the power of society that a language can evolve so much over time, with little more than its current state known to the vast majority of people, who are themselves nevertheless bringing about the next evolutions. Indeed, the meaning and significance of language is contained almost solely within the minds of people who live but threescore and ten years, yet it has survived so much of Time, and come out none the worse for it.