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Andie Miller

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Travelling in Time and Space: Explorations of movement through our physical, virtual and literary spaces

The beginnings of a project

 

Introduction

I am thinking about the word pedestrian. It is defined by my Oxford Concise dictionary as a ‘person walking rather than travelling in a vehicle’. Also ‘dull’ and ‘uninspired’. From the French for ‘going on foot’, and also ‘written in prose’.

And prose, says Oxford, is ‘ordinary written or spoken language, without metrical structure’, ‘another term for sequence’, and to ‘talk tediously’.

I must say at the outset that I enjoy being a pedestrian, ambling from place to place, and thinking on my feet. It takes longer, but there’s more texture along the way. I can think of nothing more uninspiring that being stuck in traffic. And unlike chess master Bruce Pandolfini, who says, ‘to gain space, you usually have to sacrifice time’,1 I choose to sacrifice space (physical space, at any rate) – and distance travelled – in order to gain time.

I rarely have the luxury of time though, like the Parisian flâneurs – those nineteenth century bourgeois bohemian gentlemen of leisure2 – to ‘promenade without purpose’.3 Walking for me – though slowly, and enjoying the experience along the way – is usually in order to get from one place to another. So I intend to take this opportunity to stroll through the arcade of ideas, with no fixed destination, and merely examine what I encounter along the way, and see where it leads.

Apart from the question of time, another limitation of walking in the physical world, particularly as a woman, and in a city like Johannesburg (‘a city of rape, rather than cafés’4), is the issue of safety. Historically, as feminist scholar Janet Wolff points out in her Feminine Sentences: Essays on Women and Culture, women’s participation in public spaces has been restricted, and the flâneuse has been largely invisible. Flânerie has been dominated by the ‘male gaze’. But, though for the most part it is no longer considered disreputable for a woman to be unaccompanied in public spaces, she is, however, increasingly vulnerable to physical attack.

Rebecca Solnit, in her Wanderlust: A History of Walking, says reviewer Andrew O’Hehir, also ‘observes the sexism and snobbery inherent in [Walter] Benjamin‘s idea of the flâneur, the idle, solitary gentleman strolling through the crowds, but she can’t quite resist it. In describing Benjamin’s writing she seems to be half-consciously describing her own: “more or less scholarly in subject, but full of beautiful aphorisms and leaps of imagination, a scholarship of evocation rather than definition.”‘

This brings us to the question of safety (or not?) in the world of ideas.

 

Academic Byways

There is always the risk in scholarly circles, of being open to attack when deviating from tried and tested paths. As the language of academia illustrates, it is born of a model for combat. So-and-so ‘argues’, or she ‘attacks’ someone else’s thesis, and as anyone completing a doctorate degree knows, she will need to go through the obligatory ‘defence’ of her thesis. In socio-linguist Deborah Tannen’s view

It’s related to the history of our universities going back to the medieval university, which was a seminary. It grew out of the religious framework in which the early monks were warrior monks, Christian soldiers, and the universities were set up in this way. They were seminaries, but they were set up on a military model. And the fact that it was all-male was definitely a factor; they took men out of their homes, and put them in this isolated environment; they had a secret language, Latin; they read about military exploits, and they had to learn to dispute publicly. It was not a search for knowledge, it was honing your disputation skills so that you could publicly defend a thesis and attack a thesis. This is the history of our intellectual tradition (Tannen and Toms, 1998).

Maverick writer and theorist, Susan Griffin, explores the tendency towards patriarchal language in intellectual discourse in her 1978 book Woman and Nature. The voice she writes in, intended as a parody of this patriarchal tone, ‘rarely uses a personal pronoun, never speaks of “I” or “we”, and almost always implies that it has found absolute truth, or at least has the authority to do so.’

Griffin’s friend and Professor of Somatics at the California Institute for Integral Studies, Don Hanlon Johnson, a former Jesuit priest, is concerned with ‘the diseased ways we have organized our world based on giving precedence to a peculiar kind of “Reason” over the body, women, children, and marginal cultures’. In his essay, Sitting, Writing, Listening, Speaking, Yearning: Reflections on Scholar-Shaping Techniques, he encourages a loosening up in the language we use to educate.

Schools are the factories of language; their pedagogies will be crucial in determining whether the move from the preverbal to the verbal creates an adult who is in contact with the world, or one who exists depressed in a chronic state of alienation and dissociation. The great fissure between those worlds is the region explored by the poets, novelists, and the creative non-fiction writers, where the density of language has the feel of gesture, kicking, and gurgling. Neither the human science texts nor the pop psychology books nor many of the rich intellectual texts successfully bridge the gap between the non-verbal and the verbal. It takes a great deal of communal work to do this, and like with body practices, inhibition is crucial, or Calvinic enlightening, or Carsonic excision. Eliminating the gossip, the attempts to impress, the extra burdens which obscure the brilliance, the stressful, the ambiguous. Liberating the body from chronically false facial expressions, stressful posturing, and liberating the text so that it elicits our deeply felt yearnings for knowing and thoughful action (Johnson, 2002).

Beyond the constraints of the formality of the language we use to educate, as Johnson points out, is ‘the gossip’, and the apparently endlessly self-referential nature of the academic body of knowledge; which gives the impression of an elite club, that only admits thinkers who conform to accepted paths of ‘discourse’, and wear a particular brand of walking shoes. Those who cite the correct friends: ‘Who is in your bibliography?’

James Hillman and Michael Ventura, authors of We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy and the World’s Getting Worse, were adamant that they weren’t going to buy into that, and were uncompromising in their desire to explore the territory in new ways. Says Ventura

We wanted an informal, wild, even funny book about therapy that takes chances, breaks rules, runs red lights. To do this, we decided to stick to spoken, friendly (and hence irreverent) speech, and the conversational prose of letters. Why? Because psychotherapy wants and demands to be questioned, even attacked, in the form it prefers: staid, contained, well-behaved – in other words, like any established institution, the psychotherapy industry wants to be addressed in a manner that accepts its basic codes of conduct, and therefore, by implication, it’s basic goals, of conduct. But if you fall for that, then instead of questioning those codes and goals, perhaps you’re accepting them more than you know, reinforcing them by playing by their rules (Hillman and Ventura, 1992, p. vii).

So instead they chose a different route, ‘and made the book you hold… which we are not so much writing as improvising.’ Those who complain that the book has no footnotes or bibliography (there is an abundance of references in the text), have missed its spontaneity, and ultimately the point.

Psychotherapy’s goals, suggest Hillman and Ventura, are to iron out our kinks, or idiosyncrasies, our acorns5 or daimons. In the same way perhaps, academia attempts to medicate or tame (no doubt it would argue, discipline) our use of language. Bearing in mind the ideas of Michel de Certeau, who talks about the ‘style’ of language involving ‘a peculiar processing of the symbolic’,6 perhaps academia is guilty – in the interests of uniformity of style, ‘empiricism’ and ‘logic’ – of demanding that too much of its writing be overly formal and literal. And in this way it limits the flow of creativity and the emergence of new ideas.

Deborah Tannen suggests that there is an over-emphasis on debate – with its expectation of a winner – rather than on conversation. Perhaps this is because, as Hillman puts it, ‘conversation isn’t easy’.

The word means turning around with, going back, like reversing, and it comes supposedly from walking back and forth with someone or something, turning and going over the same ground from the reverse direction. A conversation turns things around. And there is a verso to every conversation, a reverse, back side…

Whatever keeps us walking together with something and turns things around, upside down, converts what we already feel and think into something unexpected – this is the unconscious becoming conscious…

And to keep turning means that it’s no use having fixed stands, definite positions. That stops conversation dead in its tracks. Our aim is not to take a stand on this or that issue, but to examine the stands themselves so they can be loosened and we can go on walking back and forth (Hillman and Ventura, 1992, pp. 99–100).

Moving through Cities

Of course it is physically impossible in contemporary society to walk everywhere we need to get to, and so ironically, walking in the city is largely dependent on the availability of public transport. In cities where public transport systems are inadequate, walking is generally considered a pastime only of the poor or eccentric. As the popular phrase goes, ‘time is money’,7 and walking is considered costly. The fallen angel in Wim Wenders’s film Faraway, So Close!, Emit Flesti (Time Itself, backwards), argues that time is in fact the absence of money. This makes sense if we consider that the one thing the majority of people in affluent societies have in short supply, is time.

Of course time alone is not useful. And in attempting to strike a balance between time and money, it seems that speed has become the commodity to be sought after. As sociologist Zygmunt Bauman points out, those without access to speed are ‘marooned in the opposite world… crushed under the burden of abundant, redundant and useless time they have nothing to fill with’.8 And given time constraints, speed determines how far we can travel. With enough money, like Mark Shuttleworth, we could travel to outer space.

But for those of us still on the ground, each city has its own set of challenges. Not the least of which, in cities like London and New York, is the near standstill caused by the number of cars on the road. Aaron Naparstek’s response to the traffic in New York was to produce a book of honkus

hot, angry, selfish

drivers. microcosm of

the planet’s problems

he writes. His book, subtitled ‘The Zen Antidote to Road Rage’, is designed to be kept in the ‘glove compartment’ of the car, to keep you occupied when you’re stuck in traffic, and about to lose your cool.

British author, Ben Elton, had a similarly literary response to the London traffic, with his novel Gridlock.

Gridlock is when a city dies.

Killed in the name of freedom. Killed in the name of oil and steel. Choked on carbon monoxide and strangled with a pair of fluffy dice.

How did it come to this? How did the ultimate freedom machine end up paralysing us all? How did we end up driving to our own funeral, in somebody else’s gravy train? (Elton, 1992)

Not me! I’m still walking… But this doesn’t save me from the speed demon, I discover.

In London, walking in the underground, I had the constant feeling that I would be run over. By another human. So I decided on a solution. I would step aside and let those who were in more of a hurry than me pass. Except there was nowhere to step aside to. I was met with glares and curses. Nothing to do but keep on moving…

Well at least London had a workable public transport system. Los Angeles, I discover, does not. In fact I even see a sign at an entrance off Sunset Boulevard, down which I’m walking (not without incredulous stares from motorists passing by) that reads: ‘Pedestrians not allowed.’ Now this is a form of discrimination I’ve not encountered before!

But it hasn’t always been like this, I find out. Until the 50s, LA had one of the best public transport systems in the world.9 General Motors (‘If it’s good for General Motors it’s good for America’ went their slogan), through its corporate front company, National City Lines, bought out, and purposefully caused the demise of the popular ‘red car’ trolley system.

Despite its best attempts at projecting an image of glamour, Hollywood is now just a smoggy industrial town. As playwright Carol Kaplan puts it: ‘Hollywood is a state of mind.’10 A fantasy left over from the 50s. Or as Michel de Certeau so poetically explains: ‘these words… slowly lose, like worn coins, the value engraved on them, but their ability to signify outlives its first definition.’11 The fruits of Hollywood’s industry remain far more glamorous than this town of wheeling and dealing and steel.

It’s ironic that it takes a Hollywood movie, Robert Zemeckis’s 1988 Who Framed Roger Rabbit, to begin the broader exposé; of General Motors’ manipulation of LA to an automotive society. As Judge Doom says in the movie

I see a place where people get on and off the freeway. On and off, off and on all day, all night! Soon, where Toon Town once stood will be a string of gas stations, inexpensive motels, restaurants that serve rapidly prepared food. Tire salons, automobile dealerships and wonderful, wonderful billboards reaching as far as the eye can see! My God, it’ll be beautiful!

And now, walking down Sunset Boulevard, dwarfed by giant billboards, I can see what he means; but as a pedestrian, it’s not beautiful. (No guys, I’m not a hooker!)

I feel like a character in another Hollywood movie: Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, where the protagonist’s only means of transporting himself from his smoggy industrial town seems to be Latin escapist music.

As far as General Motors goes, they were found guilty in 1949 of ‘conspiring to monopolize sales of buses and supplies to companies owned by National City Lines’. They were fined $5000. But the damage was done.

Today more people drive cars in LA than anywhere else in the US. And there’s a painfully inadequate bus service, used almost exclusively by those who can’t afford to buy their own cars.12 A bus service, I discover, which is tedious to use. It’s time to go home.

Johannesburg has a very different, though no less convoluted or manipulated history as far as its public transport is concerned. Apartheid architecture meant that the majority of black people were forced to live far outside of the city and the suburbs, and commute long distances to work. The bus services provided were grossly inadequate, and so the minibus taxi industry was born.

These taxis were nicknamed ‘Zolas’, after South Africa’s barefoot runner Zola Budd, because of their speed and ability to ‘zip, zip, zip’ through the traffic. The nickname took an ironic turn, though, when Zola inadvertently tripped American contender Mary Decker at the 1984 Olympics, since the taxis are no less notorious for getting in the way and causing accidents. Unlike Zola Budd, however, the taxis but are still out in full force, wreaking havoc in their paths. As someone once pointed out though, ‘just imagine if everyone using the taxis was driving their own car! Take a breath, and let them in.’ Indeed. Or in my case, take a breath before you board. It’s as hair raising being in a Zola as it is driving among them. But without them, I’d be a lot more housebound.13

When I am confined to the house, however, it doesn’t mean I don’t get around. On the contrary.

 

Virtual Spaces

For those of us who spend a lot of time online, the idea of space being ‘virtual’, becomes almost insignificant; as we require similar things from this space that we do from our streets. Information Architect Adam Greenfield recognises this, and he has an unusually visionary approach to designing web sites. He sees very little difference between the way we might choose to organise our books, our physical spaces, and the way we walk through our days; and the way we organise information in our virtual spaces. He is as likely to be found citing Guy Debord’s dérive,14 and other ‘frantic ravings of dead French intellectuals’, as he is Jeffrey Zeldman‘s latest pearl of web design wisdom.15 Of his personal website, v-2, he says, ‘I’ve crafted this site to reflect… The life of cities. Life in cities. The shelter we devise and the tools we imagine. The ways in which symbols move us. The experience of being human at this time in history.’ Clearly for him, our virtual spaces are simply extensions of the world in which we live.

Asked provocatively by his former boss, ‘What is the feng shui of a website?’ Greenfield says: ‘I began to consider the idea. Feng shui, to me, isn’t some mystical, new-agey perversion, some farce of mirrors and colors and fishtanks. I think of it as a highly practical discipline, studying patterns of human movement in space and time – about as mystical as mass-transit planning.’

When asked how he would define information architecture, he says, ‘trying to empathize with what the user wants to do, and facilitating her doing it… getting out of the user’s way’.

The Internet is used differently by different people. For many it’s merely a practical tool: a place to access and send information,16 and to make appointments. But for others it is a place where the boundaries between information and communication begin to blur. Less important than accessing a piece of writing, might be accessing it’s author, and – if she is willing – the space to discuss her ideas. As Federico Mayer, former Director General of UNESCO has said, the nature of present day education has less to do with access to information – which all but the poorest of the poor have in one form or another – and more about learning what to do with it.17 In other words, how to think for ourselves. But this doesn’t happen in isolation. Very often it is the conversation that helps us do it. Whether in a classroom situation, or online, it is in the movement of the conversation – rather than the reading – where real learning occurs.

 

Spaces Merge

In many ways our virtual space has opened up our literary space. An author’s work may no longer be as narrow and solitary a process as it previously was. A conversation with a reader might interrupt her in the middle of writing a new piece, which in turn may in some way inform her conclusions. Likewise, the reader, being forced to think, frame and articulate questions and ideas in writing – rather than the often sloppy way in which we articulate ideas verbally; peppered with likes, I means, and you knows – develops her writing skill, and she becomes, a writer. In the process of learning to articulate her own narrative (Who are you? Where are you sitting as you write? Where are the paths that you walk? Is it hot or cold there?) she learns the art of storytelling.

As Hillman puts it

Writing [in therapy] seems mostly confined to transcripts of the oral sessions and to case reports digesting the session. Now these transcripts and case reports are intolerable to read. They are universally the same and utterly boring. Not that the hours themselves were boring, but the written records certainly are. Why boring? Because the language itself consists of dead words, clichés, rhythmless repetitions, generalized conventional terms without the lustre or the lilt of the soul’s songs of itself. Yes, even depression – or, as it should be called, melancholy and despair – has a cadence and a pitch and a vocabulary.

How rare it is to speak well about ourselves. Write well, we can do. Poems, short stories of childhood, biographical excursions, even descriptions of intense emotions – these all are the very stuff of writing. But the soul seems reluctant to speak well of itself. When I try to tell you directly what I feel and what’s going on inside, personally, there comes a jumble of circumlocutions, coagulated phrases, interrupted qualifications, “Undisciplined squads of emotion!” as T. S. Eliot said. Is this confused reluctance perhaps the very source of writing? As if the soul needs to find a way out of its own inarticulate morass by means of the hand’s deft linear skill. Writing as the thread out of the labyrinth (Hillman and Ventura, 1992, pp. 89–90).

Boundaries Shift

But this opening up of possibilities does not treat all travellers kindly. And even in the virtual world it seems, what divides us is speed. As Guy Berger – head of Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes University – observed ironically, ‘in the future, the difference between the haves and the have-nots will be bandwidth‘. Maya Drozdz adds that those of us without broadband access, spend much of our time ‘waiting for instantaneity’. Says Adam Greenfield: ‘I didn’t have any particular interest in designing for the Web until I was exposed to broadband on a daily basis’. But he continues that he ‘held on to the memory of what it felt like to surf the Web with a dial-up connection. And when I got around to working on the design and implementation of our own site, I made damn sure that those users’ needs were reflected in our requirements document.’

For the majority of global citizens, however, the issue of speed is a relatively minor one. Rather, it is the experience of being transported to strange new places (or strange new places being transported to you) that can be disturbing. As Michael Ventura illustrates

An Inventory of Timelessness… Item: Life in Clarendon, a town of about fourteen hundred in the Texas Panhandle, revolves around its several fundamentalist churches. Like many towns in that part of the country, it’s still “dry”; you can’t buy alcohol within the city limits. But not too long ago an AM/PM convenience store opened. It never closes… Why do they need such a thing in such a town?

Until recently in the Texas Panhandle, you could tune in two, sometimes three television stations… The stations signed off around midnight, often earlier. Now, with satellite and cable, there are many, many stations, dozens and dozens, and they never sign off. Some of those stations show porn in the wee hours. And MTV all of the time. Constant news. And movies that no one in the panhandle would ever have heard of otherwise… It is no longer separate in space; it no longer has a farmer’s sense of time (Hillman and Ventura, 1992, pp. 114–116).18

In the African context, Ian Henderson of the African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes, sees the major challenges as situated in a growing urban/rural split, or what he sees as a ‘central/peripheral’ divide.

Global power structures are fast changing from a north-south split, to a centre-periphery arrangement of power, with power centres concentrated in the resource-rich north, but distributed also across the major cities of the south. The major urban power centres of the developing world are places where a middle class young person, whether Kenyan or Malaysian, may be indistinguishable from his New York brethren – wearing Nikes, clutching a cellphone and speaking in techno-babble. On the periphery in contrast, society continues to operate as it has for centuries, separated from the power centres by the seemingly impenetrable barriers of education, finance and access (Henderson, 1998).

And while the inhabitants of cities are arguably more familiar with dealing with change, chaos, and novelty, the growing influx of people from the rural areas find it hard to adapt. As Liz Gunner observes, in Phaswane Mpe’s Welcome to Our Hillbrow, he exlores ‘the rural shadow of the city’, and ‘none of Mpe’s characters survive “Our Hillbrow”.’19

 

Conclusion

At the outset of these wanderings, I warned that I promised no conclusions, beyond those suggested by the explorations themselves. The time has come to conclude merely because time has run out. But even in our scientific research, is this ever really any different? As philosopher Alan Watts put it

We feel that we decide rationally because we base our decisions on collecting relevant data about the matter in hand. … [but] how do we know when we have collected enough information upon which to decide? If we were rigorously ‘scientific’ in collecting information for our decisions, it would take us so long to collect the data that the time for action would have passed long before the work had been completed. … we go through the motions of gathering the necessary information in a rational way, and then, just because of a hunch, or because we are tired of thinking, or because the time has come to decide, we act (Watts, 1957, p. 34.).

If I had the time, perhaps I could have drifted endlessly, but even the Situationists discovered that this could be counter-productive. As Ivan Chtcheglov observed

The dérive (with its flow of acts, its gestures, its strolls, its encounters) was to the totality exactly what psychoanalysis (in the best sense) is to language. Let yourself go with the flow of words, says the psychoanalyst. He listens, until the moment when he rejects or modifies (one could say detourns) a word, an expression or a definition. … But just as analysis unaccompanied with anything else is almost always contraindicated, so continual dériving is dangerous to the extent that the individual, having gone too far (not without bases, but…) without defenses [sic], is threatened with explosion, dissolution, dissociation, disintegration (Ivan Chtcheglov, “Letter from Afar,” Internationale Situationniste #9, p. 38.).

As I’m sure Hillman and Ventura would agree, it’s good to know when the session is over, and to leave the room, and go back out into the world.

Don Hanlon Johnson, in Sitting, Writing, Listening, Speaking, Yearning: Reflections on Scholar-Shaping Techniques, suggests

There is, of course, the obvious location of ‘The Body’ in higher level curricula of humanistic studies, the plethora of texts with ‘Body’ in the title or subtitle, the endless conferences and debates about the current viability of Merleau-Ponty, Kristeva, Lacan, Derrida, Irigaray, … And yet, what about the weary bodies that are required to sit there listening to all the babble, struggling to stay awake at night keeping up with the pages of high-level gossip about the intellectualized, genderized, ethnicized, bruised body, that body right before our noses (Johnson, 2002).

And while you have been sporting enough to play along with my metaphor of strolling through the intellectual arcade, I have of course been sitting for hours, on a chair, under my own nose; and have grown rather stiff while thinking, writing, reflecting (as perhaps you have while reading).

It’s time, I think, for us both to get up, stretch, and go out for a walk.

 

Notes

1 Bruce Pandolfini (1986) The 64 Commandments of Chess, In The ABCs of Chess: Invaluable detailed lessons for players of all levels.

2 For a detailed history of the flâneur, see Charles Baudelaire (1863) The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays; Walter Benjamin (1983) Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the era of High Capitalism; Walter Benjamin (1999) The Arcades Project; and Rebecca Solnit (2001) Wanderlust: A History of Walking.

3 University of Manchester, Visual Culture and the Contemporary City, Online Certificate in Sociology.

4 Michael Titlestad, ‘Writing the City’ seminar, University of the Witwatersrand, 12 March 2003.

5 For more information on Hillman’s ‘acorn theory’, see James Hillman and Michael Ventura (1992) We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy and the World’s Getting Worse; and James Hillman, (1996) The Soul’s Code: In search of character and calling.

6 Michel De Certeau (1984) Walking in the City, in The Practice of Everyday Life, p. 100.

7 A Google search on the phrase ‘time is money’ yields 96 200 results on 24 April 2003.

8 Zygmunt Bauman (1998) Globalization: The Human Consequences.

9 Jim Klein and Martha Olson (1996) Taken for a Ride. New Day Films. (52 mins). See the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) press release for more information about this film. http://www.pbs.org/pov/pov1996/takenforaride/takenforaride_press.pdf

10 Personal communication.

11 Michel De Certeau (1984) Walking in the City, in The Practice of Everyday Life, p. 104.

12 See Sikivu Hutchinson (2003) Imagining Transit: Race, Gender, and Transportation Politics in Los Angeles, for an analysis of how the (d)evolution of the LA public transport system has further entrenched divisions in the city along racial (class) and gender lines.

13 See Dumisane Phakathi’s 2000 film, Rough Ride, for an in depth history of the minibus taxi industry in South Africa.

14 The dérive has been described as ‘a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances’.

15 Jeffrey Zeldman is arguably considered the current guru of web design.

16 I have deliberately resisted saying exchange information here, since for many of its more practical users, there is very little exchange involved.

17 Lecture at the University of the Witwatersrand, 1996.

18 As I was typing this paragraph, I received – at 12.25 am on a Saturday morning (why?) – an e-mail reminding me that my annual internet subscription payment is due, and if my banking details have not changed, the amount will automatically be debited from my bank account.

19 Liz Gunner (2003) Writing the City: Four Post-Apartheid Texts. Advanced Research Seminar, Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research, 24 February 2003.

 

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Unpublished essay, MA in Writing, Wits University, May 2003.

 

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