… are up, thanks to the stellar team at The Fictional Café. Check them out!
Well, well, well: maybe (fingers crossed?) I’m emerging out of some surely pandemic-influenced writer’s block? Here’s a new poem the fine people at MudRoom have included in their summer issue!
(Here’s the latest from Walking the Wire; hope you enjoy!)
Having unexpectedly wandered this week into a conversation on lenses and mirrors, I did my inquisitive thing, and followed up on that exchange by zooming down a rabbit hole on scrying. Brooke Bunce describes scrying, which in the ancient (and later) world was practiced anywhere from Egypt to China to Persia, to parts of Europe and the Americas, as the “act of gazing into a reflective or translucent surface to glean prophetic insight”—and, yes, the use of crystal balls is an example of this activity. One of the more celebrated historical scryers was John Dee, general polymath and advisor to Queen Elizabeth I; his obsidian mirror is currently in the possession of the British Library.
What were or are people looking for, or hoping to see, by staring at obsidian or glass, water, oil, fire, smoke, or even wax?1 Depending on who’s doing it or who’s requesting a scryer’s services, there’s always, of course, the attempt to see the future. But some of those seekers staring into the flames might just be looking for insight, engaging in what sounds like a meditative practice to get to the heart of a question or problem. In short, a method of seeing something more clearly, maybe simply by taking a different-than-usual approach to looking at or thinking about it. Lauren Spencer King compares the practice to dream interpretation.
Fred Hyland, illustration, Vol. 6 of The Yellow Book (1895). Public domain image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
I couldn’t help looking at my recent tendency to pull poems from news articles as my own version of scrying via the “surface” of words: looking long and hard at paragraphs of reportage to find some kernel or slim thread running through the facts, much like a scryer might puzzle over the meaning of a shape seen in clouds. This week, I was at the process of erasure once more, after being brought up short by an article on the endangered regent honeyeater. The Australian songbird is in dire peril, not only because its habitat keeps getting destroyed—but also and as a result, because there are no elders around to teach the young their species-specific songs. And because successful mating is dependent on those melodies, pairing up and reproducing just isn’t happening. The males learn other birds’ calls—at least it’s something, some attempt they’re trying to make at communication—but those tunes only sound like a lot of gibberish to the females, and these poor bachelors go on singing and singing, left alone in spite of their best and most earnest efforts, or their most fervent hopes.
It was a heartrending article to read, and all I could do was stare at it; no author or mythologist could have come up with such simple, drawn-out devastation, with characters crushed for no fault of their own. And here was nature doing what it so often does, and so well: holding up a terrifying mirror to the humans who’ve created this mess. I don’t know whether the following erasure poem signals anything more than my own attempt to deal with the story itself—but here’s one for the birds all the same, in the hopes they’ll get their song back, and sing it loud and far.
Critically Endangered Tunes
they need the song, the feeling
mimicking unfamiliar melodies,
all their day singing,
looking for a lead,
learning to sing
a terrible story of the new,
inferences that describe
what extinction sounds like:
a whimper in a forest
they sing only to lose
battles with a century of noise
to learn instead a whistle
could be too sparse
to sustain, to speak
Erasure poem after Mike Ives, “How Does That Song Go? This Bird Couldn’t Say.” New York Times, 17 March 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/17/science/bird-honeyeater-australia.html
1 Whether or not any visible surface, as in one’s own navel, will work, is a question that remains—although my guess is, the material needs to be free from all distractions, as opposed to those glowing screens that turn people into zombies these days. Among other things, I’d like to figure out how many hands serve the dual purpose of holding smartphones and catching all the drool that oozes out of users’ mouths.
Yup, it’s the latest Walking the Wire post—hope you enjoy!
I’m about to stray some distance from historical veracity, or at least into pop psych speculation. But your mind does strange things when you’re looking for a new place to live, and doing it while there’s a raging virus underway does nothing to stabilize an overactive imagination.
A bit of real history: I didn’t grow up having to think about asbestos, and I’m not sure why. The homes in which I spent my childhood were built well before the substance was largely banned in the 1970s. Had there just been some good remediation going on there? Adults hiding dangers from children? Unknown. But over the past few months, after peering into strangers’ basements (home features I also didn’t have as a kid), I’ve developed an unnerving ability to identify asbestos tile, and to give the stink eye to innumerable square feet of ceiling panels. So much tile, so much of the dubious matter still there! OK, so it’s fine if left undisturbed—but we’re about fifty years out from having learned to shy away from the stuff. What’s going on?
Leonetto Cappiello (1909). Public domain image courtesy Poster Museum at Wilanów and Wikimedia Commons.
According to The Asbestos Institute, the material’s been in use ever since humans figured out how to make pots out of sand and clay—and it apparently didn’t take long to discover it wasn’t exactly a friendly mineral. But even though the Romans noticed their asbestos-mining slaves were getting seriously ill, that didn’t stop its use in weaving and building, and it’s continued to be employed, especially as insulation and as a fire retardant, until relatively recently.
Now, here’s where my historical speculation begins to get dicey. I’ve been doing all this home investigation in and around Chicago—a city that still keeps fresh in its memory the fire that gutted it in 1871.(1) A lot of significant changes were made in the wake of that inferno; in addition to new codes and even new land created out of an infill of ruins, building with wood was out, and stone, terracotta, and eventually steel, was in. Depending on whom you ask, Chicago may qualify as the first city to have erected a true skyscraper—where the use of metal and steel, not all that flammable wood, was essential.
So, we’ve got the reminders of the fire all around us, even as we’re safer for the changes that were made in its wake. Except, of course, when it comes to all that asbestos meant to protect us from another round of flames. What gives; why haven’t we gotten rid of it all?(2)
Well, for one thing, it’s expensive and complicated to remove, and it’s not something you could, much less should, do yourself. But so many of those hot water heater closets and utility corners I’ve seen in the last few months are pretty small—not a truly cash-exorbitant undertaking, especially when your health might hang in the balance. What else might be going on here? An instance of that general “nothing will happen to me” poo-poohing that makes great spoofs like Happy Fun Ball so believable? Or could we be suffering from a sort of collective, lingering fear of fire, so deeply ingrained that we’ll accept the risk of inhaling malign fibers over the possibility that our homes will go up in a blaze?
Like everything else in life, you weigh a multitude of dangers, knowing there’s no such thing as a peril-free existence. And admittedly, it’s not as if a normal day-to-day consists of checking out the intimate parts of one home after another; before now, I wasn’t examining friends’ or neighbors’ laundry rooms or pipes, and I’m only coming late to the realization that this stuff has always been spread all too freely within our four walls. But this new, erm, exposure has made me wonder about the lengths we’ll go to to hold all hazards at bay, to accept one seemingly distant menace over another danger that feels all too familiar.
And maybe the issue’s been churning around in my brain because of the larger reality in which we’re living, hearts focused on a bit of hope for the end of our now-familiar pandemic. For those of us who’ve spent the last year masking up, stepping off of sidewalks to keep our social distance, finding new ways to stay entertained and alone indoors, and learning to deal with much longer, messier hair, how long will it take us to feel comfortable again just going about our business, watching out for cars before crossing the road, but not even noticing the pedestrians around us? What of this past year might we hold on to, and what percentage of that holdover will act as a security blanket we need to learn to let go of?
I can easily imagine myself being far too hesitant to hang out on a lawn with friends, to accept a ride, to hug someone or set foot in a train or go to a movie. And I can also imagine people eventually getting fed up with what they might view as my paranoia, much like kids a couple of generations removed from their older relatives rolling their eyes with impatience at what lingers from their Depression- or World War II-era experiences. I can easily envision, in other words, messing up good relationships because I’m unable to strike the right balance between the risk of being infected and the risk of alienating others. At what point might justifiable caution step over into paralysis or overreaction, and from there into estrangement? Moving in the opposite direction, in what ways might any of us legitimately be hesitant to move, when everyone else wants (understandably) to throw caution to the winds?
We’ve become all too familiar over the past year with these types of balancing acts—and as my new experience with a not-quite-predictable substance has reminded me, we’ve always had to weigh any number and type of risks in making a comfortable, not to mention secure, place for ourselves in this world. How should we proceed, then, as we look to a future less captive to COVID, or to any other dangers? It’s not quite Aristotle’s (equally difficult-to-apply) golden mean, but until we come up with a better answer or less complicated and pricey forms of remediation, maybe the best we can do where asbestos, or even a nasty virus is concerned, is to adapt the warning in that Saturday Night Live skit I mentioned earlier: “Do not taunt Happy Fun Ball.”
1 Among other things, the city’s MLS team is named the Chicago Fire.
2 I frequently ask the same question about the extensive network of lead service lines that bring water and all sorts of potential health problems into the area’s homes and buildings. This is a different sort of beast, though, less subject to the decisions or wherewithal of individuals.
An initial foray into shape
Hans Lewerenz, Das magische Quadrat (The Magic Square). CC BY-SA 3.0 license via Wikimedia Commons.
OK, friends: I’m going to ask for your indulgence this week, as I dive into a very preliminary investigation of shape and sensation.
Ever since watching Mary Lance’s documentary, Agnes Martin: With My Back to the World, I’ve been thinking about squares. Not because Martin used them; rather, because she was so averse to them. About twenty-eight minutes in, the famed painter of grids tells us,
“I just use the horizontal line to get the meaning. I have never painted a grid that had squares, you know, because a square is sort of harsh, and you know, aggressive. But a rectangle is, you know, more relaxed… A square is like some people that you meet… overconfident and aggressive and, and then you meet a rectangle, and they’re softer, you know, more agreeable.”
Huh. I had to admit I’d never thought of the shape as being remotely combative; if anything, I’d always looked at a square, or especially a cube, as sort of cute, sitting there so tidily self-contained and eager to please. But before I had much time to ponder the question, anthropomorphized images of the four-sided figure began invading my mind, sharp-edged lawyers or politicians, maybe à la Josh Hawley, striding down the street in crisp, perfectly fitted suits, furrowed brows having no time to look left or right or notice the curves of flowers or the very bendy nature of the human body—no time or desire, really, to acknowledge the greatness of anything but themselves. Something about Martin’s thoughts made sense; rectangles did, after all, seem more prone to sag or give in the middle, with all their perilous extension of width or height. But it couldn’t be that simple, could it: self-centered squares bowling over laid-back rectangles? Where had these perceptions come from?
Well, there’s the sense of square as in being uncool; the Online Etymology Dictionary tells us that meaning came along in the 1940s, the jazz crowd making fun of the even square they thought a conductor traced in the air when leading a tune in bland old 4/4 time. But I’ve always interpreted this sense of square as being anything but aggressive or overconfident—more like epitomizing a supreme dork, too clueless and wrapped up in convention to see anything outside a Pollyanna world.
That sense of unsophistication is somehow in line with the meaning of square as fair or honest or straightforward, a provincial car dealer giving you a square deal on a purchase, handshake enough to assure you what you see is what you’ll get. And while I really can’t see anything bad about being fair in itself, it’s also easy to understand how that apparently simple insistence on being on the level—a phrase which once meant “moderate, without great ambition”—could result in a situation that could feel suffocating, where any opinion or behavior other than the ones then prevailing would be condemned. A situation, say, that drove the Beats onto the road, or the hippies that followed them as far away as they could get from their parents’ clear-cut post-war prosperity.
But back to the shape itself. I’ve been looking indoors and out for evidence of a general preference for rectangles over squares, and I’ll have to say, it’s not hard to find, from windows to buildings, to couches and coffee tables and shelves, to cars and buses.1 Even when I thought I’d come across an exception—the icons on my computer’s dock—I couldn’t exactly jump for joy. Their edges, after all, have been rounded, in what I can only imagine was an attempt to make them feel jaunty—friendlier. Something about our need for regularity and order seems to shun perfection, at least if perfection means simple equality of length.
And as long as we’re talking about equality, I’ll have to speculate on what might make some of us snub a shape that functions flawlessly when all of its sides serve an equal function, are of self-evidently equal value. Sure, it’s OK for square to mean fair, as in everyone operating out in the open, according to accepted rules. But if we move along to understand fairness as equivalence of value or voice, I’m guessing things start to feel less comfortable for those who’ve been laying down or perpetuating the rules. Whereas rectangles make it clear that some sides get more of a share in their stable system than others, the square, with its equal sides unavoidably in view, might be a little too socialist—or democratic—for US American comfort. With that thought, I’m already starting to dissociate the aforementioned senator, in his tight-fitting trousers, from the hasty connection I made between him and a certain innocent geometrical figure.
Can we rehabilitate the square, if it is indeed in need of rehabilitation? What of the triangle, so necessary in making sure our four-sided friends don’t collapse in on themselves? As I said, I’ve only just begun what feels like an all-too-human exploration of shape. As I continue my investigations, rest assured, I’ll report back if I find anything interesting, or come up with additional speculations, far-fetched or not.
1 I’d love to see a square bus. It would be so cute—akin to the way in which the UK’s double-decker buses are so adorable to US Americans, who tend to have to put up, if they can enjoy public transportation at all, with boring old single-deckers. As for cars, let’s face it: the Nissan Cube is not truly a cube, but is instead a puffy, soft-cornered rectangle.
Apparently, I’ve become addicted to erasure poetry; here’s the second round of my dabbling (with formatting still screwy), as featured in this week’s Walking the Wire.
Abbott Pattison carving Wingless Victory, by Harry Pattison via Wikimedia Commons on a CC BY-SA 4.0 license.
OK, friends: since I put up that first erasure poem a couple of weeks ago, I’ve grown increasingly obsessed with this form of creation-through-transformation. I’m also beginning to suspect that this newfound intrigue has something to do with my deep love of difficult crosswords and Sudoku puzzles, and the particular variety of meditation they provide. Other than running and yoga, those pastimes had long been the only other activities that allowed me to clear my brain of worries about the outside world, or of any of the panic or pressure that might come along with said anxieties.
But now: here I have before me a lengthy text with a secret narrative or running image hidden inside; finding it is a process similar to the one described by that variously attributed old maxim about sculpture: that the form you’re seeking is already inside the stone—you just have to chip away what’s covering it up. Both of the poems I’ve come up with so far have taken hours’ worth of poring over the texts from which they’re drawn, trying to figure out how the thing I’m looking for is woven together, how to discard fantastic words or phrases that just don’t fit the project. And as discussed in that earlier poem-post, there’s something about this process that allows me to face up to the news with less of a sense that I’m going to be paralyzed or otherwise overwhelmed by it.
Does what results also get to the core of the source’s intended meaning? I’m not sure, and I’m also uncertain whether that type of attainment should be considered when pondering the so-called success of the erasure poem. As I continue to mess around with this variation of sampling, I might develop a more definite opinion on that matter—but I get the sense said opinion will consist of a no.
I present, then, the following erasure poem, using as its foundation Rachel Treisman’s original article.
Frigid US, February
Winter power spreads
This onslaught of wicked pressure
explained the severity:
extreme, massive lifts
from the gulf to the valley
National teeth-chattering anomalies
will be normal as far as
and as far as…
Hundreds have seen/will be
all in jeopardy,
widespread and down
in the Deep
This cold snap—
historical cold snaps—
the current cold snap—
these historic cold periods—
had already been established
We see you.
Everyone announced declarations,
several states issued a declaration,
all the counties requested
in hard-hit Texas,
shortly after midnight,
the agency caused units
until the end
every operator and
fighting the community,
it had shed all
reduced power to lose
those who had been lost
In the morning,
check several candles,
keeping outdoors, closing doors
and covering windows.
Flights within, cancelled.
Forecasters predict treacherous melting,
forecast a band of
(*) Yes, the subtitle is a nod to Friedrich Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols—whose own subtitle is Or, How One Philosophizes with a Hammer. Note the existence of all sorts of hammers—from sledge hammers designed for destruction to little rock hammers meant for delicate extraction operations. As Nietzsche reminds us in his preface, “This little essay is a great declaration of war; and regarding the sounding out of idols, this time they … are touched with a hammer as with a tuning fork.” Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, in The Portable Nietzsche, translated and edited by Walter Kaufman (New York: The Viking Press, 1954/1969), 466.
Here’s the latest from Walking the Wire! Save for formatting issues, reposting seems to be going well, so I’ll keep on keepin’ on with it.
Apparently, John Dewey has been carving out a secure little place in my brain; from the post a couple of weeks ago that helped me clarify the experience of at-home food delivery to the man’s thoughts on aesthetics in general, I’ve been weirdly intrigued by this great of American philosophy.1
It’s not necessarily his big ideas that are holding me captive. Rather, every now and then, I’m hit by the unintentional hilarity of some of his phrasing. Maybe it just has to do with the weird way my brain can twist even the most mundane subject matter into some screwball scenario; maybe, too, it has to do with outmoded forms of speech, or even of spelling (Dewey’s prone, for example, to talking about providing a “clew” to help us think through a given matter). But I’m also coming around to the possibility that what I’m seeing is the result of thought becoming so intense, it doesn’t realize that the seriousness with which it takes itself has crossed the line into comedy.
Two of the quotes I’ve been sharing all week might offer good examples:
“It is a familiar fact that colors of a landscape become more vivid when seen with the head upside down.”
“Space is inane save as occupied with active volumes. Pauses are holes when they do not accentuate masses and define figures as individuals… space remains… an opportunity for further action.”2
I mean look, the first one is a given; how could you not wander into cheap images of a philosopher swinging by his knees on a tree branch in pursuit of aesthetic truth, the better to experience the sunset’s true brilliance, or Brainy Smurf seeing stars after landing on his head, the result of being kicked out of the village for refusing to shut up? As for the latter quotation, it’s been eons since I’ve come across a better phrase than “space is inane;” it’s just begging to be turned into a good punk anthem.
Admittedly, these snippets have been removed from their surrounding contexts; Dewey does not, of course, believe that space itself is inane; he’s talking about the mis/use of space in works of art. And abandoning your normal upright position is one particular way of forcing yourself to see any number of things from a different perspective—a view that might sometimes be essential to seeing meaningfully at all. But in the midst of paragraphs’ worth of carefully laid argumentation, these quirky few sets of words trip you up just a bit, make you forget where you were, remind you like a Zen master wielding a stick to relax the brow that was furrowed in concentration.
So no, I’m not trying to channel Beavis and Butt-head (heh heh: he said “hole”)—but I am starting to wonder what makes me, at least, laugh—a project that might after all be strangely aligned to Dewey’s own heartfelt investigations into what makes an experience aesthetic. In this instance, it’s the simple incongruity, the unexpected appearance, of something goofy raising its irrepressible head, popping into an atmosphere in which silliness just isn’t appropriate. It might be even funnier if Dewey really was unable to recognize any of the comedic possibilities in his writing; after all, that good old banana peel of slapstick isn’t funny until it inadvertently trips up the victim who wasn’t paying attention to what was right in front of him. Maybe both of those instances are reminders of the way in which too-intense focus—on our argument or on our attempt to reach our destination—fits us with blinders.3
But that sort of slip-up also says something about the spontaneity that seems to be part of good comedy, and why a lot of what goes by that genre’s name does little more than annoy me. The zaniness of clowns stomping around with exaggerated gait and make-up, the in-your-face clumsiness of Steve Urkel, any number of stand-up comedians who don big old sneakers to show their cool: it’s all so practiced, one more instance of trying way too hard. You can see the work being done, the labor that’s trying to hide the intense striving behind it all. Planned comedy, in other words, is usually no comedy at all. There’s not even a bit of space remaining for something unexpected to happen. Inanity, sure. Funniness, no. I’m guessing if Dewey attempted to “demonstrate” comedy by doing a goofy dance he’d prepared, no laughter would ensue—only embarrassment for the performer.4
What’s a comedian to do, then—not practice, just leave the routine to chance? That’s also not going to work; that fantastic eating machine scene in Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times had to have been rehearsed and rehearsed again to make it work. My guess is, in line with the importance Dewey placed on continual feedback from and interaction with the environment, Chaplin and his crew knew they had something good because they recognized just how idiotic trends in workplace efficiency could be; they saw the ways in which the unexpected could break forth, and exploited those potential blowups for all they were worth—and were able to do so because they were experienced actors, and had learned what lands and what falls flat; and because they had taken the time to study how particular machines worked and could malfunction. In similar fashion, any comedians who’ve ever made me laugh are in the end nothing more than great observers, who make what’s already inherent in the everyday jump out at you. And even the connoisseurs of the oddity of daily life, like Mitch Hedberg was, recognize when something’s bombed—they register the feedback they’re getting, and try to roll with the punches instead of pretending nothing happened or turning defensive.5
Is this why so many sitcoms and movies are so often boring—because there’s no heckler to push the cast into course-correction? Because a person or team who just keeps plodding along the same path (here, I’d say, a script or style of acting), whatever the circumstances, seems more like a machine than a participant in the living interaction Dewey kept insisting was part of a great experience?
Maybe so. But maybe trying to explain every little chuckle will only wind up killing it; maybe I should just step away from the keyboard and let the laughs come whenever they feel like it. I’ve got about 70 pages remaining in Art as Experience; I think I’ll just get back to it, and hope its author drops at least one more inadvertent zinger before it all comes to a close.
1 In addition to that post I mentioned, I’ve also tossed out the same quotations I’ll cover here on Twitter and Patreon. Obviously, no catharsis has yet ensued.
2 John Dewey, Art as Experience (New York: Capricorn Books, 1934/1958), 249, 212.
3 And at the risk of going too far out on a limb, if Dewey couldn’t see the forest of comedic potential for the trees of exact description, he strayed from his own pragmatist assertion that art (including good writing) only happens when the creator and the environment are working together in a sort of feedback loop. In this instance, I’ll claim his potential audience could have stood in for that environmental representative, their snickering causing him to lift his head and tinker with his wording.
4 Although I can’t imagine Dewey ever being daffy in the manner of early Jim Carey, I want to believe he had and was willing to share a sense of humor. In the book under discussion, I take the following footnote, which accompanies a critique of the very unsilly Immanuel Kant, as evidence: “The effect upon German thought of Capitalization has hardly received proper attention.” Dewey, 252.
5 Great as the linked set is, around 2:35, Hedberg asks in recognition of his previous comment kind of sucking, “Can we take that joke out?”
OK, here’s my latest from Walking the Wire this week; it seems I’m able to repost with only minor loss of formatting.
It’s been difficult for me to listen to the news this past year; something about a raging virus combined with a government that seemed to encourage its propagation crushed my historical ability to meet the terrible state of the world with something more productive than abject fear. I’ve gradually waded back into letting myself in on the day’s events—but I’m still skittish, still brought up short every now and then by the effects a little information can have on me.
Example: just a few months ago, I was convinced my mental health would be better just knowing a COVID-19 vaccine was out there, period. Naively, I believed having a time frame in which I could expect to get said shot/s would bolster my patience and resilience, lessen my fears. And it did—for about two days, before all the production and distribution problems, and all the viral variants developing as they were being confronted, were made plain.
It should be no surprise, then, that the whole situation has made it hard to write, hard to use my brain at all.1 That the anger has made me want to cross things out, not come up with more ideas or complaints or laments to add to the mix. Just cross it all out and start over. But wait—there’s an actual idea. Why not put a big X, a big fat line, through everything? I was reminded of the erasure poetry friends and colleagues have produced over the past few months,2 taking their erasers or dark markers to texts and letting only some words from the original remain standing, shaping those survivors into something entirely new. This particular “means of confrontation,” as the linked article describes as one motive for producing erasure poetry, seemed particularly apropos in my own case; if I couldn’t change the situation in which we’re living, or the contents of the reports describing it, if I couldn’t give any sort of speech, anywhere, that would make one bit of difference, I could at least engage in a therapeutic gesture. Take that, depressing reality: feel the full weight of my dismay!
What resulted from this initial experiment doesn’t quite feel like a smackdown. But the words that remained after I’d taken my Sharpie to this NPR article do, I hope, reflect something of what I’m feeling these days, hanging around helplessly and waiting to see what new sort of normal might emerge, once we’re allowed to show our faces again and figure it out together.
Waiting for the Vaccine
This would upend everything. Finally: a way out.
a frequent promise, explanations
and the need to give counts.
Here, flowing all the way back to blame:
Slow in getting that money,
the money will execute a public,
the money will bring color,
that money: complicated to handle,
The complexity has slowed down.
A new, simpler help at the same time
arriving without waste,
looking ahead, promising:
the science can be kept for longer,
giving in the months ahead.
Many candidates very quickly go around
to all of these places.
If we don’t open up, reach each day,
more will likely crop up,
steady, at full volume, high
in every county in America,
caring on their own.
That’s a problem.
It’s a problem if no idea serves
a little demand.
A major had to apologize;
there are still inconsistencies.
A steadier plan, ready awareness,
a public ready and eager
to combat and reassure:
safe and effective,
efforts to get the word out.
Have confidence: go out and educate.
Advocacy, activism, questions, myths:
make a decision.
A slightly different government
trying to figure out why,
a team dedicated, inundated with questions:
why and where.
People want and
we’re just not there.
(An erasure poem after the original article by Selena Simons-Duffin and Pien Huang)
1 I hope you’ll take that fact into forgiving consideration with all my less-than-stellar posts of late.
OK, I’m just going to experiment with reposting this week’s article from Walking the Wire Here goes:
My apartment’s recent provision of unasked-for swag has been followed by opportunities to have local restaurants deliver meals to the building. It’s an admittedly great way to support small businesses. But it’s just—could they stop hyping this project as an “experience”—as in, make sure to get your order in by the deadline so you won’t miss out on this unique experience?
Unique, sure, in terms of inviting to the lobby a bunch of residents, impaired in their mask-wearing abilities, to pick up their duck-fat fries and gourmet sandwiches, mingling and gabbing all the while in the middle of a rapidly evolving viral disaster. Unique, perhaps, in trying some new food (if you still have the financial means to afford it). Or singular in making your Instagram post of foil-wrapped fare look more alluring than a zillion other photos meant to signal to viewers that they’ve missed out on some miraculous one-time event. But at what point did we start turning financial transactions into experiences—or rather, at what point did we start thinking this sort of phrasing or “value proposition”(1) wouldn’t make us snort in disdain?
The trend started earlier than I’d expected, at least where overt mention of experience is concerned. This 1998 article in the Harvard Business Review does get technical about the “transition from selling services to selling experiences,” and businesses’ need to “upgrade their offerings to the next stage of economic value.” Wharton Magazine is still talking about the long-running rage in 2013, its author adding a sliver of common sense with the assertion, “I go to a shop to buy a shirt—not an experience…my perceived value is in the shirt, not the experience of buying it. The seller has to focus only on their value proposition: the shirt and how it is sold.” I could spin off and kvetch heartily about viewing a material thing (the shirt) as an abstract idea (the stomach-churning “value proposition”), but I think you get the point.
The Rawleigh Man. Public domain image courtesy Stephenson County Historical Society and Wikimedia Commons.
The other day, I thought I might have found a partner in my semantic grumbling. American philosopher John Dewey explored pretty much everything under the sun, so it should be no surprise that he also attempted to figure out what an experience was, as opposed to things being (generally passively) experienced. As he says in Art and Experience,
Experience occurs continuously, because the interaction of live creature and environing conditions is involved in the very process of living… Oftentimes, however… Things are experienced but not in such a way that they are composed into an experience… we have an experience when the material experienced runs its course to fulfillment.
To fulfillment: in other words, when “A piece of work is finished in a way that is satisfactory; a problem receives its solution; a game is played through.” And lo and behold, after listing a number of other examples, Dewey even tells us that such fulfillment could occur when “eating a meal… is so rounded out that its close is a consummation and not a cessation.”(2)
Hmm. So maybe I was too hasty in making fun of the marketing hype. The process of ordering a meal online, having to retrieve it and take the elevator back up to your lodgings without getting COVID, eating your hip cuisine, and probably letting your network know all about it, does seem to be a course of action that begins with a certain intention (receiving and eating food), and ends when that intention has been fulfilled. But wait: we’ve been told this procedure is unique, and have been led to believe that it will be different from every other time we’ve had food delivered and have polished it off on the couch. Maybe that uniqueness comes in, as mentioned, by the environmental conditions in which it’s taking place, or with the knowledge you’re doing something to help a local business.
Maybe the pandemic conditions really do qualify the whole process as an experience, since Dewey also asserted that “There is… an element of undergoing, of suffering in its large sense, in every experience. Otherwise there would be no taking in of what preceded.” The author shies away a bit from describing what exactly “suffering” means, other than that the emotions are involved, that the
“taking in” in any vital experience is something more than placing something on the top of consciousness over what was previously known. It involves reconstruction which may be painful… there are few intense esthetic experiences that are wholly gleeful. They are certainly not to be characterized as amusing,
although “the complete perception” of the whole experience “is enjoyed.”(3)
So, does this unique experience for which I should thank my apartment manager only count as an experience if, while engaging in it, I keep at the front of my mind the seriousness of the conditions in which we find ourselves, the risk the restauranteurs and their staff are running just to prepare and deliver this food, the danger to which we’re subjecting ourselves and others by breathing in the same air? I guess all of that gloomy recognition would enhance the uniqueness of the whole situation. Whether or not, though, all or any of the customers enjoying their sriracha chicken are setting aside any thought for these issues is quite another matter. (I’m prone to say, based merely on observation of all the flippant behavior in this particular high-rise since March, that they’re not.)
But much to my despair, I think I’m going to have to cede defeat on this occasion. At least on Dewey’s terms, I’m going to have to allow for the possibility that this food ordering program can’t necessarily be disqualified as an experience. I’m not totally going to give up the fight, though; I still feel confident there’s a case to be made against advertising/marketing practices that assume we’re gullible enough to believe home delivery of a taco is in itself an earth-shattering thing, an event that brings us to our knees in gratitude for its benevolent providers.(4) While I ponder how to make that particular case, though, enjoy your meal, hopefully without too much suffering.
(1) I’ll admit that using that phrase made me throw up a little.
(2) John Dewey, Art as Experience (New York: Capricorn Books, 1934/1958),35.
(3) Dewey, 41.
(4) Maybe in the future, I’ll explore how or whether advertising feeds into and is influenced by, say, news media’s cheapening of concepts and characters, such as the notion of tragedy (to describe a car crash, for example) or the figure of a hero (used to designate someone who simply died in an accident).
Well, I’m diving this week at Walking the Wire into a big-historical can of worms. Will we (or I, at least) ever get tired of wondering what art does, what it does for us, and what we’re supposed to do in response?