Monday, May 8, 2017

Letting Go

We were at an academic conference in a little cold college town full of brick buildings that looked like abandoned orphanages. She was asking for directions in the lobby of the hotel as I was passing by and wanted to go where I was going. She went with me and we talked the whole way. And we talked the rest of the day and long into the night. We talked all the next day. And the day after that. We agreed on almost everything. We rolled our eyes at the same presentations, laughed at the same things. I thought her fascinating and brilliant and pretty. We wound up one night in a hotel room full of Brazilians talking about translations, something I know nothing about. One of them used a soccer metaphor to explain the perils of translating Adorno into Portuguese. All the Brazilians nodded their heads knowingly but we were both baffled. We talked about the people waiting for us back home. I don’t remember if she was married or was going to be married. I was already a dad. The days were dark and there was snow on the ground, and I’m not sure I’ve ever spent more time with one person over the course of a weekend just talking. Then we went back to where we were from.

A few years later we met again at the same conference, but this time it was in New Orleans. I waited for her at a window in a bar as she came walking up the street in a blue dress, smiling. That image stayed with me. And once again we talked and talked for the entire weekend as we walked everywhere. Can you miss someone you’ve only seen once in your life? Can you miss someone you avoided communicating with? Can you miss someone you know you should never see again? If so, then I missed her and realized how much I missed her during all those conversations. We stayed up late every night and afterward I would walk her to her hotel room, which was on the opposite end of the French Quarter from mine. On the last night we shopped for trinkets and had coffee and beignets with the rest of the tourists. She had bought herself a John Coltrane record, but as we were getting ready to get up she said that I should have it and put it in my hand. I said: “Too bad we never kissed.” And she said: “Yeah, it’s too bad.” And we hugged and I walked her back to her hotel room, said goodbye, and never saw her again.

This James Arthur song I hear often on the radio is about meeting someone and knowing right away that things are right. The song imagines this leading to a lifetime of happiness and love. And maybe it happens that way to some people. Or maybe all the complications of life get in the way of things going the way you imagine them. Perhaps the best love at first sight is the love that you never get to act on.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Green Broccoli

Her green plastic watering can.” That’s how Radiohead’s “Fake Plastic Trees” begins. Those five words do so much work. They evoke a specific object in all its concreteness, alluring in its materiality, illustrating perfectly what Barthes calls “the reality effect” of things in art. It is an object that we have all seen or can at least imagine in solid terms, so the song draws us in through the act of recognition: You know this thing; this thing is real; this song is about reality.

The reality of everyday domestic things, the quotidian. We can picture the domestic scenes in which this green plastic watering can comes to life. Little gardens, hanging plants, flowers in the window. The can faithfully doing its duty, carried in the hands of a woman or a man as they tend to their plants. A picturesque scene of domestic ideals to be aspired to, a bourgeois pastoral. This would be a continuation of the beatification of domestic life and its myriad components that Moretti locates already fully formed in the work of Vermeer in the Dutch 17th century. These little household articles that make our lives bright and which are an expression of our own taste and sensibility. By the nineteenth century across the heartlands of modernity household objects are considered manifestations of our own good taste and as such they contain a meaning which is perhaps more important than their use. You can sit anywhere, eat anywhere, and on anything, but the fact that you do it on this specific stuff says something about you.

But it’s the word “plastic” that makes all the difference. It changes the meaning of everything. Instead of the possibility of being made by hand, like a metal can might be made and painted by the hand of an artisan, a plastic watering can is mass-produced. If it has any aesthetic value, then that value is purely kitsch. It is a second-order thing: it has the shape and does the job of a watering can but in reality it is just manufactured plastic. If things reflect who we are, then what does it mean if a home is made up of mass-produced things? What if our lives are populated with plastic and not real objects? This suggests that there is something unreal and inauthentic about our lives. Our lives are perhaps not as unique or as genuine as we might wish; they might perhaps be as mass-produced as the things that we put in our homes.

This is the point that Radiohead wants to make and which the first line of “Fake Green Trees” establishes: Bourgeois life is inauthentic and the things which we have been conditioned to desire in order to define who we are only make us more like everyone else and provide no real outlet for self-expression nor do they contain within them what is necessary for happiness. This is a common criticism of bourgeois domesticity. And it is usually made by those who come from bourgeois backgrounds.

This criticism, however, does not negate the desire for things nor does it discredit the ability to see yourself reflected in the things you want. There is this verse in Big Baby D.R.A.M.’s “Broccoli” that always makes me smile and that demonstrates my point. He raps: “I acquired taste for salmon on a bagel/ With the capers, on a square plate.” (Let us thank the Hebrew tribes for bringing salmon on a bagel with the capers to us all!) I love the specificity of the verse and the common thing to which it refers, so unlike the usual objects of rap music. If you come from a non-bourgeois world, this simple, quotidian, bourgeois thing—a round bagel on a square plate—is appealing and worth getting used to. They may not mean anything or say anything about you but the appeal of objects is indeed powerful when you haven't had the things that other people take for granted.