Archive for the 'Peoplewatching' Category

The park in the morning

June 17, 2008

The park in the morning is a line of aged men, alone in large sedans or mid-size SUVs, encircling the pond. The park in the morning is the liturgical procession of their synthetic blend polo shirts. Or the park in the morning is a formation of newspaper chevrons opened over steering wheels.

Sine qua non coffee makes vapor puffs on windshields, waning when sipped by the aged men who pause to look straight ahead. And when they do, I can look at them more or less with impunity, myself staring at them staring as I walk to work through the park in the morning. They do not look to either side, but content themselves with the view of the vehicle in front of them or the more immediate surroundings of their perpetually tidy automobile interiors; which is to say that they are happy simply knowing that they are in a scenic place, like diplomats who meet in exotic locations only to spend their visits in windowless rooms.

And this interests me, for the park in the morning is a Confucian cruising ground, a space rigorously ruled in its decorum and in its membership, but inviting a certain permeation of those rules — just as people all seem ecstatic when somebody on a subway acknowledges that she’s sharing that space with others and begins talking to them. I know this because I read about it on the internet.

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On communication and risk

June 11, 2007

Though she and I have never been close, there are plenty of reasons – at least superficially – to believe that we could have been. Rather, though, it may be that our different recourses to such a similar stock of qualities condemn us: she seems to view her natural reticence dialectically, pushing through it in ways that make me wince at their potential to destroy the observational power I believe my own reserve grants me. And for all the books that we’ve both read without ever having coordinated, it seems that only I’m capable of letting those books change me – be it in the form of an author’s pet word creeping into my vocabulary, or an idea that obsesses me. I can’t understand her trajectory of reading at all because of this. But her lack of candor in discussing these ideas combines with her obvious intelligence to give me the impression that she’s writing a theory masterpiece in secret, spending her nights in a solitary labor which she’s too humble or dismissive to discuss.

If I have the urge to wonder whether she comes up with theories like that about me, is it in absolution for the ways in which I – both of us, really – have withdrawn from the platonic overtures we used to make to each other?

The fact is this, though: that neither of us can divulge moderately around the other. To the degree that I see that she is preyed upon, that the creative energies she pushes so mercilessly to dispossess herself of are lapped up mindlessly by the herd that clings to her – to that degree, she sees how scared I am by so much of life. It’s enough to wreck the economy of any burgeoning friendship, but especially so between people like her and me, who naturally long for a bit of control over the ways our energies disperse in the world.

On gourmet fluids

June 7, 2007

In a post-Martha world, we are all perhaps connoisseurs: we grind, grate, and bludgeon with pestles our alimentary accoutrements – our salts, coffees, nutmegs, cheeses, and so on. No upwardly mobile person can fathom existing without a pepper mill in his cupboard, and all heads turn in shock when some unfortunate with a meager score of taste buds asks for his coffee beans to be ground at Starbucks rather than grinding them himself at home.

The discernment that we’ve gained in the past decade has focused decisively on the liquid, however. Coffee, especially, has been given a boon, but tea, beer, and even water have benefited from our new-found pickiness. (Wine having been the subject of obsessiveness for centuries, there is nothing new to report here.) Microbrews have become more visible, tea producers tout the benefits and quasi-mystical experiences endowed upon its product’s consumers, and one would be hard pressed to find somebody who couldn’t name half a dozen bottled waters.

It is this latter case which fascinates me the most and which has the most bizarre presence on the internet. FineWaters.com seems to be a popular hub for this burgeoning taste, offering mineral analyses and information on provenance alongside advice on optimum drinking temperatures, which level of effervescence goes best with different foods, and what kind of stemware to use. Its proprietary rating system seeks to develop a vocabulary for discussing water: balance, virginality, orientation (all trademarked) are the terms they choose.

As a hub, FineWaters links to many other sites which I was obliged by researches to visit. Aqua Maestro and AquaBar (where they say, “Water is a luxury often taken for granted by many and least understood by even the most refined pallet…”) are doubtless the most amusing of the bunch. Their pretentiousness and their constant bandying of terms like “sophisticated” and “chic” is really beyond parody; I couldn’t add anything to what they’ve already accomplished themselves.

But if it’s too easy to make fun of the marketing aspects of this industry, the question remains why liquids are the medium of what might be termed the democratic gourmet – those once-upscale items which have now filtered into wide accessibility. My own theory is this: that while solid foods are arranged in a meshwork without any clear “basic” food that comprises all others, beverages are arranged more hierarchically, with water serving as a foundation for them all. The connoisseur, therefore, has the privilege of going “back to basics” – to the simple pleasures which underlie all the marketing of these drinks.

Let it not be misunderstood that this is a phenomenon unique to the behavior of food-buying consumers, for the same process occurs in literary theory. When structuralists say that they’ve stripped a story to its fundamental forms and appreciate it on that level, post-structuralists come along and claim that they deal only with the even more fundamental aporias constitutive of forms. And how often do we hear valorizations of scientists who deal with the tiniest of particles – that is, with reality “as it actually is”?

Surely this pleasure associated with the basic is not limited to food alone. But in the obsession with gourmet fluids, we can see it – hopefully not without a bit of irony – in one of its most distilled, pure forms.

Reportage from the white square

June 5, 2007

“Yeah, I collect old books on chess, just memorizing moves and stuff. But what helps me most are chess horoscopes.”

“Oh! Wow, I’ve never even heard of such a thing.”

“They’re pretty amazing. My buddy, he’s a Leo, and the chess horoscopes all say that Leos play best with their bishops. When I read that, that was when I knew they were on to something. Cos you know how rooks are worth more than bishops? He’ll actually sacrifice his rook if it means keeping his bishop!”

“Yeah…”

“And me, I’m a Libra. And we’re supposed to be the best players overall, very balanced and analytical.”

“What about Sagittariuses?”

“Oh, I don’t know. I’ve gotta keep studying hard. That’s why I don’t play go or any variations. I don’t wanna be distracted, you know?”

“Yep.”

Towards an epistemology of the internet

May 23, 2007

Since the internet became truly popular, the media and government have been obsessed with the shakiness of knowing anything for sure on the internet. Children especially are warned not to believe anything about strangers on the internet, but adults as well are occasionally paraded out to tell their stories of being defrauded by misleading websites or on the lam Nigerian royalty.

These are worthwhile endeavors to those concerned, but my own interest is in how people will make a very large deal about epistemologically dicey propositions online and what is at stake in these claims. Though these issues have been in the back of my head for a long time – inspired in large part by the reactions to rumors of new Apple products – a new opportunity has arisen to make my thoughts more concrete.

Above is a flying craft that has been (reportedly) spotted and photographed by several denizens of the internet. The issue of the veracity of the photographs doesn’t interest me nearly as much as the reactions of other people to them.

In the comments to this picture, we find the most sustained and detailed discussion of these photos around. The commenters can be divided into five types: believers who offer positive proof of the photos’ veracity, believers who attack the narrow-mindedness of their detractors, a similar bifurcation amongst non-believers, and those who are undecided but open to either possibility.

In every case where a commenter takes a definite stand, that stand has, to some degree or another, been influenced by viral marketing ploys and more recreational hoaxes that have been spotted around the internet. What is at stake then, when a person comments in support or non-support for the reality of a photo, is the issue of experience. Believers say things such as NASAnerd1947 does: “I’m not an expert on faking digital images, but I have studied the field of electric and electromagnetic propulsion as a professional aerospace engineer.” (S)he acknowledges the possibility of faking, while at the same time designating this instance as an exception through an appeal to her or his experience. On the other hand, doubters like fxmodels say things like, “[H]e started by modeling a BF Goodrich All Terrain Tire and got bored!!! He smooth shifted, beveled and Nurnied. Those three things take about an hour in any reasonable 3D program. The whole model was probably an hour to build.” Again, experience (in the form of esoteric vocabulary) is called upon to defend this person’s view.

In this way, duration claims its territory in a place renowned for its ephemerality. Any amount of time online is measurable by the passing of memes. I could, perhaps, refer to the time when “All Your Base…” swept through the internet and a specific time would come to mind. Yet this sense of time has little relation to time spent in the real world. Bringing up experience when faced with the possibility of a hoax is a way of asserting a relationship with the non-internet world – where the claims of reality or unreality actually matter.

These possible hoaxes inspire such frantic argument largely because every attempt to weigh in on them is both read and rhetorically framed as a reflection of the commenter’s grasp of reality. The distinction between those who “get it” and those who do not is exaggerated on the internet like few other places. This constitutes, perhaps, a blatantly hierarchical element – an order under which all users are graded on their knowledge of internet culture and technology – in an otherwise anarchic system.

To argue against the reality of a photo like this is thus to argue against wide-eyed “noobs” who are used to applying everyday epistemology to the internet; but conversely, those who argue for its reality are accusing their detractors of not having recovered from the epistemological impact of the internet. The flame war is displaced, but only temporarily – maybe everything on the internet comes back to identity.

Productivity performance art

May 11, 2007

Is the difference between performer and audience simply a matter of gaze? Is it simply that the audience member must focus on a more distant object than the performer?

Consider the men and women that each of us likely encounter every day who spin digital yarn on the public stage – walking and sending text messages; dining with friends and checking e-mail. Their gazes, like those of actors, are directed at a closer field of action contained within a larger, framing space. If the tool of the audience member or, in the latter case, the random passer-by is the loupe, which flattens everything into details of a monolithic reality (an all-encompassing scene), the macro lens might be the most appropriate tool for the actor or the human engrossed in technology, who conceives of everything in a figure/ground dichotomy: there is existence out “there,” but the details are few, and the most important object is close and small.

Yet in the figure/ground organization of an image, the ground has to give context and meaning to the delicate, particular object which is in focus. Consider the stereotypical macro image of a flower; then, consider the difference between a background composed of more flowers or foliage and one of a raging fire. The ground gives meaning to the figure, but our interpretation of that ground is influenced by the details, the frailty of the figure.

So it is that the apparatus of technological productivity includes a never-ending semaphore: “I am being productive.” This, of course, requires its own allocation of time.

No where is this more apparent than the internet, where discrete web pages make up the otherwise fluid and immersive hypertext. And no single web page contributes more (or more popularly) to the putative productivity of the busy masses than Lifehacker. Full of hints for shaving seconds off of routine tasks, this website updates often enough to constitute a task in and of itself. Reading it becomes like a visit to the Container Store: a utopian vision of order, where the system itself is so conducive to accomplishment that it requires only your bare presence.

My idea is therefore this: to follow every single suggestion made by the website and document as my life turns into an unmanageable morass. (Please don’t interpret this as the inauguration of that project; others are encouraged to try it before I ever do.) I would be so occupied with developing new, more productive habits that I would be utterly immobilized. My computer would be so weighed down with productive software that it could hardly run (and I could scarcely navigate it). I would be in a state of such pure productivity that, bizarrely, I could get nothing done.

Graffiti from the Man

May 4, 2007

Usually, the reclamation of the urban text consists of the dismantling of desire – letting the city’s miasma waft over ads that seek to provoke our greediest tendencies. But I’ve noticed something lately which might be easiest to describe by beginning with a name: disciplinary graffiti.

These are the cruel, impromptu markings made on otherwise sincere texts in the urban environment. Far from blackening the tooth of an airbrushed spokeswoman, disciplinary graffiti sets its teeth against other citizens and the most benign institutions. The picture below is just one example. Two others also come to mind. In the Humanities building at school, there was an informational flier with the heading “Attention English majors,” to which somebody had added, “Do you realize that your existence is worthless?” In that same department, there was a bulletin from somebody looking for a roommate; that individual had the misfortune of describing herself as “quiet and studious,” which garnered the anonymous response, ” = boring as hell.”

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It may be that these anonymous additions provide the same outlet for maliciousness that flame wars on the internet provide. This is nastiness without any consequences, bent on pure release rather than sadism.

Instead, I see in the phenomenon of disciplinary graffiti the recursion of the presence of the commercial in such a way that it cannot be dismantled by any but the most radical reclamations. The idea of commercial space – blank canvas that can be bought for a price commensurate with its visibility – has accustomed individuals to thinking of their eyes as that which must be competed and compensated for. Internet access can be free if you put an ad-bearing toolbar on your desktop; logos are the currency of coolness; and magazine subscriptions can be cheap because they contain ads.

The victims of disciplinary graffiti seek to poach on commercial space, to benefit without being able to give to everyone who looks at their postings. But the anonymous scrawls of disciplinary graffiti reject this. It’s not the lesson of, say, burning important notes onto CD that these people want to teach; it is that nobody encroaches and cheapens their visual real estate without a tiny sting or salt in their wound.

God, country, foppery

April 24, 2007

I chanced today to see a prayer rally held by the Knights of Columbus in front of our august capital. Immediately I knew it was a prayer rally – not because I saw any behavioral signifier of prayer but because the words “prayer rally” were printed on the baseball caps of several participants.

What I saw next, though, led me to believe that these hats were a mere conciliatory gesture bestowed upon those who were not fortunate enough to receive capes. For when I considered the great minority of that lucky latter bunch, I could not help but wonder if they weren’t all praying for capes enough for each of them.

The Bugaboos Project

April 21, 2007

I think it was my recent reading of Schiller’s Notes on the Aesthetic Education of Man that has made me so interested in the way that everyday actions betray analytic, synthetic, and aesthetic impulses. The analytic, Schiller says, is the mark of a purely physical sensibility, reflecting an orientation towards the natural world’s diversity and the differentiated objects of our appetites; the synthetic, on the other hand, is a function of the unifying process of reason. The aesthetic, or play, is cited by Schiller as the only ground of possibility for their interaction.

As I was outside enjoying the spring weather today, I was the subject of an infant’s unabashed stare and thought of how purely analytical it was. “Will this person satisfy some appetite of mine? Will he threaten it? Why is he dressed as a ninja?” he seemed to ask. The infant had not yet been able to synthesize the effect of his stare with social nicety or even the disciplinary effects of other, unapproving kinds of staring. From his stroller, he sought to be the pure viewpoint of science and knowledge.

It reminded me of nothing less than the impunity with which people stare from their cars at pedestrians or each other. The stroller is, of course, not a universal. In many countries, babies are carried in slings attached to their parent’s front or attached by skilled bundling to that parent’s back. Yet the stroller seems to be a unique training device for the burgeoning cogito. The stroller separates the infant from the vicarious experience of his parents’ doings and makes him an easily detachable unit with a proper space (or propre lieu [i.e., a space of his own]) in which to gather knowledge.

An inauspicious mixture of alcohol and memes

October 7, 2006

Anyone who has spent much time on a college campus – spent time of a Monday, especially – can perhaps corroborate when I suggest that an essential part of being drunk is the creation of stories from that experience. From the overhearing I’ve done, I think I can safely posit a three part structure to these stories. The storyteller begins by emphasizing the degree to which s/he was drunk, thus delimiting a space of unusual logic and possibility; the stereotype for this is, of course, “Oh my God, I was so drunk.” The second phase involves the storyteller finding him or herself in situation with no understanding of either the currently transpiring events or the events that lead to the present. This situation is resolved, in its way, through either a return to more conventional narrative (this might be something like, “So we left the bar then”) or through a failure of memory.

Drinking provides a framework for the presentation of a self through storytelling – a framework perhaps best paralleled in the phenomenon of internet personality tests. In both, one treads as forthrightly as possible through unknown territory – the questions of dubious relevance to anything, the alcohol-obscured situation – and emerges, surprised by a newly gleaned facet of one’s own subjectivity. Just as drunkenness gives the individual an excuse to answer the question of “What would I do if I suddenly came to my senses while dancing on a table in leopard-print underwear of unknown provenance,” the internet personality test gives one the chance to answer just which Care Bear he or she would be.