Archive for the ‘visual language’ category

Stuff versus systems: the tension in the USA

July 7, 2015

Who knew it was possible to get competitive about minimalism? There’s the challenge where you try to go three months with only 33 things to wear. There’s the woman who tried living with only 72 things. The man with only 72 things. The man who really ups the ante and only has 15 things.

It’s not-owning-things as a competitive sport. But when you look a little closer, these extravagant claims mostly rest on stretchy definitions of not-owning things.

I count my things as resellable items I would be pissed if someone took. Coffee cup? No. Jacket? Yes. iPhone and headphones? One thing.

I suppose it’s nice that he’s so relaxed about people wandering off with his coffee cups, but that’s not really a definition of owning stuff that I’ve ever heard outside the world of competitive minimalism.

I have over 30 jars of spices in my kitchen. They’re arranged on two spice racks. In other words, a small part of my kitchen contains nearly 35 things, which is nearly half of the total possessions of the two people who claim only to own 72 things. Compared to them I am a hoarder, a compulsive accumulator of things, a stuff-glutton.

But the thing is, all those spices have been used in the past year. Most of them have been used in the past six months. Should I jettison them in the cause of minimalism and then cook bland food for the rest of my life? Or should I cleverly declare that 30+ spices plus two spice racks actually counts as “one thing”, just like an iPhone and headphones? Or maybe I should claim I don’t really own the spices, because they’re not resellable. But the thing is…what would I actually gain from any of this? Real question: what do the people who do this gain from it?

Obviously, minimalists will talk about simplicity and about rejecting consumerism and about streamlining their lives to focus on what’s truly important. But minimalism is aspirational not just because it represents these choices, but because it correlates with privilege.

Tupperwolf said it better than I ever could:

When rich people present the idea that they’ve learned to live lightly as a paradoxical insight, they have the idea of wealth backwards. You can only have that kind of lightness through wealth.

It’s really worth reading the whole thing. I linked to it in my post about the hidden baggage of people who are always travelling, and I’ll make the same point again that I made there: we need to stop using visuals to assess what impact someone’s life is having. If your living space is constantly immaculate and empty-looking, are you being responsible in how you get rid of things? Do you go the extra mile to work out what the council will recycle? Do you try to repair broken things? Do you ever store items for friends? Do you allow those friends to crash on your sofa?

See, I suspect not. I suspect the life of the competitive minimalist is environmentally destructive and emotionally cold, involving a lot of hopping on planes, eating restaurant and takeaway food, generating rubbish, never settling for long enough to become part of any community. Sorry, I mean “pursuing your world-traveling ambitions while still young enough to make a lot of mistakes and bounce back from them more or less intact’”.

But that’s not even my actual point here. My point here is that that kind of “lightness” and “independence” is heavily dependent on existing structures and networks. It’s dependent on civilisation. Your passport, your Oyster card, your credit card: all light objects that depend on strong invisible networks to be of any use whatsoever. It’s great that something fitting in your jeans pocket can (literally) open doors for you. Just don’t forget that when you blip a turnstile open with your Oyster card, you are benefiting from the ideas and hard work and goodwill of thousands of other people.

When we talk about complex supply chains, it’s often in the context of terrible hidden costs for things like iPhones. But making use of things that wouldn’t exist without complex systems isn’t necessarily bad. It can be morally neutral or morally the better choice. It’s just part of signing up for human civilisation. And the more you strive for possession-free simplicity in your own life, the more dependent you become on that civilisation.

The decision to have no permanent address depends on the existence of hotels, other people’s homes, B&Bs. It depends on you having money. It depends on people’s willingness to accept that money in exchange for accommodation. Likewise the decision to have no cooking utensils, or whatever.

I rummaged through the debris scattered around the cabin floor and the surrounding land, finding remnants of life in the cabin before the siege. I picked things up – cardboard boxes containing some empty spice bottles her mother used to keep, Elisheba’s baby chair.

“What are you doing?” said Rachel. “It’s just a bunch of junk.” She laughed. “All the things that used to be important to us were junk to other people,” she said. “The books and stuff. Now it’s junk to me and important to you.”

Jon Ronson’s book THEM sets up a tension between two American ways of living. Maybe it’s reasonable, educated people versus paranoid, racist gun nuts. Maybe it’s a secretive global elite versus courageous ordinary people. You could see the division as being about class, religion, level of education, politics. But maybe it’s also about stuff.

The backstory to that quote above: when Rachel was a child, her family lived in a mountain cabin, which ended up being the location of a siege in which her mother, brother and dog were killed.

There were US marshals and FBI snipers in gas masks and face paint and camouflage, local police, state police, the BATF, the Internal Revenue Service, the US Border Patrol, Highway Patrol from four states, City Police and the Forestry Service. They had tanks and armoured personnel carriers.

If all those supposedly separate authorities ganged up to collude in the senseless murder of your family members, how much would you believe in the power of networks, communication, goodwill, civilisation generally, to keep you safe? If you’d spent eight days trapped inside your home, would you be relaxed about relying on takeaways and meals out, or would you stock up on food? If the authorities had tricked your father into committing a crime and then tried to kill him, would you rely on the police for help in emergencies or would you buy a gun?

If you don’t believe you can rely on the things that many of us take for granted, you will stock up on food and water. You’ll ramp up the security of your home, maybe with cameras and alarms, maybe with a guard dog or weapons. You’ll drive a car instead of using public transport, and probably choose the kind of car that can be driven off-road. And you won’t throw out useful things just because they’re not useful to you right now – you’ll keep them just in case.

There’s a deep tension in American culture, and it’s being expressed through stuff. And the government knows it. Having over seven days’ worth of food in your home could make you a terrorist suspect. Buying flashlights could make you a terrorist suspect. So could owning guns and owning too much gold and silver.

In other words, being prepared for the worst makes you the threat. Opting for stuff over systems makes you the threat. Why? My only guess right now is that this civilisation we all depend on is a fragile thing, and it depends on the majority of people buying in to it. The same with respect for the authorities. So the US government wants to discourage people from behaving as if they can’t trust the state or their neighbours, in case it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Safety is an anti-gift.

But of course, in reality, only certain people will ever be prosecuted under the “too many groceries” law or the “well, flashlights are always useful in a power cut, let’s get some” law. We’re back to privilege again.

Our Manic Pixie Dream House

June 5, 2015

My partner and I have decided to sell our house. We’ve followed the conventional wisdom, as set out in a thousand telly programmes, how-to guides and magazines: tidy, declutter, deep-clean, carry out minor repairs, etc, etc. But the reality of getting your house ready for marketing photography or for a viewing is more than that: it’s about trying to hide the fact that the house is currently inhabited by humans with bodies.

To make your house into a desirable object, the evidence of your actual inhabitation must be removed from view. This means (temporarily, thank God) hiding the hundreds of tiny things that make your house a comfortable and convenient place to spend time in: the bins, the spare loo roll, the much-used appliances that normally sit on the worktop, etc. This week, as we shoved the soap-dish into a cupboard and drank straight from the tap to avoid getting any cups dirty, it came to me: selling your house turns you into a manic pixie dream girl.

For anyone who’s not up on the concept, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl Twitter account will give you a good idea. She has no interior life of her own and exists as a human reward for the male protagonist. She is quirky, bubbly, attractive and in no way an actual person with needs. In other words, she’s the human equivalent of the house with no shampoo in the shining bathroom, no mugs on the coffee table, no shoes in the porch. Despite the surface quirkiness, she’s a blank canvas for you to start sketching your own character development.

Laurie Penny nails it when she writes that it’s easy for youngish women to get shunted into the manic pixie mould. Are you an attractive-ish female-identified person who can tick three or more qualities off this list?

Creative in your spare time
In a “creative” profession
In a job you dislike but can joke amusingly about
You enjoy an unusual hobby
New to the area/country or in the middle of travelling

If so, I’m guessing that at some point in your life you’ve been mistaken for a manic pixie dream girl  (who does not exist) by some straight guy (who was slightly disappointed when you turned out to be a person). And when I say “at some point in your life”, obviously I mean “at a point in your life when you were young, attractive and probably thin”.

For others, selling your house is the first time you have to pull this crap. “Soap? Shampoo? No way! I just jump into a mountain stream! Possibly I yelp adorably while doing so and then encourage you to jump in as well. Shoes? Hell no, you won’t see any shoes when you come to view my house. I just walk barefoot to my adorable job at the quirky bakery. Or perhaps I don’t actually have feet. Maybe it’s just a cute haze from the ankle down. And before you ask, no, of course I do not eat or go to the toilet or do laundry or wash dishes or file any paperwork.

Meanwhile, the house itself backs you up. “Bins? I have no bins! (Please don’t look behind the hedge.) My floors have never witnessed cat-sick! I always have a vase of fresh flowers! I always smell of something nice like vanilla or coffee but don’t worry, no food or drink is ever prepared here because there are no human bodies here! No human bodies! None! I am here to help with your character development. Maybe you’ll be living in me when you meet your soulmate, quit your job for something better or take up snowboarding!

I haven’t felt this bad about owning a human body since I was a teenager. And – maybe coincidentally, maybe not – my body has recently been going out of its way to remind me that it’s real.

Manic Pixie Dream Girling is work. Hard work. If you’re doing it to sell a house for thousands of pounds: marvellous. If you’re doing it for no reward, because your existence has been framed as somebody else’s reward: terrible.

Read the articles about how to prep your home for viewings. Imagine they’re talking about a person and not a house. I hope the psychic violence behind the Manic Pixie Dream Girl framework jumps out at you like a murderer jumping from behind my super-clean shower curtain.

Pretty letters

April 10, 2013

Chinese “poem” was an advert for a strip club:

This is what happens when you decide that Chinese text can be used as cover art and focus exclusively on how pretty it looks rather than what it means. This is what happens when you treat another culture’s language as decoration.

The deeper irony is that the advert itself was for a strip club. Strip clubs are all about the visuals too.

Cathy and Wyclef

March 29, 2013

And I’m on tonight
You know my hips don’t lie
And I’m starting to feel it’s right
All the attraction, the tension
Don’t you see baby, this is perfection

This isn’t about words! This is about Shakira’s body sending a message – and the body cannot lie. This is a time for breathless, passionate inarticulacy. Read the messages of her body and respond to them… Right?

Yep, Shakira’s hips are brilliant at sending out that primal message. She’s just backing it up with words to be on the safe side. Look at my hips. Are you getting the memo? Hell-o! Are you listening?

This is something I see over and over again in Shakira’s work. She enjoys playing with ideas of silence, inarticulacy, miscommunication. She enjoys playing the woman rendered submissive by the man’s superior verbal ability. But then she can’t quite bring herself to really shut up.

I think it’s quite a common fantasy among women who are attracted to men: meeting a man who is more articulate than you are, maybe even better at talking about sex and romance than you are.

Don’t believe me? Pick up a Louise Bagshawe book, or a Mills & Boon. (I did it so you don’t have to. OK, that’s a lie. I do it because I like it.) They never, ever feature a man in the hero role who’s inherently crap at communicating. Sure, the heroine’s beauty might leave him temporarily speechless. Sure, he might hide his lust under a steely facade because they have to do some kind of super-important business deal together. But he is never just a bit rubbish at talking. Never fails to parry her verbal jabs with some zingers of his own.  In a serious conversation about where the relationship is going, he won’t repeatedly fall back on “Um, I don’t know.”

It’s a fantasy because these super-articulate guys are rare. Not because men are inherently bad at talking, but because they’re trained by our culture to be bad at talking. The woman who plays the flustered, inarticulate social submissive usually ends up doing a lot of highly skilled behind-the-scenes work to keep it up. The sexual equivalent would be the sub barking orders at the dom and telling him off for tying the knots all wrong. (And I am certain that happens all the time too. “Oh, Mr Grey, you’re too strong for me! I’m just a simple virgin who – FOR GOD’S SAKE, HAVE YOU LOST THE LUBE AGAIN? WELL, WHERE DID YOU LEAVE IT LAST TIME? IT CAN’T HAVE JUST VANISHED!”)

Back to Shakira. She’s playing the silent dancer whose body does the talking. But this song is, of course, a duet with Wyclef Jean. He’s been cast in the role of the super-articulate man who overwhelms her with his verbal skills. Problem is, his actual reaction to her is hilariously inadequate.

And when you walk up on the dance floor
Nobody cannot ignore the way you move your body, girl
And everything so unexpected – the way you right and left it
So you can keep on shaking it

It’s hardly Lord Byron, is it? But the bit that makes me cringe all the way from my head to my toes is the Year 9 Spanish:

I never really knew that she could dance like this
She makes a man wants to speak Spanish
Como se llama (si), bonita (si), mi casa (si, Shakira Shakira), su casa
Shakira, Shakira

Ouch. Even if you don’t know that these words are directed at a native Spanish speaker, it’s still cringe-o-rama. I can only hope he’s having a laugh too. But Shakira gamely responds as if he’s really come out with some amazing piece of verbal seduction:

Oh baby when you talk like that
You make a woman go mad
So be wise and keep on
Reading the signs of my body

Later on in the song, Wyclef Jean does a bit of rapping, but in true girlfriend-disappointing style, it’s nothing to do with her at all. It’s all about him and his origin myth of being a refugee from Haiti. I used to wonder if Shakira was disappointed that her pal Wyclef had failed so badly. But now I think maybe she was just laughing at him all along.

My favourite piece of perfectly-honed fake inarticulacy and submission comes with these lines:

Oh boy, I can see your body moving
Half animal, half man
I don’t, don’t really know what I’m doing
But you seem to have a plan
My will and self restraint
Have come to fail now, fail now
See, I am doing what I can, but I can’t so you know
That’s a bit too hard to explain

If you actually watch the part of the Hips Don’t Lie video where she’s singing these words, you’ll see she knows exactly what she’s doing. Whenever I watch it, I don’t know whether to laugh out loud or melt into a puddle of lust.

There’s none so blind

March 13, 2013

Are you a middle-aged or elderly woman? Do you need glasses to read, or perhaps to see properly in general?

Don’t wear them. They make you look old. They are literally the only thing making you look old. Take them off immediately. When you remove your glasses, all the other signs of age melt away from you, and you immediately gain the appearance of a lithe 25-year-old. You will look girlish and care-free as you complain about parking charges or ask your son-in-law to fix your computer.

When someone hands you a letter, or a recipe, or a map, or a copy of the TV listings, the look of incomprehension and mild panic on your face makes you look – impossible as it may seem – even younger. As you scrabble through your handbag or search the house for the glasses you need to read, you take on the appearance of a dewy-skinned 21-year-old.

Of course, when you finally find the glasses, you will have to actually put them on. But that’s OK, because everybody knows you don’t really wear them. So your forcefield of youthfulness remains intact. To add a note of eagerness and youthful energy to the general aura, why not try licking your finger before finally getting to grips with the piece of paper?

Then, finally, you can begin to read. And now you appear even more youthful: you’ve taken several minutes and put in a lot of effort to read a few sentences. Congratulations! I’ve measured your educational level using these factors and concluded that you can’t be any more than five years old.

Sacred swans: “You can’t even take a picture of your own child.”

October 13, 2011

We all know that paedophiles are bad, but to say so doesn’t always make you the toast of the party. It’s usually safe to say “String ’em up” or “The bastards should all be castrated” in working-class and/or right-wing company, but it pushes the wrong buttons among Guardian readers, who may suspect you of firebombing paediatricians’ homes in confusion. But, whether you’re drinking red wine with your vegetarian paella, or accepting tea with two sugars while you fix someone’s boiler, it’s always OK to complain about “the people who take it too far”. In other words, the people who are so keen to stamp out paedophilia that they impose ridiculous restrictions.

Every now and then we get a story about sunburn caused by a teacher’s reluctance to touch a child and apply sunscreen, but mainly the whining is to do with recording visual images. When you complain that your video camera was banned from the school play, there are several things that might tell me about you:

  1. You have very little idea why the restriction is thought necessary, because you don’t know a lot about how paedophiles work.
  2. You think that ownership of the visual depiction of your child goes with your general moral ownership of that child.
  3. You know that talking about “how they have gone too far the other way” is a sure-fire conversational hit.

Every year, school swimming galas and nativity plays are a forest of videography equipment. It gets worse and worse. The current generation of children is probably the most pictorially documented in history. (It’s also one of the most delinquent, and one of the best at passing GCSEs, but you can prove anything with statistics.)

I don’t seriously think that the average school needs to worry about images of its pupils falling into the wrong hands. Even if they did, no actual harm is done to the child depicted, unless you believe in voodoo. And, of course, even if every school and responsible parent banned all pictures of children in their care, there’d still be enough material to create this kind of vile pornography. But what annoys me about this particular swan is the sense of a divine right, the sense that the school’s attempt to protect your child is denying you your right as a parent to endlessly photograph and film them. Because, frankly, parents don’t always have the best motives either.

OK, so it’s a tradition to bring out naked photos of your child as a baby when s/he brings home their first boy/girlfriend. It’s an embarrassing, yet hilarious rite of passage. Well, it bothers me because I have seen too many parents do this, not as a little joke, but because they absolutely fucking hate their kids. Liked ’em as babies, hate the teenage monsters they’ve become. And we all know the best way to deal with a teenager is to humiliate them and sabotage their first attempt at an adult relationship.

I know a mother who constantly photographed her daughter because she thought she was way too fat, and wanted her to diet. Not all the time, though; sometimes she photographed her daughter grimacing her way through enforced fun, because she wanted to document her own ability as a good mother. The daughter lost weight. The fat photos are a reminder not to put it on again. Not much chance, since the daughter has since developed anorexia, and I think she’ll be staying slim for quite a while.

Once upon a time, the only media-savvy kids were child stars like Shirley Temple or Judy Garland (both great role models, of course). Now children know how to present themselves, to market themselves, in a way that was unthinkable when I was growing up.

If we’re concerned with the “sexualisation” of children, maybe we need to join the dots between that, our fame culture and the fact that children spend their whole damn lives on camera. There is a link between parents’ attempts to own their kids by constantly recording them, and the “sexualising” culture which “makes kids grow up too fast”, thus alienating them from their parents. But peddlers of this particular swan don’t ever seem to see it.

Scheduling idiom

October 28, 2008

When we talk about pushing a project deadline back, we’re actually talking about setting that project’s new deadline further forward in time. And when we talk about moving an appointment forward, we mean that we’re rearranging that appointment to happen sooner, so the new date will actually be further back in time than the original date.

I’m astonished that this doesn’t cause more confusion. I think it’s because although the idiom is confusing at face value, it’s the expression of a metaphor that most people are comfortable with.

When we talk about time in the context of scheduling, we’re really talking about our own relationship to the scheduled dates, and we’re imagining it in a spatial way. So, when you say that you’re moving the deadline back, you mean that you’re pushing it further away from you. And when you say you’re moving an appointment forward, you mean you’re bringing it nearer to you.

The “you” in both cases is the you of the present. You may not accept that the you of the present is the true you, or even that there can ever be a single authentic self, but you have to accept that the “you” of the present has been saddled with the task of organising your diary.