Wednesday, November 24, 2010


People in our culture have a fascination with the unseen. I have one too, but it occurs to me that we take the "seen" for granted. Or rather--how the seen reflects the unseen.

When I was in school, I was taught in language arts from the first grade onward that a noun was a "person, place, or a thing". When I got to high school, the definition was modified; a noun was now a "person, place, thing, or idea". The abstract had been introduced into the concrete.

I don't know when this change in definition officially occurred, or if it always was that way, but never stated explicitly. Whatever the case, it is true that our reality is made up of ideas in the 21st century. Ideas and numbers.

Money is an excellent example. When I get paid, I never see any physical money. It is directly deposited into my checking account. From there, it is electronically deposited into my creditors' accounts. Once I week I take out $100 in cash for my groceries, gasoline, and other expenses. And even the green twenty-dollar bills that spit out from the ATM machine are stand-ins for the "real" money, which still happens to be gold. The only reason it is gold is because someone decided that this was the most valuable of rocks a long time ago. And of course, someone decides the value.

I've never entirely understood the idea of "value". It seems to have something to do with supply and demand. For instance--if I own an LP in my record collection that I know is worth a lot of money, I may not get anything close to that if I sell it on eBay. Why? As my brother-in-law explained, "it's only worth what someone is willing to pay for it." How the value of rocks like gold is determined is a mystery to me. Is gold that scarce?

The whole system seems rather sketchy to me. It's a math game, and I'm not good at math. Basically, the number shown in my checking account must be higher than the number owed on my creditors' accounts. But there's no real money here. It's numbers being spit back and forth between computer servers. People have elaborate systems for increasing the numbers in their own accounts--many having to do with other hallucinations like stocks and bonds. Wall Street was built on such hallucinations. Alexander Hamilton had quite an imagination.

But now that world economies are falling like dominoes, you have to wonder even more about the system. I was chatting with a visiting art historian at our campus, an Irishman living in Cyprus. We were discussing the economic troubles of Ireland, and the likely EU bailout. His comment: "This is good for Ireland. They've based their economy on something transient for too long. They give all these breaks to companies to make them come there, when in an hour they can be somewhere else. They need to start over."

My tendency is to agree with him. But start over with what? Aren't most world economies based on the same thing to some degree? It will be interesting to see if something new--or a return to something old--is possible. People liked the new system because you could build a booming economy in a short time. Trouble is, you can lose everything just as quickly.

Back to the other kinds of nouns. It is ironic that in a world that is skeptical of what it cannot see, we are so out of touch with what we can see. Our lives are molded by this numerical hallucination we call the economy--you go to school, then you go to university, with the object of making a living--making money. Which, as we've discussed, is a numerical illusion. Besides the essentials, what do we need money for? Well, people with lots of money acquire a lot of stuff. If they are aficionados of something in particular, they may collect things related to that. But the stuff is often garish and gaudy. I hardly ever watch TV, but in the last 25 years, I've occasionally seen shows about the houses of the contemporary rich and famous. They all look the same, and all have the same uninspiring rooms full of expensive crap. A collection of stuff just for the sake of having it, for the sake of saying "Look, I'm wealthy!" Which translates in their minds as "Look, I'm successful!"

I don't think this is a healthy relationship to things. It may be funny to hear that from someone who practices a religion that says the material world is illusory. On some level, it is. But this is about connecting to the Earth, to Nature--and not just by being outdoors. As humans, we like to feel useful. We like to feel that what we produce--whether it's creative output or manufactured in some way--is useful to others. I think on some level, even the most selfish people have this desire, unless they're sociopaths. We want to contribute something to the world, and make a difference in the lives of others.

When a child is very small, he will often have a favorite stuffed toy that he or she carries around. They become very upset if they are separated from that toy. That toy is known in psychological parlance as a "transitional object". The child recognizes separation from the parents, and clings to the toy as a stand-in for parental comfort, especially when they are with babysitters or alone in their bed at night. At some point, the object is discarded, when it is no longer needed. It might be thrown out if it is really worn, or might be passed on to another child. The object becomes a subject. We interact with it; it has a meaning to us beyond any marketing hype at Christmastime.

I have always been impressed and awed by the simplest things. An exquisitely designed dinner plate. A well-made glass of wine. The smell of a fireplace in an old house. Even daily routines can be awe-inspiring experiences. Doing the dishes, raking the leaves, baking bread--I like to do these things myself because there's a certain pleasure involved. It's the interaction with things, doing them consciously. Or, as the Zen Buddhists would say, doing things with awareness. Looking at the stars at night, or looking at a beautiful sunrise, just for the sake of looking. If you're bored by these things, then you've lost something of your life. It is true that when we have too many things to do we become overwhelmed, and may want a break from all of it. But that's another problem--we rush around, worry about what we need to do next, rather than focusing on the present and taking our time. And often, individuals are not to blame; society demands it.

This sense of rushing, of needing to get ahead permeates my profession particularly, and I think it's to its detriment. I've attended three workshops on the new cataloging rules (RDA). What I'm being told is that description is no longer important; it's data. Data with which we can make lots of linkages to other data. Changing the way we do data is important, because we want to be part of this futuristic thing called "the Semantic Web". Our information is in "silos", and can only be accessed by going to individual library catalogs. The great irony here is that switching to a "Semantic Web" model and doing away with our very strict standard of description is going to make our information more inaccessible. Since there are few standards regarding entry, the librarians will be as lost as the users when they're trying to find things, because we can't be sure how the materials are being described. Sure, thesauri still exist for subjects, but which one is being used? Lately, library-land is trading its organizational principles for the chance to make some "neat" connections on the Web; connections which will be as overwhelming as the original keyword searches in the 1980s. The description is an art; making it fit the pre-defined rules makes it more of a challenge, though a necessary one if you want to be able to search catalogs nationally and internationally. But it will no longer be about describing the piece; it will be about "data" that's even more "meta".

But maybe they're right--in a world where people treat the world as an object, a means to an end, maybe no one wants description. Ideas are more important than things.

Still, I suspect that there's at least a nostalgia for the thingliness of things. Deep down people want that connection, even if they've forgotten how to make it. It's not hard, really. Just slow down and pay attention. And stop looking at the world as a means to an end.

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