Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Formality and Familiarity

[my apologies if this post is a bit of a dog's breakfast; I've spent too much time fussing over it. It probably should have been parsed out into a couple different posts. But there you are.]

It occurred to me, a few weeks ago, that maps are like a collective voice—the voice of a group—in the same way that all published second-person information are. One individual (or more likely, a small group) composes the material, with the idea that "anyone" (that is, anyone with understanding of the particular formal visual or text system) can fit themselves into the pilot's seat and bake that bread or find that highway. In a sense all communication creates a community, in that it means that more then one person has the same information, and this sort of communication is a subset of that.

Maps, recipes and other anonymous second-person communications also act as guides within a larger system. They are formal, though they may be couched in friendly, casual voice: you can make a handwritten-text map, or (as with Julia Child or Laurie Colwin) frame recipes with chatty, informal prose. But Julia Child and your local cartographer do not know anything about you personally. All they know is that you, their target audience, desire to learn to cook the things they describe, or to learn what you have to say about geographic space. As maker of a cookbook/map, you need to compose instructions that can be used by a cook in a small kitchen in Boston or a cabin in Montana, by a motorcyclist or Hummer driver,

BUT: the maker of s standard street map is NOT making their map for people trying to walk or drive cattle. One could say that cattle drivers are excluded. Much has been made of classist, racist, sexist, nationalist etc. exclusion from cartography. And the same thing could be said for Julia Child. You need a motor vehicle to really use a modern road map properly, and you need a kitchen to use a modern cookbook: there are basic tools that the cookbook and street map presume you will have.

But besides excluding, these tools also welcome in. They make it possible to join in a community—indeed they form that community—without first passing a human-administered sniff test: there is no catechism, no manners to learn, no bloodline to prove. This was Julia Child's genius: you don't have to have an outrageous French accent to cook good French food; you just have to understand the system. So the matter of exclusion becomes a matter either of personal economics (can't use that navigational chart... don't own a boat...), or a matter of choice (why would I want to cook French food? Can't stand the stuff).


I'm writing this on the Amtrak train down to Portland from Seattle. The train staff are settled in seats behind us, where they are chatting and griping about their jobs. When they make announcements, there is a forced informality to their patter: they are trying very hard to simultaneously sound professional and friendly. The divide between formality and familiarity is, as in much of American public life, confused.

I grew up in this informal American social environment. A lot of it is about denial of class divides: it is not OK in much of this country to set yourself above other fellow Americans (illegal immigrants are another matter). I find even the now-much-reduced sense of formality in Europe disconcerting, and I know Europeans find themselves disconcerted by American "friendliness."

But friendliness is not the same as familiarity. One may give a highly formal greeting that nonetheless makes the visitor very welcome, and one can be laid-back and rudely unwelcoming.

In an odd way, formality can be more friendly, especially where there is a divide in familiar social customs. The word "familiar" comes from the same root as "family" and implies a habitual rather than consciously learned set of behaviors. Where these habits are not ingrained, being plunged into a casual social situation can be very very awkward: rules are not spelled out, and in the everyday business of eating, going to the toilet, and simply sitting and relaxing, feelings are likely to be hurt.

But, of course, formality can be off-putting. I did not like the whole be-on-your-best-manners part of visiting my maternal grandparents. The silverware, the posture, the careful wordings... and in retrospect they were not that bad at all, pretty tolerant and gently corrective to their grandson.

The difference between formality as welcome and formality as barrier is in whether the formal system permits access to the habitual. A street map allows one to discover a network, but that same network can be learned (think new cabbies with their nose in the street atlas vs. old-timers who know the city streets by heart).

Where formality is destructive is where there is no gateway through to familiarity: Eliza Doolittle could learn to be a lady, but unless her Pakistani modern-day counterpart is truly judged by her habits, speech and carriage, her skin color will forever bar her. You can be as polite as you want to awful old Great-aunt Phyllis, but she will never let you see her heart, or see you as you are.

And where maps truly do provide a barrier, they too are a problem: where they are used to create ghettoes and bantustans and reservations, to clearly and unequivocally state that this sort of person will only be allowed here and here, to rationalize and clarify violent systems.

They are also a bar where formality becomes its own ingrained habit. This is the class bar: when you have grown up used to formal habits, you have an inherent, and unfair, social advantage over those who have had to learn the formal system, and for whom it will always be a foreign language.

My own take-home for this is that it is always best that a formal system like cartography remain a foreign language to all who use it; one may become fluent, but if it becomes the language in which you relax in your pajamas, then you need in a sense to recuse yourself from using it as a tool for power. You become a host, and ought not really claim this common land of formal systems as territory.

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