Monday, August 26, 2013

new essay in Aeon Magazine

A new essay in Aeon Magazine on being a Quaker and an atheist who really believes in magical stories. It's complicated. I originally titled it "In Praise of Gods That Do Not Exist," but I'm OK with the title they assigned to it: "I contradict myself."

As always, comments welcome, here or on the article itself. Enjoy!

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Why decoration is important

There's a piece of Dalia Varanka's paper on the rise of the "Plain Style" in mapping around 1700 that has been gnawing at me. I referred to it in my recent essay on cartography and aesthetics in Cartographic Perspectives, but I think it deserves some deeper pulling-out.

[FYI, Varanka's paper is not available online: it's “The manly map: the English construction of gender in early modern cartography.” in Gender and Landscape: Renegotiating the Moral Landscape, edited by J. Carubia, L. Dowler, and B. Szczygiel. New York/London: Routledge.]

The piece that's bugging me is this: why is decoration trivial? I take it as a given, something that doesn't need further explanation: form follows function, and decoration is an add-on. Flourishes, trills, scrollwork and so on, are less "honest," in this view, than plain, unadorned, prose. Manly prose—you know, like Hemingway.

See what I mean? This thread of appearance being false, of truth being deep, runs to the bone in our culture. And it isn't true everywhere: saving "face" is seen crucial in many cultures. Even in our culture, there is a long and deep divide which has not been entirely settled, between those who think God cares about what we do and those who think what we are is essential: in Christian terms, works and faith.

Outwardness and inwardness were a part of my formative pop-psych thinking: I remember M&M's being a popular metaphor in high school: the hard exterior and the soft, delicate inside. The astrological notions of sun-sign (true inner self) and ascendant (what you feel the need to appear like) also made an appearance.

That latter, though I do not believe in the functional idea (that when you were born determines who you are) does I think provide a way to think of decoration as essential. Because it says that how you want (or even need) to be seen is itself an essential part of who you are. It's not a "fake" thing you can change at will. Some seemings will fit you better than others, just as your true inner self is what it is.

Adolph Loos' Ornament and Crime posited that ornament was a waste of time, because fashion changes. And we have come to see outward presentation as synonymous with fashion. Being changeable, fashion is not trusted. We want our truths to remain on a single, unwavering course. That's what faith is: sticking with your allegiance to a person or an idea no matter what. Even if, as with Mother Teresa, you never actually achieve that numinous moment, you still get counted as saintly if you stick with a strict goodness.

But some ornament is not especially prone to fashion. Traditions include ornament, whether it be in religious decoration, folk dances and music, or traditional costume. Even when radical technological change steps in (as with aniline dyes and many fiber traditions), there is seen to be a deep well of sameness and conformity that is valued, even as it is all about "unnecessary" patterning on functional objects.

So why is ornament important? I think of patterns of tile, or of geometric grillwork, that I see when passing time. I especially notice it in bathrooms. These provide a place for the mind to work and rest simultaneously. A field of play, perhaps. They are certainly better for the mind than an utterly blank slate (or tile). We like to play off of patterns. I do anyway. And so decoration, on surfaces and tools we use every day, give us something to work with.

It's the idea of play that I think is the stickler here. The arguments against ornament are mostly serious. Ornament is seen as silly, a distraction perhaps. And I suppose in places where total concentration is necessary, it is. The question is, should our lives be spent in that kind of concentration? I don't think that's very healthy-sounding. We need to build in play, just to keep ourselves sane. Our lives can't be built so thoroughly on importance and concentration; there's a reason U.S. Presidents seem to age so quickly.

Decoration, then, keeps us young. Perhaps. Or at least keeps us from getting too old, too fast.

What I see as a deeper problem, then, is not that we need decoration, but that we need to build our lives where decoration and underlying form come together inseparably. Again, the astrological model is one I hold up: that the healthiest approach to decoration is that form and function are in fact one, that the object and the patterns we see in it are the same, not a core and an add-on. That the M&M is one candy, not two parts adhered together.

And this doesn't mean (in maps for example) that every pixel must carry inward meaning. Some marks do not mean anything about the core structure of a place. Sometimes, they are texture. But that texture is part of what the place is about. That paisley print is not coded with instructions; it's an abstract design. But that design, if it fits, becomes part of what you are when you are wearing it. And that texture, that added noise, as it were, even though it is not consciously spoken by you or even understood by you, is part of what you are.

I think this is the root of our modernist discomfort with decoration: we want to be in control. Just like the English Empiricists who promulgated the Plain Style, we want to exercise our conscious power over as much as we can, and to eliminate that which we do not consciously control. This obsession with maintaining an order we can understand is arrogant in the extreme. And in the end it will kill what we love, which is not entirely under our command. That decoration, that patterning we make, turns out to be an imitation of the vast, intricate, impossible to entirely comprehend web of processes that keeps us and this world alive.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Function and Beauty (In Defense of Useless Maps) - new essay

In a new essay for Cartographic Perspectives, the journal of the North American Cartographic Information Society, called "Function and Beauty (In Defense of Useless Maps)", I discuss some potential pitfalls and opportunities in discussing maps in terms of aesthetics. It ends up dipping heavily into some wider issues. I hope you all enjoy! All comments welcome.