The House of Tatterdemalion


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Under the Microscope

July 28th, 2007 by tatterdemalion

So in my previous ramble, I talked about this book called Woven into the Earth. I kind of expressed my uncomfortableness with having my work taken under the microscope, as the work of the women of Greenland was literally done. And I also mentioned another book, a kind of mock-up (in more ways than one) of modern America being unburied and discovered at a later time.

Kind of bringing both of those thoughts together, I’ve been thinking a little about what people would find—if they excavated my house, or more broadly, this country. These excavators try to find meaning in every artifact they uncover, to point to the kind of lives and the kind of people who lived there.

For example, they pay special attention to any designs or symbols. And when they find initials, they ponder their meaning—the initials of the owner? Perhaps the suitor who gave it as a gift? The highly skilled craftsman who made it? Perhaps it stood for a meaningful phrase, as R.I.P. stands for Rest In Peace.

And what meaningful things would they find if they dug up our civilization? What would show them what kind of a people we were? The brand names stamped on our every belonging? The little bits of metal we use to start our cars and open our doors? What would they make of the letters or numbers on those oddly shaped things? The songs on our iPods?

I try to think of things in modern houses that get a lot of use, things that are important, things that are personal. Unfortunately most modern houses strike me as rather sterile, and it seems the most important things in the houses are the microwave and the TV. The houses look mostly unlived in, as most people spend their time living elsewhere, and only come home to sleep.

I suppose that might be a bit harsh. I suppose we must all personalize our house in some way, with a few odd mementos. But, I suppose, that is really what I’m noticing—they’re already mementos, and we’ve yet to be dug up. They’re already markers of what was, not things that are sustaining what is.

Before, it is assumed, symbols had meaning. Now, they don’t mean anything, we just like they way they look. Before, the style of dress changed less frequently, a part of the culture. Now, it is virtue to keep up with the changing tides, to be careful not to look “dated” or dressing from the last season. Before, a well made tool would be passed from generation to generation. Now, we dread that our technology is out of date a few months after meaninglessly purchasing it.

People say this is the advance of civilization, but I think it is more accurate to say it is the advance of technology. It’s rather ironic, but our technology has improved to the point we have nothing worth keeping. What items do you use on a regular basis that you would you pass down? Most things are not even made to be durable enough to do so; either it is assumed that you won’t use it enough to make the item capable of sustained use, or it is assumed that it will shortly be superseded by superior technology and you wouldn’t want to keep it anyway.

People speak of heritage, of roots, of getting in touch with the past. But what about the present? Why bother “get in touch” with the people of the past when you are already so distant from the people of the present?

I mean, sure, you hang out with people in the present. And instant message them. And text message them.

Is that all civilization is? Idle chit-chat?

It’s funny, but when I hear the word “civilization”, it makes me think of people helping each other toward the things necessary for life. Or treating each other well. Of giving things to each other. More than that, of loving each other, and sacrificing for each other. A civilization is not about one person—you—but of people: together, not separate. And those things are necessary for people to be together; otherwise, regardless of proximity, each draws into self.

I suppose that may be considered a rather narrow definition of civilization. Certainly it is not the dictionaries understanding of such things.

But I do think that it is a reason many people feel a pull from the past—it was much more personal. I think also that it is a pull for many people toward hand-work as well, whether it be poor or perfect. It can seem to be almost a part of the person, wiggled-loose and given away—even given to you. Into the thing you hold was poured the other person’s time, talent, personality, intentions. It was deliberately made, and deliberately given, with one person in mind.

Perhaps some would say that it is superseded by modern technology. Perhaps. Perhaps the things that are massed produced, coldly and uncaringly, do have greater strength or fineness or precision. But does greater technology have greater value?

And on the flip side of that, does something from the past have greater value? Simply because of nebulous things like “heritage” or “culture” or “roots”? Or is the desire for heritage a desire to belong, to be part of something, to be valued? Even, to be loved? Could that desire even be satiated by the past? Surely, you can see love shown in things of the past, but it’s not directed toward you.

Here is the microscope. And there is the object. Now tell me, which is more important: the manner of how it was constructed, or the manner of why it was constructed?

Posted in Books, Contemplations | 6 Comments »

6 Responses

  1. Laura Says:

    (I put Woven into the Earth on my TBR list after reading your previous post. I read Motel of the Mysteries a few years ago and thought it was clever, but belabored the point.)

    I’ve been working on an essay about my grandparents’ experiences during the Depression, and recently returned from a family reunion, so I’ve been thinking about similar issues. Most people claim to dislike history, but there’s a ton of people into genealogy. I think there’s something about one’s own ancestors that makes them more accessible and personal, just like being interested in crafts is more accessible and personal than being interested in an entire historical way of life. But is the story of one’s own ancestors any more important in the larger scheme of things? Likely not, and possibly not even representative.

    On the topic of history and technology, or a technological culture: traditionally, history has been done by allowing a significant amount of time for events to pass before commenting on them. There’s current events, then a sort of black hole which only exists in people’s memory and in ‘old junk’ (it’s not archival until someone archives it, and in the meantime it’s seen as having no value and often thrown away, for good or ill). Then there’s HISTORY, which privileges some sources (written, ruling class, etc.) over others (folk, unwritten, craft). The distance of time does help provide some objectivity, and allows novel questions to be asked. But it also means you lose a lot of understanding and subtlety that was known at the time. And with current media and information storage capabilities it’s not really necessary anymore to ignore the medium-term, but everyone does anyway.

    On the topic of artifacts and how they will be viewed in the future, recently I saw a sticker on a truck back windshield that was Dale Earnhardt’s NASCAR number (2, I think?) with 2 wings on each side. Now, what will the archaeologist of the future, digging up a junkyard, think of this winged 2 – religious cult? Numerology to protect against car accidents? Some kind of personal social statement? A DMV device?

    Ok, done nattering now.

  2. Under the Microscope » The Ethereal Voice Says:

    […] _uacct = “UA-1202685-1”; urchinTracker(); Map of the Ethereal Land The Ethereal Voice Front Page – Politics – Money – Knowledge – Art – Food – Fun Masthead About Under the Microscope By Tatterdemalion | July 28, 2007 – 1:39 pm Posted in Category: Front Page, Knowledge So in my previous ramble, I talked about this book called Woven into the Earth. I kind of expressed my uncomfortableness with having my work taken under the microscope, as the work of the women of Greenland was literally done. And I also mentioned another book, a kind of mock-up (in more ways than one) Click Here to continue reading. […]

  3. Tatterdemalion Says:

    Hi Laura!

    I must confess I never really read Motel of Mysteries. I remember looking through it as a kid, and reading it enough to get the premise, but the words were ‘boring’ to me. The pictures, however, made a big impression of me, esp. of a woman wearing a toilet seat as a headdress. But in order to even refrence the book, my Mom and I had to really dredge to come up with the title.

    I think in general that ‘history’ has been very badly presented to people. History “textbooks” made my eyes cross, but I always enjoyed historical fiction or personal accounts of history. And I think that everyone who is really interested in a subject does tend to study history—just very narrowly the history relating to their subject.

    It’s kind of funny, but I find my self much more interested in “ways of life” than geneolgy or distant family history. Both of my parents are interested, to one degree or another, in geneology, so we have ‘ourselves’ traced back to exactly when ‘we’ came over and where ‘we’ came from. Or at least, anyway, I could easily look it up if I wanted to know, but quite honestly I can never keep it in my head.

    I believe the black hole between “present” and “history” is called “vintage”! 😉 Really, I think it just doesn’t have enough “mystery” for people to be interested in it. You know, “yeah, yeah, we all know that when you were a kid, you walked to school, up-hill both ways, in raging snow storms. .”

    Your artifact example was exactly the sort of thing I was talking about! But I’m not too worried about it. They can think what they like. The purpose of history is, I think, to lead us to consider how we ought to leave the present. So even if our interpretations may be a bit off base from past reality, the self-examination stays the same.

    How did they do it? How are we doing it? What have we lost? What have we gained? What have we forgotten that we should still know? What should we learn from the mistakes that were made?

    That sort of thing.

    Anyway, thanks for your nattering; I enjoy the interaction.

  4. Laura Says:

    Totally agree about the process of self-examination being more important than the result. But if your assumptions are wrong, you can end up with an erroneous result. I’m not an expert on how the Third Reich used/twisted history to justify their aims, but I know that they did (to choose the most egregious example). I guess the issue there is where does history start and propaganda begin?

    There’s something weirdly incestuous about genealogy, or maybe the word I want is indulgently self-involved. It’s always bugged me, although as a sometime historian I should be glad that people are interested at all.

    Hmm, maybe I should call myself a ‘scholar of vintage’. I agree with you about the lack of mystery, but it’s also more accessible, no?

    I’m enjoying this conversation too; always glad to find someone else interested in the same odd things I am. 😉

  5. Tatterdemalion Says:

    Hi Laura,

    Oh, I think I poorly phrased it when I said “The purpose of history is, I think, to lead us to consider how we ought to leave the present. So even if our interpretations may be a bit off base from past reality, the self-examination stays the same.

    Perhaps a better way to phrase it is “history is a grounds for self-examination”. Which is why I was trying to say it didn’t really matter what the past was—only the self-examination. I feel like I’m talking in circles, but to use your example, it didn’t matter whether the Third Reich used real or manufactured history—they had already determined what their conclusion would be before they got started.

    If people go “back” and look through the remains of my life while expecting to find strange ceremonial garb, well, they may end up calling my toilet seat a headdress.

    That’s why I say the most important part is what you’re looking to find, anyway—because that’s very likely mostly all you will find.

    I think if someone else reads Woven into the Earth their thoughts will likely be dramatically different than what I find myself thinking. Reading Woven into the Earth (or any study of history) may stir up my thought process or cause me to consider things in a new light, but really, I’m already going to be looking at any history in light of what I already find important or disturbing.

    I don’t think I could really even claim to be a “sometimes historian”, but I think one of the reasons many people start with genealogy is that they are looking for something from the past they can relate to, identify with, or more easily imagine themselves to live in their shoes. (I don’t deny that there are many other reasons; prestige in blood line or glorying in ancestors accomplishments may perhaps be among those other things.)

    Personally, however, I could never much relate to genealogy, though it sometimes does amuse me to think of my “origins”. I’ve been more interested in what, for a lack of a better word, I will call “practical history”—matters of every day life, like the manner of coming by food and clothing. The time period does not matter so much, but I’m not as interested in city life as I am rural life, and I’m much more interested in the “lower classes” than the “upper classes”. Why? Well, going back to what we were saying earlier about looking in history for the things that are already important to you. . .

    “Scholar of Vintage” is a good title! I think how accessible it is is also one of the reasons why it’s not taken seriously. For some reason there’s a prevailing mindset that Important Things = Difficult To Do, or perhaps I should write that in the reverse as Difficult Things = Important Things. I think that’s false; I think some of the most important things are so simple, mundane, and even sometimes easy—but as such, get taken for granted and swept under the carpet. (Like kissing a child goodnight, for example.) And some things that are really difficult can be just plain worthless, in my ever so humble opinion (a possible example here would be acts of dare-devilry, which are indisputably difficult, but often time seem pointless to me).

  6. Laura Says:

    Oh, don’t get me started about the difficult/obscure = valuable paradigm, I could rant for hours. It’s the reason I’m no longer in academia. Of course, the alternative seems to be rampant anti-intellectualism, so finding some kind of middle ground feels like quite a feat some days.

    I agree with you about the fact that most people, and institutions, tend to see what data supports their conclusions and ignore what doesn’t, and we all have a reporting bias. I don’t know if it’s possible, or desirable, to be completely objective (completely objective is probably being a space alien who doesn’t understand anything about our world – how useful is that?). It does seem to me, however, that we shouldn’t just give up there. There should be some kind of goal for balanced analysis and a reasoned process, but perhaps that’s just my idealistic side talking.

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