Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Tonight I watched "Objectified," Gary Huswit's documentary about how we interact with physical objects and the creative, intellectual & ergonomic processes behind their development. It didn't sit right with me that so much of design in the modern age is based on creating objects that are so unobtrusive they almost fail to register and are completely surpassed in order for us to better experience their function alone. In some cases, objects that fade & flow into the background without a fight are unquestionably advantageous. One of the examples given was a pen. A pen is at its best when it is essentially nothing more than an extension of your hand, facilitating a direct, fluid movement of thought from mind through matter and onto paper. A clunky writing utensil can cramp you up - both in hand and in style.

On the other hand, I like to feel things. I like to connect with my environment and there is something so inorganic about a device or object so simple it almost ceases to exist as a physical object. It's weightless. I am reminded of Milan Kundera's "Unbearable Lightness of Being," where at one point he says,

"Unlike Parmenides, Beethoven apparently viewed weight as something positive. Since the German word schwer means both "difficult" and "heavy," Beethoven's "difficult resolution" may also be construed as "heavy" or "weighty resolution." The weighty resolution is at one with the voice of Fate ("Es muss sein!"); necessity, weight, and value are three concepts inextricably bound: only necessity is heavy, and only what is heavy has value." (1:16:1)

Value is not inherent in an object. Unlike an old briefcase (example from the film) passed down through the generations, an iPod does not get better with age. The average iPod doesn't last beyond the three year mark, by which time it will probably have been replaced by something new anyway. My laptop lasted almost exactly three years before it went kaput. What I'm saying is, an object does not, in any real sense, have value simply because it exists. It is useful, yes. It gets the job done. But it is temporary, replaceable. We have no real connection to it and therefore feel no great sadness when its time has come (except maybe the aggravation at having to replace it). An object becomes truly valued when it follows us through our lives - we form memories around it, it develops a character all its own, it becomes priceless and irreplaceable. If it does not fill an important place in our lives, we do not need it. It carries no weight.

"When we want to give expression to a dramatic situation in our lives, we tend to use metaphors of heaviness. We say that something has become a great burden to us. We either bear the burden or fail and go down with it, we struggle with it, win or lose. And Sabina - what had come over her? Nothing. She had left a man because she felt like leaving him. Had he persecuted her? Had he tried to take revenge on her? No. Her drama was a drama not of heaviness but of lightness. What fell to her was not the burden but the unbearable lightness of being." (3: 10: 2)

What it all comes down to is the Meaning of Life. There are a few fundamental things in our lives that tie us to this life; to this particular existence; that give us purpose and meaning and, as a result, bring us contentment (and if we're lucky, happiness). If those "metaphysical weights" are lifted, what are we left with? If we don't have anything to structure our selfhood, who are we? If we don't let the objects that surround us affect our daily lives, what is the world to us? How do we connect to each other? Talk has become cheapened by twitter and text messaging and our lives have been oversimplified by apparatuses like the iPhone.

Although I realize that I probably should embrace the technological developments of my generation, I just can't quite come to terms with the fact that the world seems to be losing its corporeality. I cring at Kindle... the smell of a musty old book and the tangibility of its pages is one of my greatest loves. My digital camera, though convenient for something like daily blog photos, can not compare with the raw experience of a clicking shutter, an advancing roll, the chemical smell and red glow of a dark room and the imperfections that make a print so beautiful and one-of-a-kind (and who really wants four-hundred identical pictures of the same group of people from the same night out on the town?). An mp3 just doesn't sound the same as an old analog recording (and while having a constant soundtrack to our lives may seem like a necessity, we hardly even hear it anymore).

So much of our culture (it seems to me) revolves around the elimination of identity. Some people may have brilliant taste in music, but it is all confined in a little plastic contraption that nobody will ever see (instead of a record collection prominently displayed). Images and information can be so easily manipulated & whitewashed & airbrushed to perfection and we have so many chances to get it right it's almost inexcusable to make a mistake. I personally am overwhelmed with information and opportunities. I can be anything that I want and so I am nothing. I want to learn everything there is about everything because it is so readily available, but that only chokes me up - who could ever decide where to begin? The steady flow of information is both a blessing and a curse, but ultimately I think we would be better off without all of this development.

And so, in honor of the objects of yesteryear, a little compare&contrast:

Having said all of that, I would just like to mention that I think the vintage revival & all of the experimentation with fashion out there is great. People (especially bloggers like all of you!) recognize the importance of personal style in the age of unidentifiable objects, and it is interesting to me that these almost obsolete artifacts are clinging on for dear life and sometimes even making their way back into our lives (case in point: polaroid!).

So many of us are nostalgic for a past that we never even experienced first hand. Why is that? Is this our destiny? Doomed to live forever looking backwards? Is it all because we've lost the love we once had for our objects?

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