Monday, May 02, 2016

revery of the catalogue

Pour l'enfant, amoureux de cartes et d'estampes,
L'univers est égal à son vaste appétit.
Ah ! que le monde est grand à la clarté des lampes !
Aux yeux du souvenir que le monde est petit !

I was that child, a maniac for maps (although less interested in prints). In place of prints, there were catalogues. My memory just touches on my earliest conscious self, the one that couldn’t get enough of catalogues – behind that it is all white noise. I was told by my parents that they could quiet me in my crib by giving me a Sears catalog. I still have a sensual memory of the little insets of tractors (it was a farming catalogue – at one point in its corporate existence, Sears had a strong rural presence, more about which anon). For some reason, there was something incredibly alluring about the array of things that one could get. Not of course that I had any infant inkling of the cash nexus. But I had an early inkling that the charm in life was that the diverse things that constitute it exist each in their own picture in a catalogue.
I’ve always preferred the catalogue image to the real thing – it is a form of consumer perversion that, I think, I share with many. We live now in the hypotrophy of catalogues, from QVC channel to the internet, catalogues fill our cribs, and it is evident to me that a special form of scopophilia is the name of the game. We don’t desire to see our neighbor nude, we desire to see our neighbor’s things, especially if our neighbor lives in a gated community and we suspect that he has a marvelous and very expensive kitchen with one of those granite table islands.
“Catalogue”,  the OED tells us, derives from the Greek, kata, down, and legein, to sort or choose or pick. Down, the direction of the list. Pick or choose, the function of the finger. At least, down as the direction of the list impinges on the logocentric west, where the alphabet is a hybrid of image and musical note. The finger marks the page, descends from one item to the other, while the eye scans – such, at least, is the hieroglyph in the catalogue.
Lists have attracted a good deal of anthropological attention. Jack Goody wrote an exemplary essay on the list, which he believed were one of the great cognitive tools invented in the ancient world – in either Mesopotamia or Egypt.  Goody’s list thesis was published in the 70s; in the last ten years, the study of lists has become hot. A whole issue of Isis, the history of science journal, was recently dedicated to “listmania”. Umberto Eco curated a sort of list exhibit, for which he wrote the catalogue essay, An infinity of lists. A catalogue is, of course, a variety of list, which gives us a list of lists.
Goody’s thesis is that the list is primarily a graphic tool. Listing happens orally – in fact, Adam gives  vent to Homeric lists quite often, of his friends, of superheros, of figures printed on his tee shirt, etc. Goody, who did field studies in, I believe, Madagascar, encountered people who could list a whole geneology.  Still, Goody wants us to understand that the affordance of the list to fix, in graphic form, an enumeration of object references, is uniquely tied to the written. The written word begins as a listing device. In fact, most of the archaeological textual finds of such ancient past cultures as Assyria is concerned with  listing items. It is with the list, Goody thinks, that the world and the word begin to separate. Here’s the wheat. Here’s the sheep. Here’s the slaves. And here are their representations, and number. It’s all a book of numbers, ultimately.
Yet the utilitarian provenance of the list cannot exhaust the list’s linguistic force. It’s romance, so to speak. That wheat, those sheep, those slaves tend to migrate into grander narratives. And this is the basis of that ‘love’ for maps and prints that the Baudelairian child experiences. It is not only a matter of the specific item, but of the possibility of plentitude, of items unknown, that links the catalogue to the voyage.
In the American context, the primal catalogue, the legendary catalogue, is not one listing the ships bound for Troy, but the one listing bonnets, plows, and plates – the Sears catalogue. Sears now has an antediluvian ring – there are American children who will grow up and never enter a Sears store or see a Sears catalogue. The towers of Illium, or at least of the Sears building, have, metaphorically, fallen.  However, in the early twentieth century, Sears – and certain rivals, such as Montgomery Ward – were powers in the land. Certain of Sears’s yearly catalogues have been published in their own right – for instance, the 1897 Sears catalogue was published in 1968 with an introduction by S J Perelman.
Sears was not the first companny to bring advanced urban consumerism to the outlying territories. That honor belongs to Singer Sewing company, which sent its salesmen through the entire Republic and sold its machine on the monthly payment plan, introducing credit into the heart of the American family. But it was Sears – and its rivals – that made consumerism part of the dreamlife. They combined the sale of the essentials – the plow, the hammer, the sewing machine – with the sale of domestic non-essentials, like Chutney, or curtains. Singer’s sewing machine could be justified both as a source of peripheral income and as a product that would save on the cost of clothing, in as much as one could now repair clothing in a professional manner, or make it. But chutney or curtains – curtains. Curtains were outside the circuit of durables; curtains were ornament. Already, windows were a sign of bourgeois aspiration (an overdetermined sign, granted). But curtains, which modified or negated the function of the window, from the inside – curtains made the inside something different, gave the inside a vaguely theatrical cast. We jump, with curtains, to another semiotic level. One strand of this is waste – since to close the curtains is a kind of potlatch, a deliberate destruction of the view, and of light itself.
This form of potlach loses its celebratory nature in today’s American suburbs. The wanderer at midday in the housing estates outside, say, Clarkston Georgia will pass street after street of houses turning a blind, curtain wearing eye to the world. The shades are down, the curtains drawn, and the house exists, there, in a sort of magic fortress mentality. The thief, rapist or murderer – for who else would have time and inclination to wander down a suburban street at midday? – will not be able to peer in.
To return, however, to the catalogue. Adam has now reached the age when his “vast appetite” realizes itsle in coyly making requests, most often of things having to do with superheros – the spiderman mask, the Captain America shirt, the Batman shoes. The requests are made deliberately enticing by being put in the vague future – someday could you get me Batman shoes? After I pick Adam up at school, we often walk the stretch on Wilshire between Whole Foods and our house, and the whole continuous reel of the street is broken apart by a sort of primitive commodification. The bus, the yogurt smoothie, the basketball, the scooter – anything can be picked out for such a request. These requests pepper our entretien, which otherwise concerns songs, tales of who pushed who on the playground, and, if I press very hard, info from the week’s lessons. Last week, all the lessons were derived from Earth Day, which is how the kids received a very instructive reading about earthworms from Miss I. Among the amazing facts about earthworms is that some types have up to five hearts. This has translated in Adam’s head as the fact that he – Adam – has up to five hearts. Usually he has three. He proves this, whenever I disagree, by counting on his fingers – one two three. This feat of logical dissociation, I should point out, is still of a markedly higher intellectual caliber than anything offered in the 16 GOP presidential debates we all had to suffer from this spring.
Although Adam has been present at hundreds, maybe a thousand, buying transactions, he is still too little to grasp the meaning of money. Of course, I myself am uncertain in my own graps of the meaning of money. Its many meanings. But he does associate it with adult power. Although that power is more than countered, when he is in full imaginative flight, by superpower. Super power works by crushing things. Money works by facilitating the non-crushing of things. And this is the state of our semiotic balance of powers, here in Santa Monica in the Spring of 2016.

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