Saturday, February 25, 2012

Tending to Personal Micro-Cultures

I was browsing through one of my favourite websites this morning, and chanced upon the novelist William Gibson's lovely concept of a 'personal micro-culture.' Lovely and compelling because when you think about it, what are we, after all, other than the sum of our experiences, our relationships and our taste?

Lately, I've been reading a lot, and thinking a little bit about taste. Taste can make or break an artist's, designer's or writer's career for obvious reasons. Not so obvious is the way taste shapes life for the rest of us. It's that I-just-can't-put-my-finger-on-it quality which frames our loves, likes, and dislikes. Is something just right, or ever so slightly off? Is it me, or is it not? Can I live with it, or will I get bored? All questions we ask ourselves dozens of times everyday, and also questions we ask about others. Will he like it? Don't they realize that's tacky? What were they thinking?

Whether we realize it or not, our taste will play no small part in determining what we enjoy, what we learn and do (if we're lucky), who we like, who we marry, how we live. But taste is not the same as preference. It hovers under our personal radars as part-instinct, part-unconscious-programming. And it kicks into gear before we realize that we have formulated an opinion.  

People who lack taste (and here I speak not about the quality of an individual's taste, but about its relative absence) somehow seem to lack substance. They have no particular preferences and no specific hankerings - and it is particularities and specificities that make people interesting. I'd go so far as to say that taste makes for character. Aren't ethics and morals at least partly about not doing the things we find distasteful? Opinions and decisions don't just spring up spontaneously. Knowingly or otherwise, we run them through a personal filter - a shifting framework constituted of our experiences and our taste as they exist at that point in time.

It's true that taste can make prudes and judgemental gossips of us, but it also makes us individual and unique. Whether we like it or not, we're all social experiments immersed in the invisible ether of our personal micro-cultures.Wouldn't we be doing ourselves a favor by consciously adding whatever we find instinctively beautiful, wonderful and intriguing to the mix?

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Magic, Modernity and Misgivings

I've been cheerful all afternoon. How could I not be? After all, I watched a movie in which a wood sprite assumed the form of a large, cuddly rabbit with two equally cuddly but much smaller friends. At one point in the movie, all three of them participated in a mid-night voodoo jig around an acorn patch. At another juncture, the large rabbit waited at a bus-stop for a Cheshire-cat bus whose headlights were constituted of illuminated mice....I watched My Neighbour Totoro.

There are imaginations and then there are imaginations - some are morbid, some are mythical, some are magical, some derivative. Miyazaki's stands on its own. His worlds seem to be a happy  marriage of Disney and Lewis Carroll, but retain an integrity and vocabulary that is original. His stories are relayed not so much with charm as with sheer adorable-ness. He makes movies that I (and many millions of others) want to hug.
And why is this? After all, Miyazaki's characters are often too kind and considerate to be true, and acquiescent to the point of lacking agency. They will accept the existence of goldfish with human faces, soot gremlins, troll-sized bunnies and sentient scarecrows. Women can show up in enchanted castles and claim to be cleaning ladies, no questions asked. The ocean herself will preside over the betrothal of school-going children. Why do people who work in hospitals and universities, drive cars, and run errands accept these on-goings? No explanation is offered.
All of this is incredibly illogical and problematic, until you realize that while watching a Miyazaki movie, you have to acquiesce, just as the characters do. You must accept that the magical and the mundane do co-exist, and that modernity has no bearing on this co-existence. Miyazaki's brand of magic is whimsical and wonderful - wizards can wage wars, build peripatetic castles and raise the seas. Spirits can steal your name and turn your parents into pigs. Witches can play with time and space. Nature exerts a force of her own even as she sits cheek by jowl with cities. Miyazaki's magic doesn't have its own logic - it shapes the logic or illogic of the world it inhabits. In this world, people are not conflicted about believing in magic - the question is one of the form in which they will encounter it and what they will gain from that experience.
This is a very different kind of magic than the one brought to life by the Harry Potter books. JK Rowling has created a narrative that is engaging and well-written, and the characters peopling it are hard to leave behind. But the 'magic' in Harry's world lacks coherence.
Witches and wizards carry wands, move around in photos, eat sweets that change colour and illegally rear dragons, but they also have pubs, an inequitable distribution of wealth, trains, sports, music, banks. Their world is the one that is smaller and surprisingly anachronistic. Sure, the curses are cool and there are interesting opportunities to time-travel, stay eternally young and alter one's appearance. But there are also many inconsistencies. After all, why would anyone choose to use owls in the age of e-mail? Why would anyone use the Floo network when they could pick up the  phone and call? And doesn't saying Avada Kedavra take longer than using a gun to fire a bullet?
This brand of magic is neither of the world, nor fully apart from it. It distinguishes and delineates, but it doesn't transform. Moreover, some of it just doesn't work as well as standard-issue modern technology. Within the Harry Potter universe, magic casts a mullioned light on an otherwise boring world. It is a secret just a few are in on.  And it is chiefly a moral and philosophical device - either dark or light, eventually vanquished by love and sacrifice.       
And then there is Neil Gaiman's brand of magic, all about the things that are felt but not remembered, seen but not perceived. It is a magic that resides in the cracks between the conscious and the sub-conscious, between dreaming and waking, between looking at and looking away. Unlike Miyazaki's magic, which is a charming given, this is magic of which people feign ignorance. It is discomfiting, manipulative and worldly - part of the truth of things as we know them now. It accommodates science, technology and all kinds of 21st century vices, resulting in something that is cynical but also resonant.
The idea of the magical is tremendously powerful. It has shaped our desires, been enshrined as the miraculous by our religions and scriptures, and given impetus to our imaginings. But as science renders the marvellous, routine, the space for magic shrinks. It cannot be reclaimed, but it must be re-drawn. Miyazaki, Rowling and Gaiman grapple with precisely this problem, with varying degrees of success. The truth is that modernity is the toughest nut for fantasy to crack.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

New Intimacies

It's the norm to complain about how technology makes our interactions less humane; how our conversations, now digitized, are losing meaning;  how we've lost the ability to speak to one another, to attend, to engage. We claim that there's no improving on a tete-a-tete, on physical proximity and personal contact, that relationships built otherwise are brittle and doomed to superficiality.

Except that they aren't.  

There are places you can go in a phone conversation, with a text message, or in a chat window, that you cannot visit when you meet someone face-to-face.
Some people, unfortunately or otherwise, are just more engaging online. Meet them, and you find that the banter has lost its sparkle, the chatter, its crackle. But it's not just about a person's personability, it's also that online conversations have a dynamic that's all their own. Abrupt, staccato, with their own patterns of show (:P) and tell (Check out this link!), easily calibrated to suit different degrees of intimacy - something that's often tricky to manage in person - web-chats are an easy place to start a friendship and discover common ground.
Telephonic conversations are another matter entirely - they require attention and effort, and strip away the distraction and conversational fodder that being together in one place at one time provides. There's no telephonic equivalent for 'brb' or 'lol' and it's next to impossible to fake interest - either you're engaged and amused, or you're not. Talking to someone on the telephone, I have often found myself wondering whether I have something to say, or whether I have the willingness to listen. If I find myself scrambling, it's not a good sign - for better or for worse, the telephone has often served as a litmus test for many of my friendships.
Often, but not always. Telephonic conversations with relative strangers can often have mystery and intrigue.  All too rarely, I've found myself listening to the cadences of an other's voice, sensing their mood, and finding myself drawn into an unexpected exchange of bon-mots and witticisms. The conversation goes somewhere it wasn't supposed to, doors open and close, and both parties put down the receiver, smiling. It's a fleeting, temporary intimacy that is its own reward, and it's hard to replicate face to face.
Text messages also have a wink-wink-nudge-nudge quality that's all their own.  They allow you to act on impulse and to set up private channels of communication in otherwise crowded rooms. I've lost count of the number of times that colleagues and I have silently commiserated with one another in dull meetings, or the occasions on which I've traded quips with friends at boring events. With text messages, you can share asides instantaneously, and invite someone to share an experience or an observation. You're whispering,  across the room.  
There are many theories about how personal space, body language, signalling, mirroring and posturing are the building blocks of our relationships. People say so much to one another, whether or not they are speaking  - and it is only in person that these conscious and unconscious conversations can be had in their entirety. But the truth is that we're adding nuance to every gadget and tool that comes along - creating new intimacies and spaces for connection that have a charm of their own. Better to navigate them cleverly, and exploit them for what they're worth, than to lament the passing of what's older and quainter.

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This work by ToruJ is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.