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Re: Designing for the Real World (Longuish)

From: James Souttar <ancient-AT-urizen.com>
Date: 13 Aug 2001 11:42:50 UTC   (12:42:50 PM in author's locale)
To: "The Graphics List" <graphics-AT-lists.graphicslist.org>

I've been digesting your message of last week, and - if everyone can
forgive what promises to be an awful pun - found a great deal of
nutrition in it.

>Where are the juices, where's the generosity, passion, where is our
>acknowledging that life is an unknown, even a total mystery?
>Seems to me many of us have been numbed by the thickness of our material
>cocoon, unable (unwilling?) to be exposed again, unable (unwilling?) to
>feel, especially if that involves being opened to the other(s).

I (flippantly) proposed on another list a 'Campaign for Real
Communication' - along the lines of the Campaign for Real Ale that we
have here (that would like to put an end to the industrial slosh that
is called beer in Britain, and move us to the German model, where
only water, hops and malt can be used). It's not only food that has
become 'malbouffe' - one could make a strong case that exactly the
same is true of communication. Much of the stuff that we're all
bombarded with has nothing authentic to say to us. Just lots of the
communicators' version of MSG to crudely titillate the tastebuds -
carefully researched to make sure it presses the right buttons, but
with nothing apart from button-pressing ingredients left in it.

>Maybe that is exactly what was the most amazing in Mai '68, it was this
>overwhelming generosity that flooded so many things, and which lasted a
>few short weeks, on a calendar, but much longer than that where it
>really matters.

'Generosity', 'Passion' and 'Mystery' are the words I take away from
your message - these are exactly what is missing, not because they
aren't part of the 'formula' but because the *process* is inimical to
them. But 'the greatest of these is Generosity', to paraphrase St

>But there is a serious problem, "only" older cultures have a "terroir,"
>the new world has not had time to really develop/connect with one, so
>how can we expect people who have no notion of what "terroir" means to
>actively support its preservation, possibly at the cost of their fast
>food living convenience?

I've used the metaphor of 'terroir' elsewhere - partly because I was
fascinated by a documentary on winemaking that contrasted the
science-based approach of the New World (Australasia, California,
Chile, South Africa etc.) with the terroir based approach of the Old
World. What was interesting was that, at best, both approaches can
produce wines that are indistinguishable (e.g. an 'expert' cannot
tell one method from the other). But the big difference is that, in
the science based approach, there isn't the same relationship with
the unique qualities of the land, climate, vines etc. The New World
approach makes the mistake of thinking that the end product is the
only important thing, whilst in the terroir approach the effect that
wine making has on the people who do it is equally important. When I
buy a bottle of wine made in the terroir way, I'm not only buying a
product but also supporting a way of life - a unique stewardship of
the land, dependent on highly refined sensibilities. This would seem
to have analogies for all sorts of other activities, including
graphic design.

A quote by an American brought up in France (that again I used on
another list) struck a particular chord with me:

'My father was a teacher of intaglio printmaking, and he was sorry
when, from the fifties onward, the black ink used on the plates began
to be sold pre-mixed with linseed oil. In the old days, one had to
grind the ink from dry cakes and mix it into the oil using a
grinding-stone on a piece of plate glass. Getting a properly smooth
texture of ink was not an easy thing to do, and most apprentices
would have to grind the ink for a long time (a process known in
French as "broyer du noir") before being allowed to even begin using
it themselves on the copper or zinc plate.'

'When I asked him whether the ready-mixed ink was not as good as the
other, he replied "Oh no, the ink itself is fine. It's the
*relationship* with the ink that has changed for the worse.'

(emphasis mine)

When I started as a graphic designer, there was still a 'terroir' in
graphic design. One of the consequences of the use of computer
technologies is that we have not situated them in a terroir - that we
let them remove us from the particularity of the work. (Which is not
to say that there is anything inherently different about the computer
as a tool, only about our attitudes towards it). Ticking out type by
hand, one came to appreciate the unique qualities of different
typefaces, their subtleties and nuances. Now, however, I see 'name'
agencies letting typographers set headlines in Verdana - as off, with
no attention to kerning or wordspacing (and this without any of the
excuses of 'irony' of the Carson era). This kind of thing is
impossible to someone immersed in the typographic terroir, however
different their tastes may otherwise be.

>This seems to me to be one of the major challenges we face today, along
>with the question of how to tolerate intolerance (somehow these two seem
>very related actually).

I'm exercised by the way 'tolerance' now implies something quite
different to what it used to. For Montaigne - who I would consider
the epitome of tolerance - it was still closely related to its
etymology, 'to bear'. For the Renaissance Humanists, one didn't have
to like, excuse or recontextualize ideas that were different to one's
own - but one did have to bear them, as part of the price of being a
civilized person. Now, nobody wants to 'bear' anything - we all want
to remove the dissonance. So one either ends up being a lukewarm
postmodernist, accepting everything without believing in anything, or
one joins the increasing number of the intolerant - who simply tune
out anything that causes the merest hint of discomfort. We're a long
way from the kind of society where people are big enough both to have
their own convictions and to engage in a civilized way with people
who have different convictions to theirs.

>What I am (poorly) trying to say is this: life (or at last, the
>experience thereof) seems to be, at bottom, an unresolved dilemma. I
>fear that the dominant trait of popular American culture is, precisely,
>an active, militant, even violent denial of that unresolved dilemma.
>Unless something fundamental changes in the make up of popular American
>culture (which would require quite a shift in weltanschauung), I doubt
>that Kyoto, or any other international effort that acknowledges that
>some progress is better than no progress at all, will have any chance of
>succeeding (if dependent on America's support).

There was a piece on Bove in yesterday's newspapers - this time
mounting a peaceful protest at the site of the McDonalds he
previously trashed. Amongst other things, he is complaining of the
inequitable situation where the US has imposed 100% import duties on
'luxury goods' from Europe in a fit of pique at Europeans not
accepting American beef with its high hormone levels. The gist of the
US objection is that currently food products must be labelled so that
consumers can choose between, say, genetically modified soya or
GM-free soya products. Since there is strong public feeling against
'adulterated' food in Europe, products marked in this way won't sell.
What angers so many people here is that the US will play the 'free
trade' card to its advantage, but refuses to accept 'consumer choice'
when its own interests are challenged. For some reason successive
administrations have preferred to act the playground bully, rather
than encourage their farmers to produce food that *would* be
acceptable to their export markets.

It's this growing strand of 'unreasonableness' in American foreign
policy that has many of us worried here. Where is the tolerance - the
'bearing' - of the fact that Europeans might want something
different? And does 'consumer focus' simply mean giving the consumer
what they want, as long as they only want what you are prepared to
give them?

>Well, maybe (maybe) the USSR is gone, but now it is progressively being
>replaced by the "EU," even by "Canada and its Communist health care
>system," not forgetting "Liberals," and so on.

Thomas Frank points out how much of the animosity that was previously
directed towards the Soviet Union has been progressively diverted to
the French over the last decade. One wonders what is really happening
here - is it that there is a real difference of opinion, or is it
that there is a body of negativity that needs to attach itself to a
target? Or does it just suit American politicians to deflect the
public's anger outwards, so that the inequities at home are
overlooked? (I'm looking forward to the front page story that 'shows'
how the French caused the gathering recession). In Jungian terms,
what does it tell us that France is now America's 'Shadow'?

(I'm still curious about the representation of the French Securité in
'Godzilla' as a smart bunch of low-key operators with an aversion to
American coffee, and the CIA as a bunch of bungling, gung-ho
amateurs. Was this the revenge of a Francophile screenwriter - and is
this why the movie bombed in American theaters? But there's more than
a hint of truth in the depictions, which fascinates me.)


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