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I’m back after an unexpected break. When I finished writing this piece last week, my nose was stuffy and my throat was unhappy, and it seemed really inappropriate to read a post that had “tears” and “history” in the title in a voice eerily close to that of Henry Kissinger. I’m planning to get back into a weekly rhythm, alternating between podcasts and text-only posts. I’ve also decided to post the full text for each podcast, in case you prefer reading on screen while I get all the audio kinks worked out. Thanks for tuning in!

Some headless, all nameless

Some headless, all nameless


Nearly every creative person I know has experienced the question, often asked by someone with a blank, slightly-confused look: why do you do that?

Why do you take all those photos, or scribble notes everywhere, or make birthday cards by hand? Why do you knit, or make quilts, or paint with watercolors, or make sculpture from scrap? Why do you want to write a novel or make a film?

Some people ask these questions out of innocent curiosity, because they’ve just never experienced such impulses.

But from other people, the tone can be vaguely threatening — even menacing.

It seems that what they’re really saying is: “What gives you the right?  What makes you important enough to do that?  Who do you think you are?”

Studs Terkel once described his work as “conversations with people not celebrated”.

In a 1997 interview, Terkel references a Bertolt Brecht poem which he considered a kind of credo. Here’s the audio from the interview:

And here is how I summarized Terkel’s recollection of the Brecht poem in the podcast version:

Who really constructed the Pyramids of Egypt and the Seven Gates of Thebes? When the Great Wall of China was built, “where did the masons go for lunch?”

“When Caesar conquered Gaul, was there not even a cook in the army?”

When Sir Francis Drake defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588, “did he do it by himself, or what?”

“When the Armada sank, we read that King Phillip wept. Were there no other tears?”

I hadn’t heard of this Brecht poem until Terkel mentioned it, but it does remind me of reading the description of Xerxes’ army in The Histories. According to Herodotus, there were 2,641,610 soldiers of various origin in that army. When you add what I’ll euphemistically call ‘support staff’, the number more than doubles.

Of course, Herodotus isn’t exactly considered an investigative journalist, but even modern scholars think the number might have been at least two or three million.

So it wasn’t Xerxes, who invaded Greece: it was millions of people. What was that really like, from moment to moment?

For example, what did all those standing on the shore really think when they saw the king order soldiers to lash the waters of the Hellespont as punishment for destroying his bridge?

So I tracked down this Brecht poem. It’s translated title is “Questions from a Worker Who Reads“. Here are the last two stanzas:

Every page a victory.
Who cooked the feast for the victors?
Every ten years a great man.
Who paid the bill?

So many reports.
So many questions.

History is not simply a grand procession of other, more important people.  It’s not merely wars and occupations of territory, religious bifurcations, trade disputes, endless intrigues, rapprochements, and murderous royal successions.

History is an aggregation — an accretion, actually — of the thoughts and experiences of each human being.

Great 20th-century historians like, Studs Terkel and Howard Zinn taught us that, though others like Montaigne laid the groundwork before them.

We don’t shoot photos or scribble notes or quilt to capture history with a capital H. We shoot to capture our history — our own lives and experiences.

Let future generations — the Studs Terkels of the 22nd or 28th centuries — worry about how to catalog and absorb the materials we’re creating. That’s not our job.  Our job is to capture, document and preserve the ideas of our time so those future historians have something to work with.

The diaries we keep, the poems we write, the photos we take and post to Flickr — whatever medium we use to capture our sensations of the world around us — they are all ways to store ideas in seemingly-inert objects.  It’s through such artifacts that ideas can survive local indifference or open hostility and be brought to life again in another place, or another time.

What gives us the right? What makes us important enough to do all this “creative stuff”? Who do we think we are?

We are not slaves hauling stones to the gates of Thebes, leaving no other trace of our existence. We are not another unnamed laundress in Xerxes’ caravan.

We are making those reports Brecht was talking about. We are the keys to exploring those many questions.

We are the other tears — and joys — of human history.  And, unlike King Philip’s contemporaries, we have widening literacy, pens and paper, blogs and Twitter, podcasts and HD camcorders. Why shouldn’t we use them?



Outro music: A song by students from the Xi’an Biomedical Technical College, Xi’an, China. Recorded in September, 2007.


The Experience of Enormity

by Matt Blair on May 8, 2009

in Perception,Senses

In the mid-nineties, I was hearing a lot of buzz about the way CD-Roms and multimedia were going to “change everything”. (There’s a pair of words that should always be interpreted as a warning…)

I was working in computer art at the time, and I should have been excited by these developments, but I just couldn’t get into it. In my experience, these CDs were limited to trite little sound-effects, pixelated graphics and postage-stamp-sized video — when they actually worked. Remember what it was like to get video to play on a computer in 1994?

It was tiny. It was puny. It was so much smaller than the scope of our senses.

Was this really the future?

Then I saw Laurie Anderson on her Bright Red tour, and it was precisely the kind of rebuttal I had been yearning for.

Enormity: to be within, and to be enveloped. That’s what this new notion of “multimedia” lacked, and what the concert hall could still provide.


A gorgeous photo of lightning is not the same as the visceral experience of being in — and underneath — a thunderstorm on a summer afternoon in Alabama.

Seeing a film of people walking around a Richard Serra sculpture is not the same as standing in the shadow of one.

No photo or map conveys the cultural shock of the Reconquista as well as circumnavigating the cathedral built in the center of the Great Mosque of Córdoba.

Going there matters. Being there matters. But it’s not enough.

A Canyon

I have been enjoying Chris Guillebeau’s blog lately, yet I was a bit horrified to come across the Grand Canyon on the over-rated list in his post 9 Overrated Tourist Destinations (And 9 Great Alternatives).

Don’t get me wrong: this is a great article, largely because of the evenhandedness of suggesting alternatives for each overrated spot. His essay/manifesto 279 Days to Overnight Success is also full of excellent insights. The title alone is such a succinct blend of aspiration, pragmatism and volition.

Here’s how he described his experience:

I went there with my family last year, and my 16-year old sister and I had fun coming up with alternative names for the Grand Canyon. Our top choices were:
The Decent Canyon
The Not-Bad Canyon
The “If you’re 10 miles away, go and see it” Canyon

You get the idea. Technically speaking, the Grand Canyon is impressive, but there’s so much hype about it that it’s hard to live up to your expectations upon arrival.

So many people reacted to this that Chris recently added a comment to the post calling for a kind of truce on the subject:

1) I think we’ve discussed the Grand Canyon enough – some people love it, some don’t, and as for me I’m kind of in between. Each opinion is valid, but let’s move on.

Rather than jump into the fray, I want to use it as an example of how we experience enormity.

You can’t really see the Grand Canyon. No human can.

Instead, you go to selected viewpoints, gather information, and try to piece this phenomena together in your head. From this thin dossier, you try to interpret its meaning and significance.

Put another way, a human visiting the Grand Canyon is like a gnat visiting your ankle. Would you say the gnat understands you or your significance?

Such expansive sites and moments are sensually humbling because they surpass the limits of our perceptive abilities.

From any one vista, or by visiting a dozen in a single day, you are merely assembling clues about the nature of what is in front of you.

These clues help you construct a not-entirely-accurate mental model of a physical place, and that is ultimately where you visit places like the Grand Canyon: not in front of you, or beneath your feet, but in your mind.

When we finally arrive at a site we’ve imagined visiting, each sensation is compared to our expectations and the models we bring with us. We confirm some suspicions, invalidate others, and add unexpected nuance.

To truly perceive, we must leave our expectations behind. Otherwise, it’s all comparison.

Big art, Little artifacts

No matter how you go or where you stand, you won’t be able to fly through a place like the Grand Canyon and switch perspectives like you can in Google Earth. No matter how many times you visit, you’ll never capture each vista at the precise light conditions found in the 100 highest-rated photos of it on Flickr.

Do such tools and services take the magic away? Do they give us such a rich set of expectations and such a strong sense of having been there that real life — the sight and sound and smell of any particular spot — just can’t compare?

When technology delivers fragments and artifacts of sensory experience to our desks and kitchen tables and mobile phones, what does it mean to go somewhere anymore?

It’s worth noting that many of the commenters who disagreed about the Grand Canyon had immersed themselves in the Canyon by hiking into it or rafting through it.

Immersion seems to make a difference.

And that was the problem with the multimedia hype in the 1990s: we were trying to connect with big ideas by looking through the jaggy and unreliable window of a computer monitor and hearing tinny sound from little speakers, with no other senses engaged. We were outside, looking and listening in. It was too small for us to be enveloped.

Yes, computers have gotten better and faster and better able to convey beauty.

But a 24-inch screen and a great speaker system still offer mere hints and fragments of what the world is like.

Here is an image of a painting by Salvador Dalí:

The Hallucinogenic Toreador by Salvador Dalí

The Hallucinogenic Toreador by Salvador Dalí

You may have seen it before.  Did you know that it is four meters tall — taller than one person standing on the shoulders of another? Approximately 25-times the size it appears on your screen?

When we go to enormous places and encounter big art, we all have our own distinct experiences. When surrounded by something bigger than any one of us can perceive and comprehend, we notice different things, and we come back with different stories.

The collection of all of our stories continually reshapes the myths, and the myths reshape our perceptions.

The only way to judge the hype and keep the myth connected to the reality is to go there, and let the sensory richness of a place or an idea infuse your mind and body.

You still have to go there.