Ok, I just finished an interview with Christopher Lydon for Open Source, the WGBH radio program out of Boston. The topic was clutter and spring cleaning. Most participants were singing that anti-consumer-society hymn we all know and love so well. You know, the one that asks why can’t we all be more like Thoreau and live the simple life.
I find this sort of thing hard to listen to. It seems to be to neglect the powers and subtleties of the person-object relationship in our culture. Oh, sure, some stuff gets into our houses under false pretenses. We just "have" to have it at the moment of purchase. Several weeks later it is one more regretable piece of plastic, one that richly deserves the old heave ho.
But most of the things that "clutter" our homes are pretty important to us. Strip them from us, by an act of God or man, hurricane or robbery, and the effects can be devastating. We like to think that personhood is contained within the boundaries of the skin and that everything "out there" is so much clutter or at least utterly external.
But 25 years of doing the anthropology of North America tells me that the self is actually located across these boundaries, so that part of us is resident within, and part of us is resident in the things we call our own. Anyhow, this is not everyone’s favorite point of view, and I try to make myself useful on the show without being a "Mr. Know it all, Professor smarty pants, but I have a PhD, damnit, I’ve done the research, don’t you see."
And this is where it gets interesting. Christopher Lydon (pictured) has this way of presiding with a very quiet impatience. You could hear him willing we three guests to say something interesting, to step up to the intellectual and conversational opportunity, to make this topic live. Naturally, he is keen on this because he runs a radio show, but it don’t think that was the motive.
No, I think he wants some place for his intelligence to engage, and when the conversation gets glassy, as it did on a couple of occasions, he hovers over the stray remark, beating his wings, seeing if he can’t scare even the tinyest field mouse out from under cover. Who knows, but this might be a tasty morsel. Who know, but that we might actually feast on this. It was as vivid a demonstration of a roving, summoning intellect as I have seen in a long time.
This is going to sound like sycophancy, and so I am now obliged to say that I find the guy in studio a little chilly, even by Boston standards. Clearly, he is one of those guys who lives in the voice. And on the radio he sounds passionate, all emotion in the service of idea. In person, well in person, the warmth is not so clear. There, now I have overcorrected and almost certainly offended him.