On the radio

LydonOk, 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. 

7 thoughts on “On the radio

  1. Donny H

    You wrote: “… part of us is resident in the things we call our own…” Well said. I never heard why people hold on to things put as dramatically (LOL … is that the right word …)as this little snippet from your explanation.

  2. dilys

    “…part of us is resident in the things we call our own…”

    Several of us intuited last year that there is a book on precisely this topic to be extracted(tm) from someone around here.

  3. Tom Guarriello

    I agree with your assessment of object-relations, Grant (without all the analytic mumbo-jumbo that too often accompanies that phrase.) This Thoreau meme has legs though, doesn’t it? We must harbor some romantic notion of purity deep in our cultural psyche that continually pulls on some substantial portion of our contemporaries (uh oh, another flavor of mumbo-jumbo is creeping up on us here) and makes us guilty as hell about possessions. Your PopTech counterpointilist, Barry Schwartz, has clearly gained much appeal channeling this notion and I heard Andrew Zolli expounding similarly not long ago.

    Karen and I are in the early stages of exploring “downsizing.” Singularly and in tandem we have experienced severe cases of what feels like “material bends”…as if we were ascending toward Thoreauian heaven too quickly and feeling object bubbles pop in our brains…when we think about having to “give up” so many of the things we love in our home. It is WAY more difficult than either of us would have predicted. And we don’t really consider ourselves “materialist.” Hah. Talk about self-deception!

  4. John Galvin

    I have lived in Boston *just* long enough to recall the brouhaha surrounding Christopher Lydon’s departure/firing from “The Connection” in 2001. I adored that show when I first moved here and can’t possibly improve on your description, Grant, of how he could turn the most boneheaded of comments into useful conversation starters, as if he could alchemize anybody’s dumb ramblings into the Platonic ideal of the idea they were trying to express. But then — in the controversy over whatever-it-was that led to his firing, when he had to insist in public forums other than his own hosted show (to wit, print) that “The Connection” was *his* and wouldn’t be anything without him and that he was taking his toys and going home — he created an impression devoid of personality, an angry, bitter, even little man. At least to me. And I agreed with him! That show WAS his alone.

  5. Patricia

    “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.”

    Thanks for the great post. I don’t live in the Boston area, and don’t know the show, but the romantic idea of personhood contained entirely beneath the skin was challenged, quite violently, by hurricane Katrina. The poor victims of that disaster lost not just their possessions, livelihoods, neighborhoods, etc., they also lost part of themselves. The rebuilding takes on added meaning, painful personal transformations, in addition to lumber and nails.

    A parallel can be drawn to the loss of the twin towers on 9/11. Not having those buildings in my daily view [I live near NYC] after a lifetime of them being there was painful–like a part of my personality was lost, wrapped up in the symbol of building. NYC’s post 9/11 transformation, for individuals as well as neighborhoods, is a painful thing to witness. The external has been internalized.

    Other symptoms of material personhood extensions can be seen all over TV. How many shows concern themselves with home “makeovers”, cleanups, organizing packrats, etc.? More than ever this pop culture trend I think suggests that we are more wrapped up in our possessions than we care to admit. Your view may be unpopular for its lack of nobility, but what’s popular isn’t always right, honest, or realistic.

  6. Rob Kleine

    Grant – Just listened to the audio. Interesting. I fear Christopher failed to grasp your comment that connected increasing complexity of self and stuff — i.e. that the cultivation of multiple identities, reflecting multiple interests, contributes to a an expanded inventory of supporting stuff.

    The complement to this (as Virginia Postral points out so well) is the increasing variety of stuff available to support our myriad identities. I’m an avid cyclist (Canondale, not Harley). The assortments of stuff available today to support my cycling identity — from the likes of http://www.bikenashbar.com — is orders of magnitudes greater than what was offered 20 years ago.

    But, any way, Christopher seemed locked into a view of clutter as too much cheap stuff, rather than clutter as an artifact of a life well lived.

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