Torrents and Explosions We Now Take for Granted

Looking for something the wonderful German critic Walter Benjamin says in Illuminations about the cheapening of experience in a mass mediated world, I came across this haunting reflection that describes the world as my great-grandparents must have seen it, in the years after the horrific brutality of the Great War:

A generation that had gone to school on a horse-drawn streetcar now stood under the open sky in a countryside in which nothing remained unchanged but the clouds, and beneath these clouds, in a field of force of destructive torrents and explosions, was the tiny, fragile human body.

Death in Mother Goose

Baa-Baa Black Sheep IllustrationFor Christmas, I gave my son a new edition of the classic The Real Mother Goose, with illustrations by Blanche Fisher Wright. First published in 1916, the book has been a perennial childhood favorite for almost a century. It certainly was one of mine. And so it was with nostalgia that I began reading “Little Bo-Peep” on the first page. An hour later, I had read maybe a hundred more nursery rhymes to my son, who couldn’t get enough.

For a long time I had heard that many popular nursery rhymes were rooted in historical events or based on historical figures. The best known example is “Ring around the Rosey”–supposedly about the plague, although there is little evidence to support such an interpretation. “Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary” is another nursery rhyme that seems to point to a real person, although whether it refers to Mary Queen of Scots or Queen “Bloody Mary” of England is debated.

Regardless of whether nursery rhymes have specific historical antecedents, I have to say, with my nostalgia tinged by a critical eye, that they certainly are about more than just sing-songy rhythms and rhymes.

It’s surprising exactly how many deal with death. There’s “Solomon Grundy,” an old favorite of mine:

Solomon Grundy,
Born on a Monday,
Christened on Tuesday,
Married on Wednesday,
Took ill on Thursday,
Worse on Friday,
Died on Saturday,
Buried on Sunday.
This is the end
Of Solomon Grundy.

Here death is front and center, or at least as equal a part of life as, well, life. Grundy has three days to live healthy, happy, and wise (Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday), and his downhill spiral, beginning with a mysterious illness on Thursday, takes three days as well (Thursday, Friday, and the death rattle on Saturday). Sunday (born) bookends Monday (died), and the final pair of lines summarizes the story so far: the end is final and inevitable.

But maybe it’s not surprising that death is so central to these nursery rhymes. Death was more a part of daily life in the formative years of Mother Goose (in the 17th century) than now, when we shuffle off our sick and our dying to hospitals and hospices and strive to eliminate the specter of death from modern life. I’m reminded of a remark by Walter Benjamin, who suggests that one of industrialized society’s subconscious goals has been “to make it possible for people to avoid the sight of the dying.” Benjamin continues:

Dying was once a public process in the life of the individual and a most exemplary one; think of the medieval pictures in which the deathbed has turned into a throne toward which the people press through the wide-open doors of the death house. In the course of modern times dying has been pushed further and further out of the perceptual world of the living. There used to be no house, hardly a room, in which someone had not once died. (Illuminations 93-94)

Solomon Grundy is a holdover from those days, when everybody died and everybody knew it and everybody saw it.

To be sure, we have death today, but it’s nearly always either spectacular death (an execution caught on a mobile phone, a CGI explosion in a Hollywood blockbuster) or mass death (tsunami victims piled high, mass graves outside a desert village). But ordinary deaths, the Solomon Grundy’s of the world dying dignified at home, surrounded by friends and family. Does anybody experience this any more? “Today people live in rooms that have never been touched by death,” Benjamin writes. He calls these people, these living who do not see dying as part of life, “dry dwellers of eternity.”

Benjamin seems to be saying that death quenches the dry desert of eternity. To be touched by death is to be touched by life. To be touched by death is to be full of life.

The Amazing Amazon Mechanical Turk

Clive over at Collision Detection reports on the new Amazon service called Amazon Mechanical Turk, which allows companies to hire (via Amazon) “Turks” who, in their spare time, do seemingly mindless tasks online, for example, tag photographs of shoes according to color. The tasks are mindless–but only for humans who have minds. For computers, the tasks are monumental. AI and visual pattern recognition just hasn’t reached this stage yet. Anyone can sign up as a “Turk” and whenever they have a spare moment at their cubicle, click away and earn as much as $30 a day.

What intrigues me most about this service is the name: Amazon Mechanical Turk. This is a nod to a famous 18th century hoax. As Amazon explains:

In 1769, Hungarian nobleman Wolfgang von Kempelen astonished Europe by building a mechanical chess-playing automaton that defeated nearly every opponent it faced. A life-sized wooden mannequin, adorned with a fur-trimmed robe and a turban, Kempelen’s “Turk” was seated behind a cabinet and toured Europe confounding such brilliant challengers as Benjamin Franklin and Napoleon Bonaparte. To persuade skeptical audiences, Kempelen would slide open the cabinet’s doors to reveal the intricate set of gears, cogs and springs that powered his invention. He convinced them that he had built a machine that made decisions using artificial intelligence. What they did not know was the secret behind the Mechanical Turk: a human chess master cleverly concealed inside.

I had heard of this story before…from the German critic Walter Benjamin. In his “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Benjamin writes:

The story is told of an automaton constructed in such a way that it could play a winning game of chess, answering each move of an opponent with a countermove. A puppet in Turkish attire and with a hookah in its mouth sat before a chessboard placed on a large table. A system of mirrors created the illusion that this table was transparent from all sides. Actually, a little hunchback who was an expert chess player sat inside and guided the puppet’s hand by means of strings.

Benjamin goes on to compare this “automaton” to a certain view of history, which fails to see through the illusions that veil the real mechanisms of power.

I’m no conspiracy theorist and I see no conspiracy here. But I can’t help but gleefully wonder if some coder at Amazon was familiar with this Benjamin passage, and that the name of Amazon’s version of artificial artificial intelligence was inspired by a vision of a Turkish puppet smoking a hookah.

Christmastime Crowds in Madrid

The holiday season in Madrid is still full swing and doesn’t wind down until after Kings’ Day, January 6th. Spanish streets are always teeming with people, and even more so in Christmastime. And I don’t mean simply crowded. I mean crowded in the fullest sense of the word: packed with crowds. From Puerta del Sol to the Plaza Mayor, a distance of a quarter mile (with my apartment exactly in the middle), the streets are essentially one surging mass of people.

So I’ve been thinking about crowds lately.

The French poet Charles Baudelaire meditated upon crowds, and the German critic Walter Benjamin used Baudelaire’s reflections to highlight the difference between the manic man of the crowd and the leisurely flâneur, who idles down the sidewalk. In a witty aside in his essay on Baudelaire, Benjamin remarks that Parisian flâneurs often walked through the arcades with a turtle on a leash, nonchalantly allowing the turtle to set the pace.

A turtle on a leash is precisely what walking through the crowded streets of Madrid during Christmastime is like when an eighteen-month-old boy is holding your hand and leading the way.

Our pace was ours alone.

Every interesting piece of rubbish on the sidewalk, we stopped. Every store window with either a soccer ball or Nativity scene, we stopped. Every scooter or motercycle parked, we stopped. Every street performer, mime, or busker, we stopped.

It’s a new way to see the city. A revelation.

Pictured here (Larger Image) is one street performer on Calle de Preciados that particularly drew my son’s attention: a man who, despite the windblown action pose, is standing completely stationary until someone drops a few coins at his feet. Then he moves mechanically like a Disney Hall of Presidents animatronic, only to “shut down” again in a few moments.

It’s the Man of the Crowd as a living statue.