Daily Archives: August 31, 2015

deuteraesthetic

Don’t pretend you don’t sniff books. We all do.

The smell of a book may not have anything to do with the quality of the contents, but it is a part of the reading experience. I love the smell of a library; it tells me I am swimming in books. I love the smell of an art gallery, too, that olio of old oil, decaying latex, aging canvas and paper, mixed with the wafting scents of coffee and quiche from the cafeteria. My wife loves the smell of an ice rink; I love the smell of a theatre backstage (dilute latex paint and a bit of wood).

And who doesn’t love the smell of a new car? For that matter, who doesn’t pay attention to the sound of their car? High-end sports car manufacturers (Porsche, Ferrari, Lamborghini) put a lot of effort into getting just the right engine sound, the one that distinguishes them from the others. It’s a mark of the mettle of the metal, the machismo of the machine. Meanwhile, vacuum cleaners have long been far louder than they need to be, just because people wouldn’t believe they worked if they were too quiet (this is changing, which pleases me; I won’t say that, like nature and cats, I abhor a vacuum, but I sure hate the sound of one).

Pick up a new wine glass. What’s one of the first things you’re likely to do to it? If you’re like me, you’ll flick it with your finger to hear the “ting.” If I see a silver coin I will drop it just to hear its higher ring when it hits. I can only assume gun owners pay attention to the sound their gun makes when it’s cocked – I know that different guns can be identified by the sound they make when being fired (AK-47s apparently have a distinctive sound unlike American equivalents; I assume an Uzi has its own resonance too; and so on). Photo equipment buffs always pay attention to the shutter sound, whether they admit it or not. One photographer I chatted with said she loved the Mamiya 7 (one of the best cameras ever made, by common opinion) but couldn’t get over the light, almost flimsy-sounding click of its shutter. (It’s also ugly. A camera only a results-oriented person could love.) Any Leica freak will have clear attachments to the sound of a Leica’s focal-plane shutter; go to Steve Huff’s website and check his videos in his reviews of Leicas and other new cameras – he never misses trying the shutter sound and comparing it to other models.

Heck, people are so attached to the sound of a shutter that digital cameras that have no mechanical shutters will come with a fake “shutter” sound – or a choice of several. But I’m not here to talk about skeuomorphs today. I’m here to talk about genuine sounds and sights and smells that are secondary to the ostensible principal function of a thing. These sensations are associated with the valued thing and so gain a glow of that value, but in many cases they also tell us something extra about the quality of the thing. How well-built is the car, the camera, or the gun? How pure is the glass or crystal, or the silver in the coin? What sort is the paper and ink in the book or magazine?

We taste reality like many of us taste wine. Why does the colour of a wine matter? What difference does it make if this pinot noir has a light ruby glow while that one bleeds like borshch? In the end, it’s the taste that matters, right? Well, let’s be honest: few of us would drink as much of it without the alcohol. But if it’s not just the alcohol that matters, why should it be just the alcohol and taste that matter? Why not appreciate the look of it? Why not appreciate the label on the bottle, too? Many people do. As well they should. Why not look for reasons to enjoy things?

Many people pretend to taste and discernment but spend their time looking for reasons not to enjoy things. It’s evident that their primary enjoyment comes from feeling themselves of superior discernment, a discernment that means knowing which few things are good and which many things are not. I do not think this is a very effective way of enjoying life. It is true that there are many things a given person will not enjoy, and that things that seem wondrous to you when you first start in a pursuit may seem trite when you know the subject better. But if you want to enjoy what you experience, why on earth would you not look for more ways and reasons to enjoy things? Why would you look only for reasons not to enjoy things? This just increases the number of things you don’t enjoy. I don’t like the look of that balance sheet.

When we appreciate secondary aspects of things – their sounds, their smells, their appearances (I’ve barely mentioned the look of cars and cameras and so on; somehow we all take it for granted that that’s important, though it has little to do with function) – we are appreciating reality as we appreciate wine. And, of course, words.

But what is the name for these sensations, these secondary aesthetic qualities? I’m not familiar with an established formal-sounding term (though perhaps someone will toss one my way), so I’ve decided to confect one from the usual classical bits. It’s the word you’ve been waiting for me to get to: deuteraesthetics (with or without the final s, as needed), from deuter, meaning ‘second’ or ‘secondary’, and aesthetic, referring to sensations. The deuteraesthetic aspects of a thing are the sound of a shutter, the smell of a book, the look of anything that has a primary function unrelated to appearance.

At base, of course, they are all sesquiotics: semiotics, but three times as good.

Denali

The late kerfuffle over the official recognition of Mount McKinley as Denali has taken me by surprise. I had actually thought that the name had been officially recognized ages ago. It turns out that while the national park surrounding it has been called Denali since 1980, the mountain itself has remained McKinley because of objections… from Ohio.

As you may know, Denali is not in Ohio. In fact, Ohio has no mountains. Why would Ohio wish to bend distant Alaska to its will like some alien Svengali? Just because Ohio happens to have the birthplace of President William McKinley. McKinley never visited Denali, but he was assassinated in 1901 and it was decided officially by the federal government in 1917 to name the mountain after him, following a tradition that had been started by a prospector who called it that when McKinley was still running for president. It had also been called Densmore’s Mountain.

Well, why would they ask the local Koyukon Athabaskan people what they had been calling it since time immemorial? They had a name for it, after all. It may not have been nailed on a sign, or somehow inlaid in the stone, but maybe someone could have asked them…?

The name, of course, was Denali, which means ‘the great one’ or ‘the big one’ (not, though it may sound appropriate, ‘the gnarly’). The Russians (who colonized Alaska for a while) had called it Bolshaya Gora, which means ‘big mountain’ and may have been a translation; anyway, it was more or less aligned with Denali. It is a big mountain; hard to deny that.

But when explorers explore and discoverers discover, they want to name things! It’s like when we were kids. We come to a new place and we discover a new playground. No one has ever seen this playground before! We just discovered it! I was the first here ever! Yeah? Well I was here two steps ahead of you, so I was the first here everer! Shut up, you two, I touched the swings first, so I was the first here everest! So what are we gonna call it?

Except, of course, we eventually learn that someone, in fact, built this playground, and lots of people have been there before. But if we’re adults in a new land, we conveniently ignore the people who were there before. They’re just this tribe we discovered! What shall we name them?

But you can’t ignore them forever. And indeed, the people of Alaska – even the non-indigenous ones – have been calling the mountain Denali for quite a long time. This isn’t some Democrat-versus-Republican issue; the politicians from Alaska who have been pushing for officialization of Denali include many Republicans.

But why would the people who live there matter, when we have this glorious tradition of honor to uphold? It’s America’s tallest mountain! It was named after an assassinated president! It’s cultural heritage! It’s always been that way!

For nearly a century, anyway. In the mouths and books of people who have never visited it and will never visit it. A change to the name is “insulting to all Ohioans!” Never mind that having Ohioans dictate what Alaskan mountains are called is insulting to Alaskans. It would be more sensible to name something in Ohio after McKinley, no?

It’s just like those fake “rules of English” (or social norms, or or or) that many people adhere to. They remember it being that way when they were kids, and maybe someone told them that was the rule, so that means it’s the great universal tradition from the golden ages and for all times. Anything else is a gross abuse and innovation.

And so we have the recent news headlines. Here’s one from The New York Times: “Mount McKinley Will Again Be Called Denali.” (Actually it never stopped being called that; it’s just being officially recognized.) But then here’s one from ABC News: “White House Renames Mount McKinley as Denali on Eve of Trip.”

Perhaps, after “renaming” the mountain what it was always called by people who had some connection to it, Obama can create a new state in honour of those who think McKinley was the original name and the local people don’t count. He can call it Denial.