Archive for July 2012
How to Boil Down Levinas?
A recent issue of The New Yorker includes an excellent article on TED talks. On his way to explaining why the talks are so popular, Nathan Heller stumbles onto the differences between our rituals of learning in college and how college is set up to support those rituals, and compares that with the kind of learning people need outside of college—the kind that keeps expanding rather than narrowing. Along the way he mentions in an offhand way how Levinas does not lend himself to a quick recap. One must do much preliminary work to begin to understand Levinas. Philosophy, especially phenomenology and theology are useful backgrounds to begin to understand Levinas. But only as a beginning.
The author of Conversation is an Engine is well familiar with this. As he tries to explain Levinas from time to time, blank stares and hasty retreats to other subjects are typical reactions. The French philosopher and apologist for The Other is famously obscure. And fascinating. But obscure.
Heller’s offhand remark reminds me that the bigger challenges ahead of us as communicators have to do with how we let people in on the details that engage us. Over at Big Picture Leadership there was a discussion recently about what it means to witness. That discussion reminded me of an ongoing conversation a few of us have had about what makes something remarkable, as in, making me remark out loud to another person because it was that important to me. In both cases there has to be an intensely personal connection for it to bubble up through our conscious mind and cross our lips.
If we are intent on rhetoric that draws others in (and I believe it is a most excellent thing to be a passionate booster for what we love and understand), than we are constantly providing low-hanging fruit for newcomers to grab and taste so they too will become enamored by the taste and want more. This is the horizon of engagement. That horizon is growing shorter and getting closer with every Google Search.
More sophisticated discussions will always have their place among practitioners and experts. But we’re quickly moving to the point where we each need to have a ready answer about our work, or firm, and what we believe.
Fear No Susan Glenn
Discharge smelly spray across your torso and watch angels fall from heaven. Or spray and wait for women’s clothing to spontaneously come undone. Why do you find that cause and effect so hard to believe?
The Axe/Lynx brands always and forever illustrate teenage male fantasies (“Chicks dig me.”). But this. This is different. Beautifully photographed and polished, this is a believable reminiscence rather than a teenage fantasy. Maybe it’s Kiefer Sutherland’s narration that sets off the nostalgic lighting. Did the older brothers of the junior copywriters at BBH find the creative brief lying around and decide to take a shot at the account? Nice job changing the tone, Peter Rosch & BBH New York.
How to be.
Back when I was newish to this notion of pursuing reunion with the Creator, I began to wonder about prayer. Was it just a kind of thick wishing; full of detail and electric longing, uttered into the silence? The practices of prayer remain mysterious to this day, but way back then my buddy said something I’ve never forgotten:
“Look. Just pray like you talk. Simple stuff. Forget the impressive words. Just talk.”
That proved useful. It still makes sense to me today.
Prayer is an articulated event. A speech-act that causes things to happen out in the world—though not exactly the way you might hope. This is what people who pray believe (people like me): that by talking to the One who controls everything, laying out the case, and leaving it there, stuff starts to happen. Of course, dictation and demands are fruitless. So are bargains. Prayer doesn’t work that way—it’s not exactly a reciprocal relationship.
But what if my friend’s advice worked the other way too: what if that easy conversation full of detail and electric longing was a part of our daily, hum-drum human conversations? So rather than utter desire into silence we uttered it into relationship? That does not sound like wishing into the silence. People would be listening—the very people right around you. They would hear. And sympathize. Or challenge. You’d get known. Your peaks and valleys would be known. There would be no hiding. If our talk were like our prayer, there would be a measure of freedom, and a whole lot of assumptions about the level of interest in our conversation partner.
No. Now I see that would never work.
But. Wait—that characteristic of being known is a peak human experience. What if we were designed for that very thing?
That would be something.
How a Leaderless Team Ruled Project Runway
OK: bait and switch. I typically wear clothing. And if you know me, I doubt fashion comes to mind. But my costume-designing wife and the fashionistas in our house started watching this show. And I’ve started to like it because it parallels my work of producing copy that must be new and unique while fitting tight space, tone, accuracy and brand requirements.
Season 8 episode [whatever] featured a group exercise. This was poignant for me because when I teach professional writing at Northwestern College, I often include a group exercise. The group exercise is universally hated. For all the reasons you might expect: it’s hard to define what the group is doing together. There’s always someone who fits the slacker role. No one wants to take charge and if the work isn’t up to par, it feels like someone else’s fault.
Next time I introduce a group project, I’ll use Project Runway Season 8 Disc 2 [yes. I am a Netflixer] to set up the team task. That episode shows an outstanding example of what can happens when a leaderless team backs away from personal project management and allows each member to find their own way. Some bit of magic happened in the show that allowed each designer to do their own thing while still producing garments that seemed to belong together. It’s as if they were listening to each other at a level beyond the words used. Leaderless teams don’t always work that way. But that it worked that way once gives me hope.
In contrast, the team with the heavy-handed project manager forced every member to work down at a level beneath their abilities. The judges held that team’s feet to the fire with blistering reviews.
I am intrigued by what can happen when creative people work together. Perhaps the best leader helps their team hear and understand each other so each creator’s personal best is produced rather than some spiritless guess about what the bully micro-manager wanted.
That’s the spirit: “Spelled my name wrong.”
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Hit Me Hard
I just finished Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and I’m not sure I have the courage to watch the movie. The violence is sadistic. And the violent intent boils up from unvarnished evil. But because I am a sappy reader, I get even more queasy about well-drawn characters I’ve grown to care for who keep walking into ever more desperate situations.
In the Wikipedia entry for Mr. Larsson, there is a claim that everything that happened in the book—all that brutality—actually happened in Sweden at one time or another. Somehow Mr. Larsson had seen something in his growing up in rural Sweden that made him both fearful and a lifelong activist against far-right extremists. He responded to this evil with these “fictionalized portraits” of the people and culture he knew. Of course no culture has cornered the market on brutality, sadism and ever-deepening horror: Just last weekend as we sat on the Memorial Union Terrace at UW Madison on Saturday evening, I found myself pointing out the smokestack of the asylum on the other side of Lake Mendota where Wisconsin’s own Ed Gein was housed—he of the lampshades crafted from human skin.
But why spend time reading about great evil? And why be entertained by such things? It’s hardly uplifting, though the reason we watch shocking horror stuff is often for the very purpose of getting our blood moving.
And yet it is partly uplifting for a couple reasons: because the evil is overcome in the end (Oops. Did I spoil the book for you?). And because the evil is overcome at least in part by shining a light. By letting others see what was going on. My vision of the activity of solid reporting was raised by this bit of fiction, and it made me grateful for the journalists I read every day.
One part of the story speaks to the continuing human need to interact. I say that because the more hidden our behaviors became the more deplorable they can become. It seems that Blomkvist (Larsson’s main character) reason for living was to expose what was hidden. Another part of the story hints that it’s not so far-fetched to look deep inside ourselves and locate an equally limitless capacity for evil.
I cannot help but be reminded of that old dead letter writer who wrote that “everything exposed by the light become visible—and everything that is illuminated becomes a light.”
Mr. Larsson’s book illuminated things for me.
Nice consumerist retooling of an anthem from my childhood.
What Sidetracks These Conversations?
Is there a shortcut to those conversations that happen toward the middle of a five day canoe trip in the Boundary Waters? Is there a quicker way to those moments of insight that happen after camping together for two weeks? Is it possible that the drive itself, from Wisconsin to New York City, actually played a starring role in the kind of conversations we had all along the way—plus all that happened after?
No. And Yes.
No, there is no shortcut and Yes there are other ways and Yes those conversations play pivotal roles in our lives.
I was reminded of this during a weekend drive to that hotspot of the Midwest— Decatur, Illinois. Eight + hours in the car has a way of unspooling topics as the miles pass. Topics you were never even thinking of—until you realized you actually had something to say about them.
This is one reason Mrs. ConversationIsAnEngine and I like those long drives. Enormous strips of time laid out lengthwise where you talk about anything and everything as landscapes pass. Are you with me? You’ve had these conversations. Maybe you’ve had with your then future spouse. Or college buddies. Or people you didn’t know from Eve before the trip.
But in daily life? Forget it. I’m too busy social-media-ing and texting and Netflixing to let those topics unspool. Plus—I’m not ready. You’ll judge me. Amazingly, simply spending a lot of time (and I mean a lot of time) with someone breaks down these questions and fears. It happens on a car trip. And it happens as you run the craft room at the summer camp. Or when you show up yet again to stand side-by-side gutting a 100 year old house. And amazingly, it can also happen when working cubicle-by-cubicle with work colleagues—but the key is the small open windows of insight we give each other over time. Those small windows can add up to real insight and relationship building.
So—a Monday resolution: resolve to not waste this week complaining and gossiping again about the director or your boss or the arses in accounting. That talk just slams windows shut and puts nails through the sill. There’s nothing expansive or unspooling about it.
Image Credit: Stiknord