Random finds (2018, week 48) — On the secrets of the creative brain, the crisis of intimacy, and Isaiah Berlin’s pluralist thesis
I have gathered a posy of other men’s flowers, and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.” — Michel de Montaigne
Random finds is a weekly curation of my tweets and, as such, a reflection of my fluid and boundless curiosity.
This week: The science of genius; why the crisis of intimacy isn’t accidental; Isaiah Berlin’s pluralist thesis; Heidegger and boredom; how philosophy was once a woman’s world; Julian Baggini and how the world thinks; what we have learned from Dieter Rams (“… Rams’s influence, via Apple, had been passed on to a new generation as an aesthetic rather than as an ethic.”); Bernard Desmoulin adds the ‘present’ to Musée de Cluny’s ‘past’; and, finally, W.H. Auden and the power of framing.
The secrets of the creative brain
As a psychiatrist and neuroscientist who studies creativity, Nancy Andreasen has had the pleasure of working with many gifted and high-profile subjects, including Kurt Vonnegut, who will always be one of her favorites, she writes in Secrets of the Creative Brain (The Atlantic, 2014).
As a faculty member at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the 1960s, Vonnegut participated in Andreasen’s first study in which she examined the anecdotal link between creativity and mental illness. For many of the subjects from that first study, mental illness and creativity went hand in hand.
“This link is not surprising. The archetype of the mad genius dates back to at least classical times, when Aristotle noted, ‘Those who have been eminent in philosophy, politics, poetry, and the arts have all had tendencies toward melancholia.’ This pattern is a recurring theme in Shakespeare’s plays, such as when Theseus, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, observes, ‘The lunatic, the lover, and the poet / Are of imagination all compact.’ John Dryden made a similar point in a heroic couplet: ‘Great wits are sure to madness near allied, / And thin partitions do their bounds divide,’” Andreasen writes.
Although she has spent much of her career focusing on the neuroscience of mental illness, in recent decades Andreasen has also been trying to discern what combination of elements tends to produce particularly creative brains. What, in short, is the essence of creativity?
“Over the course of my life,” she writes, “I’ve kept coming back to two more-specific questions: What differences in nature and nurture can explain why some people suffer from mental illness and some do not? And why are so many of the world’s most creative minds among the most afflicted?”
So why do these highly gifted people experience mental illness at a higher-than-average rate?
“Given that (as a group) their family members have higher rates than those that occur in the general population or in the matched comparison group, we must suspect that nature plays a role — that Francis Galton and others were right about the role of hereditary factors in people’s predisposition to both creativity and mental illness. We can only speculate about what those factors might be, but there are some clues in how these people describe themselves and their lifestyles,” Andreasen writes.
“One possible contributory factor is a personality style shared by many of my creative subjects. These subjects are adventuresome and exploratory. They take risks. […] They have to confront doubt and rejection. And yet they have to persist in spite of that, because they believe strongly in the value of what they do. This can lead to psychic pain, which may manifest itself as depression or anxiety, or lead people to attempt to reduce their discomfort by turning to pain relievers such as alcohol.
I’ve been struck by how many of these people refer to their most creative ideas as ‘obvious.’ Since these ideas are almost always the opposite of obvious to other people, creative luminaries can face doubt and resistance when advocating for them. As one artist told me, ‘The funny thing about [one’s own] talent is that you are blind to it. You just can’t see what it is when you have it … When you have talent and see things in a particular way, you are amazed that other people can’t see it.’ Persisting in the face of doubt or rejection, for artists or for scientists, can be a lonely path — one that may also partially explain why some of these people experience mental illness.”
Do creative people simply have more ideas, and therefore differ from average people only in a quantitative way, or are they also qualitatively different?
“One subject, a neuroscientist and an inventor, addressed this question in an interesting way, conceptualizing the matter in terms of kites and strings:
‘In the R&D business, we kind of lump people into two categories: inventors and engineers. The inventor is the kite kind of person. They have a zillion ideas and they come up with great first prototypes. But generally an inventor … is not a tidy person. He sees the big picture and … [is] constantly lashing something together that doesn’t really work. And then the engineers are the strings, the craftsmen [who pick out a good idea] and make it really practical. So, one is about a good idea, the other is about … making it practical.’
Of course, having too many ideas can be dangerous. One subject, a scientist who happens to be both a kite and a string, described to me ‘a willingness to take an enormous risk with your whole heart, soul and mind on something where you know the impact — if it worked — would be utterly transformative.’ The if here is significant. Part of what comes with seeing connections no one else sees is that not all of these connections actually exist. ‘Everybody has crazy things they want to try,’ that same subject told me. ‘Part of creativity is picking the little bubbles that come up to your conscious mind, and picking which one to let grow and which one to give access to more of your mind, and then have that translate into action.’
In A Beautiful Mind, her biography of the mathematician John Nash, Sylvia Nasar describes a visit Nash received from a fellow mathematician while institutionalized at McLean Hospital. ‘How could you, a mathematician, a man devoted to reason and logical truth,’ the colleague asked, ‘believe that extraterrestrials are sending you messages? How could you believe that you are being recruited by aliens from outer space to save the world?’ To which Nash replied: ‘Because the ideas I had about supernatural beings came to me the same way that my mathematical ideas did. So I took them seriously.’
Some people see things others cannot, and they are right, and we call them creative geniuses. Some people see things others cannot, and they are wrong, and we call them mentally ill. And some people, like John Nash, are both.”
The crisis of intimacy
We all know that technology has changed us, on our most intimate levels. Yet, nobody really wants to face the specifics of how, says Stephen Marche. In The Crisis of Intimacy in the Age of Digital Connectivity, he argues that equality of information, which is the foundation of digital connectivity, is, by definition, the antithesis of intimacy.
“Technologists have a blind spot when it comes to their effects on intimacy,” Marche writes. “Since you can’t quantify it, what does it matter? The great analysts of human intimacy are equally blind when it comes to registering the subtle interruptions of the machines. Alice Munro’s short stories, widely considered the most intimate portraits of domestic life in the period between the 1970s and the 2010s (smack dab in the middle of the grand technological disruption), never mention a computer. It seems too silly, too negligible, a distraction from the real business of intimate life, which is family and sex. And there is another problem: if you mentioned a smartphone in a short story about intimate life, the subject of that story would be the smartphone. The technology would swallow all other meaning in fiction just as it does in real life.
The failure to deal with the intimate implications of digital connectivity leads to widespread mistakes. It is a general assumption, and not just among old people, that the rise of digital connectivity has led to a decline in intimacy.”
But this general idea doesn’t reflect reality. “The digital world is soaked in intimacy,” Marche writes. “Or, rather, there is no more and no less intimacy now than there was during the analog era; the intimacy has been transferred to another format. […] we express ourselves in lust and hunger and violence. Sitting in front of infinitely interchangeable and accessible screens, each of us stupidly needs to feel special, and will do what it takes.
The content of the internet is always in rebellion against its form. The form is smooth universality. The content is the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.”
This contradiction between form and content, Marche argues, was apparent in the very foundations of the system as described, in 1974, in A Protocol for Packet Network Intercommunication. It defined ‘connection’ exclusively in the sense of an association between two or more entities without regard to a path. According to Marche, “The unspeakable power and hard limitations of the age of digital connectivity are right there, right at the beginning. ‘Without regard to a path,’ all information can be connected. The connections will, however, be ‘without regard to a path.’ The achievement is the disaster. The advantage is the flaw. The feature is the bug. Equality of information is, by definition, the antithesis of intimacy.”
“The basic contradiction is as simple as it is desperate: the sharing of private experience has never been more widespread while empathy, the ability to recognize the meaning of another’s private experience, has never been more rare,” Marche writes.
“The crisis of intimacy is not some accident, some coincidence with the rise of smartphones and social media. It is so hard to see the specific outlines of the relation, and not just because of the standard difficulties of establishing the true meaning of statistics. Who can see their own distortion clearly? Amara’s Law, which states that we tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run, is true of human fate in general. In history, as in our intimate lives, the decisions we don’t consider are the ones with the most profound consequences. A mother’s off-handed remark. A party attended at the last minute. These shape us in ways paralyzing to contemplate. Kranzberg’s Law — ‘Technology is neither good nor bad, neither is it neutral’ — has the good sense to acknowledge the inevitability of misunderstanding. It’s why time is the ultimate twist ending. It’s why the consequences of technology are never what anyone thinks they are.
The crisis of intimacy emerges directly from the structures of digital connectivity themselves, and not merely from their misapplication. There is no hope in better management. All plans for fixing the internet are a misunderstanding of the fundamental vision of connection that makes the whole thing possible. Nothing any digital technology company could do, other than to stop making digital technology, would assuage the inescapable brokenness of our condition. The connections of the internet are originally and inherently ‘without regard to a path,’ and mere human beings, on screen or off, are in infinite need of paths.
We’re going to have to find those paths elsewhere than technology. A secret name is not the same as an anonymous avatar. In a world of total information, the essence of the human will become what is not information, and the essence of intimacy will be in sharing what cannot be shared over the networks. Secret names have always stood at the center of what is holy. The ancient Egyptian universal god Ra had a sacred name, a secret name. When Moses asked God who He was, the answer came back ‘I am I am.’ Without secrets, there can be no revelation.
As the various venues of digital connectivity become the whole of the public realm, the public realm will be a collection of alienations, a bunch of beetles in a bunch of boxes. In an all-sharing world, what we don’t share will define us. The secret will be irrelevant because it is not on the network. It will be the part of us that matters.”
Isaiah Berlin’s pluralist thesis
The philosopher Isaiah Berlin was “a man of formidable intellectual power with a rare gift for understanding a wide range of human motives, hopes and fears, and a prodigiously energetic capacity for enjoyment — of life, of people in all their variety, of their ideas and idiosyncrasies, of literature, of music, of art,” Henry Hardy writes in A Life in Focus: Sir Isaiah Berlin, philosopher and historian of ideas. He was one of the most remarkable men of his time and one of the leading liberal thinkers of the century.
“Berlin once described the main burden of his work as ‘distrust of all claims to the possession of incorrigible knowledge about issues of fact or principle in any sphere of human behaviour.’ His most fundamental conviction, which he applauded when he discerned it in the writings of others, and adopted in an enriched form as his own, was that there can never be any single, universal, final, complete, demonstrable answer to the most ultimate moral question of all: how should men live? This he presents as a denial of one of the oldest and most dominant assumptions of western thought, expressed in its most uncompromising form in the 18th century under the banner of the French Enlightenment.
Contrary to the Enlightenment vision of an eventual orderly and untroubled synthesis of all objectives and aspirations, Berlin insisted that there exists an indefinite number of competing and often irreconcilable ultimate values and ideals between which each of us often has to make a choice — a choice which, precisely because it cannot be given a conclusive rational justification, must not be forced on others, however committed we may be to it ourselves. ‘Life may be seen through many windows, none of them necessarily clear or opaque, less or more distorting than any of the others.’”
“Each individual, each culture, each nation, each historical period has its own goals and standards, and these cannot be combined, practically or theoretically, into a single coherent overarching system in which all ends are fully realised without loss, compromise or clashes. The same tension exists within each individual consciousness. More equality may mean less excellence, or less liberty; justice may obstruct mercy; honesty may exclude kindness; self-knowledge may impair creativity or happiness, efficiency inhibit spontaneity. But these are not temporary local difficulties: they are general, indelible and sometimes tragic features of the moral landscape; tragedy, indeed, far from being the result of avoidable error, is an endemic feature of the human condition. Instead of a splendid synthesis there must be a permanent, at times painful, piecemeal process of untidy trade-offs and careful balancings of contradictory claims.
Intimately connected with this pluralist thesis — sometimes mistaken for relativism, which he rejected, and which is in fact quite distinct — is a belief in freedom from interference, especially by those who think they know better, that they can choose for us in a more enlightened way than we can choose for ourselves.
Berlin’s pluralism justifies his deep-seated rejection of coercion and manipulation by authoritarians and totalitarians of all kinds: communists, fascists, bureaucrats, missionaries, terrorists, revolutionaries and all other despots, levellers, systematisers or purveyors of ‘organised happiness.’ Like one of his heroes, the Russian thinker Alexander Herzen, many of whose characteristics he manifested himself, Berlin had a horror of the sacrifices that have been exacted in the name of utopian ideals due to be realised at some unspecifiable point in the distant future: real people should not have to suffer and die today for the sake of a chimera of eventual universal bliss.”
And also this…
In The Art of Boredom, Andrew Bowie, wonders what sort of phenomenon boredom actually is? “If we go to a football match and it ends in a goalless draw, someone who analyses tactics may have found it fascinating for the ways the two sides’ tactics cancelled each other out, but someone else, for whom goals and spectacular action are what gives the game its point, may have found it boring. So is boredom something merely ‘subjective’?”
According to Bowie, this question resembles the perennial debates over whether judgements about art are ‘just subjective.’ “People make opposing judgements with respect to what is boring and what is of aesthetic value all the time. What these judgements have in common is that they both derive from the idea that some connections with things in the world involve the presence or absence of certain kinds of value. The idea that these are solely subjective comes from the fact that such judgements may appear irredeemably contested. However, construing ‘subjective’ this way is questionable. Judgements of this kind involve criteria, such as a football game being boring because of its lack of goals. This is not simply ‘subjective’: because one can offer reasons why this criterion may trump tactical interest. Moreover, judgements which become widely socially accepted are not determined just by individual preference, but by other factors. These can involve social and cultural pressures that people are unaware of, and so function in an objective, socially caused manner,” Bowie writes.
“The interplay of subjective and objective, which can each change their status over time, is what matters here. If something comes to play a determining role in how people do things, it is mistaken to call it merely subjective. The norms for what is considered right or wrong in music, for example, often change because some way of playing or composing comes to be regarded as boring, and new norms then gain a compelling status.”
But why do things become boring?
“Boredom has to do with a lack of ‘meaning,’” Bowie argues. “Meaning here should not be thought of either in a semantic sense, or even in a metaphysical sense. What is at issue is rather our investments in the world, and how they can fail, which happens both at the individual and the social level. Things can, for example, become boring through repetition. At the same time, repetition is a condition of meaning in the broad sense intended here. In his 1802–3 lectures that would become ‘Philosophy of Art,’ Friedrich Schelling says: ‘man seeks, driven by nature, to establish multiplicity and variety through rhythm. We cannot tolerate uniformity for very long, in everything that is in itself without meaning, for example in counting, we make periods.’ These factors have to do with boredom’s relationship to time, which raises vital questions about how meaning and time are connected. The meaningfulness or the lack of meaning of time in boredom might in this respect again seem to make what is at issue a subjective projection onto an objective physical world. But this approach is precisely what gets in the way of understanding the significance of boredom, because ‘the world’ is not just what physics tells us about, but is also the context in which things mean something, including, of course, physics itself.
The latter idea of the world derives from Martin Heidegger, and it is no coincidence that he provides some striking extended reflections on boredom, in his lectures on ‘The Basic Concepts of Metaphysics,’ of 1929–30, just after the publication of ‘Being and Time’ in 1927. Heidegger here wants to grasp ‘the basic mood (Stimmung) of philosophy,’ and he cites the early German Romantic, Novalis’ remarks on philosophy as ‘homesickness’ as relating to this basic mood. ‘Stimmung’ has the connotation of ‘tuning’ in music, and can be translated as ‘attunement,’ having to do with how we relate to the world in more than cognitive terms. Moods for Heidegger are not subjective psychological states of mind that are the object of the science of psychology, but fundamental ways of being in the world. He therefore insists that one is always already in a mood by the very nature of how we exist. Moods consequently also precede any possibility of objectifying things, including moods themselves. A mood is ‘a way (Weise), not just a form or a mode, but a way in the sense of a melody [the German word has both connotations],’ and it ‘gives the tone’ for human existence. Moods are the ‘basic ways in which we find ourselves as such and such,’ and, though Heidegger himself makes little of it, suggest why music is central to such philosophical exploration.
Heidegger seeks to ‘evoke’ a ‘basic mood’ of human existence, and he does this by focusing on boredom. His philosophy asks how things make any sense at all, so beginning with boredom, which empties things of sense, seems apt. Boredom only matters at all because there is a prior sense of things which it can revoke, so challenging us to understand what it is that goes missing. Rather than being an inner state, ‘boredom has its seat in the boring thing and insinuates itself into us from outside.’ Things like books, plays, ceremonies, or people can be boring, and the phenomenon cannot be reduced to being mere subjective apprehension. Nor can the thing be seen as ‘an effective cause, but rather as that which attunes [stimmt] us.’ This attunement is ‘a fundamental mode of our existence’ in which the world means something to us, or loses such meaning. Boredom precedes the means we employ to investigate it: ‘we may not make boredom, as a state which occurs for itself, the object of observation, but we must take it in the way in which we move in it, i.e. at the same time seek to dispel it’ by ‘passing the time.’ As such, boredom is a key to the meaning of our existence, because it tells us something essential about the temporal nature of that existence.”
Heidegger then inflates the notion of boredom in an attempt at a large-scale diagnosis of the state of modern culture. He sees it as essential to the nature of modernity, writing that “boredom perhaps determines our existence here and now.”
Adorno, in Aesthetic Theory, “talks in a manner analogous to Heidegger, of ‘the grey of the boredom produced by the commodity world,’ which reduces objects to a uniformly quantifiable status, to which modernist art is a response. However, this remark also suggests a more adequate approach than Heidegger’s to the wider cultural significance of boredom. In modernity, metaphysical assumptions that meaning is already inherent in the world, such that time, for example, is thought of as moving towards a goal, lose traction in the face of the new frameworks with which economics, science and technology order the world. The importance of modern forms of art for philosophy in this respect can lie precisely in how they respond to a world dominated by the endless potential for empty repetition. In this way, boredom, which may appear to be an individual psychological phenomenon, can be a philosophical key to fundamental aspects of modern culture.”
In First women of philosophy, Dag Herbjørnsrud, a historian of ideas and the founder of SGOKI in Oslo, writes how philosophy was once a woman’s world, ranging across Asia, Africa and Latin America. But within one generation, academic philosophers succeeded in excluding the non-European world. It’s time to reclaim that lost realm, Herbjørnsrud argues.
“The philosophical canon, such as it is, was not always so European and male, even by the lights of European men. In Phaedrus, Plato states that letters and the sciences originated in Egypt. Clement of Alexandria (c150–215 CE) asserted that philosophy was universal, originally stemming from the Egyptians, Chaldeans, Persians and Indians, before the discipline ‘eventually penetrated into Greece.’
The historian Diogenes Laërtius (c180–240 CE) included a chapter on the woman Hipparchia in his Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers. And when Laërtius’ history of philosophy was published in Amsterdam in 1758, in French, it had a woman on the title page. To this edition, a third volume was added, which contained 100 pages on ancient female philosophers, such as Julia Domna of Damascus and the Neoplatonist Theodora of Alexandria. [It also contained] more than 90 pages on Confucius from China. In the 17th and 18th century, European thinkers such as G W Leibniz and François Quesnay likewise proudly found inspiration from China.
But this millennium-old understanding of the diversity of philosophy was erased from Europe. As Peter J K Park of Dallas University argues in Africa, Asia, and the History of Philosophy: Racism in the Formation of the Philosophical Canon, 1780–1830 (2013), curriculum lists from the early 19th century onwards began to be emptied of women and non-European thinkers. Leading European scholars chose to create a canon based on a new Eurocentric version — better suited to their imperial, racialised and patriarchal era. Early among these was Christoph Meiners, a professor in Göttingen and a proponent for white supremacy, who in his influential work History of the Origin, Progress and Decay of the Sciences in Greece and Rome (1781) began to define philosophy as a product solely of the European man. His ideology was carried on by the German historian Wilhelm Tennemann who helped to redefine the history of philosophy in his mammoth ‘Geschichte der Philosophie’ (1798).
As Park demonstrates, the tipping point came when G W F Hegel, in 1825, declared that ‘Oriental’ works should be excluded from philosophy in accordance with the new Kantian faction (who thought that Kantianism was a sort of culmination of philosophy) since it was not ‘thought, true philosophy’. Ironically, Hegel had been attacked himself by Christian polemicists for presenting a ‘pantheistic’ and ‘Oriental’ thought system. Hegel answered by joining the Kantian faction as a defensive manoeuvre — presenting Hegelianism as a synthesis, a true philosophical development. ‘Within one generation,’ Park concludes, ‘academic philosophers succeeded in excluding the non-European world and in consolidating a canon of philosophy that powerfully legitimised their discipline.’
To be sure, philosophers today are finally pushing back on this myopic view of their discipline’s history. For instance, the creation of a new, more inclusive canon will be discussed at the 115th annual meeting of the American Philosophical Association (APA) Eastern Division in New York in early January 2019. And in the past couple of years, new student campaigns have been asking questions such as Why Is My Curriculum White? and demanding a decolonised and ‘liberated’ curriculum. Meanwhile, leading columnists such as Minna Salami in The Guardian have also pointed out that ‘philosophy has to be about more than white men’ as its existential purpose is to investigate ‘all human existence.’
In July, 2018, Anita L Allen, professor of law and philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania, became the first black woman to be president of the APA’s Eastern Division — the APA itself is now taking diversity seriously. And the Collegium of Black Women Philosophers, founded by Kathryn Sophia Belle at Pennsylvania State University, is also vital. In November 2017, it celebrated its 10th anniversary with a keynote speech by Angela Davis. Canada’s New Narratives in the History of Philosophy is also dedicated to reinvigorating the philosophical canon.
Nevertheless, the numbers still reveal that women of colour in the US, and in Europe for that matter, are better represented in natural sciences than in academia’s oldest field. No other discipline in the humanities is less diverse in terms of curriculum, students and professors. The philosophy departments, journals and curriculum lists are often as lacking in diversity now as they were in the 1970s.
So, here we are, two centuries after the ideological creation of the new canon. No wonder none of the above female philosophers from Asia, Africa or Latin America, all born before the exclusion of the 19th century, are included today. They do not fit within the canon’s artificial strictures. Neither do early modern European women philosophers such as Elisabeth of Bohemia (1618–80), even though her critique of Cartesian dualism made René Descartes concede in a letter to her: ‘In view of my published writings, the question that can most rightly be asked is the very one that you put to me.’
Like Gargi Vachaknavi in India some 2,300 years earlier, Elisabeth was reclaiming her time and space. One day, it might become possible to include the voices of marginalised philosophical women again. These women highlighted the questions that were most pressing in their time, and theorised philosophical answers that still need to be discussed in the 21st century. Philosophy was once a woman’s world. It is time to reclaim some of that lost realm.”
“Everyone likes to think they are open-minded. However, even those of us that actively invite different ideas rarely allow them to set up home. There’s plenty of research that suggests our fundamental beliefs don’t generally change much once we’re in our twenties,” writes the British philospher, writer and co-founder of The Philosophers’ Magazine, Julian Baggini in The art of changing your mind.
“I’ve been pondering this a lot recently because I’ve been giving a lot of talks about my new book, How The World Thinks, for which I literally travelled around the globe to find out about its diverse philosophical traditions and how they reflect the cultures they belong to.” The question Baggini has been asked most during his intellectual journey was, what have you changed your mind about?
“I could answer: in too many ways to list. Everything looks different because I have become aware of ways of thinking I knew nothing of and these have in turn cast a new light on familiar ones. But if you ask me whether there is a big issue I have changed my mind about, it would seem that the answer is no. If my mind were a house you might describe it as having undergone a complete make-over without any changes to its basic structure at all.”
In the past I would have found this depressing. It would seem to make the entertaining of different ideas little more than just entertainment. Now, I’m not so down on our apparent resistance to change. In short, I have changed my mind about changing minds.
If that’s right then the goal of continuing enquiry and self-examination is not necessarily to change your fundamental worldview but to work towards the best possible version of it. This is realistic and worthwhile. Each of us engages in philosophy as a personal quest and persons have a necessary stability that makes complete change almost impossible. The kind of change we can ask of ourselves and others is not to change into someone else but to become a better version of the self you are. So if you want to change your mind, don’t think switch it for another: upgrade it.”
More on How the World Thinks on BBC Radio 4’s Start the Week.
Alexandra Lange writes in What We’ve Learned from Dieter Rams, and What We’ve Ignored, “[Dieter] Rams’s collaborator on the ET55 calculator (1980), Dietrich Lubs, who is interviewed in [Gary Hustwit’s Rams], says that the Braun designers ‘were trying to eliminate the need for user manuals.’ The new-products division at Braun, founded in the mid-sixties, focussed on new categories of objects for personal grooming and the desktop, which required even more attention to shape, color, and tactility. In a world where the On button is endangered, there’s something wonderfully clear about Rams and Lubs’s calculator’s green On and red Off buttons, rounded to meet the fingertip. In a world where even home coffeemakers bristle with nozzles and switches, there’s something wonderfully soothing about the Braun kitchen appliances, most of which have a single toggle switch. A few years back, frustrated by the chaos of my countertop, I ordered a vintage KF 20 coffee machine (designed by Florian Seiffert, in 1972) from eBay, and put it to work. It had a smaller footprint and simpler lines than any electric machine on the market today.
Mark Adams, the managing director of Vitsoe, collects such stories from customers (and uses a KF 20 himself). At the Philadelphia museum opening, he told me that he’s had customers put their 606s in their wills — ‘Make sure you get the shelves after I’m gone’ — and has been asked by lawyers to value units in divorce proceedings. ‘Though of course,’ he is quick to mention, as a modular system ‘it can easily be split.’ It is this kind of story I wish there were more of in ‘Rams’ — moments when inanimate objects inspire passionate emotion and artifacts of the recent past become heirlooms. Here’s a happier Rams story, also courtesy Adams: two lonely souls went looking for love after broken marriages. When they eventually went home together, they found they both had off-white 606s on their walls. Their subsequent cohabitation was written in the shelves.”
The French architect Bernard Desmoulin was commissioned to design a new facade, entrance, and visitors center for Musée de Cluny in Paris. “The new volume reveals and emphasizes a dichotomy of historical styles with respect for the structure’s roman heritage which has typically demonstrated many layers of history built upon each other,” according to designboom.
“A classical silhouette respects the vernacular roofscape while the facade is clad in a surface of fragmented textures of medieval motifs. This facade is fabricated with cast iron detailing which exhibits constant changes in hue with the passing of the sun. Each of the three street-facing facades display carved stone motifs borrowed from lace detailing, also visible within the museum’s iconic L’Hôtel des Abbés de Cluny […]. This delicate lace motif serves to both reference a medieval influence while simultaneously offering a contrast to the heavy stone poché of the adjacent structures.”
“There’s a great example of the importance of framing in a famous poem by W. H. Auden. The poem discusses a painting called Landscape with the Fall of Icarus. The painting shows a coastal scene of everyday activities — someone ploughing a field, another herding sheep. And, in the corner, you can just see some ‘white legs disappearing into the green water.’ This is Icarus hitting the sea after flying too close to the sun and falling from the sky. One of the central myths of Western civilization is playing out, but, in the painting, no one notices — the event is at the corner of the frame. The farmers are the focus.
Although Auden doesn’t put it quite like this, for him the painting shows the power of framing. Even the most momentous events can be made marginal if you put them in the margin and instead focus on the mundane things that were happening at the same time — ‘someone else eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.’ As he says, ‘even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course / Anyhow in a corner.’” — Michael Hallsworth and Elspeth Kirkman, A Tale of Two Systems: What Can Behavioral Science Learn From Literature?