I attended a "symposium" yesterday morning. I'm not sure what made it a symposium; basically I attended two lectures by Harvard professors at the Harvard Club, but they had nothing to do with each other. Maybe there was an overall topic for the thing advertised on the brochure, but I don't remember what it was.
I can't say I felt at home in the Harvard Club. Not really my kind of place. But I won't make any snotty or anti-snotty judgments, because everyone I interacted with was very nice. It's possible that we were the youngest people at this thing, which I thought was a little odd. I did feel like I was in a Club. Creating such a feeling seems to be a pretty deep-rooted part of Harvard's (incredibly successful) fundraising strategy. This wasn't really a fundraising event, though it wasn't free.
The first presentation was by Gregory Nagy, on ekphrasis (also spelled ecphrasis). It wasn't quite what I thought it would be. I'm very interested in the relationship between writing and visual art, largely because my favorite generation of American poets was very tied up with Abstract Expressionism and New York School painting. And I like to consider the ways that the different kinds of objects can generate texts, and the ways in which texts can relate to particular objects other than just being descriptive of them. Nagy was going to be talking specifically about Homer. In the end, I learned some things about Homer and the story behind some of the statues / metal-working produced at the time, but felt like there wasn't much discussion of the texts. It's interesting to see the list of works at the end of that Wikipedia article. The first one listed, "Achilles' Shield", Nagy talked about, and the last one "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror" by Ashbery is an example of the use of ekphrasis that I'm interested in.
The second presentation was John Stilgoe. He was fucking fantastic. First of all, as a speaker, he was very entertaining and engaging, the kind of intellectual that is capable of presenting his ideas to all kinds of audiences. His energy and style reminded me quite a bit of Eben Moglen. He talked about design. All kinds of design. He covered such an amount of ground that I can't do it justice. Here's the ideas I jotted down, more or less verbatim (some of them won't make sense since you can't see the pictures, but I want to remember them, so here they are):
-- Our culture demeans and de-emphasizes visual knowledge/literacy. We're very emphatic on getting people to read at an early age, and we test people based on questions like "Discuss this.." Can you imagine if you sat down to take the SAT or GRE and the instructions started with "Draw this.."?
-- The arrow in the Fed Ex logo. Fed Ex using less and less purple paint because purple paint is the most expensive paint in the US. The arrow points your attention away from the ever-decreasing amount of purple.
-- Can you draw a plan for a piece of cardboard that will fold into a Chinese food take-out carton?
-- Transformation in the woman on the tomato paste can. She used to be a farm woman who looked like she had something to do with growing the tomatoes. Now she looks like a suburban housewife. When did this happen? Why did her hair color change? Tracing the history of these things is almost impossible. It happens without you noticing.
-- An ad showing a couple walking on the beach. A nice scene. But on the horizon is a cliff. If you look at the cliff, it looks like a scary reptilian monster face. It's an ad for Boeing. One strategy of airline advertising is to terrify you with other things so that you forget you are afraid to fly (which 80% of adults say they are).
-- If you look at the evacuation instruction card on an airplane, you may see one like on Virgin, where the 1st Class section of the plane very clearly evacuates into life rafts, while the rest of the plane is shown sliding down into the water, presumably to hang on to their vests and swim.
-- MS Windows visual design may have been inspired partly by Gates's love of comic books as a kid. Icons and such.
-- Many clothing ads now appear to show incestuous situations. The scantily dressed blonde guy and girl standing intimately close to each other, and they look awfully similar to each other.
-- Why do angels have to say "Fear Not" when you see them? Because they're scary looking. Not pretty ladies with wings.
-- We've lost many of our navigational abilities, or we don't have much navigational knowledge, because we are now used to environments like McDonald's; highly planned.
-- "Mobil Landscape Manual"
-- "The Way of the Scout", Tom Brown. Talks about how to be invisible. If you want to park your car and observe people, sit in the passenger seat. People won't notice you as much as if you are sitting in the driver's seat. They will assume you are waiting for the driver to return.
-- "Shop Theory". The idea that there is a body of knowledge about techniques, how to do things, like Henry Ford's auto shops. Design is no different. Various areas have their shop theories. What people call a "suburban jungle" and view as disorganized commercial space is actually highly planned, as per the "Mobil Landscape Manual", according to various shop theories.
-- "The Students are Watching". Book to check out.
-- Gastronomic Color Theory and Composition (restaurant plate arrangement)
-- Goethe's color theory
-- Why does restaurant food taste better. What about the backdrop, the plates? What color are they? What color is the food?
-- An instruction book on how to draw Bodacious Babes in comic books. The instructions say, that if you want to make a woman look evil, you should give her very long legs. If you want to make her nice, shorten her legs.
-- Cut to hosiery ads, naughty girls with long legs. Hosiery manufacturers pushed the boundaries of what you were allowed to show socially with women in advertising.
-- Much of this design shop theory comes from psychologists. The thing is, this research was done for-profit under confidentiality agreements with companies, not in academia. So there is this body of knowledge out there about how to design things to accomplish various effects that the public does not have access to.
-- Corporate anthropology
-- Where did the Roswell alien face come from? Now it's appearing in ads, this very simple stretched out alien face with oval, pupil-less eyes. But it was being used before Roswell.
-- Casinos pump in oxygen, but also the smell of newly printed money. We'll be seeing more use of olfactory stimulation in the future.
-- Now many ads are designed with the idea that wealthy people don't want something better quality-wise than what they have already (in terms of a particular product), but rather something that differentiates them from others.
-- Many ads now are very hard to "figure out". What is it that they are selling? How could they possibly think that showing these images will actually make people want to buy their product? But there is a shop theory behind them all, the challenge is to make guesses at what it might be. Unfortunately, the actual knowledge is proprietary.
And I didn't get the half of it!