Volume 5, Number 1 (January 2008)
Author: Victoria Z. Alexander
Review of: Stir Fried Puppy and Other Cool Memories of a Hot Designer. Alan Fletcher et. al. The Art of Looking Sideways. Phaidon Press, 2001.
I quote others only the better to express myself.1
Some of the best books ever made lack unifying narratives. The dictionary, the encyclopaedia, the thesaurus, any lexicon – all are collections of fragments and quotations. Alan Fletcher has given us an immense book that is more encyclopaedia than encyclopaedia and he has convinced the global art publisher Phaidon to produce and distribute it at an affordable cost.2 If you liked Rem Koolhaus’s S, M, L, XL3 you may love this book. If you loved Koolhaus’s book then you may merely like this one. If you injured yourself with Koolhaus’s substantial tome – you will hate this book on sight.
It is a book of quotations and peculiar juxtapositionings of facts and knowledges. Seventy three short chapters, each beginning with a quotation, stand in for more traditional encyclopedic format. This is not the book of all books but it depends on many books for its existence. There is no formal bibliography but you accumulate an attractive one as you go along based on the many notes which appear along the bottom of the pages. It is a book unified only by language – which stands in for meaning in its eternal ephemerality.4 A book such as this should begin with a sense of deep time and so it does – allowing a deep peace to settle over us as we begin the long trek through its 1068 pages (set as 532 numbered leaves). It is a book that makes us work to deserve it and at several junctures I felt like I deserved to work it. The first chapter “Culture” prepares us for catastrophe – we learn from it that 99 per cent of all species to have inhabited the earth are now extinct – and our ancestors came perilously close only 75
million years ago – pity. Fletcher suggests that if one of these ancestors were to take a seat beside us on a train we would not merely change seats – we would change trains. We imagine him or her peering out of the past toward us – as we peer back at them through the mists of time – neither party understanding the other.
Umberto Eco leads us into chapter two “Symbols”. The symbolic haunts the modern as our historical overconfidence in our ability to know the real fades behind the horizon of appearance where the horizon of disappearance is to be
found.6 Werner Heisenberg ushers us into chapter three “Tools” where a suitable uncertainty pervades. Yet we ponder that we may be as sensuous as a pencil and we are given a list of the world’s top three according to the pencilati. “Inhibition is a nail in the head” and the chapter on creativity dies looking for patterns. Arthur Koestler who is quoted to begin the chapter deserved better. Chapter four, “Wit” isn’t funny but the chapter following it, “Creativity” is quite creative.
The chapter on “Colour” is brilliant and colourful ending with Borges pondering a sunset in Querétaro that reminded him of the colour of a rose in Bengal. Dreams” tells us that those who do the most dream the most – but those who are the most creative, dream the least. Many things, we learn, have appeared for the first time in dreams: the sewing machine, the plot for Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde and, in Einstein’s case, the connection between space and time. Today it seems we are mainly dreaming of our disappearance.8 The chapter about “Ideas” shows how few great ones humanity has ever had. But we also learn that the brain can produce no more than 30 watts so maybe it isn’t surprising that each of us has only one great thought9 – after that it is simply variations on a theme. Who had the best idea of all time? Perhaps it was Darwin simply because it was so deeply challenging. Of course we may wonder – if Darwin was really right shouldn’t our brains already be shrinking as they pose a mortal danger to the species?10 One thing we can be fairly certain about – the greatest idea of all-time will come from neither from a positivist nor from a brainstorming session.
“Snaps” (or synchronicity) is about giant leaps in reasoning power. Humans are hard pressed to better the Welsh sheep that have learned to pass over cattle grids by tucking up their legs and rolling over the bars.11 Among the worst “snaps” in history – the decision by Easter Islanders to cut down their trees to roll the huge stone heads they carved to their place of rest. Then again – how many works of art have been worth sacrificing an entire civilization? When all the trees were gone, Fletcher tells us, the Island became a grassy moor and its inhabitants died out. A chapter on “mutation” tells us that a myth “is not a fiction but a structure to express illusive experiences or share philosophical ideas”.12 A few pages later the author makes a rare direct appearance telling us that the book is about almost everything he was never taught – me too. The section on learning (where a student teaches us to spell ‘ejukashun’) tell us that 90 per cent of all scientists who have lived are alive right now. It is little wonder that the university is in ruins.13 “Noise” tells us that the bark is the song of the dog and “Paradigms” that we are all products of the choices we make.14
“Automation” contains yet another reminder that Richard Dawkins is not nearly as bright as he thinks he is. Maybe we shouldn’t expect so much from a member of a species that turns fine wine into urine. “Intelligence” reminded me artificial intelligence “lacks artifice and therefore intelligence”15 tells us that ants are embarrassingly like humans (embarrassing for the ants I take it).
“Brain” and “Mind” point to the sadness of artifical intelligence17 while “Senses” is about feeling – we follow our bliss. If you don’t know what it is “suck it and see”.18 “Thinking” is a thoughtful chapter about how thinking is looked upon a hard work – maybe that is why so few engage in it on a regular basis. “Problems” and “Chance” make me wonder about the hurricanes that end in the flapping of a butterfly’s wings.19 The universe seem’s to prefer Murphy (law) and no matter how many determinists we produce, they will never eliminate chance.
“Imagination” takes us to children – those “vagabonds in the backwoods of rationality” and then on to tellydildonics – the field of data-suit fantasy options for auto-eroticism. “Virtualization” is a predictable chapter to follow but its contents are not. It turns out to be more about language and memory – but then the ability to forget is what allows us to thrive. A re-load chapter follows called “Alphabet” which is a very good answer to the question: what is the world’s greatest invention? (Apologies to Beethoven!) “Seeing” tells us that theory comes from the Greek for “to behold” and indeed it is a challenge to that which we seem to always behold the real.20 It is the “nomad eye” – the one in our brain – that helps us think sideways (and top down as well). In our thunderstorm of images what we see (Frank Stella) is what we see. Seeing takes time – and in our real time – we have no time for it.21
“Places” is about the author’s travels – in Moscow the hot tap is on the right – in Berlin the realization that Picasso’s genius was due to his lack of inhibition. “Perception” is about reality – a fiction – which fiction shows us plainly while realism only obscures. Besides, if reality is the be all and end all – why are we thrusting ourselves into the networks of the virtual so willingly?22 In any event, when a drunken man enters a bar with a goose under one arm and a pig under the other – make conversation only with the goose or the pig.
“Stereotypes” takes us into the bankruptcy of cliché – which, if stroked, may purr like a metaphor. “Value” of course begins with quality (which remains long after the price is forgotten) and laments how there is less of it over time – and at lower prices too. There isn’t a thing in the world, after all, that can’t be made more poorly and sold more cheaply said Ruskin. Think twice before you haggle with an expensive hooker or a customs inspector. We also learn that tulips are Turkish and we meet the man who designed the Lucky Strike package.
“Illusion” never says so, but we know it is vital.25 Traveling though space faster than a bullet we are passengers on the spaceship Illusion. “Paradox” shows us the lie of truth. “Figure Ground” tells us that the Zebra’s stripes (Stephen Jay Gould assures us it is a black animal with white stripes), are a portable permanent signature of identity. But identity is of course a dream – and a pathetic one in its absurdity for you or for me or the Zebra.26 “Symmetry” is a balanced chapter that leaves one wondering if the Hysteron Protean Club of Oxford still meets every so often to live a day in reverse? “Reflections” speaks to mirrors but never ponders a mirror in which an image appears slowly as in a Polaroid27 nor is there any sympathy for the cry of the mirror when the image strikes.28 “Pattern” contains a nice discussion on fractals – which we are surrounded by and made of (fragments too).29 We are the stuff of uncertainty as Heisenberg knew all too well. “Camouflage” is about interpretations, including the hell that is a zoo.30
“Economy” is about the more in less (Mies van der Rohe) and too much is too much (William of Occam and Jean Baudrillard),31 but brevity is the soul of lingerie (Dorothy Parker). “Measure” is about the power of limits, 2 jots = 1 tittle, 4 shots = 1 snootfull and 2 scamps = 1 rascal. But what matters more is that you can eat anything if you cut it up into small enough pieces. “Composition” is about music and art including the lovely moment when the Japanese congratulated Monet for abandoning perspective. “Leys & Lines” is about a scratch on the wall of oblivion, the way science has it in for poetry – but poetry, while slow to anger, has a devastating left hook. Navajo people believe everything was howled into existence by coyotes – pure magic the kind of which our technological age knows none. Fletcher also wonders if what you like matters much less than what likes you. Orion’s belt is in the pyramids at Giza – the people from space visited us long ago – maybe the earth is simply a former extraterrestrial penal colony.
“Aesthetics” lacks the wisdom to love the ugly but it traces the word “quark” to Joyce. Andy Warhol said “all is pretty” but Miss Clairol knows that a beautiful life can only be lived as a blonde and she could have owned Stonehenge in 1913 for a mere 6600 pounds. “Taste” makes us consider stir fried puppy, toe jam, and snot – which reinforces the notion that good taste is not having the audacity to inflict your opinion on other people.32 Then again, we learn in this chapter that the appreciation of crap can be considered a fine art. Go ahead, wear a red suit – I dare you (small difficulty for a woman, but not for a man). Arthur Miller wanders into “Style” with a fine deliberation:
“An era can be said to end when its basic illusions are exhausted”. In that case, we are over and one begins to wonder if modernity has even taken place?34 “Perfection” follows as an imperfect chapter – but then, even imperfection may have its perfect state. Leave the last word here to French chefs who say: “There is no such thing as a ‘pretty good’ omelette”.
“Meanings” takes us to Christ’s foreskin and the Olivetti Valentine. The former kept St. Catherine company and the later kept poets company on Sunday afternoons in the country. “Symbols” represents a weak chapter in this book. “Numbers” points out that the value of nothing is among our greatest discoveries. Who really prefers a fact to a good fiction? “Typography” loathes mannerism. “Skill” is clinically cool like Miro. “Perspective” is multiple. “Space-time” is fonder of the former than the latter. Nothing, after all, is more real than nothing. We are admonished “never wait for yourself’ and reminded that our conceptualizations of space, time, and causality impose certain limitations on us.
“Figuring” figures as a long and tiresome chapter and “Language” disappoints – but doesn’t it always? “Rhetoric” tags advertising as the science of arresting human intelligence long enough to separate it from money. McLuhan may not have been right about what future historians will make of advertisements – but they have become the raison d’etre of our culture.
“Copying” is a necessary chapter in the age of the simulacrum and “Words” records some of the more interesting signs to be found around the world. For example, in a Temple in Bangkok the author observed a sign reading: “It is forbidden to enter a woman even a foreigner if dressed as a man”.36 “Pictureplay” reminds us that all is metaphor – we are always transferring value from one field to another. “Wordplay” again quotes Dorothy Parker who quipped: “if all the girls attending the Yale Prom were laid end to end, I wouldn’t have been surprised”.37 “Handedness” (I jest not) follows making the observation that in the year 2000 Johnnie Walker turned around! Did you notice? “Pictograms” tells us that a picture is a silent poem and “Scripts” takes us through Cuneform, Runes, Glyphs and many other forms under Ogham’s sky. “Writing” said Joseph Joubert “is closer to thinking than speaking.38 He was right.
“Letters” proves that our alphabet actually has 37 letters and divulges the historical economics of italics and that “@” is very much older than you might think. “Identity” asks at what point you are no longer you. Then again any dreams of identity we may have are bound to end in indifference.39 Italo Calvino appears at this point to remind us of the multiple (encyclopedic) personal possibilities of being. One of the best stories told in this book is of a man nabbed by police in Amsterdam. At the time of his arrest he was in possession of 186 false identity papers (multiple passports, work permits, student cards etc.). The police claimed to be uncertain about who he really was…40
“Names” tells the odd story of how Nylon got its name. What’s in a name? Well, next time your engine needs a liquid tune-up give it a can of Super Piss from Finland and afterwards quench your own thirst with a bottle of Pschitt from France (you may have a chocolate Bum biscuit from Turkey with that if you like). If you don’t like your town name be thankful if you do not live in Wormwood Scrubs, Blue Fleabane, or Sots Hole (all in England). We simply cannot all live in “Weston Lullingfields” – the pub isn’t large enough. None of course can compare to Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwll – llandysiliogogogoch (you may have one guess as to where it is located). I may use it so often from now on that I have added it my spell-checker’s dictionary. “Signatures” writes that graffiti has a poetic quality and painted a lovely word picture of Claus Oldenberg on a sub-way platform waiting for a bouquet of flowers from Latin America to roll in. “Insignia” is, among other things, about pet rabbits and other subversive devices. Fletcher reserves a secret smile for things that can “insinuate a slice of individuality into a morass of bureaucratic systematization”.41 “Trademarks” reveals the name of the Michelin man in the same paragraph where you will learn about “Woodwards Gripe Water” (I’ll not spoil either for you here). I also found out two things about those of us who underline our signatures – the later is true of me. Fletcher then goes on to wonder if the politically correct are merely morally enfeebled? Finally a chapter on “Writing” brings us to the end with a scathing story about the Duchess of Argyll, her pearls (and nothing more), her lovers and their handwriting. Fletcher ends his long collection of fragments quoting V. S. Pritchett: “Writing enlarges the landscape of the mind”. Barthes told us that writing was not only a technical matter, but a physical one. Fletcher’s lovely and interesting book is also a physical experience – it weighs about three kilograms (or six American pounds).
And so we have seventy-three chapters of cool memories from an elite international designer (of Fletcher, Forbes, Gill Inc, and a founding partner of Pentagram). Alan Fletcher has passed through the confines of his ever expanding discipline with wit, charm, and élan. This is a book for almost everyone and it is a joy to read. And what good is a book that isn’t a joy to read (and to write about)? Jean Baudrillard, as it turns out, was not the only author of “cool memories”. While Fletcher is no Baudrillard he does know how to relax – something we all need to do more of these days. The final entry of this vast collection of Fletcher’s learning tells us just that, and it is appropriately, about Fletcher himself. This affirms very nicely something Baudrillard once wrote about collecting:
…what you really collect is always yourself. …any collection comprises a succession of items, but the last in the set is the person of the collector.42
As a final point I should add that this book makes an outstanding contribution to the study of visual culture. That emerging area of study will find many its blindspots addressed in Fletcher’s book – if they are willing to look.
About the Author
Victoria Z. Alexander is from Strasbourg, France.
1 – Michel de Montaigne cited in Alan Fletcher et. al. The Art of Looking Sideways. Phaidon Press, 2001:2.
2 – I paid about forty Euros for my copy ($50 U.S.).
3 – Rem Koolhaus and Brue Mau. S, M, L, XL. New York: Monacelli Press, 1995.
4 – This Baudrillardian way of referring to meaning appears in Gerry Coulter’s paper: “Jean Baudrillard’s Writing About Writing”. A paper presented at the Jean Baudrillard: Commemorating the conspiracies Of His Art (Memorial Session) of the 2007 Annual Meetings of the International Association for Philosophy and Literature. Hilton Hotel, Nicosia, Cyprus, June 2007.
5 – Alan Fletcher. The Art of Looking Sideways. Phaidon Press, 2001:12.
6 – Jean Baudrillard. Forget Foucault/Forget Baudrillard:51.
7 – Alan Fletcher. The Art of Looking Sideways. Phaidon Press, 2001:42.
8 – Jean Baudrillard. Cool Memories (1980-1985). New York: Verso, 1990:136.
9 – Jean Baudrillard. Fragments: Conversations With François L’Yvonnet. Translated by Chris Turner. New York: Routledge, 2004:3.
10 – See Jean Baudrillard. The Perfect Crime. New York: Verso, 1996:48.
11 – Alan Fletcher. The Art of Looking Sideways. Phaidon Press, 2001:82.
12 – Alan Fletcher. The Art of Looking Sideways. Phaidon Press, 2001:86.
13 – Jean Baudrillard. Simulacra and Simulation. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1994:149.
14 – Attributed to a former Algerian National Football team goaltender (Albert Camus).
15 – Jean Baudrillard cited by Alan Fletcher et. al. The Art of Looking Sideways. Phaidon Press, 2001:119. The original source is: Cool Memories (1980-1985). New York: Verso, 1990:127.
16 – Alan Fletcher. The Art of Looking Sideways. Phaidon Press, 2001:119.
17 – Jean Baudrillard. Impossible Exchange. New York: Verso, 2001:113.
18 – Alan Fletcher. The Art of Looking Sideways. Phaidon Press, 2001:137
19 – Jean Baudrillard. The Illusion of the End. Stanford C.A: Stanford California Press, 1994:114.
20 – Jean Baudrillard. The Illusion of the End. Stanford University Press, 1994:94-95.
21 – Ibid.:90.
22 – Jean Baudrillard. The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. Bloomington, Indiana: University of Indiana Press, 1995:20.
23 – Alan Fletcher. The Art of Looking Sideways. Phaidon Press, 2001:196.
24 – Ibid.:216
25 – Jean Baudrillard. The Perfect Crime. New York: Verso, 1996:1.
26 – Jean Baudrillard. Paroxysm: Interviews with Phillipe Petit. New York: Verso, 1997:98.
27 – Jean Baudrillard. Cool Memories V. London: Polity, 2005:89.
28 – Ibid.:67.
29 – Jean Baudrillard. Fragments: Conversations With François L’Yvonnet. New York: Routledge, 2004:47.
30 – Jean Baudrillard. Simulacra and Simulation (c1981). Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1994:133.
31 – Jean Baudrillard. The Lucidity Pact or the Intelligence of Evil. London: Berg, 2005:191.
32 – Alan Fletcher. The Art of Looking Sideways. Phaidon Press, 2001:312.
33 – Ibid.:301.
34 – Jean Baudrillard. The Vital Illusion. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000:41.
35 – Alan Fletcher. The Art of Looking Sideways. Phaidon Press, 2001:417.
36 – Ibid.:438.
37 – Ibid.:456.
38 – Ibid.:472.
39 – Jean Baudrillard. The Lucidity Pact Or The Intelligence of Evil. London: Berg, 2005:62.
40 – Alan Fletcher. The Art of Looking Sideways. Phaidon Press, 2001:491.
41 – Ibid.:512
42 – Jean Baudrillard. The System of Objects (c1968). New York: Verso, 1996:91).