Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Road trip

They’d debated, anthropologist and painter, about subjectivity and objectivity. It was in the nature of their different disciplines – hers softer, impressionistic, his harder, less personal, a science of sorts. She told him once that accuracy mattered very little. He remembered the conversation years later. It was early in their marriage, when they spoke endlessly about everything. They were in the car on a cross-country vacation. He drove. The seat between them was littered with gum wrappers, cigarette packs, and empty cups of coffee.

What does accuracy do, she said, except verify you’ve been somewhere? If you were actually there, does it matter that you can prove it? It doesn’t make a painting or story truer.

He didn’t understand, so she explained with an analogy.

Suppose, she said, you’re on a road trip. Like this, she gestured out the window. As you travel, you play a game, finding words on road signs whose first letters correspond in order with letters of the alphabet. It’s a common game. You look for a word beginning with A, when you find it you look for a word beginning with B. Arizona. Buckle. Clarksville. Detour. Exit. And so on.

You keep track of the words – turn it into a memory game. That list of words, in alphabetical order, forms a code for this stretch of highway. They’re its fingerprint. The sequence of words describes a stretch of road unlike any other. And if you include words on the sides of trucks and tractor-trailers, well, it’s not only unique to this stretch, but also to this moment.

What’s the point? he asked.

That’s the point, she answered. The sequence is accurate for a particular time and place. But what does it tell you? Nothing. Nonsense. A list of words in alphabetical order. It’s just a sequence. There are thousands, millions, billions of different sequences. There’s no end to them. You could come up with the sequence of insects from one place to another, or the genders of people you pass along the way, or which hands people walk around with in their pockets. In out out in in in out. If you want accuracy, you can get it all sorts of ways. What does it give you? It only tells someone else, who already knows the sequence, that you were there, saw it, too. So what?

That’s too easy, he said, winding up his window to ease the wind in his ears. It’s nonsense if you pick a nonsense sequence. If you observe the cars and trucks that pass along a road, that actually tells you something interesting about the road: a road in one part of the world is different from roads in other parts of the world, has different traffic.

You still have a list, she said. The list of signs is interesting, too, if you’re interested in the types of words people put on signs in a particular part of the world. It’s really no different.

What I think is interesting, she went on, is that for the list to be interesting you have to bring something else to it. You have to want what’s on it, and that isn’t a matter of accuracy. It’s not about the place, but about you. If you happen to want a list of cars, then a list of cars is interesting – an accurate list even more so. But the accuracy doesn’t make it interesting. It’s what you think, what you want, that makes it interesting. And what you think is something you’ve made up, not something there to begin with.

That may be true in your business, he said. But in mine the point is you were there, you actually saw what you write about, and for that you have to prove you were there. If you make it up, you lose the actuality, you lose the point.

Do you? she wondered. What do you lose? I don’t believe people look at paintings or read books, even in your business, just because they’re accurate. They look at paintings because they like what they see. They read books because they like what they say. Of course, they must have some relation to the world. But it needn’t line up exactly. Even if it does line up, the lining up doesn’t make it a good representation of the place. What do the words in the order of the alphabet tell you about the stretch of road you’ve passed? Or the list of cars that pass along that road? Or the phone numbers in a telephone book? Telephone books have to be among the most accurate books ever printed. But unless you need a number, who wants to read one?

No, for that you need to make it up. No one would buy my paintings simply because they were accurate. They buy my paintings because they like what I choose to put in them and what I choose to leave out. They like what I make up.

Well, I’m not a painter.

No, you’re an anthropologist. We’re not so different. We’re both trying to make a picture, a representation, of the world and the people in it as near as we can to the way we see it. We can’t represent the world itself. What we make isn’t the world, it’s what we make of it. All we represent is what we see. And that’s not a matter of accuracy. Not really. That’s a matter of choice and selection and accident. The truth of our representations is mixed up with what we bring to them. I don’t believe we can leave out our subjectivities, not and have the truth.

You’re playing fast and loose with the words. You’re using accuracy in a very narrow sense.

Then you pick the word. I’m just saying that objectivity, total nonfiction, doesn’t leave you with much that people would want to look at. People already have reality to look at. They don’t want more reality.

He disliked what she said. He loved the conversation. Loved her for it. What she said was exciting and strange. Different from anything he’d ever thought. That was what he loved. She was so different. It didn’t matter that they disagreed. Listening to her was like jumping into an icy pond on a hot day. The intimacy between them had nothing to do with accuracy. He missed talking with her more than anything.
Image above from Corbis,

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