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things 8
summer 1998

Against the grain

We live our lives forward, but understand them backward, observed the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. 

So much the worse for history. That history is fiction is self-evident. It is fiction not because it is not like the way things happen, but because it is not like the way we understand them: in order to chronicle the course of events, we must make history, against the grain of how we understand, and (mostly) of the available historical sources, which have to be arranged in particular patterns to make coherent stories - and which could generally be arranged in any number of different ways. 

So much for traditional history, at any rate; if not a hopeless endeavour, clearly a very difficult one. Mimetic of real experience, it seeks to describe events as they happened, and to trace their causes and effects. Memory, on the other hand, works not so much forwards or backwards as by association. All memories are fragmentary; and it seems that in recording these fragments, the brain stores like with like. The effort of memory lies in reconstruction; and objects, it seems, play an important role in priming the brain to retrieve memories held unconsciously. (There is a very great deal more to objects than beauty and functionality, the twin virtues of good design.) 

In dealing with objects, then, and the accretions of memory that surround them, we elect to approach the world in a way that is mimetic not of the passage of time but of the brains own way of storing information about it; to make very ambitious claim, we approach it in the brain's own idiom. This does not absolve us from the responsibility of constructing a larger picture of the world, or the past, or reality, however: for memory fragments must always be checked against our knowledge of the world, and knowing the past must consist of a constant toing and froing between the chaotic fragments of memory and evidence and the bigger stories which they build and challenge. And, since history is formalised and recorded memory, and memory is a mechanism by which past experience influences future behaviour, knowing the past is essential to us all.

Lucy Peltz's article in this issue of things on the 18th-century practice of extra-illustration, of customising published books by adding watercolours and prints, sometimes from other books, demonstrates a practice of active reading and - since most of the books so illustrated were historical volumes - of interpolating alternative visual perspectives into literary and necessarily linear accounts of the past. 

Margaret Campbell's account of tuberculosis shelters in Britain in the first thirty years of the present century casts light on the domestic treatment of this killer disease. Before the discovery that streptomycin combined with para-amino-salycic acid could cure TB, treatment consisted essentially of total rest in the fresh air, sunlight and plenty to eat. Early modernist sanatoria were metaphors for hygiene and good health, as if a cure might be effected by good design; but the back-garden tuberculosis shelters Campbell describes hark back much further, to the gloirette pavilions of the late medieval period and the 18th-century Dutch fashion for taking afternoon tea in theekoepels.

The psychologist Carl Gustav Jung accorded enormous importance to objects and their significance in human lives. In an essay that offers a particularly rich insight into the interaction between people, objects and places, Flora Samuel traces the complex web of personal, mythical and philosophical associations that went into the making of the tower he built for himself at Bollingen on the upper lake of Zurich: in this timeless place, as Jung wrote, 'one can live in many centuries simultaneously; there is nothing in the Tower... with which I am not linked.'

If it was a central project of modernism to sever memory from aesthetic production, it can seldom have been more successful than in the post-war household objects for which Finland is famous - such as the abstract forms produced by designers such as Kaj Franck, Tapio Wirkkala and Timo Sarpaneva. In an essay focussing on Design in Scandinavia, an exhibition which toured Canada and the United States between 1954 and 1957, Hildi Hawkins examines the political uses to which their work was put in the hot political and economic diplomacy of the Cold War.

things 8, summer 1998

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