On Ordinary Things

Note: I recently found this piece I’d written in January, and decided to complete it and post it since I won’t have time to post much in the next few months.

What is ordinary?  That which is routine, usual, normal, according to the dictionary.  Of course this is context-dependent.  A coke can tossed in the bushes by the sidewalk is a not unusual sight in the streets near my house.  Ordinary litter.  But imagine a coke can on Mars….

We tend not to notice ordinary things but sometimes an artist (of the verbal or visual kind) can frame things so that the extraordinariness of the ordinary stands out.  I’m thinking about the worlds of Hayao Miyazaki, where despite the prevalence of such wonders as dirigibles and floating castles, one is struck by the beauty of a door, or a wooden wall, or a bowl on a table.  It is as though he enables you to see again.  This is one of many reasons why I love Miyazaki’s movies. 

A lot of what is ordinary is determined by cultural context.  Perhaps it is not too much of a stretch to say that domestic life, traditionally the woman’s sphere, is considered ordinary, boring, not worth writing home about, not worth writing about at all.  Domestic life is the humdrum canvas against which greater adventures play out, against which the rebellious must rebel.  And yet…  the artist I am thinking of now is Kim Stanley Robinson, writing about a small community in his extraordinary book Pacific Edge.  I’ve been re-reading it between tackling monumental piles of student papers and other tasks.  The book is, on the surface, about ordinary things.  A utopia that is not particularly utopic, the struggle to save a hill from development, but the hill isn’t particularly wonderful, or scenic, nor is it crawling with endangered species.  The stakes are not that high.  There are long town council discussions on the problem of water.  People grow things, cook, play games of softball.  Very domestic, ho-hum, one might think, but the novel is extraordinary. 

There has been quite a bit of discussion in the past few years about women’s writing in science fiction.  Although overt prejudice is not as prevalent or as overt as it was, science fiction as an institution has been accused of perpetuating prejudice in other ways.  One of the most insidious possibilities is that there are  unacknowledged, male-determined standards as to what makes good science fiction, and that if a story is too “domestic” (as are the works of many women writers as well as some men) it is just not good enough. 

I once went to an all-women writers’ workshop where some eighty women descended on a place in the middle of the Oregon forest to write and to talk about writing.  There were young women and old, and fat ones and thin ones, and people with smooth, beautiful faces and people with wrinkles and acne.  I’ve never thought of myself as one who particularly notices looks or categorizes people according to culturally determined standards of beauty.  But after about three days there I began to sense something rather strange.  The women around me were beautiful in a way I hadn’t realized before, wrinkles and all.  In fact the wrinkles were beautiful, crows’ feet like river deltas.  Ordinary faces, and yet they seemed to glow with something I’d never noticed before.  It was as though, removed from “normal” society, I could actually see these people in a new way.  And I also realized to what extent I had internalized societal standards of beauty. 

One of the things I learned from that experience is to view people — to view anything, really, with that different gaze.  I have to deliberately switch it on, but it is getting easier.  This different gaze, oddly enough, is consistent with my training in physics.  Or rather, while I wasn’t trained as a student to notice the beauty of the ordinary or to find the remarkable in the mundane, I’ve somehow ended up that way.   I think this also has to do with writing science fiction, and with teaching.  Teaching students who are not into the sciences, or even science students whose souls have suffered through too much stress, exams, learning toward jobs and tests, and an educational system that chops the universe up into disconnected little bits — I’ve had to think up creative ways in which to make the universe come alive to them. 

So it is one thing to tell students that physics is all around them, but quite another for them to experience that for themselves.  For this reason I reserve time in most classes for stories — physics stories, rewarded with candy.  (Yes, I am shameless).  This occurred to me when one of my students came up to me at the beginning of class some years ago, and said that he had been out drag-racing the previous weekend and he really felt everything that we’d discussed banking of roads and frictional and normal forces.  He didn’t just know it, he felt it, he told me, with great feeling, as though he had discovered something extraordinary!  This struck me as important because in physics the emphasis has been on knowing things through mathematics and scientific reasoning, as it should be, but there is also experiential knowing.  It can mislead us, it can bring us to incorrect conclusions about the world, which is why we use logic, mathematics and reason in the first place, but it can also be a place to start asking questions, and a place to relate what is generally viewed as pointless and remote, to one’s everyday, ordinary experience.

This year my students tell me some extraordinary stories about ordinary things that have suddenly stopped being ordinary to them because they’ve come to see how physical laws undergird everything.  So they notice that doors bang shut mysteriously on windy days (even when they are not in the path of the wind), and to some of them, at least, sunlight is not just sunlight, but the result of a highly melodramatic, cataclysmic process in the sun’s heart — and to top it all, it was once matter!  Now they notice things they tell me they never really paid much attention to before: static shock, the way the water swirls in the toilet, the parabolic curve of a ball tossed into the air.  I think I am succeeding (to some extent) in communicating to them what I’ve felt for a long time: that natural processes are stories in their own right, that the behaviors of protons and neutrons can be as interesting and beautiful as the behavior of people. 

I remember several years ago this became clear to me while walking through gently falling snow.  My mind was empty and idle, which seems to be a necessary condition for opening up that special sight, and I was thinking in a meditative way about snowflakes and water molecules and hydrogen bonds, and trying to see if I could tell whether the snowflakes were falling at constant velocity, and I saw how the snow had left its signature on one side of the trunks of trees, so even after the snow was over you could tell which way the wind had been blowing.  Walking, aware of the crunch-crunch rhythm of my feet, I felt part of some great composition, a symphony perhaps, so that even a twig fallen from a tree appeared extraordinary.

I once had the privilege of many conversations with the physicist George Sudarshan, who said something that has stayed with me.  He said that the job of the scientist is not to make discoveries but to do science, to think about the world in a certain way.  He said that the discoveries are, in a way, a side-effect of this way of being in the world.  He made an analogy with musicians, whose job is to play music, to be in the world as musical entities, rather than exclusively to produce something new.  To him simply being in the world and seeing it with a scientist’s eye, being aware of it in an open, non-confrontational way that he likened to the attitudes of ancient Indian sages, was enough.  This attitude led to the world itself offering answers to the curious, open, friendly mind.  At that time he was in his seventies and still prolific, publishing in several fields of theoretical physics, so this evidently worked very well for him.  I found this attitude very different, very liberating from the publish-or-perish mentality of the research world I had left only a few years before.  It has led me to ponder how and whether science would be different if un-yoked from the great capitalist-industrialist machine in which we are all, in some manner or another, cogs.

The question of framing, or changing context so that what is considered ordinary reveals itself as something worthy of attention, goes deeper and broader than I’ve let on.  A scholar I’ve read goes so far as to argue that context — or what she calls apparatus — determines meaning. 

A couple of years ago an archeologist-sociologist colleague at the institution where I teach began a faculty teaching circle on a book called Meeting the Universe Halfway, by Karen Barad.  At first I was wary because the book purported to derive deep truths about ethics and social justice issues from quantum physics.  There has been so much crap written and “justified” in the name of quantum physics that I have become allergic to such exercises.  However this book turned out to be different.  Barad is a former physicist, coincidentally a lattice gauge theorist, as I was, now in the department of Feminist Studies at UC Santa Cruz.  She is also a scholar of the physicist Niels Bohr and the book is based largely on what she discovered about his interpretation of quantum physics.  Unlike what we were taught in graduate school, Bohr went much further in his speculations than the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics.  Barad extends Bohr’s insights to the realm of human interaction through a means that she insists is not analogical, developing a philosophical approach to the world called agential realism.  Apart from the physics chapters, which are wonderfully lucid, the rest of the book is really difficult for someone not trained in the social sciences, especially philosophy.  It is jargon-heavy and sometimes bewildering — I couldn’t have understood half of it without the help of colleagues in those areas, and I am convinced I haven’t understood all of it by a long stretch.  And yet several of these half-understood things resonated with me in ways that I can’t fully understand.  It is one of those books that needs a second or third reading, and is something I had planned for this summer before providence intervened with other issues. 

So at some point I am going to have a post exclusively on this book, but for the moment I just want to note in passing its relevance to the matter at hand.  One of the consequences of Barad’s work is the impossibility of isolating individuals from other beings and from their surroundings.  So for instance she talks about intra-actions between people and objects rather than interactions — a refreshing antidote to the excessive individualism that marks the standard Western view of the world.  So in the context of my subject today, nothing is really ordinary because so-called mundane objects or phenomena are part of an intra-acting whole.  (This of course does no justice at all to Barad’s work, but I hope to remedy that later on). 

I’m going to end by quoting a poem by Wendell Berry, written for his wife, about how that special sight can flare up and illuminate the familiar.

The Wild Rose
By Wendell Berry

Sometimes hidden from me
in daily custom and in trust,
so that I live by you unaware
as by the beating of my heart.

Suddenly you flare in my sight,
a wild rose blooming at the edge
of thicket, grace and light
where yesterday was only shade,

and once again I am blessed, choosing
again what I chose before.

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4 Responses to “On Ordinary Things”

  1. jeff vandermeer Says:

    This post made me very happy and relaxed by reminding me of real things and their underpinnings. I also think that in general these days we don’t properly respect the specific detail or understand the truly mindblowing quality of our everyday moments. Thanks. JeffV

  2. vsinghsblog Says:

    Jeff, good to see you here. And I am glad the post made you happy!

    Vandana

  3. pamela deering Says:

    Hello, I simply wished to tell you that I have just read “Infinities,” and I found it very beautiful, and profoundly moving. It is one of the finest stories that I have ever read.

    Thank you so much for this gift! A voice like yours in science fiction is most welcome.

  4. vandana Says:

    Hello, Pamela,

    Thank you.

    Vandana

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