By Nathan Bierma

Content & Context

The Books & Culture Weblog

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Did you know there's an arrow hidden in the FedEx logo? Look at the white space between the E and the X; once you spot it, it jumps out at you, highlighted by the orange of the letters. But if you're like me, you've looked at it dozens of times and had no idea it was there.

The world around us is full of such hidden images and associations, says Harvard professor John Stilgoe, who was profiled recently on 60 Minutes (I didn't see the segment, but there's a companion article online). Toddlers, Stilgoe notes, see the FedEx arrow right away, because they haven't learned to read. Soon, though, they will learn to read, and will eventually learn to see only what they expect to see when they look around (I reflect on this here in my personal notebook).

Stilgoe has spent his career at Harvard—whose graduates he considers "visual illiterates," as 60 Minutes puts it—looking for what most of us miss. His area of study is called History of Landscape, and he teaches and writes about everything from American history to architecture to advertising. Like other social theorists, he can sometimes sound as though he views human beings as lemmings powerlessly following the forces of their environment. Still, the 60 Minutes piece cautions us to check the tendency that Christof identifies in The Truman Show: "We accept the reality of the world with which we're presented" (discussed here).

The last time I blogged about perception and consciousness it was after Dr. Oliver Sacks' latest piece on blindness in the New Yorker. This month, Sacks appears in the New York Review of Books, on the intriguing topic of the continuity of consciousness. In a history book, corporate finance report or personal Christmas letter, time seems disjointed and sequential. But don't our thoughts and perceptions have more of a fluidity to them, as suggested by William James' term stream of consciousness? Sacks surveys several new titles in neuropsychology.

Sacks' introductory comments on time made me think of one of my favorite Christmas presents this year—Jay Griffiths' absorbing 1999 book A Sideways Look At Time. Her prose is fluid (fittingly) and her insights arresting, though her leftist tendencies make for some recurring lapses into simple-minded Western civilization-bashing. Two glowing mini-reviews and one scathing one are posted at; I don't strongly disagree with any of them.

Meanwhile, Sacks' discussion of the zoetrope (and its introduction of the moving image to Victorian America) reminded me of Louis Menand's recent New Yorkerpiece on Kennedy, Nixon, and the power of the image. Menand quotes Paul Greenberg, whose new book on Nixon says those (such as Daniel Boorstin in The Image) who argue that visual media create an alternate and illusory reality suffer from "the faulty assumption that images are distinct from reality." I wonder what Stilgoe, Sacks, and Griffiths would say to that.

Postmodernism and perception
Neurotheology and spiritual experience


From the New York Times :

MOSCOW* — Harvard is not the villain here. It has, however, found itself on the wrong side of an abiding faith in Russia that God speaks to the soul through cast metal. For 73 years Harvard has been the home of 18 bells that pealed atop the gate tower of the Danilov Monastery—until Stalin silenced the sound and killed the monks who made it. The bells—17 in Lowell House and the last at Harvard Business School—were a bequest from the American diplomat and plumbing magnate Charles R. Crane, who bought them from the Soviet government, saving them from the molten fate of thousands of others. … No one disputes Harvard's legal claim to the bells. But the monks at Danilov, the restored headquarters of a resurgent Russian Orthodox Church, prefer to think of the university as a temporal caretaker that should now return the bells. … After years of politely avoiding the question, the university agreed to study the feasibility of removing the bells from Lowell House and returning them to the monastery, founded in the 13th century by Prince Daniil of Moscow.

MEXICO CITY* — In the United States, almost no one remembers the war that Americans fought against Mexico more than 150 years ago. In Mexico, almost no one has forgotten. The war cut this country in two, and "the wound never really healed," said Miguel Soto, a Mexico City historian. It took less than two years, and ended with the gringos seizing half of Mexico, taking the land that became America's Wild West: California, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah and beyond. In Mexico, they call this "the Mutilation." That may help explain why relations between the nations are sometimes so tense. As President Bush prepares to fly down to Mexico from Texas, where the war began back in 1846, the debate here over how to relate to the United States is heating up once again. The question of the day is the more than 20 million Mexicans who now live in the United States.But sensitivities about sovereignty surround every thorny issue involving Americans in Mexico. Can Americans buy land? Sometimes. Drill for oil? Never. … Open and close the border at will? Well, they try.

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