I Miss My Letterpress; or, I Miss My Cuneiform Tablet, Part Two

I’m at the warehouse party now. I’ve been here for almost a year. I followed Elizabeth’s advice (as I wrote about last April); I went ahead and started touching the photos on the walls, making them come alive.

In some ways I like it, but in other ways I don’t like it at all. People have such completely different approaches to how they exist at the party. It’s not like any kind of party in real life. Or rather, if it were a party in real life—or at least, if the one tiny corner of the warehouse where I am were like real life—it would be this. It would be a party where there are overlapping, intermingling small groups of people having conversations with each other. In each of those groups, there are often one or two people who have a greater ability than others to say witty things, or to make clever replies to things other people say. Other folks in these groups cluster around the witty and clever individuals, waiting for them to say something funny. (Call it the Oscar Wilde effect, maybe? Six Degrees of Dotty Parker? Algonquinization? Sociologists surely have a name for this already.)

To me, this feels like the positive, relatively normal, socially adjusted way to do things here. But there are many folks who exist in this strange new space rather differently. Some people at the warehouse are just standing around; you touch their photos, they come alive, but then they just linger there like wallflowers, regardless of how they behave in real life. Granted, they might be communicating by telepathy with other people (torturously expanding the bounds of this metaphor still further, this is a party at which it is possible to be telepathic), or maybe they’re handing notes to each other, but they’re not participating in any of these small conversation clusters. (This is arguably a reasonable way to behave at the warehouse. It’s free to get in, but the price of getting in, as I wrote before, is that the corporation throwing the party is recording every single word everyone says, parsing those words, and selling the results of the parsing to other corporations, who in turn stand around the periphery of all the conversations at the party, asking the participants to buy things. “I see you’re a middle-aged woman!” they yell through their bullhorns. “Can I interest you in some facial-cream samples?” It’s pretty weird, really; it’s entirely reasonable to be quiet in this context.)

Other people, though, are mostly quiet, but will on the very rare occasion chime in. “I’m at the beach!” one will say, after being completely silent for half a year. Another will whisper part of a poem once a month. An older man sitting in an easy chair nearby looks up twice a week and recommends the op-ed pages of The New York Times. “Read Maureen Dowd today!” he says. “She’s right on the money.”

Again, this is all just the small corner of the room where I happen to be. Most of the warehouse is populated with young people getting drunk, sniffing glue, and screwing and insulting each other, photographing one another all the while as they do these things, then immediately showing each other the photographs. The corporations, like vultures, hover around their region of the warehouse in the greatest concentration, and with the greatest appetite.

Among the middle-aged writers and editors and attorneys and filmmakers and moms and dads, where I am, there are fewer vultures.

Then there is still another way in which some people I know are both at the warehouse party and not. Their attentions are elsewhere, at a simultaneous, competing party, a telephone party. (That party is run by a different corporation; the telephone corporation and the warehouse corporation are openly at war with each other.) These partygoers are in the warehouse, but they tend not to participate in any of these small conversation clusters; instead, they stand nearby, having phone conversations on a hundred different phones at once. You can hear everything they say, but if you don’t have a telephone yourself, you can only hear half the conversation; you have to guess at the rest.

What they say into their telephones frequently begins and ends with code names, terms of art, and telephone-party argot. “Ahoy ahoy, Fatty Arbuckle: I know, exactly! Yankee Pot Roast,” one will say into his first phone, then quickly turn to his second phone, saying “Ahoy ahoy God Pants, ahoy ahoy Seriously Cut Deltoids, ahoy ahoy Ladies Who Knit Sweaters for Dogs and Cats: Tomorrow night, but the venue’s changed, Cone of Silence, Denver Broncos,” then grab a third phone and say “Link Ray Film Fanatic: This morning, but the deal isn’t solid yet, you should check out what he said yesterday. Gustave Doré Engravings, Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, Schrödinger’s Cat.”

I have had at least four bad dreams in the past week in which I was forced to participate in the telephone party.

All of this might sound like Luddism, but it’s not; what I’m trying to get at is more that I’m frustrated at the inelegant ways in which all these new modes of connecting sometimes come crashing into each other, wary of the intentions of the corporations involved, and skeptical of anyone from any camp who claims to have wrapped his or her head fully around the zeitgeist. But I’m still wildly optimistic about where this is all going. The secret, as with nearly everything, has to do with finding balance, I think; and the balance, I think, has something to do with the very different pleasures of the ethereal on the one hand and the the thingness of things on the other—making things that won’t last a day, while at the same time, making things that have some reasonable shot of lasting a hundred years or more.

As an old friend who’s at more parties than I’m able to count might put it, in a way, it has probably always been thus, ever since Lascaux.