Politics and Quality

Lost in the Excess


Quality has never been an easy term for me. In my experience, it is most commonly used as an adjective of favourable judgement. Yet I have come to understand quality as a distinguishing trait or characteristic.(1) Similarly, the online etymology dictionary suggests that it originally meant something like “of what sort”. (2) One might write volumes uncovering the sorts of traits that distinguish themselves as being concerned with politics. Although a few are discussed in what follows, my primary endeavour has been to cast some light on the obstacles and detours that might rob us of such qualities. There is great diversity among the seven submissions, and I have striven to respect that whilst drawing a few common threads through for our consideration. Indeed each is unique to the point of demanding undivided attention, if only for a time, and so that is what I present.

We open with Worton’s poem “Only if it never breaks”, and the connection between quality and fragility. The whistle “had all the appearance of fragility,” and that was enough for her. She could not invest in something that inspired too much doubt. As a tool, a whistle’s uses are many. While these range from calling for help to signalling a change in score, they all amount to seeking attention and response. We must have confidence in our means of achieving such ends. If they fail us, our needs and wants go unnoticed. We are left alone, to our own devices. The whistle might be fine, after all it only has the appearance of fragility, but for Worton the anxiety of possible failure is not worth the reward. Better to have no whistle than a whistle that might betray her faith when she needs it most. But can we afford to tolerate only perfect reliability? Is there anything that never breaks, that is not fragile at least in certain circumstances? Moreover, the unbreakable would be dangerously close to the unchangeable, the absolute.

Worton is much more impressed by Anish Kapoor’s enormous sculpture inside the Turbine Hall of the new Tate Modern art gallery in London. Here there is no appearance of fragility. There is, rather, great length and height. Named for Marsyas, a mythological satyr who was flayed alive by Apollo, the sculpture is indeed an overwhelming quantity in its own right. (3) From its raw size flow the usual conceptions of strength, force and power. It is in fact overpowering to the point of sparking self-doubt. Having never built anything of comparable size, Worton is left to wonder at her supposedly lesser capabilities. In fact, her popsicle-stick birdhouse likely had the same appearance of fragility as the whistle. Underlying these considerations is a tangled web of what we can do, what we tangibly produce and what we are worth.

There is quantity of a different kind in the nude photo. With great detail and resolution, the life-size work is striking. However the most potent element, a phallus gilded in money, suggests a deceptive quality. Worton calls it “the kind her boyfriend admires” without specifying the object of his admiration. Is he impressed by the size, the money or the power they suggest? As Mr. Kissinger taught, the latter is indeed a mighty aphrodisiac.

Worton herself smiles at an unspecified simplicity. Is it merely the case here that bigger is always better and quantity trumps all? Perhaps the gilding, the deception, actually hides the greater importance of knowing how to use what we have.

There is yet another conception of quantity in memorizing lists, the act of accumulating great masses of information. As important a role as memory plays in human functioning, like any abundant resource, it must be appropriately employed. While too much visualizing and daydreaming can indeed trap us, they can also complement memory very well. Cognitive faculties work best in harmony. If one dominates, it is at the expense of the others; they are left to waste.

The notion that we live among an overwhelming quantity of clever illusions takes us back to the quality of deception. Along with casting great doubt on the impressive size of the photo and sculpture, it challenges the authenticity of appearances of fragility, and not only in whistles. Originally a term for moral weakness, fragility may not so easily be discerned. Not only may seeming strength, size and power be just the opposite, but their justification may have deep roots in even murkier waters. The tramp whom Worton wisely would not toss out for being a tramp, may not be a tramp at all. In the same vein, the distinction between American-led coalitions and Al Quaeda-sponsored terrorist groups may not be as black and white as some would have us believe. Our assessment of what counts as a tramp should always be subject to revision.

The final images are of the lone woman peddling her wares in the shadows of the great gallery and massive arches. In vast surroundings and pervasive rain, she seems so small. Perhaps even, she is lost. But like a subtle idea forever nestled in the back of one’s mind, she is simultaneously omnipresent. She can be heard and seen in all the windows, “passing up and down.” Worton notes the irony of this woman caring for big things, given her size. It might be fitting, though, if she does. Like the little whistle that can command ears far and wide when necessary, size need not be the determining factor in influence. That and those which seem small and fragile may hold great sway if appropriately applied, just as supposed sources of power and strength may be little more than clever, illusive deceptions.

However there are no such deceptions at the Lethe, one of five rivers in Hades(4) and a central element of Hawkins’ poem “Alloiosis.” Whether “infant’s drool or spittle of rage” matters not here: it is the river of forgetfulness. To drink from it is to simultaneously destroy oneself and (re)start anew. Like a great tidal wave over a dirty beach, the slate is wiped clean, all memory taken away forever. Strangers drink together, and so are reduced (or returned) to a common denominator, their differences dripping away.

They come to the same place, equally needy and equally vulnerable to the jarring, chilling discomfort of the change that blows through them. At the open river where memories are released en masse there can be no shelter from these winds. They can be particularly devastating for the unsuspecting. Wade into the river a little and enjoy the refreshing breeze; wade too deep at the peril of being swept away be strong gusts and currents. Frequency, even at seemingly safe levels, can also be dangerous. The icy, chilling cold of repeated change, even in moderate increments, can leave joints crippled. Those same joints that might normally accommodate growth and development become inflexible and deteriorated, perhaps to the point of uselessness. Too much forgetting and change, too fast or too often can leave permanent damage that will serve only as a reminder of lost range and capability. Excessive quantity overwhelms necessary qualities that once were or might have been. The bitterness of seeing that unfulfilled potential day after day may be too much to bear.

Equally unbearable for them is potential sustenance tainted by the filth of each other’s suffering. These strangers drink the same water that rinses their bleeding wounds, only to be thrown down by and into it. There is no mention of whether they caused each other’s wounds. Of course, they would not remember after drinking from the Lethe. They must manage the pain having lost all means of knowing the source, let alone affecting it.

Those toppled into the engulfing waters fend for themselves mercilessly. Only moments before they met in need on the banks of the river to share in its waters, yet now their needs and disorientation have driven them to savagery and violence. Even children are left for dead as men fight over meagre resources. From these is forged a raft of frayed rope and rotten wood that might carry the strong away. The rope is “yanked tight” around the planks in a vain attempt to combine pieces that are far too damaged and decayed. Like a broken idea built of tattered memories and distorted differences, this vessel is too fragile to be sustained in the long term. It will inevitably be swallowed by the great sea; planks slapped together in haste and forcibly held in place cannot maintain their integrity. It is a trap from which there is no escape.

Responsibility for picking up the pieces falls on the survivors left behind. A stranger, the speaker, has been watching it all. Once again he encounters another and they share in the Lethe. Forgiveness is sought and allagma offered. In exchanging something of each other, there is acceptance, recognition and renewal. Yet the stranger has hardly passed through the events therein unscathed. The chilling winds are an indiscriminate, furious force unto itself, “raging and alive,” and for him there has been alloiosis, qualitative change - growth. Even out of the waters, “crouched here by the river,” there could be no escaping them. But because the stranger did not venture too deep, he was not toppled like many of the others. Forgetfulness, change and memory share a symbiotic relationship, and among them the quality of balance is essential. Too much of any one threatens to overwhelm the rest, thereby corrupting the harmony necessary for growth to occur. The stranger avoided such disaster of excess by remaining where there was enough, at the water’s edge.

Excess confronts us again in the short story “Ripe” by Katz as hunger, itself a ripe symbol of need. To begin, consider the range of responses to hunger. Some people will eat only enough of what they need, at a pace their bodies can manage. Yet there are many more (myself often included) who insist on consuming as much as they can of what they immediately want as fast as they can. Such failure to appropriately constrain our own consumption, to recognize and respect enough, can only lead to traps of quantity.

Overreaction is certainly one of these. The very use of the prefix “over” highlights the excess, the unnecessary. In the story, people are told that the maniac “intends no harm” and is not dangerous. Yet they abandon their place on the beach, along with thousands of bags of fruit that might sustain them. They are maniacs in their own right. Similarly, the bus driver shouts at the man of fruit (presumably a stranger) and will not even wait for him to properly exit before speeding away. It is a selfish, violent response that leaves the man on the boardwalk, in a heap, wounded and vulnerable.

Woven through this overreaction is the key element of ignorance, itself a third possible response to hunger, displayed by those who choose to ignore their need and not eat. The people of Miami not only abandon their food, but they do so on the advice of “experts” known only through mass media. All too often nobody bothers to question the credentials of experts and their analyses, and as a result, we allow ourselves to be led blindly down paths destined straight for our worst interests. The man of fruit is also caught in a trap of his own ignorance. Because he cannot discern his own obvious ties to a situation of immediate and pressing relevance, he remains completely unaware of his peril throughout, even though his very being is composed of that which will draw danger.

In the end, the man comes face to face with the maniacal fruit lover. She stands over his broken body, ready to consume him whole. She has power to feed, and the smile suggests that she intends to use it. We all become maniacs when there is no satisfying our desire, when we blind ourselves to the excess. The limitless pursuit of quantity yields only loss and destruction.

There are clearly issues of quantity and excess, along with destruction, in McDonald’s photo set “Two Million Dollars”. His obvious exploration of money wasted on warfare carries special significance, given the state of current affairs. It cannot be coincidence that the missile’s colours are red, white and blue. Like America’s influence around the world, it is a giant that dominates both pictures. There is the patchwork flag in the background that might represent other countries, but fittingly its presence is barely noticeable and far from clear.

The most curious element, though, is the woman. She seems tiny in the shadow of the weapon, although not as insignificant as the victims blown away by the real thing. The disproportionate height also reflects the respective attention and consideration that each receives. How often are funds spent on the social safety net called “expenditures”, when in the same breath money poured into weapons upgrades is termed “investment”? Regardless of whether she is hungry, no missile goes without fuel. She may be homeless, but they all have a place, both to stay and go. The woman’s conspicuous absence in the first shot underscores the missile’s very sanctity. It is there (and here) whether she wants it or not, indeed whether she is there or not. It does not matter: her presence is irrelevant to the missile and those who love it. Priorities have most certainly been misplaced.

The speed and size of missiles are fitting to their nature. The destruction that they deliver on our behalf to each other happens in an instant, much too fast for recognition, let alone consideration. What we cannot see at that moment of impact might make us rethink our priorities. Just as we possess a quantity of weapons great enough to literally destroy the entire world many times over, our excessive pride in them may be our undoing. We can only hope that this great, overwhelming trap of our collective making is never fully unleashed upon us.

The feeling of being personally overwhelmed by a great onslaught is no more poignant than in “Bottom(less) Whole”, Hehir’s spoken word piece. It is in each and every stuttered syllable the speaker attempts to convey. While stuttering has many causes, great stress, a lack of air in the vocal cords and the resultant struggle to meet verbal demands are its chief triggers. (5) As much as the stutterer desires to share his ideas with clarity, he is trapped by a torrent of input (or his own output). For him, participation in conversation is an act of disorientation, frustration and pressure. He has something to offer, but he is hindered or even prevented by a trap of circumstance from making that contribution. In the end, the struggle may be too much. He may withdraw from interaction with other people, and then we have lost his voice.

For Hehir, the stuttering begins when he wakes. “Just a few more dreams,” he says, “you want conclusions, endings.” Like his speech however, they are left in pieces, incomplete. The bullet-like fragments show a man in a storm. “Beans…broken…brother…bothered…” the images and ideas associated with his disjointed words bombard us, even as the day bombards him. And like his overloaded speech capabilities, we are unable to withstand the disorienting quantity and velocity. For many, this is life. How often do any of us “quit the comforter quietly?” Waking amounts to walking (or being thrown) straight into the heart of our own private storm. We are left to struggle through a society of frantic pace, hitting incomplete, unfinished pieces here and there. “Catch the dreams as they fall into my day’s confusion,” says Hehir. Worse again, just as life runs away with us, the world is changing more and faster than humanity as a whole can handle. We may desire conclusions and endings, but whether catching a CNN sound-byte, happy meal or one-night stand, we are lucky to manage odd stuttered fragments when life itself is so disjointed. Once more, immense quantity results in substandard quality.

There is no more potent symbol of the disjointed 21st century western lifestyle than coffee. Hehir says he needs it to start the day, but phrases like “confounded coffee” cast doubt on whether he really likes it. Why then does he drink it? What function does it serve? It is common to drink coffee as compensation for insufficient rest and sleep. But while the caffeine gives a short-term energy burst, it does not really refresh in any way. After that burst, we are actually left feeling worse. There are no substitutes for rest and sleep; therefore the coffee cannot possibly meet our true needs. And so, there is the quality of deception. We simultaneously are led and lead ourselves to accept supposed surrogates in places where they simply do not belong. We pour back a pot to stay awake, and that boosts us just enough for mediocrity and jobs half-done. There is another, ironic deception: by gorging on coffee in a desperate attempt to manage life’s overload, we often become overloaded with coffee itself. Concentration and patience are lost as the addiction grows. The consumption of too much, too fast again threatens to engulf genuinely necessary qualities.

The cycle of such a life is truly bottomless. The stutterer feels worse when he stutters, and thereby reinforces his problem. The means we choose for managing our daily lives often make them even more unmanageable. Bottomless is this trap, and the more we try to force our way out, the deeper we fall. The “Childhood Matters” essay by Kennedy exposes a so-called education structure trapped in a similar cycle of excess. He highlights the problem of “too much” directly in his introduction, and rightfully so. (6) In Korea, “more” is the key word. For children, that means more tests, more homework and more classes, the rationale being that more is better. Parents, of course, usually want better for their children, and those in Korea have come to believe that great quantities will pave the way.

Yet as Kennedy notes, many feel ashamed. They perhaps recognize that something has been lost for their children and society. But he correctly identifies pride as well, and there stands the trap: too many parents have accepted great quantity as an inherent good, worth pursuing for its own sake. Korea may be too competitive, but the high of winning never grows old. Among the main effects of such an orientation has been the acceptance of deception. When expected to win at all costs, children resort to cheating as a lesser evil than failure. The other, even more common response is no response at all. Korean children strongly believe it is better to say or write nothing than be wrong. These attitudes are reinforced by adults who face similar circumstances everyday, especially in the workplace. Only speak if you are sure about what to say; only do it if you are certain as to how it should be done.

Entire generations of people steeped in these newer, more modern ideals are now maturing into adulthood, and the emerging results have been profound. Children thought to have been more “advanced” are growing up with a reduced capacity for both independent living and thinking. The greater dependence on authority figures promises great confusion and personal turmoil as people age and switch roles. With less critical and creative thinking skills at their disposal, it will be all the harder to break out of the trap. People need only look to the jewel of Korea’s academy industry, the English language hakwon, for a good case study. Parents pay exorbitant fees to send their children to the most reputable institutions where students are promptly forced to memorize reams of words. Practical use is of moderate to minimal importance. With such unbalanced priorities, these hakwons regularly produce kids with extensive memorized vocabularies, but little or no idea as to how they might be used. The growth of that which they are really trying to develop is victimized by a palpable obsession with more and better.

There seems to be no satisfying these desires in Korea. At present, there can never be enough classes, tests or homework. Indeed the problem of too many academy classes has ostensibly been solved by substituting undirected public school time in its stead. As long as even one student is perceived to be working harder, longer or better than John, John is considered to be a failure. In the end, enormous burdens are placed on the children (and teenagers) at the expense of their true need: a good education. Even worse, they discover that the cycle of limitless competition and dissatisfaction extends not only through school, but also university and their careers. Of course, we all share problems of excessive competition, deception and dependency - these traps have not only been unleashed in Korea. We are adrift together in a world where pursuit of great quantities regularly threatens the qualities that matter most.

Traps are obviously the focus of Pawlowich’s film “In the Corner Stands the Trap”, and we see his early, along with the entertainer. Yet what we hear is most striking. There is the unmistakable sound in the opening segment of a great engine and increasing velocity. There is the sense that a terrible hurtling motion is underway, a massive, overloading quantity of energy or force causing a (near) unstoppable rush. What, then, of the direction or vector of this velocity? To what end does the hurtling rush lead? The next scene shows the answer: the entertainer has been caught in the trap, or perhaps more precisely his soul has been caught. Like all effective traps, it doesn’t only capture – it also disorients. The entertainer’s motion has been accelerated, but he is going nowhere. For him there is immense activity, along with consumption of time and energy, but no development or growth to show for it. At the same time, there are intermittent flashes of a woman, like an infamous television talking-head, itself consuming our time and, to a lesser degree our energy, usually for naught. For all his efforts, the trapped entertainer remains stuck in one place, wasting his precious resources. I have sat on couches in front of screens many times and felt his frustration. Television is near-omnipresent in our society, bombarding us with input. The images and ideas change with blinding speed. Yet the allagma offered by television so often leaves us feeling directionless and drained. What have we exchanged? We are left spinning our wheels, disoriented, weary and none the better for our efforts.

Worse than simply being trapped, is the coincident feeling of impending (hurtling) doom. The walls close in, just as air escapes. The trap itself seems to shrink or become narrow, as it does for the entertainer, beginning with the third scene. Here, too, is another trap. The boat is stuck, and like the sideways soul in the trap, it is fallen on its side, disoriented from its proper position and incapable of functioning as it should. There is something sorrowful about a boat run aground. A vessel that might carry us with direction, velocity and ultimately ease through waters calm or rough has been robbed of its purpose. Out of water for too long, it will seem unnaturally dry and bleached. But here the gently rising tide offers hope for renewal and escape. Then again, maybe the tide is not so much rising as closing in. If so, the boat itself will be consumed and brought to an utter end. It cannot withstand an overwhelming quantity of that which would otherwise sustain it.

As the trap tightens ever further around the entertainer, we are reminded above him of the talking head and grounded boat. More poignant though is the footage of the people in the water. Are they trapped in the water, feeling the pervasive bite of currents or cold? At one point, they almost seem to be entering willingly; however we cannot see whether they have been driven in that direction. Maybe they waded in to bathe or play, only to find themselves in too deep. A failure to recognize the limits of enough, the quantity that is too much, can be disastrous. Did the one floating body alone escape as overwhelming waters consumed the others, or did they escape the trap leaving behind a single victim? Great quantities usually do leave victims in their wake, whether the voting minority, the speeder’s dead passenger or the starving child in the shadow of a giant supermarket.

From the water we move to the land. Fields of wheat and flocks of sheep, uninterrupted by people, are juxtaposed with the trap and its victim, now even tighter and thrown completely upside down. The contrast is potent. There is nothing frantic or disorienting in these scenes. Here there is not an overpowering quantity or trap, but peaceful abundance. Many people might share in these goods, if they are cultivated properly with appropriate orientation and direction. Yet waste or abuse will be the likely result if too much is taken too fast. And therein, after all, lies the nature of traps: those who move or consume with reckless abandon get caught in devices that overwhelm. In the end we are left with two people on the back of a train in silence. Given their position, they cannot see where they are going. Under certain physical conditions, most notably constant velocity, they could not be certain of even being in motion at all. However, they are being moved by an external source towards an unknown destination. Around the corner stands the trap.

This last image is the true trap for us all. Simply along for the ride, at the rear, not seeing where we are going, perhaps not even aware of moving, we are completely disengaged. Under such circumstances, we are being moved through life as a speck on the wind, robbed of the qualities with which we might seize control of our own motion. Excessive quantity is a particularly grave danger. It can seem so very attractive, like a refreshing, mysterious, inviting pool. But the plunge can be hazardous. Deep waters with roiling undercurrents often await, and once submerged, drowning may be inevitable.

The problems discussed herein plague our contemporary politics. Massive support in the middle threatens to engulf more radical ideas and groups on all ends of the many political spectrums. It is bad enough that political leaders frequently reinforce expectations of deception and fragmentation, but worse again that we have been trapped into believing that it cannot be any other way. Our lives are in many cases so dense that our gaze cannot pierce through to the rest of the world. Time and again, the qualities with which we might establish ourselves are swamped by too much or too many. Yet for all that, the stranger at the Lethe, the woman outside the Tate Modern and others in these pieces have thrown down the gauntlet: we can and must resist being overwhelmed.

Blocked Terms:

Quality of Life:
What are the distinguishing characteristics of life?
Standard of Living:
Measuring life, limiting excess
Can the administration in a school control how students are grouped?
Left, Right, Centre:
Does this exhaust our list of directions?
He who has a tool for escape?
The System:
Holding together the bits and pieces? The trap?
The Ancient Greek programma meant a ‘written public notice’ – how many of the ‘programs’ we follow are publicly known?
Originally, that which would permit the counting of something relevant to community – a term derivative of the Latin status, and originally having something to do with the state; what are we counting these days?
What we are in the peculiar and difficult position of not often enough doing
Something carried from one person to another, exchanged
Position, but position in a state
A distinguished characteristic?