Originally published in Task Newsletter #1
There’s this great game out there. It’s a card game with its own deck, à la Uno™, called “Set”™. Each card bears an image of one of three simple shapes that can vary in one of three ways: number (1-3), color (green, purple, or red), and fill (opaque, shaded, or empty). Players are required to find “sets” of three cards that are uniformly alike or uniformly different, in terms of any given variable. “If two are and one isn’t,” the instructions say “it isn’t a set.”
The set in which no variables are alike—each card portraying a different number of different shapes in a different color with different fill—is the hardest one to find. That’s because Set™ capitalizes on an instinct we have for coherence, particularly aesthetic coherence. (Or perhaps it isn’t an instinct—remember “one of these things is not like the other” from Sesame Street? Perhaps we have only been socialized to categorize. What’s the difference, anyway, between instinct and intellectual exercise, in an organism defined by its singular mental ability?)
Aesthetic coherence is the primary feature of elegance. Elegant objects, elegant images, elegant collections, elegant faces, elegant rooms, elegant mathematical proofs, elegant prose—all of these are somehow coherent. Some unity can be found. Even the divergent “set” from the eponymous game described above is ultimately unified: its parts are each the same size, the same style, printed on the same paper, and easily categorized as coming from the same place. Aesthetically, it easily pleases. This coherence is the reason simple objects with simple (though often multiple) functions are elegant.
Eclecticism is not elegant. I’m speaking of pure eclecticism here. The set (not the Set™ set, now, I’m saying any set, a group, an object, face, collection, room, proof…you see my meaning) that does not cohere. The eclectic is awkward and off-putting, uncentered and de-centering, unconsidered and endearing. For this reason, eclecticism is adored by postmodernity; the eclectic set is deconstruction’s aim and end. Moreover, eclecticism implies cohabitation and borrowing; though an eclectic collection may be “original,” its components are not—they come from somewhere/somewhen else (think of Paris and Lisbonne, think of Madrid, think of ancient buildings amongst hypermodern transit systems). Aren’t such compromises to time, to the accumulation of ideas, simply symptoms of saturation and aesthetic entropy? Isn’t that what deconstruction is: philosophical entropy?
But elegance is fascist. Not to mention unreasonable. In the postmodern age, we must travel unblinking between aesthetic, functional, and philosophical contexts. Existing in one plane, though psychologically luxurious, would leave us socially and culturally stymied (oh, the poor, poor rich). And the same entropic cohabitation, a symptom of decay, is also a sign of boisterous, tenacious life (think of the Museo de la Reina Sofia: Miró on the walls of a medieval monastery).
And eclecticism is false. We construct unity; we impose it like Sesame Street taught us to. Little, once used and interpreted, remains truly eclectic. One could even call the perceiving mind—the eclectic set’s common filter—a unity, itself. Because we are able to construct unities, eclectic sets are just as much constructive exercises as they are deconstuctive product. If anything, they teach us to quiet ego, to stop our busybody meaning-making, to sit back and perceive.
But we have to be careful of our constructions. My 8th grade Social Studies teacher (who taught me all about rhetorical coherence) said “let yourself get too broadminded, and you end up with a flat head.” Our eclecticisms, whether ideological (“I oppose abortion because I value human life above all else, but I support the death penalty”), functional (“this gadget is a camera, a phone, a computer, a calendar, a coffee-maker, a screw, and a screwdriver”) or aesthetic (the “bohemian chic” that hit runways last season), while sometimes necessary, are also potentially (hideously!) ugly. The secret, I would venture, is to be sure that each component of the eclectic collection is individually, undeniably elegant.
© 2007 Task Newsletter. All rights reserved.