“Against Smoothness”NSCAD Graduation Address, 29 April 2000
Mark Kingwell, University of Toronto
First, I’m going to let you in on some good news. Whatever your instructors may have told you, the truth is that you’re all going to be making a lot of money as artists and designers. I know, I know; it’s hard to believe. But here’s the deal. The College bought a whole bunch of cheap tech shares when the Nasdaq crashed two weeks ago. They’ve been racking returns ever since, and the IPO of a new combined startup incubator and stock clearinghouse, Nasdaq-nascad.asap.com, is set for next month. Your degree is actually convertible into five thousand A-series shares, and if you want to skim profit right now, your plane to Aruba is waiting. Otherwise, just hold on to you stock options, reinvest in your own startup, and the next thing you know you’ll be a millionaire with lots of time to spend sketching.
Unfortunately I’m kidding. Actually I’m here with bad news. You’re all going to be much poorer and more unhappy than you can possibly imagine. The world will, by and large, ignore your obvious talent and superior intelligence. Critics and employers will prove to be craven, tasteless morons for whom you feel nothing but justifiable contempt. You will have to do ridiculous and humiliating things in order to eat. There will be forms and applications of unutterable stupidity to fill out. You will find yourself railing at the imbecility of the world, becoming embittered and cynical, logging on to suck.com every day and chuckling at the sophomoric denunciations of anybody, anywhere who ever made a go at anything. You will start a goth-punk band called Goodbye Stupid Universe, but nobody will sign you. Your derangement will mount until finally, in a spasm of intoxicated rage, you will find yourself atop a handy vantage, high-powered rifle in hand, prepared to engage in a final and unignorable act of creative destruction.
Fortunately I’m still kidding. You won’t have enough money to buy a high-powered rifle.
You might be wondering why a philosopher was chosen to address you as you collect your formal qualifications today and head out into the world. It’s not because I like to write about the ethics and politics of design. Or even because I’m known to possess a reasonably good wardrobe of suits and ties, and therefore can be expected to make some kind of appropriate fashion statement.
No, I think it’s because as a member of another useless profession, a profession low in fortune and men’s eyes, I can say with total conviction: I feel your pain. I know what it’s like to spend my life doing something that most people find strange of ridiculous or simply baffling in its preoccupations. I know intimately the shifty or embarrassed looks that pass across their faces when I tell them I’m writing about the nature of knowledge, or how to seek the good. Also, I’m familiar with the weird vertigo of watching your friends’ annual incomes spiral into six figures even as yours, somehow, shrinks. I know how it feels to track football salary negotiations, say, and wonder what kind of world allows a man to be paid ten million dollars a year to dress up in pads and hurl other men to the ground, while those devoted to the timeless pursuit of art and philosophy have to survive on chicken noodle soup for the bulk of their twenties.
I know all that. I was thirty years old before I landed my first full-time job. I lived in fear of poverty until my thirty-fifth birthday. I still don’t own a house, a car, or a dining room table. My CD collection is probably the most valuable thing in my apartment. True, I have the suits and ties. Also a bike my buddy Allan gave me last year. And yes, I eat out a fair bit and travel here and there; and lately, with one thing and another, I have mutual funds and GICs and a savings account. So don’t get me wrong: I’m not complaining, I survived my apprenticeship to the great gods of uselessness and found a place at the table, even if it is down at the low end. The great thing about academic life, as opposed to reality, is that stupid persistence actually pays off: if you hand around long enough, and publish enough incomprehensible articles in obscure journals, eventually they give you enough to live on. And then, if you’re still conscious, you can write what you want, like books people might actually read and articles on the ethics and politics of design.
It might not be that easy for you, however. The road to success, even to survival, in your chosen work may not be smooth. That’s usually though to be a bad thing, but today I want to say a few words against the idea of smoothness, and in favour of perversity.
The world of our everyday experience is full of smooth objects, perhaps more so now than ever. The dominant aesthetic in everything from running shoes to monumental architecture is this realization of the flowing curve and the slick surface, the inviting mount and the bright hue. The world is crowded with blobs: blobby furniture, blobby cars, blobby buildings. The glass-and-steel boxes of Modernism, the towering slabs of the International Style (which had their own kind of sterile smoothness), have given way to the warmer, more inviting surfaces and textures of the nursery. We are witnessing, in our footstools and wristwatches and personal computers, a sort of infantilization of the post-modern imagination. Cutting-edge running shoes now resemble socks or sheaths that fit over the foot, eliminating all trace of their functionality. Cars shrink into ever-smaller spaces, filling out their easy-park dimensions with an inviting roundness altogether unlike the aerodynamic, fighter-plane slashes of an earlier era. They are not built for speed but for lovability. Everywhere we turn, there is something — an armchair, a table, a vase — that makes us want to coo and murmur, to pet and fondle.
Well, fine. Smoothness is, after all, one of the great achievements of human life. The smooth face of the shaved body bespeaks a mastery of sharp-edge tools as much as an aesthetic of separating oneself from the crudeness of nature; the smooth language between civil neighbours evens out, or anyway deflects, the struggles of an always-lurking state of nature. There is a long and profound association between the elimination of (natural) roughness and the creation of (artificial) civilization. Everybody loves baby-smooth skin, most people appreciate a smoothly turned phrase. Smoothness signals comfort, ease, respite from the hard or the challenging. There are smooth objects in nature: nothing is so inviting to the touch as a rock rounded by time and the sea, nothing so exquisitely fresh as the surface of a loving tree just after its bark has been removed. But it’s fair to say that we make more smoothness than we find.
It would not be an exaggeration, in fact, to make smoothness a gauge of progress in human affairs, just as, for most people, it provides a measure of the success they enjoy in life. We speak of individuals, behavior and ages as more or less polished, implying an assessment of value added as roughness is eliminated: here the aesthetic and the ethical are not separable, The smooth stride of the point guard into the lane, the smooth delivery of the cue on the ball, the smooth glide of the dancing pair across the tile floor — all these things please us, they seem right, in a way we feel in our guts but would be hard-pressed to justify in rational terms. Grace is ever its own argument, is maybe above argument altogether.
Yet there are dangers. Aesthetic sense, too perfectly realized, becomes a form of meretricious deceit. Civil locutions are often exposed, eventually, as glib rather than polite, manipulative instead of friendly — the smooth operator is born. At a certain point smoothness approaches self-defeat, in ideas as much as anywhere. The newspapers and bookshelves are full of smooth additions to the fund of what the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has felicitously labelled “the already-thought.” He means the pat phrases and familiar positions of everyday discourse, where everything said has the consistency of a bun at Mr. Submarine, at once predigested and stale. Theodor Adorno, writing in the blistering denunciatory spirit of his later years, saw such fluent, already-masticated pages as the active enemies of wisdom, They could only speak, he said, in terms that reinforce existing, unreflective categories.
“Only what they do not need first to understand, they consider understandable,” Adorno writes in his elliptical little book Minima Moralia; “only the word coined by commerce, and really alienated, touches them as familiar.” (To be sure, Adorno ultimately saw communicability itself as the enemy of thought, which for some of us constitutes going too far.) Writing well, creating well, doing anything well, is a tightrope walk, a delicate matter of placing one foot in front of the other to reach the goals of insight or fulfillment without falling into the abyss of glibness, superficiality, or familiarity. We want to make the hard look easy, yes, but not the easy look easy. That, after all, is too easy: we crave the appearance of effortlessness, not effortlessness itself.
This is an issue for audiences as well as creators. The novelist David Foster Wallace once usefully defined popular culture as “the symbolic representation of what we already believe.” Think of the relentless way mainstream films and television and music every year create more and more sleek tokens in the dominant economy of cliché, giving you that familiar, faintly irritated feeling that you have seen all this before — that your intelligence, at some basic level, is being insulted by comfort. Do people actually say, in response to hard questions, “Yes. No. I don’t know”? Are children always plucky or vile, presidents always stout-hearted or hopelessly corrupt? Why do so many cinematic prostitutes have hearts of gold when so few people in the general population do? Why are characters on television forever uttering sentiments that would arouse only consternation or amusement if they occurred in actual conversation?
Smoothness is simple, complexity is often rough. That alone can explain our quiescent ingestion of so much nonsense. We all know that the clichés that replace the reality of our experience are empty-headed and pernicious, and yet that knowledge has little effect. Most of the time it just reinforces the slight elation we feel at the merest interruption in the smooth transfer of already-thought elements from writer to screen to us. We have become slaves to our own smoothness. How grateful we are when a movie confounds even one minor expectation, challenges one little piece of received wisdom. How enthusiastically we react when a situation comedy shows a tiny spark of originality, when a pop album exhibits the slightest glimmer of cleverness.
Is the tactile sleekness of the Nike Air Max or the Macintosh G5 like this? Surely these smartly crafted objects, these lovely consumer confections, are far removed from the lurking, pop-culture dangers of easy fatuity and comforting superficiality? But no, not really. Smooth objects, so seductive in their physical smoothness, so inviting in their suddenly iconic appearance in the novelty-hungry mediascape, are as misleading as any polished locution added to the enveloping language of cliché, any slick addition to the stock of the already-thought. They act to obscure the conditions of their own production, the way they are assembled in sweatshops that are anything but clean or polished. Here, in the small antique factories of what we choose to call the developing world, machines of an outmoded industrial age produce, paradoxically, the cathected objects of our post-industrial desire.
The smooth products of these throwback workshops are then smoothly extracted, arriving in flagship theme-park stores with no visible trace of their dirty origins. Sometimes literally placed under a glass – the new models premiering at the Nike Town in my neighbourhood are displayed in elaborate cases, like handmade watches or Belgian gourmet chocolates – they come to us as if by divine fiat. They shimmer into existence like items ordered by voice-interface from the Star Trek replicator. There is no acknowledgement of the bright and smooth thing emerging from the dark and jagged, that old-fashioned but still illuminating morality tale of the diamond in the rough, the gold in the dross. No, here in the hush of the polished-wood and brushed-steel environment, it’s all gems all the time, everywhere smoothness smoothly presented. When an object appears with the hallmark easy swiftness of post-modern cool, we instinctively compare it not with the dirt and confusion of the actual place from which it came, wherever that may be, but with the bright image from television or print that heralded its arrival.
Anything that so thoroughly effaces the signs of its own origins would be worth regarding with a skeptical eye. But the seductions of smoothness go beyond the placeless, spaceless, ethereal arrival of the shoe or the laptop. They embrace the larger value of efficiency, or usefulness, which in our day is most often thematized as even flow: of goods, data, capital or individuals. Things function better, they are more useful and efficient, when they submit smoothly to this flow, when they shed their hard idiosyncratic edges and enter the appropriate streams and channels of transportation without too much trouble or effort. The inner logic of smoothness is not just about reproducibility, with multiple indistinguishable tokens parading before us, different only in their candy colours. It is also about translatability, the idea that anything and everything may be smoothly converted into a metalanguage of useful disposal and thus effortlessly transferred from one place, one data port, to another.
This easy flow demands more interruptions, more stoppages of goods and information. As Rem Koolhaas noticed two decades ago now, it is really the traffic jams that reveal the delirious heart of a city, the unplanned chaos subverting all rational imperatives of movement. By the same token (sometimes literally), breaks and interruptions in the flow of data alone remind us of the messy infrastructural conditions of our communication, its precommitments and biases and class differences. Paradoxical statements, resistant in their indecipherable oddness, break the smooth routine of exchanging already-thought ideas. And goods unexpectedly arrested, stopped in their running-shoe tracks, are subject to an isolation altogether more illuminating, more unsettling, than the jewellery-box presentation of the store.
The philosopher Martin Heidegger sensed this, though he didn’t have Nike to kick around. The missing step or the broken hammer, Heidegger pointed out, is what reveals Being, the thrust of existence otherwise obscured by the smooth, tool-like functions of use-value and efficiency. Now we see exposed, maybe for the first time, in these clogged streets and broken networks and odd claims and stranded objects, the dirty machinery of our production. The struts and girders of inequality, the cantilevers of effort, are no longer covered by molded-steel cladding or plastic coating. The guts of craft and luck and error, of exploitation and hype and deceit, are now spilling out. And they have their own peculiar kind of beauty. It is not the easy beauty of smoothness but the much more demanding beauty of truth.
In Plato’s famous analogy of the cave, where ascent into the sunlight is equated with achieving wisdom, Socrates makes a point of saying that the path upward from imprisonment is rough. There are sharp rocks and stones to climb, piles of rubble to negotiate. The aspiring philosopher will bark his shins, skin his knees, abrade his elbows. Along the difficult way, he will want to quit, to weep with pain and frustration. But he will go on: not simply because the way is hard, as if for some masochistic pleasure – though it may well appear that way to outsiders, who will, Socrates says, consider him mad. No, he will go on because this is what he feels compelled to do as necessary. The way is rough not because roughness builds character, but because the truth is sometimes painful.
My message to you is this: Don’t just take the rough with the smooth; take the rough over the smooth. Be perverse. It’s only by scraping your knuckles and your knees that you will know the truth of your own inefficient, resistant commitment. It is not wrong to derive pleasure from the flush surfaces and inviting curves of the world around us. It is not wrong to regard a limpid sentence or glossy household appliance as something worth having, something worth your caressing glance. But it is wrong to forget, even for a moment, the hidden costs of that achievement. And it is doubly wrong to think that smoothness says all that needs saying when it comes to who we are and what we want – when it comes to who we might be.
So revel in your perversity. It is, after all, a higher order of usefulness; dedication to a truth beyond the surface. Your chosen path may not be easy – but worthwhile things rarely are.