On Writing: The Aerial Perspective

Monday, 2 April 2012

George Silk

Last night, I read a very interesting article called ‘The Need to Learn’ by John Berger in issue 88 of Brick Magazine (kindly sent to me by Jane). In it, he talks about the French Resistance during World War Two, the Strauss-Kahn affair, and the increasing globalisation of the modern world. At the heart of his essay is a basic call-to-arms: a need to say ‘no’ in our current economic and cultural climate where ‘resistance’ seems to be more of an ‘act’ rather than action. He describes a demonstration in France where numerous economic and political issues are aired in one big gathering, and where words are linked to concerns that are firmly planted ‘on the ground’. That is, words which are about survival, individuality, and saying ‘no’.

In contrast, Berger argues, the globalised world we live in is not about the ‘ground’ level or the individuals who populate it, but rather, is about the ‘aerial’ perspective. Writing about Strauss-Kahn, Berger notes that the ‘IMF, of which he was managing director, proceeds according to a sophisticated logic that is aerial, concentrated upon the virtual; upon speculation about risk, tendencies, and estimation of profitability; upon the constant of the ever-elusive confidence of investors. To such an aerial worldview, what happens on the ground, like any form of collateral damage, is incidental and without far-reaching importance. Generally speaking, according to this logic, it can be ignored.’

My mind works in strange ways sometimes when I read something that impacts me at a particular moment. This is especially true when I’ve been working long hours and I’m tired, like I was for much of last week and the weekend. I don’t know if my thoughts would have strayed in the direction I’m about to explain if I had not been so tired when I read Berger’s essay. He is not saying anything that I don’t already know, or that I haven’t read before by others. But he says it in a way that instinctively resonates with me, at this very moment, when my body is aching and I’m exhausted from work.

The past week for me has been all about the aerial view: keeping one foot in front of the other, ticking things off a to-do list, being ‘practical’ (whatever that means). Everybody goes through these stressful weeks at work, I’m not unique. However, when I undertake such long weeks of work without a break for my own writing, I often have this out-of-body feeling, like I’m floating above myself. It honestly feels like the ground has been pulled from beneath me and I have this unsettling disoriented feeling until the moment when I get spare time to sit with my notebook or my laptop and write.

I find it so ironic, therefore, that the process of writing is often viewed as something airy and aerial itself when in fact for me it’s a form of ‘grounding’. I guess you could say that one of the functions my writing performs is a way of letting me say ‘no’ to the world; not to childishly escape it, but to resist the image of myself as defined by what I do (i.e. my job) rather than what I am. I don’t think my writing process is really that different from the pleas for individual recognition those demonstrators in France were talking about, because there’s a limit to our individual tolerance of the ‘aerial’ perspective that views us as insignificant worker-ants. So here’s to catching up on sleep and finding time to write.

Image credit: On top of the Cathedral of Learning watching the 1960 World Series, by George Silk, from Life Magazine image collections.


ronnie said...

I'd love to read the Berger piece (maybe I'll just have to wait until its made into a film...) but if indeedy its all about saying 'no' and acting (rather than participating in 'an action')to current climes (especially to what masquerades as an artworld) wellllll I'm in!

and as for the aerial view? I don't know if what I'm about to say is in line with Berger et al - but I think all this global aerial viewing has a LOT to answer for.... (I'm a feet-on-the-ground, hands-in-the-dirt, shoulder-to-the-wheel kinda gal) .... when we forget that figures on a pie chart represent real people and real lives - welllllll we totally bugger everything up don't we..... (or they...)

sweet dreams

Amelia said...

I agree that the simple act of saying no, of going against the current has a greater impact in society in general. I'd really like to read that essay it sounds very interesting.

I can definitely see the aerial view metaphor being applied in my aspects of current life.

Nit said...

It's interesting, your piece, as I never thought of writing as something airy either. Spoken words are as a rule that way, and they are meant to be, in my mind at least. Conversations are always vague and that's their charm, where, as you say, writen words are more grounding. The whole process is actually "grounding", isn't it? the fact that you choose that word over the other, and you prefer to use that style over another, etc. Writing always seems to me kind of like puting your thoughts in reins and give them a new purpose.

Caitlin Henderson said...

I'm not sure how I would describe my feelings on writing. It's something that I don't really understand and feel as though I never will. I've never really identified as a writer and I haven't written anything since I completed my undergrad last May. But I also feel less grounded than ever, so maybe writing does have something to do with it... who knows? May I should give it another try :)

rooth said...

That's an interesting way of putting the feeling you get when you write and it's making me pause and think about why it is I write and what sensation I get from it

Rambling Tart said...

I will have to contemplate the aerial view for a world view, but I am fond of the philosophy for myself. It's something I've been thinking of recently, the calming impact of stepping back, stepping UP, and looking down on my life, my people, my little world. Somehow there is peace in such a view, and clarity.

Sophia said...

Reading your post I could identify since I live in Europe and particularly in Greece where IMF and Strauss Khan played a significant role in our political and economical life. Let me give two different paradigms of that impact as received from the reaction of ordinary people. The first one occurred while I was photographing the house of a client. She happens to be French, so in her home in Santorini (I was shooting that day) the television was subsequently tuned in the french broadcasting and headlines were those days all about Strauss Khan as the story had just been revealed. My french isn’t as good as it used to be but I could tell her frustration because he was a public figure after all and in way the image of French was damaged through his actions. Since then, my father, a retired lawyer who happens to enjoy political and socio-analytical conversations on everyday basis, he referred to the Strauss Khan case as an another example of society attacking individuals when their popularity has hit a very prominent rate.

The globalization made this incident a fact not only for the French but to the world and beyond. Still, it’s in our own ability to address this knowledge from an aerial or a more grounded point of view.

Naomi Bulger said...

I couldn't agree with this more. I think globalisation, the aerial viewpoint is us distancing ourselves from reality. It's that sense of finding it easier to hold opinions on a situation when we are not inside it. But really, if we hold the strong opinions, we should GET inside it. And certainly I find writing to be the same. It's (relatively) easy to take an aerial view of a story on which I'm working: how I want it to feel, where I want it to go. It is a lot more visceral to actually get in and write word after word, slowly building up a world.

I hope you catch up on sleep and rest and feel rejuvenated this week.

Hila said...

Ronnie: I think it is in line with what Berger was essentially saying - that we need to remind ourselves what 'resistance' actually means and entails, and stop being apathetic about the world.

Amelia: Brick magazine really isn't that expensive, so if you're interested in this essay, I'd recommend buying a copy. There are other great essays in this edition too.

Nit: yes, there is something concrete about the act of writing. There is this stereotype though of writing as some airy inspiration from above, and I find that increasingly silly.

Caitlin: I think that disjointed feeling for me comes from not having time to assign myself the task of putting my thoughts in order through writing. But you're right though, it's hard to really explain what writing does for me, because that's not the only function it performs.

rooth: yes, and that sensation is individual, not an abstract whole.

Rambling Tart: I think the kind of aerial view you're talking about here is admirable. I was talking about a more homogenising aerial view that discredits individuality and specificity.

Sophia: That's interesting, I honestly didn't approach the Strauss Khan affair like your dad: "he referred to the Strauss Khan case as an another example of society attacking individuals when their popularity has hit a very prominent rate". For me, it was not simply about him as a well-known figure, but what he represents in terms of a world-view.

Naomi: thank you! I'm quite tired :) I too feel like we're being distanced from ourselves in various ways - that is, being distanced from our real worth (a worth that has nothing to do with jobs or money). I always feel a tad too idealistic when I say such things though.

Jane Flanagan said...

This is interesting. I always feel like writing is the most grounding part of my day too. It's why I try to start the day with writing, so I set that mode. So much of the other stuff I do (the paying part) feels like being tossed about on the sea, bobbing helplessly or drifting on the doldrums. When I write, I dive right down and touch the sea floor.

(I realize I just turned your air metaphor into a sea one... I am a waterbaby!!)

Hila said...

Jane: I love the fact that you understood what I was trying to say here, so much so that you found your own metaphor for it :)

Kate said...

I share that sense of being grounded through the process of writing. As I write, I feel I'm drawing thoughts down and tamping them into earth to grow. Sometimes it's more like mining, or excavation and I fear I'll be lost underground. But I know it isn't something airy and aerial. I'm reminded of Heaney's lines from 'Digging'

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I'll dig with it.

I'll raise a pen to tending our own soil.

heleen said...

I never experience writing (as a verb, not a noun) as an airy or aerial process - I wholeheartedly agree with what you say about its grounding-effects and actually I never have seen it in a different light. Didn't the Ancient Greek already recognised the major importance of Logos, the Word as a way to structure and get a grip on the world? Writing, to me, functions as the bridge between the mind (rational) and the heart/soul/emotions (irrational). I think that without writing, I'd have a difficult time comprehending My Self. Sometimes the process of comprehension requires distance; in such cases I do 'look upon myself' as if from an aerial perspective. But mostly it's very intuitive, a bit like Jane's diving-metaphor: really plunging into yourself and bringing your 'inner' and 'outer' self back into harmonious concordance.

Sally said...

I know that feeling exactly. I'd go so far as to say that it never feels like my life is quite "real" until I've cemented it in writing, and only then can I feel calm.

Sally said...

And after reading your comments above, adding—I don't schedule enough time / even have enough time for writing, either! So since writing = less anxiety...this probably explains why I'm so stressed out all the time. Maybe I need to make it more of a priority. Wow, nice little revelation you helped me have there, haha.

Hope you are able to have a deserved restful weekend dear!

Hila said...

Kate: ah, such great lines! Yes, I like the digging metaphor, it fits.

heleen: I think the airy metaphor is one that seems to be placed upon my writing by others - like I'm undertaking something that is romantically 'fluffy'. It doesn't correlate at all with the feelings I have when sitting down to write, there's nothing fluffy or romantic about it.

Sally: it's so hard to find the time sometimes, but if it's important enough, we can carve out a few moments.