By Josh Wagner
I do the same thing every morning. And I convince myself that I don’t. Surely, I can’t have been going through the same actions, in the same order, for the past four weeks, the past five-and-a-half quarters, the past 19 years. But I have. And – now that I’m thinking about it – it makes sense. The less I focus on my everyday wake-up routine, the more mental energy I have to devote to the important things: summoning the energy to actually leave my bed, choosing matching socks, wearing yellow underwear on New Years.
By automating my daily ritual, I am able to accomplish so much more than if I were to obsess over every small action. But, there are some minuscule everyday movements that I obsess over. It seems as if the way I brush my teeth carries less personal meaning than what I eat for lunch or where I place my feet on the footpath across Meyer Green (in a line or a zigzag??). All of these actions are equally trivial and have no great bearing on the direction of my life, yet I choose to think some through carefully, while I consign others to tiresome habit.
Why do I care more about food than teeth? Maybe it’s because I see the food I consume far more often than I am confronted with my own teeth. Even though I have spent more time with my teeth – munching, crunching, biting my tongue – they feel less monumental than whether I choose TAP or Panda Express. They’re a part of me, sure, but because they are so close to my everyday being that I lose sight of them and stop noticing their presence in my mouth.
If I were to lose all of my teeth in a bike accident, I would acutely feel their loss – the nerve endings in my mouth would lead nowhere, to a void. Suddenly, brushing my teeth every morning would lose its thoughtlessness, transforming into a reminder of absence, of what is not there. Because I have such an intimate sensory apprehension of my teeth, their well-being is intuitively tied to my own – their presence invisible, their absence striking. If I were just an object and my teeth were simply a smaller part of the larger whole, then they would lose their significance. I care about my teeth because I am aware that I care about my teeth.
Is this a phenomenon exclusive to human sensory perception? If the Stanford ‘eco-system’ were to lose something akin to its teeth, would I, the outside observer, notice? As a member of that eco-system, would I be affected in the same way as losing teeth? I’m not entirely sure, but what I do know is that I can use my teeth in a variety of different contexts – consuming, attacking, emoting. The emptiness that I would feel is not the physical lack of teeth, but the meaningful loss of the capability to perform these basic actions. The internality and immediacy of my teeth forces significance upon their sudden departure.
Likewise, Stanford’s campus changes rapidly. Buildings appear, flood, disappear and are retrofitted at an alarming rate. The construction site next to Green Library that I became so accustomed to staring at last year has been transfigured into the new Hoover Institute building. Did the comforting externality of the dark green façade seize hold of me to the point where I can feel loss?
That construction site only matters because, over the course of eight months, it emblazoned itself in the shallows of my mind. In spite of my Hoover obsession, though, I usually ignore my surroundings. I’m only aware of them when I actively think about them. They’re usually so expansive that I can only imagine part of them, not their entire being – I think of a stairwell or a favorite chair. On a smaller scale, I can be totally aware of the monuments on campus that pockmark the topological “skin” of campus.
Each time I pass by Rodin’s “Burghers of Calais” in the Main Quad – bronzed, upright, expressive – I am subjected to them. Sure, I can choose to ignore their presence, but their unnatural hue diverts my eye each time I meander past. This act of control, exerted by the lifeless, grieving statues, has a physical (and likely psychological) effect on me. In the same way that my teeth are part of me, these statues have subsumed themselves into being a part of my stroll to class. What, then, does it mean to have this historical icon, deprived of its “normal” surroundings, etched in my mind’s eye?
The Burghers have no structural or meaningful purpose to me – they do not hold up a building like a caryatid or educate me about 14th-century French history (I’ve never actually stopped to read the inscriptions). Yet, they are as much a part of my Stanford experience as the LSJUMB or Late Night at Arrillaga.
Our lives at Stanford are littered with these “Burghers,” hallmarks of a cultural and political geography that I’m not a part of nor attempt to understand. The red Di Suvero sculpture in front of Stern, the Big Ram Skull outside Green, the various amorphized minimalist sculptures in front of Green Library – I have no idea what any of the 87 works of public art at Stanford mean, but they’re still a part of me. And I’m not alone. It seems as if the landscape of Stanford is trying desperately to get us to remember the past when no one really stops to care – when was the last time you saw any of these pieces being cleaned?
University Avenue: the epitome of Palo Alto and of Stanford is entirely representative of this. The Wahlburgers and Creamistries that beckon you in probably won’t be there in a month or two – there’s no sense of permanence or of time. The entire street feels as if it has appeared out of thin air; it is neither continuous with the Old Palo Alto or Palm Drive which surround it. But, if you look very closely, it is possible to trace University Avenue’s history. There are a number of historical plaques littering University Avenue (the only surviving WWI training barracks was there) which only “work” if you are aware of their existence.
These landmarks, marked but largely forgotten, are representative of our age. From my experiences of living on campus and interacting with these monuments, I know that we do not want to remember – these things exist for the now.
The historicity of the past has receded and has become largely irrelevant. We have become embroiled in our very present, rushing to class, trying to show up on time (a futile effort), attempting to make an impact. Instead of looking towards the past or towards the future for support, our gaze turns inward. There is no long-lasting historical memory; even though we love to romanticize and aestheticize the past, we want no part in it, as noted by historian Reinhart Koselleck and sociologist Maurice Halbwachs. It’s no wonder that the Palo Alto History Museum has struggled for the past decade to get enough funding to open its doors: There is no history here.
What does this all mean for my cherished Burghers? Absolutely nothing. I remember them for the fact that they exist and assault me. I carry little of their cultural geography with me on my way to class. They make minuscule impressions on my psyche; I know what they are called and their general positioning. But, practically, what I remember about the Burghers is their extreme oddity, their negligence and their brute emotion.
There is no sense of permanence. Microsoft fidget spinners and 6-Man T-shirts are overproduced and then cease to exist, neither projected backwards into the flux of time or forwards into next month; time has ceased to be an agent of change. We do not inhabit the same mental space as the Burghers or Di Suvero or any of the artists featured on campus – for us, change occurs instantaneously. We break into our own space, devoid of temporality and of the import of time. My dialogue with the Burghers has nothing to do with the historical figures but with my own interpretation of their extant physical presence. Like a set of incisors, these statues insert themselves into my body and fall out before finally rooting themselves in my lower mandible.
The same is true of everything else. Fruit has become aestheticized to the point where it has become a floral arrangement. Food, once a necessary part of survival, has become about display and balance rather than calories. There are countless books on the philosophy of “Star Wars,” of “Rick and Morty,” of pencils, of starfish. History as a concept has lost its meaning, a meaning it perhaps never truly had. Like the natural world, history is relatively for and about us – we have broken into its realm of meaning. All that matters is keeping my teeth.
Everything has become monumentalizable.
Contact Josh Wagner at jwagner4 ‘at’ stanford.edu.