Falkirk Wheel, Panoramic view.

Falkirk Wheel, Panoramic view.
Image by Cameron Lyall, GNU license Wikimedia

19 July 2011


Spaces become places as people experience a space and share experiences within a space. My experiences are going to be different from others, and as a place develops its place-ness by having people interact with it, past interactions influence and recreate a sense of place-ness. So my first experience with a specific space will affect subsequent experiences—and my experiences with ostensibly similar spaces further shape my impression of a place. Each space I have been in is my own place, for that time, in that context. And spaces are not limited to fixed, physical spaces. I experienced a non-physically fixed place on my way to Scotland, a place that oddly influenced my experiences—and thus place-ness—whilst in Glasgow.

In the Newark airport, I stopped at a bar for a beer and overheard a woman describing an interview she had recently conducted. She was clearly aggravated by this interview, so I started talking to her about technical communication and what made the interview so terrible. She highlighted the errors in the resume: inconsistent dates, sloppy editing, blatant errors in technical expertise, and it was seventeen pages long. For reasons she did not explain, she still interviewed ‘this guy.’ When she called at the arranged time, it was clear that she had woken him up. He actually asked that she call back in ten minutes. Fascinatingly, she called back. She didn’t give any details about the conversation, but she was emphatic that the interview was worse than the resume.

Now my writing center training and rhet/comp-ness was in full gear. Here, in a bar at an airport, I have a perfect place to discuss corporate expectations with a real, live, interactive corporate manager. When she was talking, she had complained numerous times about the length of the resume, so I started there, inquiring if the one, or at most two pages, recommendations from the textbooks was correct. She surprised me: current industry expectations at her company commonly receive and accept resumes up to ten pages, with an average of five-seven pages. Granted she is one person in an HR department at one company, but that set me back a bit—have I been leading my students and writers astray? It turns out that some industries are now utilizing more limited-term contract employees. In five years it is not uncommon for some engineers to have worked at seven or eight places, on a dozen or more projects. This does not match the technical writing experience or training I have received, but it has influenced my technical writing place.

Initially this point resonated just with my technical writing place, but for some reason it came to mind after Ehren and I saw the scuffle on the street in Glasgow. I have no idea why the fight got me thinking about resumes, but it did. The details of that trend in technical industries just sat in the back of my brain and hummed tunelessly.

As the humming in my head droned on, I was stuck by how generic Glasgow seemed. It was very beige. Very little stood out or grabbed my attention. It was if Glasgow was a pre-fabricated city that included free generic sights, people, and smells. So the art school was a little confusing because it was nestled in this rather generic feeling town, but the building, the school, and the ideas behind the building were anything but generic.

During the tour of the Glasgow School of Art, our guide mentioned that Mackintosh never actually built his designs. He just envisioned them and drew them; others built them. Our guide pointed this out when she was describing the cabinet Mackintosh and his wife, Margaret, collaborated on. Margaret did physically craft at least some of her work. She envisioned an item, worked out the details to design it, and then physically interacted with materials to bring her vision into being. They both envisioned and designed, but for her it became a specific, physical place when she crafted it.

Now, I am not an art person. I do not decorate. My workspaces are often sparse and likened to something you might find in Sparta: function before all else. An art school is an odd place for me. Not just that I have no idea how artists have the patience to do what they do, but because I am always left with a nagging feeling that artists can see things I can’t. Adding to that is the strange beige-ness of my Glasgow—the experience left me a bit off kilter. But then the humming started to make sense.

I had traveled through Glasgow before. I drove through the city, magically making it from the south side to the north side—magically because I couldn’t recreate my path if the world depended on it.

So I wasn’t making Glasgow when I stepped of the train: I was seeing what I expected from my Glasgow Experience v1.0 and letting it dictate my Glasgow Experience v2.0. Therefore, the only things that stood out to me where what differentiated Glasgow from all of the other cities I have driven through on a highway. That’s a lot of beige.

The Glasgow School of Art and the museum stood out to me—and the museum only stood out because it was so different from what I expected. Reflecting back on the museum, I keep conflating it with three or four other museums I recall from grade school. It was added to my child-centered museum place. Glasgow was added to my highway city place. And the art school was added to my postindustrial place.

Postindustrial. Never really heard the term until I read the details for this program. The paradigm of one person envisioning and designing an object while and a group of other people use the design to make something is rather industrial. A few folks at the top of the hierarchy have the ideas and the means to abstractly represent them so that a much larger mass of folks lower in the hierarchy can physically construct the object. Strangely, this reminded me of what Mackintosh did. Margaret took the next step—she envisioned and crafted. She saw both ends of the process, and was directly part of both ends of the process. This strikes me as postindustrial.

Michael pointed out that many of the great inventors during the Renaissance would draw designs that didn’t actually work if you followed them: the builder had to understand and comprehend the concepts behind the drawings to make the object work. But those same folks who drew their designs with intentional flaws would personally build their own envisioned objects. That shifts the paradigm from an intellectually stratified hierarchy that has less educated folks slavishly follow routines to build objects they don’t fully understand or even possibly use. The postindustrial as I am seeing it is shifting back to a more artisan style system. There are still highly educated folks envisioning things, but now they are becoming more involved in the process of actually building their objects.

Places are made. I talked with a lady at a bar and revised my technical writer place. I got off the train in Glasgow, referred to my map and headed out into the city thinking that I was making for myself as I walked. But I wasn’t—I had already made the city and incorporated it into other places. To make a place, experiences occur. To make a postindustrial place, there must be a postindustrial experience. But what is a postindustrial experience? By this line of reasoning, a postindustrial experience is the non sequitur juxtaposition of substantively visceral wrangling’s with the envisioned potential oozing from the discontent of an over-hierarchical, demeaning, bureaucratized, production-at-all-cost paradigm. The people experiencing life in those places are taking a step outside of the beige mindset of how spaces have been presented and wallowing in each spaces’ potential. They are seeing things we may not see.

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