I am writing a book that I hope will be read by a wide audience of all sorts of people. Sometimes part of the process of writing a book is stumbling upon a book by another author on an online bookseller website, reading the book’s summary, worrying that this author has already written your book, then ordering the book, reading it (okay, honestly, skimming it frantically), and finally feeling relieved that, in fact, this author has not written your book.
This happens about three times a week.
The most recent version of this stumble-worry-relief storm for me was when I read British anthropologist Daniel Miller’s book Stuff. As in, how and why objects in our everyday lives tell us something about our social world.
My book is about this. About home stuff. And spaces. And families. And everyday life. I do love Daniel Miller’s work, but I think I still have stuff to offer the world in my book. Plus, I am neither British nor an anthropologist (which, trust me, actually matters in some of my circles). So we’re good. Until I look on Amazon again later today.
Anyway, it was during my frantic skim of this book where I stumbled upon (you must think most of my work is all about stumbling, which, for a klutz like me, is an entirely reasonable hypothesis) a quote where Miller encapsulated exactly and precisely and wonderfully my belief in why I do what I do:
“Theory, philosophy, modern art, economics and other movements that utilize obscure abstractions can easily degenerate into pretentious obfuscation and become oppressive playgrounds of academic divas and elites used to intimidate as much as to impress. Academics, tempted by the promise of an easy and assured claim to cleverness, create vast circulations of obscure and impressive citations… It is only through the subsequent processes of maturing and re-grounding theory in its application to everyday lives and languages that such cleverness becomes transformed into understanding and re-directed to a compassionate embrace, rather than an aloof distaste… So the task now is to take our artistic-looking idealized theory, once white marble, nowadays more angular perspex, and drag it back into the mud and murk of everyday life until it looks a lot less intimidating and more like something we feel at ease with bringing home to the folks” (pp. 79-80).
Now, you might be saying, “Michelle, I do sometimes think you’re a diva, but that’s more related to your short stint as a rock star. Also, I didn’t understand most of that quote and, in fact, if I brought it home to my ‘folks,’ they’d look at me weird and ask me to translate it or, better yet, ask me to just go grab them a beer already. Also, what the hell is ‘perspex?’”
Or, you might be saying, “Hey Michelle, I remember that time when you took a class called Political Theory, and then dropped the class after you got a D on your first paper. But then you took Social Theory later and ended up tutoring the student who you thought at first was super smart but was really just a talker. But I’m not sure why that may matter here.”
Or, you might be saying, “Get on with whatever your point is.”
Here’s the gist of what Miller is saying, and that I believe: theory is both abstract and wonderful, but many smart people believe wholeheartedly that they’ll seem smarter if they talk a lot only about theory and abstract things. A better version of understanding (a compassionate understanding) is to find out what people’s everyday lives are like, and be legitimately interested in that, and be able to talk about that with anybody. Smart shouldn’t be intimidating and all about looking down one’s nose at others. It should be accessible. And compassionate. Not abstract. Real.
In many ways, the quote from Miller above really helps me feel great about why I’m trying to write my book the way I am. In part because he captures my philosophy so well. And in part because he does it in a way that I still find a bit inaccessible, which calls for a different voice. My voice.
And don’t get me wrong. I love theory. My book has a theoretical foundation (and I even call it a foundation, since it’s about homes. Get it?). I write about it. I teach it. It matters. I know amazing theorists, who are quite real. But it’s more exciting to me to see an idea play out at someone’s dining room table rather than talking about the idea over dinner.
Back to the quote. I made my eleven-year-old son read the passage from Miller’s book. I watched him read it and then stare off to the side, and realized that he had no idea what it meant. I suppose this says something about whether the above quote that totally rails on fancy words and complex phrases for the sake of seeming smart is, in fact, a victim of its own critique. Or it says that eleven-year-olds are not the audience for the book.
I translated the passage to my son. This was no easy task, given the big words (obfuscate was not in his vocab list this week). He found it interesting. I could tell by the ever-so-slight rise in his left eyebrow, a trait he has inherited from his subtle-facial-expression-father.
After some discussion dissecting this paragraph, and after a few seconds of him looking up to the ceiling to think, he said (again with a slightly raised left eyebrow), “It seems that the problem is that theory is not focused enough on the real world. But don’t theorists actually live in the real world?”
Maybe my book needs an eleven-year-old co-author to bring the lofty questions down to the mud and murk of earth.