We Live in a Material World

Spend enough time reading about things, especially in an academic context, and it doesn’t become all that hard to slowly assemble a model of the world comprised mostly of abstractions.* Changes in the global daily volume of oil production are just ticks on a chart; money is created, loaned, and spent as invisible electronic balances; elections are won and lost on the basis of shifting percentages in polls; entire processes of government and administration are reduced to a useful metonym that shares a name with a place on a map but that can’t actually be located on one itself.**

But of course the reality is that somewhere underpinning most of those abstractions (North Korean election results really do exist only in some notional sense) is an actual tangible reality comprised of physical objects – we do, after all, live in a material world. And a recent trip to Washington D.C., that king of geographical abstractions, was in fact a beautiful reminder of that fact. Walking south around 17th Street, I overshot my right hand turn and wound up face to face with the north lawn of the White House. There it was, a real building – kind of squat and just sitting there only a stone’s throw from offices and Starbucks and Au Bon Pain and people walking home from work. Probably as I stood there looking at it an article was being published somewhere in the world attributing to “the White House” responsibility for “leading the coalition against ISIL” or “pivoting to Asia”, or any number of other actions the executive branch could plausibly take. But all the White House did while I was in front of it, all it ever does, all it will ever do is sit silently, unfeelingly, motionless, a house and a workplace for the living people who comprise at any given moment some of the most important decision-makers on Earth.

Later on I had dinner with a couple friends, one of whom now works with things like election monitoring. And Estonia aside, most places in the world still rely on alterations to a physical object to mark and record the voter’s will. So she described the vote-counting process for me as follows: the boxes of ballots were collected, and one by one the ballots therein were displayed to a committee comprised of all the relevant parties, who would collectively approve or reject each vote based on their assessment of its adherence to standards of clarity and discernible intent. But hours and days later, when the results of that process appeared in the Western press, it was in the form of percentages and parliamentary seats won and lost.

And this is probably a good thing; imagine how tedious it would be to have to report election results as, “2,675,431 people went into booths and pressed their ink-stained fingers onto a ballot in such a way as to indicate a preference for Ivica Radovic as president…” and not, “45% of the population voted last night for Ivica Radovic in Syldavia‘s presidential elections.” But there is something magical (in the good sense of the word, not in the, “you are ignoring facts and rationality and living in a world of mystical self-delusion” one) about encountering every now and again, either actually so on a meandering walk or at least by extension via anecdote, the physical, textured, tangible objects that are abstraction’s genesis.

*Finance has also made stunning progress in this area, something about which Matt Levine has written at length
**Phrasings like “Washington has repeatedly opposed efforts to loosen import restrictions on Martian diary products” have the effect of (raising questions about animal husbandry on Mars, for starters) suggesting the existence of a sort of shapeless entity that has some connection to the activities we know to take place in a city called Washington but which itself cannot be located anywhere concrete. There is no real agency in that kind of Washington, despite it being credited with the activity of quite a lot of, well, agencies.