New things that are already things (or, Using algebra to explain things)
I can remember, during my first year of college, standing in line for a movie with a friend. It was at a big multiplex in Yonkers, New York and the place had an air-conditioned, mass-appeal feeling to it that made me feel vaguely uneasy. Because I was eighteen and considered myself a writer in the slightly haughty way an eighteen-year-old can, I thought that an awesome way to “freak out” all the “mainstream” people standing in line with me would be to show an adult movie instead of whatever they had paid to see. (This was a year or two before Fight Club used a similar idea. Also, in case I’m not conveying the silliness of my college-freshman attitude, the movie we were lined up to see was either The Matrix or 10 Things I Hate about You. The new Harmony Korine flick it was not.)
I liked this idea so much I verbalized it to my friend, and as he looked at me and considered how to respond, I went further. I suggested that it would actually be a really awesome avant-garde thing to do, to bring people together at a theater and show an adult film and have people just, like, respond to it. They could laugh, or be uncomfortable about their arousal, perhaps they’d find their political convictions challenged by their response at the bodily level.
I was picking up steam with this, trying to think through the subversive aspects of rendering a private and taboo genre public, re-contextualizing what was considered a shameful and—when my friend asked, “You mean like at a porn theater?”
I briefly struggled against this simple summary—No, because the films would be shown at an art house, and people would get it, man—but then gave it up. We were able, still standing in line, to see the brief sad trajectory of my avant-garde movie theater, the shift of its clientele from beret-wearing intellectuals to raincoat-wearing sad sacks who’d prefer to sit in a row by themselves. “Oh,” I said by way of concession, “I guess that already exists. And it’s terrible.”
Since then, this anecdote has been the iconic example when I (or someone else) has followed a thought down a rabbit hole, only to find that rabbit hole leading to a well-lit parking lot. (e.g., “You know what would be good? If you took rice and pressed it into some kind of cake.” “Oh, but that’s what rice cakes are.” etc.) I thought of it again recently when I put up the “Fiction” section of this website and was collecting links.
One of the stories there, “Word Problems,” was originally way more involved and complicated to write, because in the original version it had algebra in it. (The story’s formatted as a series of word problems, each ending with a question that you could, if you wanted to, solve.) I was never very good at algebra but when I was in college and thought semiotics was really amazing, I’d often drop simple equations into essays to bolster a point I was trying to make (generally for no good reason other than my inability to omit any idea I thought was cool). For example, in an essay on thrift shopping, I’d say that the thrill of hunting through the Salvation Army’s racks, z, was represented by xy=z, where x represented the odds of finding clothing that fit and y represented the odds of finding something that agreed with one’s personal style.
I ended up stripping all the algebra after having a friend who was then a PhD student in the sciences look at an earlier draft of the story. She checked the math for me, but noted that none of the stuff I was doing really required algebra; it would be just as simple to write the different sections as arithmetic questions.
Anyway, my weird predilection towards algebra has come back to me over the last few weeks, as I’ve been proofreading economics papers. For myself and a lot of the people I work with, most of whom (like me) have no training in economics, the knock on these papers is that they are often fascinating when you read the abstract, and start through the introduction (which will often include some pithy quote, quite frequently not from the world of economics at all), but then there’s an equation, and then another one, followed by a lengthy proof, all of these featuring Greek symbols, sub- and super-scripts, brackets and nested parentheses, etc., and it’s all over.
As I’ve mentioned before, economics can be fascinating in its application of scientific discipline and methods to everyday subjects and/or to subjects of great practical value. The paper that stirred these thoughts in me had to do with college selection and the implications of high school seniors applying early admission. It was a new phenomenon for me to (mostly) understand the text of the paper many pages in. But, again, the math threw me off. There were many equations that reminded me of my thrift-shopping equation above, but I had no access point to really get what they were expressing.
The upshot is that I had that same flash of recognition that I got when my friend asked, “You mean like a porn theater?” except, I guess, this time in reverse. I thought of my efforts in “Word Problems” and those amateur semiotic analyses and what I thought my equations could lend to the text, what they could transform it into, and I had to acknowledge that that nebulous thing I wanted these pieces to be was already out there, dense and esoteric and, more often than not, boring as hell.