Citizenship Ceremony

This week, I was lucky enough to witness a US naturalization ceremony. I worried that the ceremony would fall prey to our basest, most jingoistic, tendencies and become yet another opportunity for breathless patriotism. 

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In the end, this wasn’t the case. There was some patriotism, as one might expect for the occasion: a lovely version of the national anthem, an appropriately positive message from the President, and the saying of the oath of citizenship. The presiding judge communicated a sense of joy for the occasion and celebrated the diversity of the group and their potential to contribute to their communities.

In short, it was nice. More than that, it felt authentic. Even the somewhat lackadaisical reciting of the pledge of allegiance (which felt particularly empty at a ceremony where people will be asked to recite the oath of citizenship) felt appropriately sincere (in its ambivalence).

I’m sure someone less invested in the moment (my wife was becoming a US citizen) might  see the ceremony in a more cynical way or observe how the trappings of nationalism seem somewhat obsolete (or even pernicious) in a world faced with genuinely global challenges. That said, despite the overheated rhetoric favored by the political classes, this ceremony was really … (wait for it)… pleasant and joyful.

It’s hard to believe such things are possible in our day-in-age, but apparently there is hope.

Midcentury Housing in Grand Forks (A Final, Final Report)

As summer comes to a close (a few trees are recognizing the shorter days and starting to hint at their early fall transformations), I’m trying to wrap up a few projects. Yesterday, I posted an almost final draft of my paper on Cyprus in the Long Late Antiquity

Today, I wanted to post the very much final version (actually the version that we submitted to the state) of our windshield survey of mid-century housing in Grand Forks, ND. My colleague, Cindy Prescott, once quipped that it was possible to understand the history of 20th-century housing in the US (or at least the Midwest) by driving from downtown Grand Forks to the south. This is indeed the case with each successive neighborhood containing slightly later material, architecture, styles, and arrangements. 

The report was co-authored with Susan Caraher who is Grand Forks’s Historical Preservation Commission Administrator. I’m pretty happy with how it turned out, although I think there’s a good bit more to be done with the data that we’ve collected. 

You can download the report here

Domesticity and Hi-Fi Living

I’m totally enamored with J. Borgerson’s and J. Schroeder’s Designed for Hi-Fi Living: The Vinyl LP in Midcentury America (2017) published by MIT Press. The book explores the remarkable world of album covers from the 1950s and 1960s not from the heights of pop music (which was still dominated by 45 rpm singles), but from more offbeat and intriguing perspective of the newly introduce long-playing record. The book is lavishly illustrated in color and the authors present the album covers as a catalogue organized according two broad themes of “Home” and “Away.” The former includes album covers that feature home life including the joys of listening to music in a domestic retreat, and the latter features the covers of albums that offer to fill the house with foreign ambiance or to transport the listener the exotic locations.   

Borgerson’s and Schroeder’s most interesting observations center on the aspirational domesticity illustrated by these album covers. The home spaces are filled with musicians or listeners perched on Eames chairs in modernist, minimalist surroundings. The cover of Ornette Coleman’s iconic Free Jazz (1960) even featured art by Jackson Pollock. The album covers grouped into the “Away” category in this book depicted foreign places relying on a series of recognizable tropes to bring the romance, exoticism, or adventure of international travel to suburban living room. At the dawn of the jet age, these images did more than offer a glimpse of exotic “other” places outside the grasp the ordinary middle class family and reflected the shrinking of the world where it was now possible to travel to Europe, Cuba, Asia, or even domestic destinations such as, the newest state, Hawaii or bustling urbanism New York City. The albums, their cover, and the music, served as a guides to the new tourism of the jet age, and allowed for it to be (re)experienced at home.

As someone who loves hi-fi sound, I recognized that some of the aspirational character of these album covers goes beyond their ability to convey the neatly arranged space of the modern home or evoke the potential of travel and extended to the very idea that mass-produced recorded music was available on demand at home. The growth of radio made music available in the home or office, but the listener remained subject to the whims of the radio station and was always aware (for better and for worse) of being part of a listening public. The home hi-fi allowed a listener to create a private soundtrack for their world, and this likewise worked to redefine music and the home stereo as a way of capturing the otherwise public experiences of performed music. The privatizing of the public experience strikes me as a key element in our middle class dream. The promises of “Full Frequency Stereophonic Sound,” “Living Stereo,” “360 Sound,” and “Living Presence” from the long-playing record demonstrates that record companies understood that listeners aspired to the fidelity of living performances in their homes. 

I was also intrigued by the depiction of record players and turntables throughout the book. With few exceptions, the turntable was a understated device usually set off center in the album cover art. There were no wires powering the turntable (or any other electrical devices on the covers) and despite the claims of stereophonic sound, album covers never showed the two speakers necessary to reproduce the full effects of stereo recording. The turntable was a low-key and unobtrusive element of the neatly modernist home that could be hidden away in its cabinet until called upon to transport the listener.

This contrasts significantly with the contemporary vinyl revival which has produced turntables that are designed for their owners to display in their homes as a marker of their sophisticated taste in music and audio gear (exemplified by the recent interest in turntables by lifestyle brands like Shinola). While amplifiers, speakers, and the other gear required for the true high fidelity experience remain a delightful mishmash of industrial utility and modern design sensibility, the turntable has set itself apart, as an opportunity to display audio sophistication. The rituals surrounding turn table use (and to be clear, I’m not a vinyl guy), their design, and the required equipment encroach upon the clean minimalism of the 1950s and 1960s album covers and introduce a muddle, functional aesthetic to domestic space that makes obvious the tools required to translate the public experience to the home. Unlike the understated, almost magical, reproduction of performed music evoked in 1950s and 1960s album art, the 21st century stereo demonstrates the visual mastery of arcane, complex, and sophisticated technologies. If the space and design of the modern home sought to produce a subtle, domestic retreat open to both men and women, the 21st century stereo embodies a crass, functional, and messy masculinity.

The covers reproduced in this book reminded me that you can hide the cables, the racks of LPs, and even the turntable, but the hi-fi experience was never quite as austere and tidy as album covers displayed, and there was something very contemporary about the particular tension between aspiration and reality. The  clean modernity of the technology present in our contemporary mobile phones, laptop computers, and stainless steel appliances, can never quite hide the messy tangle of cables, skills, and rituals designed for its mastery. Despite the neat potential of this aspiration domesticity, the recent vinyl resurgence reminds us that people still want to demonstrate technical proficiency in controlling their world.