Last year, I was obsessed (or at least very interested) in Philip K. Dick and his view of the material world and archaeology. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, he introduces the word “kipple” to describe the proliferation of useless objects that reproduce in the absence of human presence. For Dick, kipple was the side-effect of useful actions that produced useless objects. Opening a stick of gum produced the useless gum wrappers, reading a newspaper produced a day old newspaper, and drinking milk produced an empty milk carton.
Nicholson Baker offers a different perspective on kipple. In The Mezzanine, Baker details a single moment in the life of the narrator as he as ascends the escalator to his mezzanine level office after his lunch break. The narrator contemplates his varied intersection with people, but more importantly objects which led him to be ascending the escalator with a small bag containing shoelaces purchased at a nearby CVS.
For the narrator, the inaction with objects proceeded along three lines – and these lines more or less echo how archaeology of the contemporary world (and perhaps all archaeology?) engages with objects. For Baker, some objects are merely functional. For example, his broken shoelace (and the one that had broken two days before), demonstrate the relentless pressure of consistently and repeated actions. These actions are not specifically or narrowly defined. For example, it remained unclear whether the shoelace broke because of how the narrator tied his shoes or how the shoe was designed and flexed during walking. Objects in the narrator’s life likewise seem both to resist and to accommodate human interaction from vending machines to drinking straws, and the affordances offered by these objects, in due course, shape human actions. At one point the narrator contemplates whether there was a quantifiable way to understand how his two laces broke within a day or two of each other. Elsewhere, he considers the periodicity of thoughts to determine how frequently he would need to think about a particular things or topic for it to be “often” or “rarely.” The idea of quantifying regular actions is hardly foreign to archaeologists.
There are also objects that have greater ritual significance for Baker. While these objects are indistinguishable from other every day objects, they nevertheless carry special significance for the narrator. For example, the narrator’s tie evoked his father’s tie collection draped over the door knobs in his childhood home. The narrator’s shoes reminded him that his parents bought him those shoes before his first day at work. Ritualized acts from tying his tie to lacing his shoes let loose a stream of memories that connected him with his childhood and other individuals. In another passage, the narrator contemplates the little rituals associated with riding the escalator from the technical character of the escalator itself to how you place your foot when you step onto it. The connection between objects, routine acts, and specific memories mark the intersection of ritual and the mundane objects of the contemporary world.
The narrator’s ride up the escalator (and his long meditation on the escalator and on every day life in his office) provides a compelling context for his reflection on objects. The narrator recognizes this, of course, and the mundane character of the act of riding the escalator to a middle class job provides a backdrop to his reflections on the nature of things. At one point the narrator notices how even the messy hulk of a trash truck barreling down the highway has particular beauty when set against the blue sky. The rusted form of a railroad spike takes on a different meaning and appearance when set on the swept floor of a garage.
Baker’s work reminded me of the importance of context, ritual, and routine in the material world of contemporary society. The mundane and banal world of everyday, “office life” of the narrator is no less materially rich and significant than ritual life of the premodern world or places set aside for our engagement with the sacred.