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> The Modern Form

The Modern Form


Now, with that background, I think it will finally make sense if I tell you straight out what de-sentimentalization is.

De-sentimentalization is a way of transferring sentimental value from original objects that might be large and bulky into a single archive that's small and convenient (the senti-journal) so that the original objects can be disposed of without too much loss.

That definition doesn't tell you what the way actually is, but I think that's fine, since I already told you everything I know about it in the previous essay. You just look at each object and do one or more of the following, as appropriate.

  1. Describe it in words, to whatever level of detail.
  2. Draw a sketch of it.
  3. If the object is flat, cut out and attach the important part(s).
  4. Take a picture of it.

Back when I was doing a lot of de-sentimentalization, I found it convenient to assemble the necessary tools and materials into a toolkit that I kept in a little black gym bag. Here's what it ended up containing.

  1. A ball-point pen or two. I used pencils at first out of habit, but the lead tended to smear and get all over my writing hand. Pencils were better for drawing since I could erase, but it wasn't a big deal since I wasn't trying to create art, just capture the essences of things. If you do use pencils, you'll also want to include a sharpener and eraser.
  2. Some loose-leaf paper.
  3. A clipboard to write on. I liked to sit on the floor to de-sentimentalize since it gave me a huge space to work in, but as a result I did need a dedicated writing surface. I like to sit on the floor in general, actually, but that's another story.
  4. Some file folders.
  5. A ruler to measure things with.
  6. A pair of scissors.
  7. Scotch tape. Whenever the roll got close to running out, I'd buy another and keep it in the kit as a spare.
  8. A stapler and a box of staples. I happened to have a tiny little mini-stapler that used No. 10 staples, but of course that's not critical.
  9. A staple remover. I didn't need it all the time, but it was very handy when I was going through my old papers.
  10. A film camera, plus a flash and some extra film.

I kept a hole punch in the toolkit for a while when I was using three-ring binders, but I took it back out when I switched to file folders.

Another thing the definition above doesn't tell you is why de-sentimentalization works, but I think that's fine too, since the question is totally academic. I know empirically that it does work, and in fact I've tuned it by trial and error so that it works pretty well, so what do I care what the reason is? Nevertheless, here are two reasons I've thought of.

First, de-sentimentalization works because sentimental value can be transferred. As I said at the end of Classification of Functions, if an object produces a particular sentiment, that's not a mystery, it's just a function that the object has, and one can create other things that have the same function. Usually the best way to do that is to capture the essence of the original object, but in theory it's also possible to produce the desired sentiment directly.

In other words, objects with sentimental value are fungible. I only mention that because the words “fungible” and “function” have the same Latin root! (It's “fungor”, “I perform”.)

Second, de-sentimentalization works because it has ceremonial aspects that provide some comfort. The time it takes to de-sentimentalize lets one feel one is showing respect to the old familiar objects, while the activity itself is mind-numbing in a positive sense; both effects make it easier to throw the objects away. The same concept showed up in the last bullet point at the end of Other Approaches, by the way.

Now let me go back to my classification of functions and ask a question: are there any functions besides sentimental function that can be transferred? Aesthetic function seems like the best candidate, so let's look at that. What would de-aestheticization look like? Well, it would have to involve taking a collection of large, bulky objects with aesthetic value and converting them into some smaller and more convenient form … so, perhaps a museum curator digitizing a whole collection? That's not quite right, though, because a curator would surely also have some sentimental attachment to the works. So, perhaps an outside contractor paid to digitize the collection? Yep!

Would the same approach work for de-sentimentalization? If instead of spending my time going through my old stuff I could have just shipped it all off to some company to digitize, would I have done it? It sounds appealing, but I think in the end I wouldn't have, because of a few troublesome details. For one thing, even in my imagination it would have cost a fortune! For another, in spite of the advanced state of information technology, digital information still doesn't have the reassuring solidity and permanence of a physical object. Also I would have worried about the quality, or, if that were somehow guaranteed, I would have worried that without my memories around for reference, some important aspects might have gotten lost. One other point that I'll come back to later on is that the output of de-sentimentalization is actually superior to complete information about the original objects.

Anyway, although digitization isn't a perfect substitute for de-sentimentalization, the two are tantalizingly close in concept.

To finish up, I'd like to go back and continue the train of thought from points 5 and 8 in the previous essay. Because there are things that are hard to describe, I started drawing; and because there are things that are hard to draw (and hard to describe, and not flat), I started taking pictures; but aren't there also things that are hard to capture well in a picture? Of course there are! Anything that moves or changes or makes noise is difficult: a fire crackling in a fireplace, a thunderstorm, water splashing in a creek. I even ran into a few examples when I was cleaning my room: a kaleidoscope, an Easter toy with a spinning metal egg, I forget what else.

I know the solution to that problem, making movies, but I've never used it … it's overkill, it takes more technology than I want to deal with, and anyway it's hardly ever needed for the kinds of objects I tend to have. And, even if I did use it, guess what? There are things that are hard to capture in a movie, too. Think of a piece of fabric with a particular texture, or an old book with a particular smell, or the heat of a car that's been left out in the sun, or the humidity of Houston in the summertime, or even just the sense of space and presence that you get from being able to move from place to place and look around in any direction you want.

Is there a solution to that problem? I don't think so. Sometimes there's just no substitute for direct experience. Movies are not reality, pictures are not reality, and certainly words are not reality; see also The Nameless.

Fortunately, that fundamental problem doesn't have much impact on de-sentimentalization. When I'm doing that, I don't need to capture the complete essence of an object, just enough of it to remind me of whatever memory the object itself already reminds me of. And, as I said, for the kinds of objects I tend to have, a picture is almost always good enough. The problem does have some impact on journaling, though. When I'm doing that, I might be trying to capture something that I don't already have a permanent memory of, some shining moment that I wish I could remember exactly as it happened. But, sadly, nothing is ever quite the same as the original experience.


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@ August (2010)