The Laboratorium
July 2002

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I went to the place today (1). I don't have much to say that hasn't already been said, but I would like to chime in on what should be done with the site.

It's wrenching as it is, and I think it ought to stay that way.

I don't mean the earth movers and the exposed parking decks and roadbed. I mean an enormous hole in the ground, so wide and so deep it makes you shudder for a moment (3).

I envision a park on the site, at the bottom of the seven-story pit. The walls are surfaced with rough granite, in which the names of those who died are carved, and over which ivy will eventually grow (4). The footprints of the two towers are reflecting pools; next to each stands a single spire, designed to look like the ornamental facade of the lower floors of the towers. You could fit a small and quiet museum in there, too.

All these details are inconsequential. What matters is the preservation of the hole, the symbolic emptiness. Better than new high-rises or a shopping mall. It's the chance to rework a void into a place of peace and beauty and life. First you experience the gap; then you notice that it is green and alive, that life continues even in the presence of great loss.

(1) Conventional usage has assigned this place a capitalized proper name -- G Z -- but I refuse to use it.

First, the term is aggrandizing, exceptionalistic. Lots of tragedies have Gs Z, but Americans have appropriated a generic military term and applied it to the entire site on which the World Trade Center formerly stood, in much the same way that another generic military term became the standard name for a particular amphibious invasion in northern France. Picking one unique referent implicitly denigrates all others (and besides, if I had to pick just one, I'd pick Hiroshima).

Second, it's sloppy language. Pictures of Gs Z typically show destruction, raw earth, smouldering fires. By back-propagation, the term gets applied to anythihg matching that description. But the phrase is more precise than that; my dictionary refers specifically to a nuclear weapon in its definition. Sloppy language leads to sloppy thinking; look at how any conversation about "terrorism" seems inevitably to end up stuck fast in a semantic tarpit.

And third, it's dehumanizing. I've come almost to like the use of "9 11" and "September Eleventh" as metonyms [2] for the events of that awful day. They're evasive, but they wear their evasiveness so openly that they obscure nothing by it. And because they're empty shells, without preexisting semantic implications, they've come to carry exactly the emotional freight that we've been pouring into them. Not like G* Z*, which is sterile and militarized. Trying to speaking movingly about G Z is like speaking erotically about the retroglandular sulcus or the urogenital diaphragm: you can do it if you're serious about it, but your words are working against you.

(2) Look it up! I did, and I learned several neat things from the experience.

(3) The hole was never anyone's intent, which may be why I think it works. Something this tragic defies direct thought; you have to back your way into contemplating it.

(4) A quick back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that there would be about ten square meters per name. Not enough that the names will all be legible from everywhere on the site, but enough to make them startlingly massive and enduring.


Seattle-area Lab readers may remember Pistil Books from Pike Street. Pistil was a used book store, by no means the best in town, but for its size, quite impressive. After I moved to Capitol Hill, I would wander down there every so often and browse the shelves. I found some great stuff, too, things I hadn't even known existed until I saw them and had to have them.

Then, last April, Pistil closed down. This was, of course, my fault. Or, more properly, the fault of people like me. Young techies and other folks with solid jobs and good money, chasing culture like flames chasing moths. Pistil never stood a chance against the gentrification. Nine-to-five bohemians need their regional-chain coffee shops and their simulacra street culture. The genuine article can't compete.

Well, it's been a while, but I thought of Pistil today. Taco Bell is running a new commercial, and while my usual state of mind during commercials is an irritated disgust, the Bell managed to rouse me into a state of active indigation.

The ad is called "Chef Wars," and it's an Iron Chef parody. I first heard of Iron Chef about two and a half years ago, which is a pretty good lead time, as such things go, but it still hurts. Iron Chef is no longer a piece of elite culture I can discuss with my culturally elite friends; now it's just a piece of context for a fast food-like-substance commercial. Somewhere in there, when I wasn't paying quite enough attention, I slid down a step on the Great Chain of Coolness.

I think of staying hip as an exercise in running up the down escalator. It doesn't really matter if you're talking about TV shows or computer hardare, literary non-fiction or Indonesian ska; the process is the same. Pay attention to what's happening, cultivate the right connections: if you do your legwork, you get a leg up on everyone else. The higher up you get, the higher you get, the more lead time you have on trends.

So I'm a few steps below the friends who told me about Iron Chef way back when; they'd seen it at off hours on the Food Network,

Irrational Thoughts

If diets are impaired primarily by irrational thoughts, then the prime remedy must be to change how people think. This suggests that what Third World women need most is to be educated about scientific principles of nutrition. But if practical reason already prevails, what they need most is a rise in their family's disposable income. Anthropologists Kathleen Dewalt and Gretl Pelto make this point in their study of a rural Mexican village. They concluded that the quickest way to get dramatic improvements in nutritional standards is to increase the resources poor families have to work with. I would only add that the slowest way to get people to eat better is to tell them what they ought to eat when they can't afford what they ought to eat.

-- Marvin Harris