Tracing as trivial pursuit: Inverness, Collection Point B, 1.44pm, 7 August 1997
February 3, 2013 1 Comment
“Always look at the whole: what that thing is that gives you such an impression, and undo it, distinguishing it into its cause, its matter, its point, the time within which it must come to a stop.”
Roman Emperor and Stoic Philosopher
Meditations (c180AD) xii.18
A postcard from somewhere I’ve never been
I’ve never been to Inverness and have no particular reason to think that I will ever go there. No doubt it has its charms – as all coastal towns do – but it means nothing to me, and I have next to no knowledge of it. It’s somewhere in Scotland, on the east coast, and quite northerly. People live there. They are much like me. And they have an Argos, or at least they did one lunchtime in 1997.
Thursday, 7th August 1997 was a long day. In Inverness the sun rose at 5.25am that morning and would not set until 9.19pm. During the 15 hours, 53 minutes and 19 seconds of daylight, the then oldest man in Britain died, Princess Diana started her holiday with Dodi Fayed and a sudden movement of an insufficiently tethered consignment of 16 pallets of denim en route to the Dominican Republic caused a DC-8-61F cargo plane to crash land during its lunchtime takeoff at Miami airport. In its frantic descent the out of control plane narrowly missed a Budweiser Distribution Facility and finally came to rest in the car park of a local shopping mall, destroying 26 cars in the ensuing fireball.
Meanwhile, back in Inverness, amongst a plethora of other non-newsworthy events that day, someone, for some reason, purchased a copy of the Trivial Pursuit game at 1.44pm in the city’s own local mall.
I know this because I have the receipt. I found it Sellotaped to the inside face of the game’s upper lid when I pulled open the box to play that same copy last weekend. This essay is about the ways in which I have tried to understand the odd feelings that struck me as I unexpectedly came across this small document, lying dormant inside ‘my’ game’s box.
In writing this essay I’m fully aware that this artefact is but one of millions of its kind generated each year. It has no special qualities other than that circumstances have combined to provoke me to subject this iteration of this everyday thing to greater scrutiny that it usually warrants.
Ian Bogost, writing of his take on object oriented ontology, calls for the practice of ‘ontography’, an endeavour in which the action and constitution of objects (and their relationship with other objects) is charted, or more specifically conjectured. As Bogost (2012) puts it, the aim should be to write:
“the speculative fictions of [objects’] processes, of their unit operations. Our job is to get our hands dirty with grease, juice, gunpowder and gypsum. Our job is to go where everyone has gone before, but where few have bothered to linger”
So, in what follows I offer up some speculative fictions for this humble Argos receipt. Trying to linger longer than convention dictates that I should, giving it more attention than it ‘deserves’ and seeing what I come up with. This involves applying different perspectives, scales and genres – none any more important or determinative than any other.
‘There are Eight million stories in the Naked City’
She perhaps stood at the brink of the Eastgate Shopping Centre and waited for many minutes before stepping forth across the threshold. The sun was bright in the street and her eyes adjusted slowly as she went inside. She had been to the bank and withdrawn her savings, carrying the money in a folded up newspaper that she had hurriedly purchased for that purpose. Entering Argos a few moments later she found a quiet corner of the shop floor, extracted two crisp £20 notes from the bundle and joined the queue to place her order. She’d found out a few days before just how much this game would cost (£37.99) and she still found it hard to accept that that really could be true, but it was, and she wanted the best for her son. And the best was this set of 4800 answers.
At 1.44pm precisely she paid up and then shuffled into position, at Collection Point B standing at a position midway between the bulbous display monitor hanging from the ceiling, and the collection counter. After a few moments her number flashed, on the fat dull green and black CRT screen. She then collected her purchase and quietly left the shop. The fresh faced assistant at the counter had put the receipt in the bag. The number 72 bus then took her home, and once there she took the receipt and the box out from the bag and laid them on the dining table. With the edge of a pen lid she then scored a line across the cellophane, cautiously unwrapped and opened the box before carefully fixing the receipt into the underside of the lid. Then she reassembled the package, covering it in Simpsons themed wrap and attached a modest gift tag, written with the words “To Kevin, with love forever, your Mum (I’m sorry)” on top, slightly off-centre so as not to occlude any of Bart’s faces. She then placed the gift on the table and walked out of the family home for the last time.
‘To a hammer everything looks like a nail’ (Bogost 2012)
The rubber soles paused at the transition from warm paving slab to the cooler ceramic floor tiles within the shopping centre. Then, with a cautious step to adjust for differential traction, those soles shuffled onward and into the hardy microfibre caress of the store. Here enfolded paper was unfurled, leaves loosening their grip on each other, yielding individual slips of exquisitely ink printed watermarked and silver-slither stitched parchment. These were then presented through an invisible downdraft column of mechanically chilled air by a cantilever of sweaty palm-flesh, and quickly ushered onward into the still air darkness of a smooth plastic cash drawer, held taught there by its stainless steel retention spring. Then chug-whir, a spool spun deep within the till in obedience to the command of an electro-mechanical jolt. Ink was sprayed in regimented dance, an array of dots building up line by line as the paper spewed up into the cavernous room. Then, rip. Cellulose fibres cleanly severed by internal blade. A receipt was born. An arm movement then scooped the paper slip upward, transferring it to another, more clammy hand which then – moving in an approximate arc – transited to the statically charged air hanging stale beneath the cathode ray tube, and its phosphorous glow. Here a moment of local stillness, amidst a sea of sound and movement. Presently a box rode down a rubber incline, slid across a smooth white surface, was briefly raised up by another fleshy crane and then tumbled into the spangle shaded caressing walls of a plastic bag where it nestled snugly, pinned between the inner wall of the bag and the cellophane wrapper of the box. The surfaces embraced in mutual congress as the rubber soles move back out into the street, to the grey metal pole with the characters ‘bus stop’ affixed at its skyward end, and thereafter via the added frisson of a bumpy bus ride, to a flat wooden plain upon which cellophane was then flayed from glossed cardboard. The box was opened. Air was exchanged and the receipt was adhered to the cardboard, where it then sat in ageless darkness, shielded against ultraviolent light and oxidation for 16 years before suddenly encountering daylight again.
Whether they realise it or not, our unnamed shopper and her receipt met in a rich – but invisible – symbolic realm that shaped the form, existence and experience of the street, the shop, the commodity and the act of exchange that day. 1.44pm: a creation of the Summer Time Act 1916. 7 August: the legacy of Augustus and the Roman insertion of summer months. 1997: a Christian inheritance. VAT number. 30 day returns policy. Scottish bank notes. Bus deregulation. Sanitation services. Anti-slip mats. Building Regulations. Risk assessment. Pension funds. Planning permission. Street Litter Control Zones. CCTV. The Producer Responsibility (Packaging Waste) Regulations 1997, Total Quality Management, The Shops, Offices & Railway Premises Act 1963, British Standards, The Consumer Credit Act 1974. The list could go on, for many pages…
‘Beam me up Scotty’
What struck me most as I opened the box last weekend was how that receipt gave me precise co-ordinates in both time and space. All that was missing was a time machine. If I had one the receipt would give me a fix on an event that I had no part in. Travelling there (and then) in my blue box I could materialise Doctor Who-like at the moment of ‘my’ Trivial Pursuit’s purchase, and follow its purchaser home and witness it’s ‘box-fresh’ unveiling. That idea then got me thinking about all the unknowns about ‘my’ game’s provenance, all the events, material processes and elements in circulation, before, during and after 1:44pm on 7 August 1997. It made the world seem both big and small. Particularly as I conjectured the circumstances in which ‘my’ iteration of this product had somehow thereafter found its way South, and presented itself for purchase in a Sheffield charity shop. It had then lain unopened in my attic for a few more years, until remembered by happenstance last weekend.
What will be the final destination of this thing? Could we ever account for all of its stations, or for all of the layers at which its story and context could be read? The answer is a simple ‘no’. And speculation is probably as close as we can get to making any selection from the multitudinous layers meaningful in human terms. The best I can do is invent narratives and/or material or symbolic contexts each within which to somehow ground and know this slip of paper.
The difficulty of the exercise is that this mundane occurrence, lacks identity as an event. Effort has to be applied to make it noteworthy, and in the doing so something necessarily gets superimposed; colour and/or order are added. As Highmore (2011) puts the difficulty (in the course of his persuasive search for an aesthetics of the ordinary):
“But when there is no remark to be made, no event to be marked out, then where would you possibly start, and where could you possibly end, in giving an account of the ordinary?”
At an earlier point in his book he helpfully invokes Michel de Certeau’s notion of a “science of singularity” – case study method by another name – and points to fiction as creating a space in which attention can linger on features of the everyday which would otherwise fall “through the cracks between disciplines”. Again he invokes de Certeau who saw fiction, and its scope for creating “indexes of particulars”, as a haven of representational space for the:
“everyday virtuosities that science doesn’t know what to do with and which become the signatures, easily recognised by readers, of everyone’s micro-stories.” (de Certeau 1984: 70).
The vignettes above tried to sketch some of the micro-stories (or unit-operations – take your pick of the term you prefer) of the unknown shopper, the surfaces and the abstract systems brought together in the everyday event of buying a board game. In spirit I had Georges Perec in mind, and also the children’s fiction of Alan Arhlberg’s Gaskitt Family stories, like The Man Who Wore All His Clothes. Perec and Arhlberg both present an overabundance of incidental detail, and in doing so cause the density of the everyday world to tumble into view. Objects step forward centre stage, silent processes are heard, lives, bodies and surfaces interact and the chaos and approximation of perception and communication are laid bare.
But does the attempt to narrate or otherwise spotlight these sub-events actually bring them into view? The irony is that, as I look back, pulling this piece together has rather worked to erase the odd feeling of poignancy that struck me when I first encountered the receipt last week. Opening the box let daylight in. Given enough time that daylight would erase the ink and also work to destroy the cellulose bonds within the paper itself. Left long enough the receipt would pass onward from illegibility to deterioration to dust. And, so too as I subject this slip of paper to excessive attention its hinted specialness fades in the neon light of familiarity. It recedes back into the background, where it and most things probably belong and/or are condemned to sit.
Ahlberg, A. (2001) The Man Who Wore All His Clothes, Walker Books: London.
Bogost, I. (2011) Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing, University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis.
Cockpit Voice Recorder Database (n.d.) ‘7 August 1997 – Fine Air 101’ http://www.tailstrike.com/070897.htm
de Certeau, M. (1984) The Practice of Everyday Life, University of California Press: London.
Highmore, B. (2011) Ordinary Lives – studies in the everyday, Routledge: London.
Perec, G. (1978) Life – A User’s Manual, Random House: London
Photograph: Eastegate Shopping Centre’s Noah’s Ark clock – hourly the automaton monkey climbs the Giraffe’s neck and strikes the bell: http://farm9.staticflickr.com/8452/8057396826_355d361c41_z.jpg