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Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Structure, History, and Culture (1)—Packing the Car

[a] Civic structure RF
I am determined to start with something relatively simple as I begin these "Structure, History, and Culture" posts. There is no better place to begin than the introduction to the series, but here are the very basic ideas (if you find this to be simple, you either have a background in Sahlinsian structuralism or are not paying attention). We "negotiate" structures all of the time—and all kinds of them—physical, intellectual, cultural, and beyond. Each time we interact with a structure, we make choices. There is a great deal of individual choice in these matters. These choices result in an event—a particular set of choices intersecting one or more structures. Once that particular event is over, it is history. The particular negotiations of structure accumulate over time and become culturally recognized ways of negotiating those structures. 

I like to say that we are structure-negotiating animals. If you learn to think this way, it will change your life and ways of thinking...about everything.
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[b] Heaping RF
Let's start small. But where? I thought about the ways I negotiate the structures of a cup of coffee, a bowl of cereal, or a liter of soda. The key at this point is to cement these ideas so that we can grow them in ever-more-complex situations. Have you ever left too little room in your coffee for cream and sugar? Do you even worry about that, since maybe you would never put cream and/or sugar in your coffee? Have you ever had your cereal spill out of a too-full bowl? Structure, history, and culture.

I am getting ready to drive to the District of Columbia, something I do quite often these days. So I got to thinking. Packing the ol' Honda Civic is an exercise in negotiating structures. It is just complicated enough to keep attention through this post, just immediate enough to feature several specific examples, and just common enough to make you recognize these structural negotiations for what they are.

Let's begin with what should be obvious. No "free will" is involved in packing a car. Much though I would like to blink twice...or pray...and have it packed, the reality is that I must negotiate the structures of the car at every point until I am ready for the fifteen-hour trip. While a 1968 Chevy Impala would be far more forgiving of my materiél, it still presents structures to be negotiated. That the trunk of that Impala looks like a high school gymnasium compared to the Civic does not change the fact that I must position items within the structure. 
[c] Choice RF

Got it? Then let's start packing.

To begin, I travel with books and bikes. Other than several human and feline relationships in my life, these are my most treasured things...and you can't put your bike in the front seat—not even of that 1968 Chevy Impala. So I pop the trunk of the Honda Civic. I'm taking my mountain bike this time. How shall I negotiate this structure? The bike won't fit, and I have decided not to put it on the roof or the back of the car. Note that word: "decide." You see, I get to decide. It would "fit" on the roof (one way or another) or the back of the car (one way or another). I choose not to use those options. The structure permits, but does not demand, that I choose in one way or another. I want the bike in the trunk. Period. No determinism here. It's about individual choice. My choice.

And structure. Well, a big, knobby-tired mountain bike won't fit in the Honda Civic trunk with both wheels on, no matter how puffed up I might be about my ability to choose. Off goes the front wheel. Nope. Off goes the back wheel (one needs to know how to reassemble structures if one is to go this route). In slides the frame...barely. Now I have to do something with the wheels. I position them over the bike and admire my work. The mountain bike is in the trunk.

[d] I only ride inside RF
I can also see that there is not much room left. The bike and the wheels occupy the bulk of the trunk. There is no chance anymore that a suitcase will fit back there, and certainly not a big box of books. What kind of negotiations of structure (choices of what to do within the constraints) will I make now? I am not willing to take the bike out. I want it there, and there goes the trunk—more or less.

I decide to put a big box of books on the back seat behind the passenger seat. There is still room for a small box of note paper, markers, and other office supplies directly behind the passenger seat on the floor. I have my limits, though. I choose not to stuff the small available space underneath the two bucket seats up front. A lot of gadgets could fit under there, but my cultural background tells me that the space is, well, less than optimal—a world I associate with chewed gum, shoe-bottom detritus, and fossilized Cheetos. Nope. Not there.

Space remains. Since I will be traveling solo, I have the entire passenger seat and the back seat on the driver's side. That's where my suitcase and computer bag are going. The CDs to which I will listen (Montaigne's Complete Essays on this trip), my MapQuest or GoogleMaps directions, and assorted sustenance (a container of almonds): all of these go on the passenger seat. I have decided not to overuse that front-space structure, having experienced far too many apartment moves that had me driving with a box corner stuck into my shoulder. Never again. Too dangerous.

O.k. The car is packed now. There is a bike in the trunk, a box of books and a suitcase on the back seat, supplies and my computer bag on the floor behind the bucket seats, nothing under the seats, and assorted media (most importantly maps) on the passenger seat. I have just a few more things to mention. First, have you ever noticed the way that a car or van can be "packed," but more things just keep on accumulating right up until you leave?

[e] One approach RF
Forgot the shaving kit or cosmetic bag? Where does it go? In the trunk. Huh? The bike's in there. Yes, the bike is in there, but there is a whole bunch of room in, around, and under it. Do I need to toss in a bottle of shampoo and some bars of soap (I'll be gone for a while). Put them in the trunk—just don't get anything greasy. Yup, this particular structural negotiation has a relatively clean bike but one (this is quite common) with a chain. It is so common that bikes all have them. And there is no such thing as clean grease. Still, the space is tempting, and things like shampoo bottles and other little sundries fit back there. They fill the space the same way that sand goes into a jar full of rocks—between and around. Beautiful. If it gets greasy, there is always Goo Gone. On the other hand, I wouldn't put fabric of any kind back there. Lots of space remains, and a whole bunch of last-minute stuff will fit, so long as it is small (like an alarm clock) and relatively sturdy. Nook and cranny stuff.

There is one more bit of structured space left in this equation. An enormous amount of room remains in the back seat and rear window. You know what I mean. Admit it. You may well have (once or twice) packed a car so fully that you couldn't see out the windows. Never again for me, I say, and hope that I don't have to test my resolve. Not being able to see is, um, not optimal. Loose matter near the rear window can also turn into missiles (the physics is simple but scary).
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[f] Neat (no bike) RF
Now I have a fully-packed car. Throughout the process I negotiated the structures of a Honda Civic. I had a great deal of choice in the matter. I am taking the bike with me. I am not putting things under the bucket seats. I am only packing the back seat about two-feet high, with nothing loose at window level. These are choices, my friends, choices. No one made me make them. They're all about me and my free-choosing will...

...except for the fact that these same choices were structured from start-to-finish. I negotiated the structures of the Honda Civic in every single decision I made, including wedging the big box of books through the tight rear door. It fit. What would I have done if it didn't? I won't go into all of the possibilities, but they, too, would have been negotiations of structure. On the other hand, imagine negotiating the structures of a full-size pickup truck. Everything would be different—but still structural.

In this case, the Honda Civic provided the various structures. My choices constitute the event that we might call "Rob's Car Packing March 13, 2012." Now that it is done, that event (the particular negotiation of structure that is today's packing) is history. It is an event in the past. Finally, we have culture. You will have noticed a thread throughout this post that emphasizes packing it in, but with relatively little danger—or at least substantially reduced danger. The casual observer may say "That's Rob; he has a fully-developed frontal cortex, and he thinks twice (or thrice) about these matters—he's a careful guy." Is that it, though? Is it "Rob" and my "personality" or is it a much larger cultural strain that I tap into in my own thinking about this particular negotiation of structure?
[g] Vintage structure RF

Packing a car is cultural, and so is driving it. I will soon be negotiating the structures of the open road. Negotiating the car's structures (relatively unforgiving, as in the case of a small trunk) is the easy part. Next (check back later this week) I will tell about negotiating the structures of Ohio's speed limit (sixty-five miles per hour). Seventy should be no problem, right?

Don't be so sure. See you later this week.

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