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Robert Grudin Introduces his New Manuscript, Design as Truth


What Designs Can Tell Us about our World and Ourselves

by Robert Grudin (rgrudin@gmail.com)

Represented by Writers House; to be published by Yale University Press, spring, 2010

An Introduction to Robert Grudin's Work-in-Progress

Design as Truth: What Designs Can Tell Us about our World and Ourselves is a work in the spirit of Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens: a comprehensive reassessment of a key cultural theme. Robert Grudin’s thesis, that “good design tells the truth,” introduces an original and wide-ranging exploration of design, considering fields as diverse as sports, psychology, politics, economics and self-knowledge. He dwells not only on famous designs like St. Peter’s Cathedral and the World Trade Center, but on the role of design in the achievement of ceremonial designer Sen no Rikyu, designer/historian Giorgio Vasari, statesman Thomas Jefferson, economist Friedrich von Hayek and psychiatrist Judith Herman. Grudin’s multifarious approach to design is unified by a project of empowerment: “to take design from the grip of pundits and corporations and put it back in the hands of the individual.” A wealth of insight from the history of ideas combines with the latest research to make Design as Truth a compelling read. Design as Truth is the fifth in Robert Grudin’s series of books on human liberty. A Pulitzer nominee both in nonfiction and fiction, Grudin has held fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities. His Time and the Art of Living and The Grace of Great Things racked up impressive sales and remain popular on the Internet. His novel, Book, was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year; a second novel, The Most Amazing Thing, was a finalist for the Ben Franklin Award. His speaking and consulting venues include Microsoft Research, the MacArthur Foundation, Harvard University, the Herman Miller Corporation and the Foresight Institute. In 1992 he keynoted the International Design Conference in Aspen, and since then has been well known in the design community. In 2006 he founded Cleanairdesign.com (http://www.cleanairdesign.com-a.googlepages.com/),

the Web's most powerful resource on air quality issues.



(doubleclick on images to enlarge)


"Because our designs convey solid meaning, and because they interface between us and the world, they must tell us the truth about the world and tell the world the truth about us. A well-designed hoe speaks the truth to the ground that it breaks and, conversely, tells us the truth about the ground. Something similar can be said about any product of invention, be it mechanical, like a car, or intellectual, like a speech. Good design enables honest and effective engagement with the world. Conversely, poor design is almost always symptomatic of a fraudulent and exploitative strategy of production. Accordingly design, our greatest friend, can also be our worst enemy. Science and technology, those potent and proud designs, have hugely expanded the human presence on earth but have, in the bargain, grossly distorted the balance of nature."



Perhaps this is the best lesson we can learn from Deux Chevaux, Norton and Edsel. Good design tells the truth. What it packages and advertises is what it unequivocally delivers. My Norton motorcycle told the truth with its solid feel and graceful lines; it delivered the truth when it saved me from serious injury that summer night in Paris. The Norton proved without question that its design was not just about pleasure and power and beauty but also about the well-being of its driver...
From Galsworthy and Chandler we may infer that good design speaks to us, not just of particulars, but of more general truths as well. Design arbitrates, almost completely, our interface with life. Our clothes, tools, dwellings and conveyances are products of design; our language itself is a conspicuously designed technology. Good design ensures that this interface is effective and personal and complete. In John Heskett’s words, a well-designed artifact is an extension of our senses. Good design allows for an honest dialogue with the world at large. Good design tells us that, though the world at large may be challenging and dangerous, there are solid means of engaging it. And beyond this, good design speaks to us of the quality and joy of the engagement. -Chapter 2



In so doing [Minoru]Yamasaki ran into the ground a form of architectural rhetoric that had long saved the skyscraper from ignominy. The skyscraper, tall, slim and handsome, had taken on a quasi-heroic role as an attempt to negotiate between us as individuals and an ever-increasing impingement of machine, masonry and masses of people. The skyscraper invited us to rise above the otherwise crushing power of mass interactions. In this way the skyscraper became part of a rhetoric of socialization. There is no question that Cass Gilbert's neo-gothic Woolworth Building (1913), or Raymond Hood’s art deco RCA Building (1933), or the van der Rohe-Johnson high-modern Seagram Building (1958) is artful enough to soften the impact of the corporate world on the individual. The problem lies only in the extent to which, as onlookers and participants, we can suspend our disbelief. Yamasaki simply built too big. He exceeded the endurable ratio of mass to character. Without meaning to, he drew the rhetorical curtain away, laying bare, behind the blandishments of masonry, the operations of faceless power. America can accept power as a fact of life but refuses, from time to time, to defer to power automatically. This distaste for power would seem to explain, if only in part, the widespread criticism of the Twin Towers as an architectural statement.

-Chapter 4

Dust-choked computers. Top-heavy fridges. Quirky interiors. These instances all suggest that when a producer loses sight of rational use or insists on a narrow priority, bad things happen to design. Call this Edsel’s Law. A more positive way of stating this law is that good design imposes its own priorities, and that these are primary and unalienable. What are these priorities? A product of good design

Is in accord with nature and human nature
Is in harmony with its immediate environment
Conveys a sense of beauty
Gives pleasure to use
Is not unreasonably expensive
Is sustainable
Offers no unnecessary difficulties or dangers
Allows its user to perform optimally in engaging reality
Can be delivered, installed and repaired conveniently

No other priorities should be considered until all of these have been met, and priorities that threaten these are probably bad priorities in the first place.

-Chapter 5


The comparison of Churchill to Hitler [as painters] is highly suggestive. Hitler’s landscape is a testament to control: the control of architecture over nature, of walls over human beings, of vertical over horizontal and (perhaps) of the teachers who had taught him not to deviate from linear accuracy. Churchill’s landscape is a nuanced expression of joy, the statement of one who, at ease with society and at home with art, can indulge himself in a testament to nature. Could it be completely coincidental that such an artist should also be the most prominent defender of liberty in the 20th century?
There is also a sharp contrast in attitudes towards power. Hitler’s ‘landscape’ is a testament to men’s power over nature and over each other. Churchill’s landscape bespeaks the lively power of nature and the potential harmony between natural and man-made forms.As with artistic form, so with artistic temperament. For Churchill, painting was a delightful escape from work. But Hitler’s art could not escape the prison that was Hitler’s mind.

-Chapter 6


I had a dog who once, for one brief shining moment, became a member of the design community. A Samoyed pup named Max, bred near the main stem of the Willamette River, southeast of Eugene, Oregon. A frolicsome puff of white fur who at the time was all of four months old. Weekday mornings during that fall of 1973, my wife and I would trek off to work, locking Max in the back yard that we had just fenced with cedar. Because we knew that he’d get bored, we left him a few old toys to play with – colorful little items including a rubber duck and three painted building blocks. One sunny afternoon we returned home to an amazing sight. Max had scraped out a yard-long opening under the cedar fence, pushed his toys out through the opening until the toys were visible from the sidewalk, and arranged them, equidistant from each other, like items in a shop window, in an apparent effort to attract playmates. The scene was topped off by Max’s snout, thrust out as far as possible through the opening into the midst of his own toy arrangement, its black tip glistening with excitement.

I ’ve seen dogs who were trained to perform much more impressive tricks, but nobody had trained Max to take up advertising and display. His genius came and went with puppydom. In later years he was content to be a sedate fatherly companion, or soft comfy pillow, for little boys.
It is quite possible that childhood plays a similar role in human psychology: that as children we feel less uncomfortable about reinventing our private worlds.

-Chapter 7

In 1524 the reading public of Rome was variously outraged, stunned and delighted by the worst scandal in the then-brief history of printed art. Poet Pietro Aretino and artist Giulio Romano had teamed up with engraver Marc Antonio Raimondi to produce I Modi (“The Ways [of doing it]), a graphic catalogue of sexual positions, with each image accompanied by a naughty sonnet. I Modi became simultaneously a bestseller and a rare book, for the Vatican was destroying every copy it could get its hands on. Raimondi was duly clapped in jail. Aretino tried to shift the blame onto Giulio, who developed a sudden yen for points remote. Before year’s end he had moved to Mantua and entered the service of Marquis (later Duke) Federico Gonzaga, that city’s lord. Federico was not appalled by Giulio’s scandal. In fact, the Marquis would exploit precisely those liberties of genius that had gotten Giulio into hot water in the first place.

-Chapter 9

Introduction and Sample Chapter

Design and Culture:
What Designs Can Tell Us about our World and Ourselves

by Robert Grudin

Copyright © 2008 by Robert Grudin Table of Contents
Part One: HOMAGE TO RIKYU: Design, Truth and Power............8
1-Introduction: Sen no Rikyu and the Paradox of Innovation....9
2- Good Design Tells the Truth......................13
3- What Design and Truth Say about Each Other.......30
4- Design as Tragedy: The Rise and Fall of the Twin Towers.........37
5- Edsel’s Law: How Bad Design Happens................................54
6-Designs of Darkness......65
7-Face to Face with Design......73

Part two: HOMAGE TO VASARI: Design, Knowledge and Energy........................95
8-Introduction: Giorgio Vasari and the Permutations of Design..................96
9- The Lady in the Picture: Design and Revelation in Renaissance Art...100
10-In Jefferson’s Footsteps: Modes of Self-design........118
11- Jefferson’s Gravestone: Metaphorical Extensions of Design.....130
12-Designs of Liberty.......147
13-Corporate Redesign ad the Business of Knowledge........164
14- Houses of Time.......181
15-The Shape of Private Knowledge.....194
16-Epilogue: Designing Truth........................209
Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones. The intellectual activity that produces material artifacts is no different fundamentally from the one that prescribes remedies for a sick patient or the one that devises a new sales plan for a company or a social welfare policy for a state.
-Herbert Simon

Design is an idea whose shape alters with the breadth of our own perspective. Writ small, design is a professional specialty practiced by experts in virtually every field of production. Writ large, design is the foundation of human activity and the focus of all creative attention. From this broader purview, the history of design – of our voluntary redisposition of our environs and means – is the history of the virtue we call humanity.
Design shapes, regulates and channels energy, thereby empowering forces which might otherwise be spent chaotically. In the design of a house, the energy to be shaped and channeled is that of the air and light that run through the halls and windows and rooms, and of the people who dwell there. In the design of a car, the energy is the power train and passengers. In the design of a formula or a work of art, the energy is meaning.
Designs, of course, have meanings of their own. Every realized design is a module of embodied knowledge, and much of this knowledge is readily translatable into words. Dress designs and car designs are seen as making “statements”; regional architectural styles are often called “vernacular”. These meanings can intensify or suppress the energy that design shapes and channels. Design can sing out the essence of energy, as with the Jaguar XKE (1961-68), or ignore this essence in an exploitative quest for mass market appeal, as with the Ford Edsel (1958-60). Such variations occur because design communicates between creativity and economics. The energy field created by a given design is situated in the larger energy field that is the marketplace.
Its location in the marketplace gives design a profoundly moral character. At one end of the ethical spectrum, design can be a Muse; at the other, a prostitute. Narratives in this book will consider both extremes:

In 1525 Federico Gonzaga, ruler of Mantua, instructed artist Giulio Romano to build and decorate a palace just outside of town on a marsh called Te (Ch. 9). Federico allowed Giulio’s extravagant imagination free play. Giulio and his men labored eight years. In the end he produced an astonishing work of art, a palace full of variety and surprise but true to a singular esthetic image. His work remains a tribute to Renaissance imagination and vision.

In 1962 the New York City Port Authority hired architect Minoru Yamasaki to build a world trade center (Ch. 4). Yamasaki, after elaborate research and review, presented a proposal for a large architectural complex that would gracefully complement the existing skyline of Lower Manhattan. The Port Authority trashed this proposal and demanded something twice as big. Yamasaki complied, and the result was a twinned colossus that insulted the skyline, posed safety hazards and offended fundamentalist Islam. In 2001, with catastrophic loss of life, his work was destroyed by a fanatic.

Design waits on the quality of its political milieu. In an enlightened marketplace, good design reigns paramount; in a debased marketplace, design is either dismissed entirely or rudely contorted – sometimes into monstrous form.
But the marketplace, indeed politics itself, is subject to design. National constitutions are not normally spoken of as designs, but in fact they are blueprints that sculpt the character of large populations and channel human energies in specific directions. The US Constitution is the design equivalent of the Jaguar XKE and the Palazzo Te: it liberates human energies and maximizes human options. The laws and bylaws of Hitler’s Germany were more like the Ford Edsel: they trapped the human will in ungainly applications and monolithic paradigms. Something similar can be said about works of art and literature, as well as about the various designs of corporations and foundations. To a significant extent, it is these embodied concepts – call them knowledge designs – that inspire or suppress the energies of a given culture.
Overarching even these are the energies and designs of nature, so magnificent that billions of people still believe them to be the work of a Great Designer. Though overwhelming evidence speaks against this theory, the cosmic order is so dazzling as to inspire reverence in and of itself. In its enormous variety and incessant bursts of wisdom, nature has inspired countless human designers. Nature, moreover, tests our own designs and often files a boisterous complaint when they are not up to speed.
It is the psychological and moral power of design, however, that will concern me most dramatically here. For all its potential sophistication, there is something primal and essential about the act of design, as though, more than any other act, it brings us in touch with our own nature. Design is so fundamentally human that the human being has been called homo faber (man the builder), a phrase implying that no historical influence will ever alienate us from the meticulous process of refitting our world. Design, moreover, is a primary medium of human liberty, in the sense that we must either design our own lives or subject our character to the designs of others.
To this extent, the practice of design, however humble its objectives, can be liberating and renewing. My own simple design of a repair kit for broken TV remotes, and the way this design liberated me from helpless anger, will serve as an example of the healing power of design in a world of perplexed and frustrated consumers. More seriously, we will visit the achievement of Sen no Rikyu, who designed a social medium that brought his nation into the modern world, the testimony of Giorgio Vasari, who gave us the first modern theory of design, and the life and work of Thomas Jefferson, who brought a designer’s perspective to much of what he touched. These examples and others will speak to the value of design as a functioning attitude, a modus operandi that allows individuals to engage life meaningfully and to readdress personal and professional issues with a new sense of their own freedom. Thus my broader purpose in this study is to wrest design from the possessive grip of corporations and to return it, insofar as possible, to the hands of the individual.
There is, finally, the relationship between design and truth. Because our designs convey solid meaning, and because they interface between us and the world, they must tell us the truth about the world and tell the world the truth about us. A well-designed hoe speaks the truth to the ground that it breaks and, conversely, tells us the truth about the ground. Something similar can be said about any product of invention, be it mechanical, like a car, or intellectual, like a speech. Good design enables honest and effective engagement with the world. Conversely, poor design is symptomatic either of inadequate insight or of a fraudulent and exploitative strategy of production. If good design tells the truth, poor design is a lie: a lie usually related, in one way or another, to the acquisition or abuse of power.
This study is in two parts. Part One (“Design, Truth and Power”) will dwell on design under the stresses of the real-world marketplace and will test the premise that “good design tells the truth.” Part Two (“Design, Knowledge and Energy”) will explore the effects of design on psychological and social dynamics. To do this I will test the relevance of design principles in areas of human activity where they are not normally applied. Beginning with the psychology of art and ranging more and more freely, these meditations will conclude by focusing on what is perhaps the most intimate aspect of design, the way in which we design our mental worlds. Part One:
Design, Truth and Power

Chapter 1
Introduction: Rikyu and the Paradox of Innovation
Design cannot is best appreciated when it is associated with innovation and invention. An Italian bicycle designer, who tweaks a contour in the classic celeste Bianchi frame, is less an object of design attention than a Gary Fisher, who resurrects a mid-century street drone and morphs it into the mountain bike. But innovation carries its special perils. The vested interests that finance designs are chronically conflicted. They are simultaneously ravenous for more profit and terrified about losing the sales that they already have. This inner conflict usually results in an ambiguous, passive-aggressive attitude towards designers, and often produces a market dishonesty that presents stale, dull and tired concepts, like the Ford Edsel, as novelties devoutly to be wished.
Hence designers must be wary, not only of not doing well enough, but of doing too well for their own good.
This paradox grows more striking with the scope and profundity of the innovation. After the 16th-century warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-98) had established control over the bulk of Japan, he asked the celebrated Sen-no Rikyu to join his court at Seikenji. Rikyu (1522-91) was the acknowledged master of the Japanese tea ceremony and was already known for design innovations that would turn the ritual into an intrinsically modern medium of communication. Rikyu accepted the invitation, but did not show up at Hideyoshi’s palace at the hour agreed on. When he finally appeared, Hideyoshi testily asked him what had made him so late. Rikyu answered that he had been drinking tea. This unceremonious response was too much for the already-peeved warlord. He snatched up the master’s favorite tea ladle and snapped it in half. Rikyu’s bamboo ladle had belonged to his favorite teacher. It symbolized to him the understated eloquence that was wabi-cha. For Hideyoshi, on the other hand, the ladle symbolized something else: the feeble power of a subject who must be taught that he was under regal control.
The rift between the two men would soon widen. Rikyu’s commitment to creating, in the tea ceremony, a culture of simplicity, equality and integrity clashed with Hideyoshi’s passion for a ceremony rich in the accouterments of power: ornament, display and social inequality. Rikyu’s fame and influence, moreover, became a threat to Hideyoshi’s confidence. One day in the spring of 1591, the autocrat demanded that the designer commit suicide. Rikyu had no choice but to obey.
Design is the purest exercise of human skill. To add a new instrument or process to the design treasury is to engage in the force of evolving nature. Each new design is a new discovery, conveying a specific truth about the human relationship to nature. Rikyu’s designs would exert enormous influence after his death. By redesigning the tea ceremony, he created a social avenue of truth: an interpersonal medium where the exchange of useful knowledge could proceed simply and lucidly, without interference from extraneous influences like social rank. Rikyu expressed the meaning of this knowledge-based innovation in his own haiku:

Sometimes a person may feel embarrassed to ask questions.
That embarrassment should be set aside and questions asked.

Rikyu’s reform of the tea ceremony established a cultural matrix that would bring his nation into the modern world. But unfortunately Rikyu’s creative power did not translate into political influence. For all his greatness of spirit, he was at the mercy of a jealous warlord. He could not, except perhaps by martyrdom, engrave his message onto the face of the world around him. The same irony applies to almost all designers. However grand their aspirations, they wait upon the will of people in power. And power, which can ratify the truth of good design, can conversely debase design into a fabric of lies.
The following chapters of Part One will set forth, on the macro and micro levels, the essential interactions between design and power, besides meditating on the special forms of truth and power that inhere in the act of design itself.

Chapter 2
Good Design Tells the Truth Compare the two following views, each expressed by a famous modern designer:

To drink water from a waxed paper cup on the highway and to drink it from a crystal goblet are different gestures. In the first case, you almost forget that you exist as you drink. In the second … you realize that you have in your hands an instrument that makes you reflect upon how you are living at that moment.
-Ettore Sottsass

Probably the most widely recognized of all the Eames furniture designs, the Eames lounge chair occupies a favored place in thousands of living rooms, studies, libraries, and dens - as well as in the permanent collection of New York's Museum of Modern Art. Charles Eames's aspirations for the chair were less lofty. He wanted it to have "the warm receptive look of a well used first baseman's mitt."
-Furniture advertisement

These two views represent opposed polarities in the theory and practice of design. For Ettore Sottsass, design must make a statement that lends excitement and dignity to that implement's use. For Charles Eames, a design is defined and dignified by use itself. Sottsass privileges form over function, while Eames implies that expressed functionality is the purest sort of form. Though the form/function issue may seem at first academic, its applications can produce dramatic consequences, especially when the design involved is an expression of public policy.
Designs Collide in Paris. One balmy summer night in Paris, many years ago, I motorcycled with a passenger through the short tunnel in the north wing of the Palais du Louvre and onto the Place du Carousel. I was in the fast lane, doing about 30. I leaned into a left turn and instantaneously got a close-up view of the rear end of a car – stopped dead in my lane. There was no time to swerve, brake or pray.
I was lucky. As the bike slammed into the car, the handlebar took on the role of impact absorber, twisting grotesquely in my hands and slowing my forward motion enough to prevent fractures. I was doubly fortunate in that the light metal of the car bent as my knees and knuckles hit it.
Another design feature of the car turned out luckily as well. My passenger, Jim Breasted, had taken flight at impact, hurtling over my back, rolling over the roof of the car and subsiding on the pavement in front. A competition skier, he knew how to take falls. He was momentarily dazed but otherwise unhurt. The car’s fabric roof, light metal and rounded front-to-back design had cushioned his impact.
Of course these results were all accidental: felicitous breaks in what could have been a nasty wreck. But a third surprising result was no accident at all. The car was totaled. My front wheel rim had penetrated to the car’s frame and bent it irreparably, then bounced back without so much as a flat tire.
Why was this no accident? Consider the two vehicles. The motorcycle in question was a 1956 Norton Dominator 99, prince of British bikes. It was solidly built and finely balanced. Its aerodynamic design whispered of a clear day, an empty road and the rush of air. The Dominator had made such a splash in the world of design that French President Charles de Gaulle ordered at least a dozen of them for his guard of honor (Fig. 1). The car in question was a Citroën Deux Chevaux (2 CV, Fig. 2). It was the French equivalent of a VW bug, but so ungainly that it made the bug look like a De Lorean by comparison. The Deux Chevaux was built of light components for marketability and economy. Performance, comfort, beauty and security were not its design priorities. The Deux Chevaux had never been crash-tested; it just looked that way.
The violent encounter of Dominator with Deux Chevaux was thus a symbolic meeting between two primary players in the form-function dynamic that characterizes all design. The Deux Chevaux exemplifies the hegemony of function over form: the subjection of all design priorities to the idea of cheap and trusty transportation. Other instances of emphatic functionality include Levittown and other low-price housing developments, military and other instititutional technologies, and most hand tools. The Norton, on the other hand, was a marriage of form and function: a synthesis in which graceful design suggested superb functionality and in fact contributed to it. Other miscellaneous examples of this happy blend include the Toyota Prius, the Taconic State Parkway, the original Casio G-Shock wrist watch and, last but not least, the Parisian baguette.
But what of the missing extreme, the tyranny of form over function? To find a good example of this, we may look to the oft-cited but still helpful example of the Ford Edsel. In 1958 the Ford Motor Company, wishing to compete for a share of the market between its mid-priced Mercury and its high-priced Lincoln, had introduced the Edsel. What motivated the Edsel’s design was Ford’s perceived need to make a big splash that would improve sales. Ford might have done so successfully by stealing a page from the book of European manufacturers who made comfortable cars that performed ably. Instead Ford decided to stretch Detroit’s penchant for mass-market battleships to its limits.
The 1958 Edsel, as one source put it, appeared in two sizes, “big and bigger.” The larger version weighed over two tons, much of which was made up by a giant body that seemed to hang loosely on a more compact frame (Fig. 3). From the side, it looked like an ersatz space vehicle. Its rear end was dominated by gull wing brake lights so huge that they parodied their own usefulness. The front end resembled a female body part with headlights.
The design of the Edsel, like that of so many American cars of its time, sent two distinct messages. The first message was that, in the American fantasy world of Hollywood, I Love Lucy and the Hit Parade, function is irrelevant. Roads were made to be tamed, not felt, and driving should feel as little like driving as it possibly can (the car came with optional pushbutton gears). The second message was that the American consumer’s idea of formal beauty is less an image of relevance to life as lived than an adolescent dream of material excess and arrogant power. You’ll never be able to afford a palace, but you can sure drive around in one. Messages of this sort kept the pots boiling in Detroit back then and to a large extent still do now.
But apparently people both inside and outside of Ford felt that the Edsel had pushed the design envelope too far. Ford vice president Robert McNamara had no great love for the Edsel division and offered little support. Sales were never robust, and by 1959 dealers themselves were opting out. Ford sold its last Edsel in 1960, the year that Norton Dominator met Deux Chevaux.
Deux Chevaux, Dominator, Edsel. Of these three design phenomena it is Edsel that should concern us most seriously. Deux Chevaux effects are easy enough to understand; they can be linked to basic survival strategies. The study of Dominator effects goes at least as far back to the days of architect Louis Sullivan, who wrote in 1896 that form follows function. This principle has become intrinsic to the study of design. But the Edsel, complete with its anatomically-suggestive grille, sits sphinxlike and unexamined. Why do people overdesign when good design is cheaper to build, cheaper to buy and more sustainable? Let us begin with a simple working hypothesis: If design is itself a medium of social interactions, overdesign is a symptom of interactions that are dysfunctional. And if, as is generally acknowledged, design is a kind of rhetoric, overdesign is a opportunistic abuse of rhetoric in the application of some form of power.
The Edsel itself offers substantial support for this hypothesis. During the mid-1950's, when the Edsel was under development, cars and drivers loomed even larger in the American economy than they do in the early 21st century. Advertising campaigns and a barrage of creature comforts had convinced most American consumers that big was beautiful, and the production of large money-eating and gas-guzzling cars was turning handsome profits. Detroit overdesigned because overdesign was a cash cow. True, the Edsel was a bridge too far, but even so it points to the corporate greed that flaunted safety, sound engineering, economy, beauty and good taste during Detroit’s era of hegemony in the American car market. Although the Edsel was anything but a fictional vehicle, it was nonetheless an example of fictive marketing: a quest for sales based on the inflation and distortion of the national sense of self.
Overdesign and Public Policy. Examples of architectural over-design suggest interesting parallels to the Edsel. The first is from Renaissance Rome and concerns the construction of the present St. Peter’s Basilica. Popes and architects had spent decades debating the design of the church, drawing and redrawing plans, building up and tearing down. Michelangelo, who took charge of the project in 1548, opted to adapt a design that had been submitted years before by the brilliant Donato Bramante (1444-1514). The plan called for a massive dome set atop a perfectly symmetrical building in the shape of a Greek cross (Fig. 4). In 1564 Michelangelo died with the church still under construction, and though his replacement della Porta labored to realize his plan, papal policy would change again. Pope Paul V (reigned 1605-21) decided that, in order to advertise Rome’s hegemony and papal power, he wanted to build the world’s biggest church. In 1606 he commissioned Carlo Moderna to add on the long nave that now faces the square. By the time of its dedication in 1626, Bramante and Michelangelo’s unique and graceful idea had been extended into a baroque barn whose sole symbolic purpose was to proclaim the centralized and overwhelming power of Rome and the pope (Fig. 5).
The story of St. Peter’s has theoretical import, because it suggests that when form is privileged emphatically enough, it can achieve a perverse functionality of its own. Here a church, nominally a place of worship, becomes an engine of temporal power. This idea of design as power was not lost on the Nazi architect Albert Speer (1905-81), who visited St. Peter’s shortly before embarking on what would have been his own most massive project, the Berlin “Hall of the People” (Halle des Volkes). This neo-Roman building, which was never completed and exists now only as a model (Fig. 6), would have contained a room large enough to hold four St. Peter’s Basilicas, with space to spare. Its dome, rising more than a thousand feet, would have been topped by a cupola – itself the size of St. Peter’s dome. Adolf Hitler (himself an artist fond of architectural studies) enthusiastically collaborated in the design process. After all, how could absolute power be rendered in more intimidating fashion than by a man-made mountain in the symbolic garb of ancient Rome? Hitler’s only worry was that Stalin might build something even bigger.
Which brings us back to Ettore Sottsass and Charles Eames. Sottsass is very much in the camp of Pope Paul V, Albert Speer and the Ford Motor Company. In characterizing form (the “crystal goblet”) as an overwhelming, even existential element of design, he is, willy-nilly, buying into the rhetoric of power. Thus he puts himself firmly in the tradition of ‘decorative’ design, which in its most extreme manifestation (the decorative sword and shield, the vases that hold nothing, the “show kitchens” built not to be used) is form without any function at all. Eames has a different form-function relationship in mind – one much along the lines of the Norton Dominator. In giving his chair “the warm receptive look of a well used first baseman's mitt,” he implies that form should be the honest advertisement of function – in fact, the communicative dimension of use itself. This does not mean that Eames has no regard for beauty. He simply understands that beauty in its highest expression develops as a statement of, or response to, the operations of nature.
Design as Cultural Hijacking: Pei, Christo, Gehry. In the Edsel, St. Peter’s Basilica and Speer’s Halle des Volkes, we have seen three instances of overdesign as a rhetoric of corporate or institutional power. Now let us turn to three designers who redefined public space in a way that belied its customary intention and instead drew attention to their own art.
A stranger walking into I. M. Pei’s addition to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, may well ask, “Very impressive, but who stole the collection?” The perplexing answer to this question is that Pei stole it himself, if only figuratively. His soaring design for the interior (Fig. 7) is so visually intrusive that it steals our attention from the relatively small collection of art works inside it. How can we characterize Pei’s architectural performance? Here the language of architecture is of less avail to us than the language of oratory. Designing a public building is, in effect, conveying a public message. In this case the message of Pei’s building – that museums are built to preserve art – is drowned out by the rhetoric.
Unless, of course, the rhetoric is a message in itself. Was Pei, late in life, designing his own personal monument? Was he implying the superiority of architecture to any art it might contain? In either case, or both, he has left us an image of form overreaching function.
It is somewhat easier to unpack a second example of artist-driven over-design, Christo’s installation of gates in Central Park, New York City, in 2005 (Fig. 8) Christo, a Bulgarian artist who discovered long ago that most public art is little more than a massive multiplication of banalities, apparently decided to exploit this fact with a sense of humor and Dadaist bravado. Representing himself as an avant-guard minimalist, he embarked on a series of extensive installations that repackaged public space. His operative principle, reminiscent of the literary theorist Jacques Derrida, is that art can deconstruct mental space and thus change the beholders’ image of their own existential location. But Christo’s Gates, like his other famous multiplications, are void of essential significance, leading only to each other. The design rhetoric of the Gates is an empty package. Their message would seem to be that space is meaningless, except in affording an artist the means for self-advertisement.
When we are faced with such aggressive and disingenuous assertions of design, approved by committees and laid as faits accomplis upon the communal doorstep, we sometimes can do little more than articulate an expression of pain. Alternatively we can convert such artsy pyrotechnics into objects of criticism or butts of satire. But these are essentially futile gestures, minor mishaps in the day of the cheerful monster that is Public Art. Occasionally, however, overdesign pushes so far beyond the form/function equilibrium that it runs afoul of the laws of nature. In such cases, retribution is swift and, refreshingly, public. A case in point involves the clever but chronically overdesigning architect, Frank Gehry:

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has sued the architect Frank Gehry and a construction company, claiming that “design and construction failures” in the institute’s $300 million Stata Center resulted in pervasive leaks, cracks and drainage problems that have required costly repairs.

The $300 million Stata Center opened to acclaim in 2004. M.I.T. says deficiencies there have required costly repairs [sic].

The center, which features angular sections that appear to be falling on top of one another, opened to great acclaim in the spring of 2004. Mr. Gehry once said that it “looks like a party of drunken robots got together to celebrate.”

Of course Mr. Gehry, in his own defense, might claim that his architectural opus (Fig. 9) was only doing its postmodern job: that it had not only seemed to be falling apart, but eventually succeeded in doing exactly that.
Good Design Tells the Truth. Readers may not agree with all of my conclusions regarding Paul V, Pei, Christo or Gehry. But nonetheless our evidence suggests that when over-design occurs, it signals some boondoggle of the public, either by corporate interests or by opportunistic, ‘designing’ designers. Even though we may disagree about individual cases, the Edsel Hypothesis seems to work.
And if the Edsel Hypothesis did not work, there would be cause for alarm. In treating design as a form of rhetoric, we must agree that it falls under the classic laws that apply to rhetorical interactions. Rhetorical interactions inhere in all social phenomena, including commerce, politics, war, religion and love. Even body language is a form of rhetoric. In all of these interactions, an overplus of rhetorical zeal is usually the first sign of manipulation and deception. Mass market advertising, campaign speeches, jingoism, evangelist tirades and seductive crooning all display the same link between excessive rhetoric and attempted exploitation. Indeed we are all so deep in spin that we sometimes forget that there is such a thing as truth and that people exist who are ready to tell it.
Perhaps this is the best lesson we can learn from Deux Chevaux, Norton and Edsel. Good design tells the truth. What it packages and advertises is what it unequivocally delivers. My Norton motorcycle told the truth with its solid feel and graceful lines; it delivered the truth when it saved me from serious injury that summer night in Paris. The Norton proved without question that its design was not just about pleasure and power and beauty but also about the well-being of its driver.
I sit at the keyboard of a computer designed in part by Jef Raskin, who compared good designers to good physicians. My office chair was co-designed by Bill Stumpf, who saw good design as part of a generalized civility that could renew the world. Behind it, facing the north windows of my study, is the lounge chair designed by Charles Eames. Raskin, Stumpf and Eames are all famous as original minds. But none of them could have achieved originality if he had not approached his tasks with simple candor. Good designers are truth-tellers, facilitators in the dialogic loop that allows us to comprehend and engage reality.
If good design tells us the truth, it would seem fair to ask what that truth is. One might respond casually that each design carries its own distinct message or set of messages: well-designed cars tell us the truth about driving, roads, destinations; well-designed houses speak truly of many matters relating to private and communal space. These honesties can affect us deeply and permanently. Here is novelist John Galsworthy remembering his childhood response to the sight of well-made footwear:

they were too beautiful – the pair of pumps, so inexpressibly slim, the patent leathers with cloth tops, making water come into one's mouth, the tall brown riding boots with marvelous sooty glow, as if, though new, they had been worn a hundred years. Those pairs could only have been made by one who saw before him the Soul of Boot--so truly were they prototypes incarnating the very spirit of all foot-gear.
Smitten with awe and something akin to love, the boy was forever altered. He developed not only a keen respect for art but a benchmark of quality against which he could judge all future things. Galsworthy might have titled his memoir ”Gessler’s Boots.” Instead he called it “Quality.”
A similar idea pops up at the opening of Raymond Chandler’s masterpiece, The Long Goodbye:

The first time I laid eyes on Terry Lennox he was drunk in a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith outside the terrace of The Dancers. The parking lot attendant had brought the car out and he was still holding the door open because Terry Lennox's left foot was still dangling outside, as if he had forgotten he had one… There was a girl beside him. Her hair was a lovely shade of dark red and she had a distant smile on her lips and over her shoulders she had a blue mink that almost made the Rolls-Royce look like just another automobile. It didn't quite. Nothing can.

For Chandler the Rolls is an image of quality in human interactions: an honesty, integrity and fidelity that will be tested in all the major characters throughout the novel.
From Galsworthy and Chandler we may infer that good design speaks to us, not just of particulars, but of more general truths as well. In a world where technology all but dominates our interface with reality, good design ensures that this interface is effective and personal and complete. In John Heskett’s words, a well-designed artifact is an extension of our senses. Good design allows for an honest dialogue with the world at large. Good design tells us that, though the world may be challenging and dangerous, there are solid means of engaging it. And beyond this, good design speaks to us of the quality and joy of the engagement.
An example of this truth and eloquence in action is the Polynesian pole house. These domestic structures are found in the Pacific tropics. Twenty or so heavy poles are set in the ground, and the house is built on them. Windows and doors are numerous and large, making it seem as though the house were a shrine to Earth’s two ranking deities, light and air. Every room has at least one doorway opening broadly to the garden or deck. The roof overhangs generously to protect from heat or rain. The cathedral ceilings are vented to allow hot air to escape. The house offers security yet invites activity. It spaciously welcomes human use yet extends itself into nature. It achieves human richness without show or expense. Its high ceilings radiate freedom and conjure up our daydreams, memories and aspirations. It speaks to us of what we are and what we want to be.
This attitude toward design is brought home by an anecdote told by designer Matt Taylor, himself a student of Frank Lloyd Wright:

During my time at Taliesin, I was able to talk to many owners of Usonians [a FLW term for the affordable houses he was building]. They talked about their environments with unreserved passion. It was from one, Mrs. Pew, that I learned the true secret of Mr. Wright’s genius and success. She described how at first she hated the house. She felt that Mr. Wright had not listened to her requirements but merely built what he wanted. She was, at the end of her second year living in it, ready to sell it and move on - at great financial sacrifice. She told me that she decided that she would give the house another year without struggling with it before she made up her mind. In that year, a transformation took place. She discovered that “Mr. Wright had not built a house for who I was” - but for “the person that I could become. It turned out that Mr. Wright had listened well and understood me very deeply.”

Good design is the material image of mental health. Design can reintegrate our character and fulfil our awareness. We follow good design in order to discover what is good in ourselves.
Another word about my faithful Norton Dominator “99.” Designed by Bert Hopwood and built at Norton’s Bracebridge St. works in Birmingham, the model remained current for several years, until it was replaced by the heftier Atlas, which itself would give way to the even higher-powered Commando. But what these later models gained in power, they lost in pure good manners. I have ridden several other well-known bikes, including the legendary Vincent, but none of them came close to the Dominator’s package of lightness, balance and verve. I remember days of sun-drenched windswept rapture as I toured alone on the country roads of France and England, the secluded villages, the pleasant stops and chats with ever-curious townspeople, the remarkable communion with the machine. One of the many signs of its sweetness was the day when I carried a young British hitchhiker all the way from the Channel into London and turned around to find her fast asleep. And it projected my excitement abroad, to bemused elders and to new friends, to fellow-students in Dublin and to total strangers in Wales, who, after an evening of beer and song, carried me onto the Dublin ferry. The Norton, which had already told me all about Europe, told me as well that finely built machines can reflect and amplify our humanity.
Such are the truths that design can convey. Overdesign, conversely, is a pack of lies. With the Edsel and its ilk, Detroit deceived Americans into believing that personal success and dignity were available only through arrogant display, environmental waste, pollution and poor performance. Pope Paul V, who threw out the original Bramante/Michelangelo design for St. Peter’s basilica, simply because he wanted to build the world’s biggest church, spawned the colossal lie that for religion (as some day it would be for motor cars) bigger is always better. Overdesign will always lie because it will always spring from a corrupted relationship between producer and consumer.
I should finish the Paris story. The Deux Chevaux in question was occupied by a young Parisian couple who had (as they later confessed to me) paused momentarily on the road to discuss whether or not to go to the opera. After the collision the young woman rushed from the car and found Jim Breasted in front of it, lying on his back. She sat down and cradled his head in her lap, and he awoke to see her face quite beautifully outlined against the stars. Soon the Paris police arrived, accompanied by an ambulance. Two officials stuffed the Norton into the ambulance, in which it fitted rather snugly, and drove off with it to points unknown. The others jailed me for driving without my passport. On my release I made for London. After a week’s recuperation at the home of a friend, I was ready to make more mischief. I returned to Paris, reclaimed my victorious Dominator and headed for my digs in Dublin. The bike drove perfectly, though its bent-down handlebars forced me into a kind of racing posture.
Jim Breasted lives near Aspen, where he still skis competitively and has been known to attend one of that town’s annual celebrations, the International Design Conference.



AMERICAN VULGAR: the Politics of Manipulation vs the Culture of Awareness


Foreword Magazine:

This author takes aim at everyone—the Bush administration, the everyday Americans who elected him, the corporate honchos, the media establishment, and academics. He puts America under a cultural microscope; and he does not like what he sees. But Grudin’s not merely a sage chronicler of vulgar times. Rather, he examines American culture and provides a breathtaking and insightful historical and philosophical interpretation of vulgarity.

Grudin’s preface lays the groundwork immediately by outlining how “A War and a Killing” exemplify American vulgarity. He examines how these two events [the Iraq War and the Laci Peterson murder case] were presented, how the media and related corporations capitalized on the fascination and voyeurism, and how Americans have doomed themselves to more of the same by being so predictably lucrative. And, he succinctly defines his most important operating ideas. As Grudin sees it, vulgarity is not simply any crude or coarse action; rather, “an action is vulgar when it is at once ignorant, harmful, and popular.” And, the opposite of vulgarity is “consciousness,” which he describes as “the ability to be alert to important things and literate in them.”

Grudin is well prepared for an exposition on American politics and culture. A professor of English until 1998 at the University of Oregon, he has published widely in scholarly circles, and has written essays and commentaries for the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. He is the author of a trilogy of philosophy books, including The Grace of Great Things, and recently released a novel titled Book, A Novel. He was a Guggenheim Fellow in 1992–93 and is the author of the Encyclopedia Britannica’s entry on “Humanities.”

While Grudin is tough in examining many facets of American vulgarity, he is especially hard on today’s politics, and points to the current administration of George W. Bush with frequency. Grudin does not ignore the complacency of the American public in this vulgar mix, either: “As Americans are free to elect their governments and express their views, so too are they free to indulge their own ignorance and enrich the clowns, quacks, and hucksters who help them do so.”

Grudin’s thoughts on liberal education are especially well considered and as such are compelling reading not just for academics, but for anyone concerned with the educational system in America. His idea of forming a national “Task Force in the Humanities” is thought-provoking for both the political junkie and the educationally-minded reader.

American Vulgar is a timely look at the effects of vulgarity on American society and provides a stimulating roadmap for recognizing and cultivating social consciousness as an antidote to vulgarity’s demeaning and dangerous effects.

California Bookwatch, Midwest Book Reviews


American Vulgar
Robert Grudin
Shoemaker & Hoard Publishers
1400 – 65th Street, Suite 250, Emeryville CA 94608
1593761023 $15.00 www.shoemakerhoard.com

American Vulgar: the Politics of Manipulation Versus the Culture of Awareness is a call to action against forces of corruption which has permeated American society from the top down. It argues that marketers, political candidates, the media and others have succeeded in diminishing American self-awareness to maximize power – and it identifies these forces and how to act against them. Vulgarity can be overcome, philosopher and academic scholar Robert Grudin maintains: but only if its nature is understood. Use AMERICAN VULGAR to understand this nature, and how it manipulates: high school to college-level students in particular will find AMERICAN VULGAR key to debates surrounding social and political issues and accountability.

San Diego Reader

American Vulgar: The Politics of Manipulation Versus the Culture of Awareness

By Jerry Miller
Published November 9, 2006

Robert Grudin By Robert Grudin

Shoemaker & Hoard, 2006, $15, 240 pages


Robert Grudin is what might be called a lyrical philosopher. From Time and the Art of Living (1982) to The Grace of Great Things (1990) and On Dialogue (1996), he has tackled the traditional subjects of classic philosophy -- time and self, permission and freedom, creativity and individuality, imagination and innovation -- with a beautiful prose style in work fueled by American pragmatism and metaphysical exploration. In his new book, Grudin identifies how easily misled individuals can be by a class of professional manipulators -- politicians, marketers and advertisers, media exploiters, and the like. He demonstrates the calculated effort to diminish and demean broad national awareness, cataloging how this group has managed, in fairly short order, this project of vulgarization. Illustrating its effects in several areas of common daily life, he shows how this dumbing-down of the electorate has bred an epidemic of self-destructive ignorance.

Grudin believes that only a rebirth of individual awareness can repair this damage and in this book sets about to explore the avenues renewed consciousness may take to save individuals from the death of mass vulgarity. Although American Vulgar paints a devastating portrait, it does not leave us without hope, offering several possibilities for repair and salvation.


Robert Grudin has published in philosophy ( Time and the Art of Living, The Grace of Great Things) , fiction (Book: A Novel ), and academic scholarship ( Mighty Opposites). A professor for years at the University of Oregon, he now lives with his wife in Hawai'i.


I began my conversation with Mr. Grudin by asking what he happened to be doing in Berkeley this fall. "I actually came here to promote my book. We have a house on Maui, where we've lived for the past five years. I knew that an unusual book like American Vulgar was going to take some effort on my part, so I put together a couple of tours through contacts that I've built over a number of years.""Will it be good to get back home to the warmth and sunshine?"

"It will, but I won't be back there until the spring. The only way we could get out of our house there was to rent it for six months. We have a lot of friends and family in Berkeley, so we'll be spending the winter here."

Mr. Grudin shared a bit of his background.

"I've been interested in writing since age five. When I was a kid I was wonderfully supported by my family, my teachers, and my peers. Except for a ten-year hiatus in my 20s, I've been devoted to creative writing throughout my life. But, writing could not be a career course for me in my 20s, so I came here to Berkeley and got a PhD in Literature. Then I worked as a lit professor at the University of Oregon through the '70s, '80s, and '90s.

"When I was about 40, in the late 1970s, I had gotten a promotion and tenure and a brief fellowship to the Huntington Library. One morning, sitting alone in the Huntington Gardens, it occurred to me that, for the rest of my life, no one could fire me. In other words, I had achieved total freedom of speech -- at least insofar as I wanted to exert it.

"My next thought was, 'Well, what would I do if I did what I most wanted to do?' The answer to that came pretty easily. I had always been interested in the concept of time and its effect on human liberty. Over the next year, I collected my own meditations on time and liberty and that was ultimately published as my first nonfiction book.

"One book led to another. Over the last six books, I've wandered here and there, but the whole idea of human liberty has always been central. I've explored issues in creativity and communications, and I've written a couple of novels -- one about a professor who expressed himself too freely and the other about a kind of superhero who tries to save the world.

"My most recent subject is vulgarity in America and the possible antidote to vulgarity, which is increased consciousness. We thought American Vulgar was a catchy title, but the book is really about consciousness."

For Mr. Grudin, time, creativity, dialogue, and consciousness are four aspects of freedom. The fifth, design, is the subject of his next book, which is already complete in manuscript. "You're a very busy man for someone who is supposedly retired."

"If you ever retire, you'll know that it is the time to focus your attention on something that's completely your own."

"What exactly do you mean when you use the word vulgar in your book?"

"Vulgarity needs three components: ignorance, popularity, and harm. It is fostered by people in corporations who make money from the degradation of popular taste." The fast-food industry exemplifies this notion for Mr. Grudin, but vulgarity can occur even in the most unlikely arenas.

"You can get very, very civilized -- even up on the level of NPR, and still be vulgar. NPR, like other media, has to look at the bottom line, and has limited time to explore topics. For example, when [TheDa Vinci Code author] Dan Brown was interviewed on NPR and asserted that he had thoroughly researched his topics in the Renaissance, he was immediately believed. Rather than someone from NPR fact-checking or calling up a Renaissance scholar, he was taken at his word. Brown's readers went home thinking how smart they were because they now knew something about the Renaissance."

I proffer that there remains comparatively little outcry against Brown's assertions. To which Mr. Grudin replies, "Only from the Church. Regarding Dan Brown and the Church, I don't care what happens. Let them fight it out."

"Brown [based his work on] a book called Holy Blood, Holy Grail, and that book was based on a hoax invented by some anti-Semites in France in the 19th Century. But, Brown referred to it as though it were historical gospel. Later on, when two of the authors of Holy Blood sued Dan Brown, they asserted that their work had been fiction. That was the only legalistic way they had to sue him. Even in the court case that he won, his scholarship was disproved."

"In your book you say something to the effect that learning isn't just a good career move. It's the last best hope for a decent life. How so?"

"It goes back to the early Renaissance humanists who realized that the world was not governed so much by god-given authority and popes and lords as it was governed by power relationships. They discovered that power relationships can be established in ways other than primogeniture and papal dispensation. One of the real sources of power that anyone can wield is in language. So they became orators. They studied poetics and rhetoric -- and they learned two enormous means to power and freedom. The first was eloquent expression, which obviously has to be based on honest knowledge. And the second was the ability to distinguish the truth from a lie when other people were talking to them.

"In the current century, we are all the beneficiaries of this humanistic tradition, which, earlier in the 20th Century, was grounded on the core curricula of history, literature, and, in particular, English composition.

"Currently, we are looking at the ruin -- literally the ruin -- of the very system that made us free. The mess we're in is caused by a combination of the rise of the fundamentalist right and the academic left's abdication of solid learning. These two forces gave each other strength. The fundamentalists are alienating the intellectuals more and more, and the academics' failure to really educate students is driving more and more people along fundamentalist paths."

"Looking across the country, are there glimmers of hope? Are there campuses on which good things are happening?"

"I like Reed very much. It did wonders for one of my sons, who is now finishing his PhD in a very sophisticated program. Then there's St. Johns. I don't know of a single large-scale school, though, that is trying to reform its programs.

"If I ever were to get access to money, I would sponsor an annual conference on the ins and outs of core curricula and their relationship to the humanities and to citizenship."

"In your chapter about the novel, you conclude that consciousness comes at a price, in that it separates us from 'the communal hearth.' To what extent do you feel yourself a 'stranger in a strange land' these days?"

"You know, I've always felt that way. I never really grooved in academia, although there were things about teaching literature that were incredibly joyful and seductive and that kept me going. I felt a degree of community during the '90s when the first four books of mine on liberty appeared in relatively short order. My kind of life, from a popular point of view, has always had its ups and downs, but I enjoy what I do."

I ask Mr. Grudin what keeps him going. "In many respects your book paints a pretty devastating and depressing picture, and yet in the end you say there's hope. In the face of so much evidence to the contrary, what sustains your optimism?"

"There are heroes that I mention throughout the book. These sustain me. People like Victor Klemperer, who decided, at the risk of his own life, to keep a record of the degradation of the Nazis during World War II. Or this guy in Washington named Banzhaf, who has devoted his life to fighting tobacco and fast-food corporations. Then there's the prosecutor, a woman, who resigned resoundingly when the Bush administration dropped tens of billions of dollars in damages that had been awarded in judgment against the tobacco companies."

With her emphasis on health and conservation and a menu rich in fresh vegetables, Berkeley restaurateur Alice Waters numbers among Grudin's heroes. For him the Chez Panisse phenomenon is a ray of hope. He writes that "Alice Waters did not set out to found a health-food restaurant, but it turned out that healthy foods tasted better than the alternatives, and she ran with the idea. As time passed, this idea became a message reverberating with innovative chefs everywhere and even inspired a new mode of education. The Chez Panisse story suggests that American markets can, indeed, wise up and that the most energetic and sustainable reform of industry can come from within industry itself."

Mr. Grudin ends our conversation by underscoring our need, as a nation, to become more deeply conscious of the forces that manipulate us. "I am thoroughly concerned, though. And I am not overly optimistic. That's why I wrote the book. That's why I use the word vulgar. We're not just being deceived; we're being turned into slaves." -- Jerry Miller

The Grace of Great Things



The Grace of Great Things is the second book in Robert Grudin's triptych of philosophical essays about the art of living. Here Grudin's focus is not so much on the mystery of where innovative genius comes from--though he has quite a bit to say about that knotty subject--as on the role that's played by large and small varieties of creativity in our everyday lives. Above all, he is determined to convince us that, even at the humblest level, creative labor is a key to happiness. --Richard Farr

From Publishers Weekly
Grudin stresses that creativity is heightened when tasks become emotional challenges. He views creativity as an offering to society--social in nature--rather than a solitary pursuit. The creative act demands openness, self-scrutiny and love of form and beauty, qualities that have ethical implications. Indeed, Grudin ( Time and the Art of Living ) asserts that creative people possess integrity, strength of character, a willingness to court insecurity and failure. While granting that democracy is probably friendlier to innovation than are other forms of society, he faults liberal intellectuals for their biases and blind-spots, e.g., an aversion to holistic thinking, pointing a finger also at the politics of scientific research, teachers who stifle creativity and, in contemporary poetry, "the puritanical prohibitions of modern free-verse style." Brimming with ideas, this exciting book forces us to consider the moral and psychological dimensions of creativity in a new light.

From Library Journal
According to Grudin (English, Univ. of Oregon), creativity is a radical act of freedom, a heroic process closely linked with beauty, integrity, power, and ethics. The author examines art, teaching, literature, philosophy, and related disciplines, looking at the process of innovation itself and using concise examples from the work of Plato, Rilke, F.L. Wright, etc. He argues that creative acts are not necessarily new but are most often the rediscovery of profound, ancient truths lost by societies in which liberals strive for the merely new and conservatives struggle to keep the status quo. A beautifully written book that is highly recommended.
- Terry McMaster, Utica Coll. of Syracuse Univ. Lib., N.Y.

Who Deconstructed Adam Snell? reviews of Book, a novel

By SVEN BIRKERTS; Published: September 6, 1992

BOOK A Novel. By Robert Grudin. 251 pp. New York: Random House. $19.

ONE of the principal contributions of the recent literary theory boom -- if it is a contribution -- has been the dethronement of the sovereignty of authorship and the revelation of the status of texts as unstable entities. Bearing this in mind, one could say that the prankishness of Robert Grudin's "Book: A Novel" begins with its title. "Book" is a solid Anglo-Saxon thump of a syllable, all dignity and durability. But no sooner do we crack the covers on this one than we find ourselves aswim in the waters of indeterminacy. I mean that "Book: A Novel" is, wittily and self-consciously, a text. And a text, as we know from Roland Barthes and others, is a tapestry (from the Latin textum, "a thing woven"), a decentered locus in which the author takes a back seat to the polymorphous play of language.

Mr. Grudin, who teaches English at the University of Oregon and is the author of two works of nonfiction, "The Grace of Great Things" and "Time and the Art of Living," has a field day not only with the idea of text but also with the various chic disciplines that generated it. He has, in essence, taken the genre of the academic satire -- a genre that includes, in addition to Kingsley Amis's "Lucky Jim" and Randall Jarrell's "Pictures From an Institution," the wonderful novels of David Lodge and Malcolm Bradbury -- and run it through the post-structuralist dicer. The narrative is prefaced, annotated, interrupted and, if I may coin a term, collagified; it comments on itself and talks back to itself. Against the high odds posed by so much artifice, it coheres as light comedy.

The plot premise is simple, and quite silly. Adam Snell, of the English department at the University of Washagon, has disappeared, has possibly been murdered. An isolated humanist in a nest of theoretical ninnies, Snell has done nothing to rile his colleagues, except to uphold a more traditional sort of pedagogy. And, yes, to have published some years before "Sovrana Sostrata," an aphoristic novel narrated by a freewheeling woman who sounds just a bit like Camille Paglia ("Realizing early in life that I would never be a saint, I decided at least to be one of the reasons why others are"). But the novel can hardly be Snell's offense -- the work came out from a small press and disappeared without a ripple.

Mr. Grudin is not much interested in mystery as mystery. For him it is a vehicle, a device. Snell's disappearance and discovery (he gets tucked away in the local hospital under police protection), and the search for his assailant, give the author a chance to show his stuff. We get the set pieces, like the tenure review conducted while Snell is still rumored to be dead, presided over by the fiercely ambitious Glanda Gazza, at which Snell's theoretical detractors are apt to say things like: "Sovrana's presence in a tragic form thus disenfranchises her as a subversive voice, marginalizing her as a destabilizing agent." And then come the less likely twists, as when a lone footnote ("Call me Ishmael; I was once Melville's footnote") raises its voice to start a bottom-of-the-page insurrection against the jargon-spewing committee members.

There are, naturally, more loops and turns than one can readily summarize. Snell lies in the hospital trying to second-guess his adversary. That adversary, one of his colleagues, meanwhile retreats to an isolated hideaway and begins practicing his marksmanship -- he plans to finish Snell off. Then there is Harper Nathan, a beautiful young editor who has stumbled on a copy of "Sovrana Sostrata" and judged it a work of genius that must be republished. The progress of these events, I would remind the reader, is interrupted every few pages by some textual insert -- newspaper clippings, transcripts from Snell's journal, faculty memos, even a glossary of theoretical terms.

By the time we guess that Adam Snell will fall in love with Harper Nathan and that all will turn out for the best, we are no longer reading for the plot. Our focus has shifted, no doubt as Mr. Grudin planned, to the twofold object of his satire. We heed the ever more preposterous antics of Washagon's best and brightest and marvel at the cleverness of the author's structural artifice: the form of the novel is itself a kind of commentary on the fragmented self-referentiality of our academic culture.

Mr. Grudin has hit upon the idea of prefacing each of his chapters with an excerpt from the Encyclopaedia Britannica (11th edition) entry on "book," the result of which is a cumulative account of the evolution of the printed and bound entity we hold in our hands. We learn of clay tablets and papyrus, folios and duodecimos. More to the point, we learn that there is nothing stable about the current format. The implication -- and Mr. Grudin's frequent incorporation of computer-generated texts bears this out -- is that the printed book may soon yield to a diversity of hypertextual alternatives. At which point the things we read -- off screens, not pages -- will likely resemble the bouillabaisse our author has concocted for us here.

"Book: A Novel," though, is finally an entertainment. Smart as it is, it is not serious enough to be read as a warning about the future of intellectual life. The lay reader can enjoy the plot pyrotechnics without picking up all of the references. And the academic reader can hardly fail to be amused by Mr. Grudin's sharp take on theoretical discourse. He alerts us to its marvelously dichotomous nature: how the same utterances can be read straight or as parodies of themselves. THE MAGNIFICENT ONE

[ Glanda Gazza ] set off toward Touwhee Hall at a brisk stride that cloudy Friday afternoon, across a quad crowded with students leaving their last classes of the week, through the atmosphere of quiet excitement that traditionally precedes civic amusements and tribal orgies, yet alone in her fixed consciousness and goal. . . .

Glanda, what secret wisdom gives you such assurance? . . .

Sweeping into 107 Touwhee and the presence of the full professors of English, Glanda thumped her bag down onto the front table and raked the assemblage with a benevolent regard. The professors, an apparently ill-sorted group of something under 20 men and women, returned her look variously, some with apathy, some affectionately and some anxiously, as though uncertain that their large group outnumbered her magnificent One. -- From "Book."

From David Kirp's "Poison Ivy" American Prospect, 11/20/02:

The bizarre predilections of English departments, ground zero in the theory wars, have become fixtures of the genre--nowhere more entertainingly than in Book: A Novel, Robert Grudin's 1992 romp in which a deconstructionist attempts to murder a humanist. Blue Angel and The Human Stain likewise recount the intellectual cul-de-sac down which the study of literature threatens to disappear. In The Human Stain, a literature professor named Delphine Roux insists that Euripides's sexism be held up to scorn, in order to assuage the sensibilities of female students. Roth's novel is a work of gravitas, filled with that special combination of tour de force riffs and Olympian judgments, this time about the parlous state of higher learning, for which he is rightly famous. Prose's touch is lighter, more deft, though the creedal wars are very much in evidence in Blue Angel as well. She has crafted a pitch-perfect novel of manners that probes the space separating academic rhetoric from reality.
From Publishers Weekly
Grudin stresses that creativity is heightened when tasks become emotional challenges. He views creativity as an offering to society--social in nature--rather than a solitary pursuit. The creative act demands openness, self-scrutiny and love of form and beauty, qualities that have ethical implications. Indeed, Grudin ( Time and the Art of Living ) asserts that creative people possess integrity, strength of character, a willingness to court insecurity and failure. While granting that democracy is probably friendlier to innovation than are other forms of society, he faults liberal intellectuals for their biases and blind-spots, e.g., an aversion to holistic thinking, pointing a finger also at the politics of scientific research, teachers who stifle creativity and, in contemporary poetry, "the puritanical prohibitions of modern free-verse style." Brimming with ideas, this exciting book forces us to consider the moral and psychological dimensions of creativity in a new light.
Copyright 1990 Reed Business Information, Inc.

Time and the Art of Living

"Time and the Art of Living" is a philosophical essay about the relationship between two facts: that we each "strut and fret upon the stage" for a terrifyingly short slice of objective time, and that subjective time, our experience of temporality, is deeply informed by our chosen activities and our character.

Robert Grudin thinks that our subjective sense of time is largely determined by the degree and quality of attention we pay to our memories and our sense of the future. (It is a mark of the unhappy that they are trapped in the present without a larger sense of connection to the enduring self.) And he argues persuasively that the successful and the fulfilled become so because of the control they exercise over this subjective temporal embodiment. At its best, Time and the Art of Living is a profound book with lyrically beautiful prose. --Richard Farr

Edward Abbey
"A book to savor, treasure, linger over: the rare and amazing spectacle of man thinking, of mind at work."

The Most Amazing Thing

By "anabellabella" (Duluth, MN USA) - See all my reviews
This is a wonderful book. The most amazing thing about it is the author's imagination. It concerns the adventures of one Desmond Ruck, a man bigger than most physically and larger than most morally. He stumbles upon a Bill-Gates-size fortune in negotiable bonds and a beautiful South American bookkeeper somehow connected to it, who keeps disappearing into the clutches of assorted nefarious groups from whom he keeps trying to rescue her. If I found a trillion dollars, I don't know what I'd do with it. But Desmond Ruck knows what to do with it. No futile attempts to reform campaign finance or to enjoy himself kicking up his heels in Cannes. He is a rescuer. At the same time, he is a practical man (actually a carpenter), so, once he gets past some pretty awful situations and figures out how to cash in some of those bonds, he goes in for practical rescues. He rescues people. First, a paraplegic old geezer, then a pair of brutally isolated and abused teenagers, and then -- working his way up -- the inhabitants of a bawdy house (he provides them with college scholarships) and an orphanage (he provides it with a luxurious boarding-school ranch in the Southwest), and so on. At the end, after putting Desmond through an incredible series of misadventures, the author manages to wrap up every single solitary detail, every surreptitious subtext and sidelong glance, into a smashing conclusion that kept me smiling optimistically for days.


On Dialogue: a Essay in Free Thought

From Publishers Weekly
In a wonderfully stimulating inquiry, Grudin investigates dialogue at all levels-between friends and lovers, in the classroom, the give-and-take of political discourse, in the artist's feedback loop with his or her evolving creative product. Defining dialogue broadly as an evolutionary process in which the parties are changed as they proceed, the author, who teaches literature and humanities at the University of Oregon, looks as well at the mind's dialogue with itself, journal-keeping and patterns of dialogue and self-inquiry in Shakespeare's Hamlet, Martin Buber's I and Thou, Henry James's Daisy Miller, Rabelais and Montaigne. He also scrutinizes the paintings of Pieter Brueghel and Giuseppe Arcimboldo, court painter to Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, who deconstructed imperial power in composite portraits depicting faces made of fruits and vegetables. Proposing that humanity is in constant dialogue with its tools, artifacts, inventions, texts and symbols, Grudin considers the suppression of the free flow of information under communist tyrannies and maps Western scientists' probe of nature's workings. The open-ended structure of this adventurous essay compels a dialogue with the reader, forcing us to let go of fixed perspectives.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc.







>Robert Grudin is Professor Emeritus at the University of Oregon. He lives in Berkeley, CA, and on Maui. Since 2000, he has been principal of GrudinCo, a knowledge consultancy with activities ranging from corporate finance to writing instruction. His pro bono efforts include almost twenty years of annual service to the medical community and a consultancy with the MacArthur Foundation. In 2006 he founded CleanAirDesign (http://www.cleanairdesign.com-a.googlepages.com/), a website devoted to air quality issues. He has published and spoken widely.

Contact Information: rgrudin@yahoo.com, rgrudin@gmail.com, 510-647-8652

Contact Robert Grudin at rgrudin@yahoo.com or rgrudin@gmail.com