–“Design” is a trigger-word for me, when it encourages the notion one can macro-design the micro. Anyone who has tried to implement as planned—today’s version of clockmaker God and the echt-rational—knows how plug-and-play designs don’t work, as contingency and context invariably get in the way.
To see how this matters, consider a late poem of Robert Lowell, “Notice,” and a gloss on it by Helen Vendler, the critic. Here’s the poem in its entirety, centering as it does around Lowell’s leaving an asylum after a manic-depressive episode:
The resident doctor said, “We are not deep in ideas, imagination or enthusiasm – how can we help you?” I asked, “These days of only poems and depression – what can I do with them? Will they help me to notice what I cannot bear to look at?” The doctor is forgotten now like a friend’s wife’s maiden-name. I am free to ride elbow to elbow on the rush-hour train and copy on the back of a letter, as if alone: “When the trees close branches and redden, their winter skeletons are hard to find—” to know after long rest and twenty miles of outlying city that the much-heralded spring is here, and say, “Is this what you would call a blossom?” Then home – I can walk it blindfold. But we must notice – we are designed for the moment.
–I take up Vendler’s gloss when she turns to Lowell’s last line:
In becoming conscious of his recovery by becoming aware, literally moment by moment, of his new capacities for the most ordinary actions of life, the poet seems to XXX that ‘we are designed for the moment’—that our consciousness chiefly functions moment by moment, action by action, realization by realization. Biologically, ‘we are designed for the moment’ of noticing.
–What Lowell is doing in the last two lines is also revisiting, I’d like to think, the second line, “We are not deep in ideas, imagination or enthusiasm” and making this point: The designs put upon us by ideas and enthusiasms differ from the noticing designed into us in at least one major respect.
We notice the ideas-that-design because noticing is not an idea. Knee deep in noticing is not being knee deep in ideas or enthusiasms because noticing is a kind of momentary alertness—“Is this what you would call a blossom?”
Macro-designs imposed upon the world are best described as forms of not-noticing. Just as the law has not eyes, so argued Xenophon’s Cyrus. I was once involved in an urban environmental project, where what college students were taught and what they found on the ground were not just different but orthogonal:
- Vacant lots were said to be ideal for community gardens but could not be used for gardening because prior use had rendered the soils toxic (that is why they were vacant);
- Daylighting city creeks was recommended to improve public access to a restored natural area. Local residents preferred instead leaving creeks inaccessible rather than opening them to out-of-sight criminal behavior;
- A clean-up campaign to reduce street litter became something more when the gloves distributed for the effort were pierced by discarded injection needles; and
- Planting more trees along the street was touted as an ideal urban improvement, but in practice doing so raised liability issues, ranging from tree roots buckling the sidewalk to cutting away those roots rendering the trees more prone to falling.
Had I taken time to notice what other people had already noticed, things might have been different.