Brain Pickings

How the Invention of Walls Gave Rise to Eavesdropping

By:

A brief history of personal opacity and public space.

In Eavesdropping: An Intimate History (public library), biolinguist John L. Locke takes a fascinating look at the ubiquitous yet largely unexamined cultural phenomenon, from medieval voyeurism to Hitchcock’s Rear Window to Twitter and Facebook, by way of chimpanzee behavior and bird calls. He points to two conflicting features of eavesdropping that make it particularly interesting: On the one hand, it feeds on activity that is inherently intimate, with the “sender(s)” of the information unaware of its “receiver”; on the other hand, the information relayed is stolen by the receiver rather than donated by the sender.

But one of Locke’s most intriguing insights traces how the evolution of human civilization, and the rise of urbanization in particular, shaped the norms of — and necessity for — eavesdropping:

Our distant ancestors were secure because they could see each other at all times. They were either trusted, or did not need to be. But on the way to modernity many things happened. A sequence of factors — from sedentism and population growth to the construction of durable housing — nudged our ancestors along a path that could only lead to long periods of personal opacity. The process took many millennia but only began to seriously impact supplies of social knowledge in the last several thousand years.

When residential walls were erected, it was the beginning of truer and deeper forms of intimacy. Walls also made it difficult — and ultimately unnecessary — to look around every few seconds to see what others were doing. A human vigil, one beginning with ancestors that we share with apes, was reduced to manageable proportions, freeing up many hours of undistracted time per day. This would gradually increase opportunities to develop the kind of personal, marital, and familial relationships that we now hold dear.

At one time, the isolation-cum-privacy enabled by walls was about as welcome as incipient blindness. By blocking the eye, walls placed a premium on something that they knew very little about: trust. What was trust? Who could be trusted? With so few previous opportunities to violate trust, it was hard to tell. Predictably, suspiciousness and fear rose precipitously. If walls were to continue, more penetrant means of perception would be needed. Fortunately, a suitable cognitive mechanism was waiting in the wings.

It was eavesdropping, a term that I will use in its conventional sense to mean surreptitious observation as a technique for sampling the intimate experiences of others — whether the surveillant is peeking through a keyhole or just feigning inattention to ambient activity. But I also use the term metaphorically to represent the lifelong quest of all humans to know what is going on in the personal and private lives of others.

Nota Bene: For some bizarre reason, at the time of this writing, Amazon is selling the $35 book for $3 — grab a copy before the algorithm changes its mind.

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

Drawing from the City: Exquisite Indian Folk Art Meets Women’s Empowerment

By:

One self-taught artist’s journey from poverty to imaginative reinvention.

By now, you know my soft spot for visionary Indian indie publisher Tara Books, who for nearly two decades have been giving voice to marginalized art and literature through a commune of artists, writers, and designers collaborating on beautifully crafted books celebrating Indian folk art traditions. Their latest gem, Drawing from the City (public library) by artist Tejubehan, is both more exquisite and born out of a more moving personal story than just about any book I’ve come across. Its gorgeous black-and-white pen-and-ink drawings, brimming with expressive lines and dots somewhere between Yayoi Kusama and Edward Gorey, tell the partly autobiographical, partly escapist tale of this self-taught artist who came of age as a woman trapped between unimaginable poverty and a wildly imaginative inner world in a patriarchal society.

Tejubehan takes us on a journey from her small village into the big city, where her poor parents move to find work. Three years pass. Teju is now a young woman and she marries a man who sings for a living. With his encouragement, she becomes an artist.

It is like magic. I sit in one place with paper and pen, and it is my hand that starts to move. Lines, dots, more lines, and more dots, and you have a picture. I can bring to life things that I have seen and know, but also things that I imagine. I can even bring the two together.

I have been moving all my life, looking for ways to survive, but this is a new direction. My heart is full.

I see a girl going somewhere on a bicycle, and I draw a whole group of girls, all of them on the way somewhere.

We reach the city! Everything is on the move here, not just the train. People rush past, pushing their way through the streets. Only the tall buildings seem rooted to the spot, along with a few trees that stand guard on the other side.

I don’t mind the rush though. The sun is setting, and I marvel at the lampposts that can turn night into day. Nights in our village are really dark.

Tejubehan at work

At its heart, however, the story is really a feminist story — a vision for women’s liberation in a culture with oppressive gender norms and limiting social expectations. In envisioning the woman of the city — biking, driving, flying — Tejubehan is really envisioning what it might be like to live in a world where to be female means to be free to move and free to just be.

I like cars. I wonder what it’s like to move at such a high speed and to be in control of where you’re going. There are always two women in my cars. One drives and the other looks out of the window.

I want to be both of those women.

But even in the plane, my women are not content to sit still. So I float them down, wondering where they should go next. Should they fly forever like birds? Or should I draw some lines taking them down to the sea?

I rest my pen here for a moment. I have time to decide.

Like many of Tara’s other books, Drawing from the City has been silkscreen-printed and bound by hand on handmade paper. The cover is colored with traditional Indian dyes, emanating an enchanting earthy smell that reminds you what it’s like to hold an analog labor of love in your analog human hands.

Page images courtesy of Tara Books

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

Happy Birthday, Chrysler Building Spire: The Story of an Epic Architectural Rivalry

By:

How an architect’s private rivalry resulted in one of New York City’s most iconic public images.

The story of New York’s iconic Chrysler Building is the story of one of history’s greatest, most ruthless architectural rivalries — one ultimately resolved when the building’s famous spear was surreptitiously erected to claim victory on October 16, 1929. This excerpt from the PBS documentary New York tells the riveting tale of the epic one-upmanship that precipitated the now-legendary structure:

In the spring of 1929, the race into the skies reached fever pitch when the automobile magnate Walter Chrysler unveiled plans for a massive new skyscraper on the corner of 42nd street and Lexington Avenue, with instruction to the architect, William van Alen, to make it the tallest in the world. Van Alen had scarcely broken ground when his one-time partner and now bitter enemy, H. Craig Severance, set to work on a rival structure eighty block to the south, for the Bank of Manhattan Company on Wall Street, and the race was on. Month after month, the two builders vied for preeminence, each altering his plans again and again in mid-construction to stay ahead of the other. On clear days, workers in each of the two tall towers could track the progress of their rivals four miles away.

[…]

On October 16, 1929, the 185-foot-long spire, assembled in secret in the building’s tower, emerged from its chrome cocoon and was bolted triumphantly into place. The gleaming silvery spike raised the Chrysler Building’s overall height to 1,048 feet, 121 feet taller than its downtown rival.

The Chrysler Building in 1932

Height comparison of buildings in New York City

Images via Wikimedia Commons

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.