I’m about to hijack part of a terrific essay by John Barry, which has a broader comic design than I’m going to let on below but is worth reading in its own right. It’s about a time when he (naively?) decided to attend a panel discussion on design:

“Without further ado…”

That phrase was spoken immediately by a stammering ex-student who proceeded to read in barely audible tones what was apparently a tribute to one of the people on the panel. The person he was paying a tribute to was a white-haired man with a huge, thick mustache, who was wandering behind him on the stage, shuffling, with this hands clasped behind his back. The tribute went on. It included a list of awards, which the person himself, whose name I forget, seemed to acknowledge with a self-deprecating shrug, while the speaker, or payer of tribute, offered a self-deprecating assessment of his own tribute.

The man with the thick mustache eventually took over from the student and began to pay tribute to the payer of tribute. After a few grumpy jokes, which were evidently intended to make it seem that he’d been dragged, kicking and screaming, to this conference, not because he didn’t want to be there, but because he didn’t deserve to be there, there was a long silence. I had lost track of what he was paying tribute to at that point, but I assumed the silence was a memoriam, or a public prayer. It was not. He had left a letter in his leather satchel, which, fortunately, he had had the presence of mind to bring with him on stage. He opened the satchel, and after burrowing around in it for a while, offered a murmured explanation to the audience, which was sitting there in puzzlement. “This isn’t because I’m nervous,” he said. “It’s because there’s something in here I want to read which I can’t find.”

Eventually it was located, and the show was back on the road. What he had pulled out was an epistolary tribute to the guy sitting closest to him at the table. His name was, well, let’s call him Ray. He had white hair, a close-cropped beard, and he looked like he was in tears. Because of the tribute? No; Ray had weak eyes; the spotlight bothered him. Anyway, the laudatory letter was read, acknowledging something—something good—about Ray, and then, once the man with the mustache had finished reading it, he placed it back in his leather satchel and asked Ray to comment. It was a softball question, but it was not a question that Ray chose to answer immediately.

Instead, Ray, with hands folded in front of him, began to pay tribute to the people next to him, people, he said, who were more deserving of being paid tribute to first than he was. The people at the table, some of whom were designers, seemed to nod their heads reluctantly, and modestly, the implication being that there were other, even more talented people, who deserved to be up there more than they did, and that it was absurd that those people couldn’t participate in the panel. The man on the far right of the table, who looked particularly frail, was motionless and seemed to have his chin pressed against his collar. He wasn’t responding in one way or another to what was being said.

That may have been the cue for the next topic of discussion: all those who deserved to be there at the table, but couldn’t, because they were dead. Ray listed the names, which flew by, and, as he listed them, he paid each one an effusive tribute of one or two lines. None of the people named, of course, had the alternative of softening the compliments, or modestly deflecting them, or naming people for whom those generous appraisals were more deserved, because they were, in fact, dead. Paradoxically, the fact that they weren’t around to deflate the praise with a well-chosen self-deprecating remark made them seem a little pompous.

Then Ray himself, returning to the subject of himself, initiated his response to the letter read by his friend at the podium. I call it a letter, but it didn’t really read that way; it sounded like a prepared speech that had been written by someone who, for whatever reason, was golfing in Florida, or wading in the Adriatic, instead of coming to Baltimore to deliver the praise in person. Ray noted, I think, that he was sorry that the person who had written the letter hadn’t actually shown up. And then he began to recite the virtues of the colleagues to his immediate left (although, as I’ve noted, he’d already done that once before). There was some redundancy in these tributes, and they were frequently interrupted by humorous asides and behind-the-mike murmuring between people at the table who had, apparently, noticed for the first time that their old workmate, or co-founder, was sitting right next to him or her. They were apparently unaware of the high tech acoustics.

At about this time, I was beginning to feel that I had heard enough. This was, I understand, a design firm, but it could easily have been any other kind of firm, because nothing the panelists said offered any inkling of what it was the Firm actually did. The assumption was that anybody who was fortunate enough to make it here already understood, in triplicate, what this firm had done, even if it no longer existed. That was when I decided that, once again, I had come to the wrong panel discussion. With my wife, I joined the slow stream of early exiters.

When I read this, I had to remind myself that this was a design panel, because it could have been straight out of a David Lodge novel. Of course, it’s parody, not an exact description. (Still, isn’t there something dead-on about all that shuffling and murmuring and failure to make eye contact and faux-humility, all the while making so-called revolutionary claims for literature?) And unlike this design panel, academic conferences aren’t meant for the public.

I left off the part where Barry argues with the bartender about the price of the drinks by informing him that a PBR tallboy, which is bigger than the Amstel Lights they’re serving, can be had down the street for a dollar less, but it’s even funnier than the above section. At least to me, who’s often been tempted to say something like that, but instead ponied up in silence because, after all, there’s a paper on something or other to be fidgeted through, and that’s always easier to do with drink in hand.

And, to digress instead of concluding, why is it always Amstel Light? In this postmodern world we’ve created, where there are no justifiable value-judgments and Zizek has already dissected the designer’s fantasy of making a product without the substance, is there really any way except for pure, unadulterated snobbery to demonstrate that Amstel is a better light than, say, Natural or Miller? I realize that self-denial isn’t necessarily an academician’s strong suit, and pretty damned old-fashioned to boot, but this once, it might do some good. It’s as though my calling as a member of the pointy-headed elites is to remind them that an Old Fashioned is much snootier than an Amstel Light, more potent and a more robust experience to boot: all in all, a much better prophylactic against “Canonical Author and the Exasperatingly-Hip Sexual Reference” than an Amstel Light.

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