Faux Leather, Faux Life?

Yesterday, I ran out at lunch time to buy my college age daughter a birthday present. I found a flimsy little dress, made in China, at a local boutique and sent it to her in Washington, D.C. in the two-day mail. I wasn't really satisfied with the purchase, for I'm very intentional about where and how I spend my earnings, but on the surface of things the dress was cute, with its machine-made lace over its blouse, and I realized as well that it would very much meet with my daughter's standards for clothing if not with her taste. While I never buy shoes or a purse not made of real leather, she has absolutely no misgivings about faux leather, or as we called it in my teens, pleather. In my own salad days, before the infamous red Michael Jackson jacket, I and most of my peers wouldn't have been caught dead wearing plastic leather, so perhaps--given the completely successful marketing of that jacket--we can mark the '80s as the moment in America, if not across the world, when the simulation became not only acceptable but preferable to the real.

I received a similar message of perception and value from a student recently when he observed that I had placed my high-priced smartphone in an antique, leather day book. With derision, he'd stared at it as I'd stood talking to him in the lobby of our college's Humanities building. He shook his head gently, as he questioned me about the case. He said he was speaking as a concerned son. Indeed, I accepted him as such if not as the same fashion police that my biological sons have appointed themselves. Both he and they might be well intentioned. I suspect that their periodic ridicule of my fashion choices is in fact a sign not that I am in their eyes hopeless when it comes to dress and accessory but that I have some potential for adjusting to values and styles of the present day. I appreciate their faith, but they are, for the most part, wrong about my chances of exchanging say the leather day book for one made of nylon or my set of polished wooden bracelets of the '70s for an even larger set of shiny metal ones from Claire's.

Still, I have accepted that such criticism is to be expected by the professor. We seem inherent Luddites, or, as one administrator put it to me--fixated on musty books. I am, as my colleagues are, entranced by the soul of a thing, of a place, of people, and as Humanities adjusts itself, takes into consideration what opportunities exist in the digital era for finding ways to interest others in literature, music, art, and history, I do hope that residue, soulfulness, does not become lost. Leather is evidence of life; it exudes warmth, it breathes; book pages hold finger prints of turned pages. But what of the impermeability of plastic or of the superficiality of glass that does not absorb, but only reflects, one's own image?

There are politics and ethics to take into consideration. My preference for most things old is not without consideration of the human labor, craft, that went into items of the past as I consider as well how removed my awareness may be of the labor that goes into the items we are enticed to consume today. And there is this as well. If the nylon day book contributes to the pollution of the atmosphere, the leather one required the sacrifice of animal life. There is I realize no human practice, no position, that is without issue. 

However, I cannot help but to think and to feel that there is much cause for concern that the preference for the faux and for ever-present productions all but nullifies history. Why study it, students seem to ask, and they are of course not alone in their questioning, which is one of the main factors contributing to an overall disinterest I have been observing especially as of late. Not too long ago, I was part of a team of humanists who installed in a small Midwestern town a mural of African American freedom seekers in a skiff on the Ohio River. Our well-intended public art was a subject of much controversy. When I personally met with one of the organizers of a growing protest, I was told that snippets of history--rather than history expressed in bold relief--were preferable. Convenient history cards that might accompany a Happy Meal would be easily consumed along with golden fries. The protester was not being facetious. She in fact shed real tears right before me at the very thought of the mural being completed, which would force her to look at--to confront daily--the history of slavery in America. The mural was in fact installed; the public came out in large numbers, and the last time I checked the art had in no way been defaced.

But I have not forgotten that woman's tears nor her pleadings, and she helped me to see how the marketplace continues to create a salve that is not just found in the objects we consume but in the very way work helps us--in fact insists that we--structure our lives. And so it is becoming increasingly difficult to suggest to students that they might order their lives otherwise. Met with history, they too often flinch and too often walk in another direction. What is the role of Humanities today in assuring that students maintain an acquaintance with the soul?


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