Thursday, August 13, 2020

Comfy in our cages of choices

Jan 25. 2019
Habitat 67 in Montreal, Canada, designed by Moshe Safdie for the 1967 World's Fair, is still in residential use.
Habitat 67 in Montreal, Canada, designed by Moshe Safdie for the 1967 World's Fair, is still in residential use.
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By The Nation Weekend

Christopher G Moore unlocks the doors to 'the mass domestication of homo sapiens', leading to a fresh appreciation of whatever place you call home

READERS might enter Christopher Moore’s new non-fiction book “Rooms” with certain presumptions even if they know in advance it’s about the different spaces in which we choose to live. Imagine all the “room” this subject affords for mus?ing on the quality of life past, present and future. Right from the outset, you can see the universe of possibilities. 

But the entry-level presumptions can also be just as limiting as the four walls enclosing you at any given minute. Readers might well set out thinking in terms of enclosed spaces in general (and wouldn’t be far off, in that respect). They might still be giggling over George Carlin’s classic stand-up routine about a home being just “a place for your stuff”, with dif?ferent rooms for different kinds of stuff, and the more stuff we acquire, the bigger the home we need, and the bigger the home, etc.

Maybe the readers will be wondering how soon they’ll encounter Donald Trump’s ambition to build a big, beauti?ful border wall to hold back the barbar?ian invaders and turn the entire conti?nental United States, all 10 million square kilometres of it, into one safe and cosy room. 

Trump does not appear in Moore’s book (though Edward Snowden does and, given our belief that rooms should pro?vide privacy, you might guess why). Nor does George Carlin show up, this being an unwaveringly serious treatise. 

“Rooms” is dense with history, philos?ophy, psychology and science, from the social to the neurological, and it’s schol?arly to such an extent – bilious with foot?notes and afternotes and indexing – that it ought to get Chris Moore a PhD at any university he chooses. 

He doesn’t need a PhD, of course. Moore is an Oxford-trained former prac?tising lawyer who went on to become one of the most celebrated expatriate authors in Asia, the creator of the universally fol?lowed fictional detective Vincent Calvino. 

Even more so than with his magnifi?cent dual contemplation of self and Southeast Asian history in last year’s “Memory Manifesto”, with “Rooms”, Moore will shame the reader whose abil?ity to focus has evaporated in the modern tech era, where gadgets do all the legwork for the brain. 

This is an author who isn’t shy about commenting on social media regarding current events, but he has somehow set his own not-inconsiderable online net?working aside and found a staggering block of time to give intense and sustained thought to an aspect of evolution that’s sel?dom so fully considered. The depth of his insight is impressive, and no reader will go away unrewarded.

“Rooms” is dauntingly expansive and requires pauses in the reading for rumi?nation, but it is captivating all the same in its chronicling of why and when and how we as a species moved from wall-less rural spaces to encumbered urban cocoons – and what that shift has done to us.

It is a voyage through time, backward as much as forward in the interest of com?parisons, but we have a knowledgeable guide who lets us relax and enjoy the ride. There’s a lot of ground to cover since the first permanent rooms popped up along?side the Tigris and Euphrates, the Yangtze and the Nile. 

In 420 pages we look at group |psychology, the nature of power and |leadership, the knowledge that coalesced into architecture and the haunting spec?tre of Phnom Penh emptied of people by the Khmer Rouge. We visit palaces, harem chambers, military forts and tunnels, pris?ons, churches, “fake” and imaginary rooms and every kind of modern domestic room and learn why we choose certain colours and lighting for them. Moore’s itinerary includes everything from the Babylonians to Baron Haussmann and beyond.

You also discover, not incidentally, that you “almost certainly have Nefertiti, Confucius or anyone we can actually name from ancient history in your [family] tree, if they left children”.

In the introduction, Moore mentions Wittgenstein’s characterisation of philos?ophy as a means to “show the fly the way out of the fly bottle” and ponders in turn, looking around his comfortable room, whether he as the fly has lost the instinct to escape. “It is animal instinct to resist confinement,” after all, he writes, but 6,000 years of steady marching towards urbanisation – towards “room culture” – has curbed that resentment and walled off the instinct itself.

The factors contributing to this have been multiple, not least the need for rulers to control and thus confine the populace, allowing it a measure of convenience and applying more than a little brainwashing. The role of politics in subduing our once-wild nature is gamely explored in the book. But rulers being part of society too, Moore writes inclusively, “What makes us |different from the fly and more like the |termite or the bee is that we have self-|constructed our bottle.”

The less mobile that Homo sapiens became, once hunting and gathering could be left to others, the more our per?spective of personal space changed. We went from being forever mobile in Phase 1 to being forever active on mobile phones at the advent of Phase 3, exploring a dif?ferent kind of space, virtual and even vaster.

But much of “Rooms” is about what we left behind when we transitioned from “mobiles” to “sedentaries”. And it is dis?concerting to realise the scale of the loss. 

“Mobiles were work minimalists,” Moore writes, needing no more than four hours a day to ensure they had adequate shelter and ample food, grabbing all the essentials on the spot from diverse and abundant nature. The effort only became toil when the tribe swelled and surplus supplies were necessary, and then came problems of food storage, leadership hier?archy, labour organisation, trade and a viable economy, and eventually taxation, wealth inequality, slums and the inevitable discontent and revolution. 

Moving indoors also forced a transition of faith in the world.

“Rooms broke our link to nature, and a new psychological space opened. The space gradually filled with new gods, beliefs and the performance of rituals ... A new set of myths, celebrations, rituals and superstitions sprung from room |culture. Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism are three examples of room-invented beliefs, and each of these faiths evolved blessing ceremonies and rituals for houses,” Moore notes, going on to mention the spirit houses of Southeast Asia.

And as for the future, “As writers such as [Philip K] Dick and [Charlie] Brooker suggest, our latest human-made con?struction might be our last. As we move deeper and more firmly into digital space, some fear that we may be build?ing a dystopian nightmare. Is it possible that the ancient mobiles had similar feel?ings about our judgement (if not our san?ity) as they watched us happily moving into what they saw as a dystopian world beyond the reach of nature?”

>> Rooms : On Human Dosmestication and Submission by Christopher G Moore

>> Published by Heaven Lake Press, 2018 

>> Available at, US$14 (Bt445)

>> Reviewed by Paul Dorsey   


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