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flatness

5 june 2017

"We prefer places that resemble those we know and regard as our own," writes B.W. Higman in Flatness. "It follows that people tend to prefer landscapes that possess qualities associated with places experienced in childhood" (85-86).

I spent my childhood in Illinois. Part of it in the city of Chicago, so that cities of less than a couple million still seem like villages to me; but part of it in my relatives' homes spread out westward across the prairie. You could go out my grandparents' back door and see most of the way to Wisconsin, it seemed, and you could drive all day on a loose grid of backroads through fields where the rows of corn, riffling past like the pages of a gigantic book, never quite converged in the vast distance.

Because of that childhood, I like flat places. I am one of the few people who enjoys driving across West Texas. Though, as Higman points out, many of our big square states offer "false perceptions of flatness" (95), because roads and railways seek out the flattest milieux for their rights of way. Just as the Canadian Great Plains are "interrupted by post-glacial hills and valleys" (97), the Texas outback is creased by rivers (big obstacles in Larry McMurtry's trail-drive epic Lonesome Dove. At these rivers, middle-American road grids are interrupted, and local relief, in the form of rises and canyons, can range from diverting to astonishing.

But it's not just that middle-North-America is bumpier than you think. In my case, flatness is a positive aesthetic virtue. Higman, an emeritus professor from the Australian National University, is fascinated with the flatter parts of that continent, printing several mesmerizing pictures of roads to the horizon in places like the Nullarbor Plain (which, as its name suggests, is utterly treeless). Seascapes have the same horizontal effect. So does the world from an airplane window, though Higman laments the fact that too few of us look out anymore (187). To be fair, some of those windows get pretty scratchy.

Flatness is a compendium of every flat thing you can think of, and a few you didn't. Higman starts from geometrical, abstract flatness, moves to real geodesic examples of relative flatness, and proceeds to discuss human efforts to flatten our environment (often a prerequisite for agriculture and home-building). He talks about "level playing fields" in sport, flat artifacts (paper, flooring, sheet glass), and two-dimensional art (which must create conventional illusions of three-dimensionality, when it wants to, by recourse to perspective drawing).

You'd think that new technologies would give us a constructed world in 3D, but as Higman points out, I'm writing this on a flatscreen and you're reading it on one. Consumer products are shipped worldwide in "flat packs" that slip neatly into rectangular shipping containers. And paper isn't going away.

The future may not be quite so flat. 3D printing is in its infancy in 2017, and someday soon medical imaging may be truly holographic. (Right now, even the most comprehensive imaging machines take myriad flat pictures of slices of you.) But for now, the plane reigns.

Higman even discusses flatness in music. I don't mean singing an E when you were aiming for an F, but flatness as a metaphor for the ambient, the repetitive, the featureless. Yet of course one of the greatest invocations of flatness in Western music is a metaphor for social justice: the Bible verse that Handel used to usher in his Messiah: "Ev'ry valley shall be exalted, and ev'ry moutain and hill made low; the crooked straight and the rough places plain." Perhaps both Handel and the Messiah grew up in Illinois.

Higman, B.W. Flatness. London: Reaktion, 2017.

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