At a party last year I was chatting with Mike Simonian of the San Francisco design firm Mike and Maaike. We were talking about a project of his from 2006: Juxtaposed:Religion, a curated, deftly designed bookshelf that comes replete with the founding texts of the world's major religions. He told me that he and his wife Maaike Evers were working on the next in the Juxtaposed series, only this time they were curious about power, not faith.As it happened an old friend of mine, Athmeya Jayaram, was standing with us. Athmeya is studying for a doctorate in political philosophy at UC Berkeley, he and Mike hit it off, and before long he was brought on to curate the texts on the new bookshelf, Juxtaposed:Power. I asked him about the process of choosing the books, and about how we imagine political power. It's a conversation we've had many times, usually at my house, after many drinks, and long after my wife has thrown in the towel and wandered off to bed.
I suppose my first question is on how you decided which forms of political power to represent. Was it simply based on forms of government? What about say, corporate power, or social power?
You’re right, there is much more to power than the philosophical justifications for its use. You could imagine other collections that answered questions like ‘What is power?’ or ‘Who has it?’ or ‘How does it operate?’ In fact, a collection on how power actually works might say that philosophy is totally irrelevant to power; that these ideas are just masks to serve the interests of corporations or men or Masons. So, there are many other collections that could fit under the name ‘Power’. This one might more precisely be called ‘Philosophical Justifications for the Legitimate Use of Force,’ but that wouldn’t be as snappy.With the religion set you often had clearer foundational texts to choose. In this case the Communist Manifesto was an easy pick, but how did you come round to choosing one text to represent totalitarianism as opposed to another?
Yeah, I was very jealous of the curator of the religion set. I’m sure there were hard choices about which religions to leave out, or which book was most central to a particular tradition. But, philosophical traditions are harder to pin down. For instance, I’m roping John Stuart Mill into the liberal camp here, but he called himself a utilitarian. And he was both, sort of. Even if you manage to define the traditions and choose their members, you then have to figure out which traditions are most important (philosophically, historically, currently?), which thinker best represents each tradition (the founder, the most influential, the most definitive?), and then hope that one of his books is more famous than the others. Anyway, I could bore you with the story of each choice, but generally speaking, there were some cases where the author was closely identified with the tradition, like Marx and communism. There were some cases where the author gave the most currently relevant statement, like Sayyid Qutb and theocracy. There were some cases where the author was just more accessible (or less inaccessible) than other philosophers, like John Stuart Mill. And once, it came down to a less lofty consideration like whether the book was easily available in hardcover on Amazon. So, to finally answer your question, I considered several possibilities for the authoritarian/totalitarian slot, including Giovanni Gentile or Hitler on fascism, and Jean Bodin on absolutism. Gentile was too Italy-specific, Hitler was too offensive, and Bodin was a little dull. So, I chose Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, which has the added virtue of being a choice that no one could second-guess.
To what extent were you involved in choosing the actual books themselves, the books as objects, not just as influential texts?I left that to the experts. In fact, given how challenging it was to settle on a final list of titles, I was happy to give Mike and Maaike a longer list of books and let them decide what looked best. Juxtaposed:religion was designed so that each text would sit at the same height on the shelf, a nod toward an ecumenical stance toward religion. The same applies here, but do you think the object suggests that all forms of governance are equal? Equally valid?Not equally valid, I hope. If that were my position, I’d have nothing to do for the next forty years. And I’m not sure the religion set suggested that all religions were equally true. I see them both as expressing a deep appreciation for the beliefs of others – an understanding that there are a range of values worth living by – even if one still prefers one’s own. It’s no different from admiring the single-minded dedication of Olympic figure skaters without ever wanting to be one.In the case of religions, those values are clear. It is harder to see the appeal of elitism or anarchy, but that’s what the books provide us. Plato shows us why, if we care about the pursuit of truth, we should let the best rule. And Kropotkin argues that anarchy allows us to be guided by our cooperative, rather than competitive, spirit. We don’t have to believe that anarchy is equal to democracy to see the appeal of spontaneity and generosity, or what we lose when government force replaces individual choice.The equal level of the books is also a reminder that these debates are not settled, among countries, of course, but also within our own system. We’re all democrats, but why do we support the Supreme Court if not because we see some appeal in Platonic guardians who know better than we do?Considering how much design really only seems interested in the rather insular design world, do you see Juxtaposed:Power as a tool of broader education, provocation, and reflection? Or maybe it’s just a good looking shelf?
I’m not sure how other people will experience the shelf. For me it would be a handy and pretty place to keep books that I like reading. And certainly I hope that people will read them. But, even if it’s just an aesthetic experience, it’s one that I enjoy. Canons in literature and philosophy have gone out of style, maybe for good reason. The idea that Europeans have been engaged in a Great Conversation since the Greeks is clearly ethnocentric and, some argue, false. But, the spirit of the canon – if not its content – is, I think, laudable. It’s nice to imagine that people have always struggled with the same questions and pursued recognizably-human values. And it’s nice to feel part of that debate, if only as a spectator.
Aaron writes the men's style column "The Pocket Square" for the San Francisco Chronicle and has written for the New York Times, the Times Magazine, Newsweek, National Geographic and others.
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