Monday, January 6, 2014

People As Lawn Furniture And Other Matters

Some Tiepolo angels

Did you happen to read this story in The New Yorker in 2012 by George Saunders? "The "Semplica-Girl Diaries?"

If not you should read it, because it's great, because it's philosophical, and because it's funny and sad. Basically it's about a guy in the near future who turns forty and gets a diary and tries to write stuff down. He's lazy and forgetful about it, like we are. He's got kids and a job and things are sort of tough financially and the kids can't keep up, nice-things-wise, with the other kids at school, which makes our hero very unhappy.

Then some things happen and he gets a little bit of money, and it's just before the birthday of one of his daughters so he decides to surprise her by redoing their whole yard in the nicest, trendiest, most sophisticated way, so they can have a party there, and all her friends will be impressed and think she's cool.

The twist is this: in the near future, the trendiest most sophisticated lawn furniture is people.

They're Semplica Girls, to be precise. Science has found a way to wire up real people as decorations. The girls -- of course they are girls -- are dressed up as angels, and spend 24 hours a day three feet up, their white smocks blowing in the breeze. Naturally, the girls themselves come from poor countries where the money they make as Semplica Girls is sent home to feed and clothe starving siblings etc. etc. 

One of the best things about the story is how realistic the presentation is, with moral hand-wringing and the inevitable rationalization about the good that comes about and the fact that the girls "chose" their situation. The idea of "human girls as permanent lawn decoration" is brilliant, because in one way it's crazy awful and in another way it's an apt parallel for so much of our own craziness. Crazy consumers of the future, they're just like us!

I often think about the SGs, hanging in the moonlight, quietly chatting, as the family sleeps inside. It's easy to think that the main problem with SGs is the simple one: people just aren't decorations. You can't just use a person as a piece of lawn furniture. The moral of the story would be that applying market values to people is the direction we're headed in and is wrong.

But honestly, I think it's more complicated than that. Just to start, there's the obvious parallel with exploited workers in poor countries now -- and they're not decorations, they're working. So it's not as simple as the problem of what they are doing.

Also, I think that when you get away from problematic contexts, you can use people as pieces of lawn furniture or other decorations and it's not really a problem. In a society of abundance and rough economic and social equality and no sexism and other bullshit, if you wanted to pay -- or barter for -- some good looking people to come lie around your pool?  Or if you took turns being Pageant of the Masters for each others' parties? Whatever.

To me, what makes the SGs a horrific twist on a current reality is less the furniture aspect and more the HAVE NO LIFE aspect. I mean, they're up there all the time. They don't do anything else. They don't have meals with friends or hang out with their families or dance or go on dates or have children or anything. Being SGs is their whole life. That fact, of course, is made super double extra creepy by the fact that they're out there on the front lawn. Yikes.

If that's right, the relevance to our current situation is broader than the whole using-a-person-as-a-piece of furniture business, because we are rapidly becoming a society in which many people have no lives outside of work: people have to work several jobs, or they have to work all the time in order not to get fired, or they have to work all the time to even be on the lowest rung of some career ladder.

In this interpretation, the SGs aren't just a metaphor for the slaves, sex workers, and poorest people of the world. They are also a metaphor for us. 


Daniel said...


Haven't read the story, but I will now. In my fantasy, George Saunders is related to Jennifer Saunders from Absolutely Fabulous. Probably not, though.

I know that the No Life aspect is one of the main concerns in your post, but I have a question and thought about the other problematic contexts stuff that you write about before the No Life stuff.

My question: How can I know that someone's decision is okay? In the post, there are two suggestions about peoples' decision making. One is in the quotes over the word "chose," which I think are there in order to challenge the idea that it could be a choice for the poor girls, and similarly, the idea of exploitation cuts against the grain of how we typically think of "choice." And the other, in a society of abundance, rough equality, &c, the decision making is not a problem.

Should I believe in the decision-making of one socio-economic demographic and not another? Is there a specific set of criteria that should be met before a decision is okay? A line that can be drawn? If so, who draws it? The potential for a sort of values imperialism seems pretty great. To push my thought to the edge, I might ask how I would know that it's okay to choose to be lawn furniture for some extra pocket money but not because I need to feed my family.

It's sort of important, not least of all because depending on what the implications of my evaluations (alright versus not) of a decision are (e.g. forbid it), the line between "protecting" people and blocking "opportunity" is blurred.

I'm not sure if I'm being clear here, but your excellent post raises interesting questions.


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