Taxonomy for the masses

The pornographic allure of looking at things organised neatly.

A book arrived in the office last week which seemed to have been inspired by a current fashion on the internet. Things Come Apart, by the Canadian photographer Todd McLellan, is a showcase of objects, old and new, disassembled and laid out on clean surfaces like anatomical diagrams. It is divided into small, medium, large and extra large objects: from pens, clocks and electronic gadgets to a large metal snow blower, an upright piano and an aluminium two-seater light aircraft.

There are interesting juxtapositions. A second generation iPod is placed beside a Sony Walkman, the latter boasting 370 individual components, by comparison with the iPod’s slick 80. A mark of progressive design? Elsewhere the trend is reversed. An Asahi Pentax SLR camera from the 1970s - which I was delighted to see, having inherited the same model from a friend’s father after he died - appears next to a 2012 Sony Digital SLR, which has retained roughly the same number of parts (580 to the Asahi's 576), despite having made the transition from film to digital.

Digital SLR Camera, 2012, Sony. Component count: 580. All images copyright: Todd McLellan 2013

For McLellan, there exists a danger in our “locked out” culture. We have become alienated from the objects in our homes. In his introductory essay, “We all have ADHD these days...”, McLellan expresses dissatisfaction with the “exasperating” waste and expense of having to replace everything we buy after a few years' use. It was not always thus, he writes:

It fascinates me that older objects were so well built, and were most likely put together by hand. These items were repaired when broken, not discarded like our devices today.

There is no mention of the word “neat” anywhere in the book. I find this strange because the most arresting thing about the images is the way they impose order upon a large number of connected yet disparate parts. The inner elements of everyday items are grouped and arranged with almost fanatical, geometrical precision. Yet McLellan does not make mention of the aesthetic impact of looking at a piano with all its hammers, pegs, pedals and keys lined up - or a typewriter, its cipher-tipped metal arms and levers arranged to create diametric patterns that leap off the page like a William Morris print.

The effect is both satisfying and superficial. Similar images have appeared online over the last five years, particularly on blogs such as FFFFound! and Things Organized Neatly (perhaps another reason to avoid the word “neat”, though I have no idea who precipitated the movement). At university, I became addicted to scrolling through these sites, feeding my obsessive compulsiveness by forcing an industrial degree of orderliness upon what would otherwise have been an unrecognisable mess. I spent hours clicking from one post to the next in search of the most grand - or minute - or unlikely - disassembly. Technology, matches, motorbikes - even families. The desire to seek out form and meaning in the world is a primary human urge, and the maximalist stratification of deconstructed household objects provides an instant hit that pleases intensely for a second, but is soon forgotten.

Things Come Apart - a slightly clunky adaptation of Yeats’s line in “The Second Coming” - claims to be working against the finished, holistic and pristine. If you look at enough of these kind of images online, their contrivance begins to feel restrictive. Unlike those images of calculated destruction which circulate fairly rapidly following the release of a new must-have gadget, there is no anarchy here. Rather we are witnessing the curatorial effort and surgical design that put the finished product on the shelves to begin with - and they are always products: buyable items. One issue I have with Things Organised Neatly is that its materialism can get to be a little much. The things take over. The most common submission seems to be a sort of Brooklynite starter-kit of leather shoes, stationary, clothes from Urban Outfitters, Apple devices and some kind of weighty SLR camera. It starts to be less art and more “look at all the things that I own”.

A recent post from Things Organized Neatly

Perhaps Wes Anderson is to blame. The miniaturisation and artificiality fundamental to his films makes them at once symbolic and materialistic. He has created doll’s house replicas of mansions, tenements, tents, trains and perhaps most memorably, the research vessel Belafonte in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2009). The American novelist Michael Chabon has noted the uncanny effect of seeing recognisable human events play out amid the palpable fakeness of Anderson’s toybox universe:

That is the paradoxical power of the scale model; a child holding a globe has a more direct, more intuitive grasp of the earth’s scope and variety, of its local vastness and its cosmic tininess, than a man who spends a year in circumnavigation ... When he opens the box, you see something dark and glittering, an orderly mess of shards, refuse, bits of junk and feather and butterly wing, tokens and totems of memory, maps of exile, documentation of loss.

The research vessel Belafonte from The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Image: Touchstone Pictures

Anderson mirrors common experiences in an undeniably contrived way, yet somehow manages to move beyond the artifice and point to something true. But as with TON, there is no denying that aspiration plays an important role in creating the effect. His characters tend to belong to the 1 per cent. They have the money to buy nice things and pursue their eccentricities. The beautiful boxes inside which Anderson frames people and places free us from the ugliness that is the norm. The mess remains off-screen.

Like Todd McLellan, Anderson utilises grids and boundaries in order to make us realise something profound: in presenting order we are confronted by its absense. It becomes a kind of boasting - one which has infected social media. People tend not to post pictures of a half-eaten plate of food or the damp behind the bed on Instagram. It's a version of reality, and in that way a little shallow. A bit like overexposure to pornography: if you keep clicking through it, sooner or later you become aware of the absence of real, fleshy people. Porn is not like people, it is a presentation. Life is not neat. Nor will we ever stop arranging it.

Things Come Apart is published on 3 June by Thames & Hudson (£19.95)

Like a hipster Art Attack: an image from the blog "Things Organized Neatly".

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Cake or Death: why The Great British Bake Off is the best thing on television

Those who are complaining that the show has “caved in to political correctness” have missed the point.

The Cake is a Lie. That’s what viewers of the Great British Bake Off, now in its fifth season, are complaining about in the run-up to this week’s final. Out of thousands of amateur bakers who applied, three have made it through the gruelling rounds of Mary Berry’s disapproving pucker and faced down blue-eyed Cake Fascist Paul Hollywood’s demands without a single underbaked layer or soggy bottom in sight - and two of them aren’t white. The subsequent crypto-racist whining from PC-gone-madattrons in the press - one paper suggested that perhaps poor Flora, who was sent home last week, should have baked a "chocolate mosque" - runs against the whole spirit of Bake Off.

The charge is that the competition is not merit-based, and the entire basis for this complaint seems to be that two out of the finalists are of Asian origin - which makes total sense, because everyone knows that white people are better than everyone else at everything, including baking, so obviously it’s political correctness gone mad. The fact that last week Nadiya Hussain, a homemaker from Luton who happens to wear a hijab, baked an entire fucking peacock out of chocolate biscuits had nothing to do with it.

For those of you who mysteriously have better things to do with your time than watch 12 British people prat about in a tent, let me tell you why all of this matters. The best way to explain what's so great about The Great British Bake Off is to compare it to how they do these things across the pond. In America, they have a show called Cupcake Wars, which I gamely tuned into last year whilst living abroad and missing my fix of Sue Perkins getting overexcited about Tart Week. 

Big mistake. Cupcake Wars is nothing at all like Bake Off. Cupcake Wars is a post-Fordian nightmare of overproduction and backstabbing filmed under pounding lights to a sugary version of the Jaws soundtrack. Contestants mutter and scheme over giant vats of violent orange frosting about how they're going to destroy the competition, and they all need the prize money because without it their small cupcake businesses might fold and their children will probably be fed to Donald Trump. Every week a different celebrity guest picks one winner to produce a thousand cupcakes - a thousand cupcakes! - for some fancy party or other, and it’s all just excessive and cutthroat and cruel. Cupcake Wars is Cake Or Death.

Bake Off is quite different. Bake Off is not about the money, or even really about the winning. Bake Off is a magical world of bunting and scones and dapper lesbian comedians making ridiculous puns about buns and gentle, worried people getting in a flap about pastry. There are very few hysterics. Legend has it that if anybody has a real breakdown in the middle of a signature bake, presenters Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins stand next to them repeating brand names and swear-words so the cameramen can’t use the footage, and don’t you dare disabuse me of that fact, because I want it to be true. The prize money, in a desperately British way, is almost never mentioned, nobody tries to sabotage anyone else’s puff pastry, and at the end whoever has to leave gives a brave little interview about how it’s a shame but they tried their best and they were just happy to be there and they’re definitely going to do some more baking almost as soon as they get home. 

Bake Off is the theatre of the humdrum, where fussy, nervous people get to be heroes, making macarons as the seas rise and the planet boils and the leaders of the world don't care that they've left the oven on. I’m always a little bit frightened by people who can bake, because I can’t even make a muffin out of a packet, although one danger of watching too much Bake Off is that you become convinced you ought to give it another try, and I apologise to my housemates for making them eat my savoury vegan chilli-chocolate cookies (don’t ask). They say that if you can bake a cake, you can make a bomb, and by that logic I should definitely be kept away from the explosives when the zombie revolution comes- but the Bake Off contestants are probably the sort of people who will be Britain’s last line of defence, quietly constructing landmines and apologising that the stitching on the flag of insurrection isn’t quite perfect. People with this specific and terrifying personality type are that are precisely the reason Britain once had an empire, as well as the reason we’re now rather embarrassed about it. 

For now, though, Bake Off is a gentle human drama about all the best bits of Britishness- and diversity is part of that. In fact, this isn’t even the first time that two out of three finalists have not been white - that was two years ago. But something seems to have changed in British society at large, such that the same scenario is now more enraging to the kind of people who get their jollies from spoiling everything lovely and gentle in this world with casual bigotry - they know who they are, and may their Victoria sponges never rise and all their flatbreads turn out disappointingly chewy.

Britain is getting harder and meaner, and even Bake Off is not immune. In the first season, it was more than enough to bake a half decent brioche. This season an affable fireman got sent home because the grass on his miniature edible Victorian tennis court was not the right shade of green, and I’m not even joking. In one of the challenges the bakers had to produce an arcane french dessert that looked like the turds of a robot angel, and most of them actually managed it. The music is getting more dramatic, the close-up shots of flaky chocolate pastry and oozing pie-lids more reminiscent of 1970s pornography. It’s all a bit much.

The human drama, though, is as perfectly baked as ever. Lovely Flora, the baby of the bunch who missed out on a spot in the final because her chocolate carousel centrepiece was slightly wonky, was actually one of my favourites because she's so deliciously millennial, with her pussy-bow collars and obsessive, Type-A attention to detail. Paul the Prison Officer was a delight, mainly because he looked so much like Paul Hollywood- cue six weeks of two enormous men called Paul having bro-offs over bread, nodding and trading gruff, dudely handshakes over the specific crunchiness of biscotti. One week, Prison Officer Paul produced a giant dough sculpture of a lion's head and Judge Paul gave him a special prize and then they probably went off into a gingerbread sweat lodge together and it was the manliest moment ever in Bake Off history.

This is what Bake Off is about, and that’s why the people who are complaining that something other than merit might have been involved in selecting the finalists have missed the point entirely. The point of Bake Off is not to determine the best amateur baker in the land. That's just the excuse for Bake Off. Even the gentlest TV show needs a vague narrative structure, and otherwise there'd be no tension when someone's blancmange collapses in a heap of eggy foam and broken dreams. But in the end, when all's said and done, it's just cake. If your ornamental biscuit windmill has a soggy bottom, well, nobody died, and you can probably still eat the pieces on your way home to have a cup of tea and a little cry. 

That's the point of Bake Off. None of it really matters, and yet it consistently made me smile during a long, weary summer of geopolitical doomwrangling when absolutely everything else on television was unremitting misery. I hope Nadiya wins, because she’s an adorable dork and I love her and she gets so worried about everything and I want nothing remotely distressing to happen to her, ever; I expect Tamal Ray, the gay doctor whose meat pie had me drooling, is the best baker overall, but I can’t be objective there, because I keep getting distracted by his lovely smile. Ian Cumming, the last white person in the tent (apart from both of the presenters and both of the judges) is a little bit dull, which is a problem, because of all the delicious treats produced on the show, Ian's are the ones I would probably eat the most. I want his tarragon cheesecake in my face immediately. I would just rather have a conversation with Nadiya while I'm doing it.

But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter! And that’s the utter, unremitting joy of Bake Off. It’s possibly the last show on earth where in the end, it doesn’t matter who wins, as long as everyone gave it their best shot and had a laugh over a disastrous scrambled-egg chocolate tart or two, because ultimately, it’s just cake. And that’s marvellous. Now let’s all have a nice fat slice of perspective and calm down.


Now listen to a discussion of the Bake Off on the NS pop culture podcast:

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.