Essays & Images on Cities, Travel and Contemporary Culture. A web journal of James A. Clapp, Ph.D., an UrbisMedia Ltd. Production


V040-01_amazingFTake a photo of somebody from an aboriginal tribe. That’s if you can find an aboriginal tribe anymore that isn’t into rap music, or opening a casino. Take a little group photo, if they don’t take a photo of you first. Show it to them. They’ll be amazed; it’s like magic to them, mind-blowing. So, if they don’t kill you for “capturing his spirit” you might reflect on this a little bit.


I’m worried about “amazement”; I think it might be dying. This is not to suggest a return to aboriginality (we seem to be doing that already), but amazement. Call it “wonder” if you like, but amazement seems to be in a perilous position brought about by nothing that is particularly bad, and a lot of things that are admittedly good. Amazement is being replaced by blasément.  These days it’s just damned difficult to amaze anybody in the kind of world we live in.


It should be amazing that an idiot could become president of the United States. But it happened; amazing that the highest office in the land could be stolen—twice! That’s politics. We should be amazed at that, but this is a country where a president when can be impeached for consensual sex. It should have been amazing that the prosecutor put the prurient details on the Internet, so that kids all over the world could ask their parents what “oral sex” is. [1] But that’s not the amazement I’m talking about.


When somebody tells you something that you should be amazed about and you say “I don’t wonder,” you have lost your sense of amazement.   “Amazement probably comes from the word “maze,” which we know to be a puzzling configuration that it is difficult to find the exit. Now all you need is one of those hand-held GPS devices. But you’re probably not amazed because your amazement glands have been hardened by the fact that we could put satellites into orbit that allow us to find our way out of a maze (and a-mazement). [2]


Much of what usually amazes us comes from technology. Politics doesn’t, because people have been using power stupidly ever since we can remember, and will continue to do so in the future. Religion doesn’t amaze because none of those “end of the world is coming” predictions never comes to pass and that picture of the Blessed Virgin on the side of a building turns out to be the result of guano deposits. Even social life doesn’t seem to amaze us any more. There’s thoseJackass movies where guys do all these crazy stunts that break their bones and nearly kill themselves, [3] or people do those stupid Survivor adventures and eat cockroaches for money.   So what’s so amazing about that—we always knew people would do anything for money.


Still, it’s technology that amazes us most it seems, the same sensation we got for the first time a hominid picked up a piece of branch and whacked the consciousness out of the guy next to him.   It should be amazing, for example, that our soldiers today have Kevlar helmets and vests (if they purchase them themselves) that stop bullets, night-vision goggles, rapid fire accurate weapons, etc., but are being blown up by guys who improvise bombs out of cell phones and farm chemicals.   That should be amazing, but nobody seems to be giving it a second thought except the soldiers coming home with missing body parts.


Food:   When I was growing up there was no food that was really bad for you, just stuff that tasted bad. Then I became amazed that everything that tasted good turned out was bad for you.   Now I am not even amazed that I don’t die from the very next thing I eat.   I never thought I would be afraid of my own refrigerator, but now it’s like opening the door to a house of horrors.


I am no longer amazed when almost every bit of information you give to a business entity is added to a profile of your “preferences” and purchasing habits, just as I am not amazed that it is difficult these days to be almost anywhere in public, particularly in buildings and public spaces, where I am not on some sort of spy camera, or that I might draw the attention of someone with a cell phone camera who might want to surreptitiously take my photo because they think I look like Osama bin Laden.   


Part of the loss of amazement is due to the excess that characterizes our world today. Remember when a million bucks was like a Million Bucks!   It’s like nothing anymore. You need a Billion Bucks to be amazing today! Tell a woman she looks “like a million bucks” today and you’ll get slapped for being uncomplimentary. Better to tell her she looks like some CEO’s salary or “golden parachute.”


Not long ago I asked someone how he was doing and he said “very excellent, sir, veryexcellent.” We haven’t even left any superlatives to express the exceptional. “Fine” and “I’m well” just won’t do anymore; people have to be more than “a little excellent” if that isn’t internally contradictory.   Still, I’m not amazed to hear such expressions. What’s next,humungously-excellent?


Back in the 1980s author Thomas Wolfe bemoaned that fiction was more difficult to imagine because reality had become so outrageous and astounding. [4]   There were things happening—from science to politics—that, if you “made them up,” nobody would believe them.” But there they were, on the front pages of newspapers. Indeed, science fiction seemed unable to out-imagine science fact. The very basis of human biology had been uncovered, and achievements like cloning, or de-coding the human genome became possible. The silicone-based world of computers ushered in access to knowledge and information [5] beyond our wildest dreams. How can one amaze a generation that can be instant journalist-bloggers, and instant Warholian celebrities on U-Tube, and then Google themselves to gauge their instant fame?


But this new world of invisibilities beneath our sensitive capabilities also brought with it a new epistemological requisite; things happened at the cellular, sub-atomic, and CPU, level that required that we believed (trusted) their reality with our rationality more than our senses. In the old days there was a rather facile division between what we knew and what we believed. We used to be able to believe what we could see and hear and touch—what was sensate to us. Things were biological or mechanical. We could see that animals, for example, got sick, just like we do. We could touch them and hear them. We could see how a lever or a screw functioned. We may not have know what the math and science was behind these appearances, but what we could sense was not so amazing to us What we could not apprehend in this manner was consigned to the metaphysical world, a place where we just sort of made things up to suit out hopes and wishes, but in which we came to have faith was “real.”   Today that line is blurred.  We have “uncovered” a strange world that is not metaphysical but physical. There is a whole universe, many universes, beyond the immediate apprehension of our senses.   We can see and hear a lark; but what the hell does a quark look and sound like?


What remains amazing to me is that there are people who can, despite the vast advances in scientific knowledge, and its application in astonishing technology and medical advances, who, when confronted with any knowledge or its application that might in the least ways contradict their empirically baseless metaphysical beliefs, predispositions, or prejudices, deny or reject its validity.  Amazingly, there are those who still prefer myth to reality. [6]

©2007, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 3.4.2007)

[1] Most didn’t have to ask, since they know more about it than their parents.

[2] BTW: you can find your way out of a maze by simply keeping your hand on one side of the was and walking ahead; eventually you will come to the exit. Of course, it faster if you happen to have electric hedge clippers.

[3] They must not be among the 47 million people in America who have no health insurance, which also does not seem to amaze people in the world’s richest nation.

[4] Wolfe, Tom, “Stalking the Billion-footed Beast: A Literary Manifesto for the

  New Social Novel,” Harper’s Magazine , November 1989, pp. 45-56.

[5] And pornography, online gambling, and those junk mail fake Viagra offers.

[6] Still wondering who the hell Barbara Pierce is? Give her a Google.