Thursday, July 30, 2009

Waffle House: 4 of 10

The following is from a ten-part serialized essay on Waffle House, initially written in December 2008. A sort of mashup between scholarly musings and personal reflection, this piece may satisfy no one in particular. But I'm happy to share it nonetheless (presuming you don't edit or repackage this piece without my permission). Also, a reminder: these words do not reflect the opinions of Waffle House, San José State University, or any other entity.

"What will you write about?" I haven't a clue....

I think this conundrum reflects a larger conversation about finding meaning in places rather than people. It's as if I am sitting in a corner watching the streaming crowd of laughing, chatting friends, a cohort I can never quite know. The crowd congeals into a mass of barely remembered names, halfhearted conversations, jokes that never did seem that funny to me. But behind them lies a structure, something I try to see and maybe understand, even as, all too often, insight flashes by too quickly to recognize.

For the past few years I've written about something called omnitopia, an effort, I suppose, to understand. In bits and pieces, confident drives and dogleg detours, and a few hairpin turns, I've carved out some space within this portmanteau of the Latin "all" and the Greek "place." It's an idea that, truthfully, came to fruition from the velvet command of a dean to start publishing more peer reviewed articles if I had any plans to gain tenure. I can still see the wide eyes of a trusted confidant to whom I shared the news. "She wrote that?" At once, some notes from grad school days needed to find order and purpose, and pretty damn quick.

After a few iterations, I came to define omnitopia (my definition; there are others) as a structural and perceptual enclave whose apparently distinct locales convey inhabitants to a singular place. From this perspective, omnitopia refers to the experience that parallels exiting a computer terminal to visit cyberspace or entering an airport terminal to visit the global domain of movement, commerce, and discipline that marks contemporary air travel. Omnitopia is a matrix of undifferentiated, un-striated experiences that has no "capital," no "home," through it has an exemplar, which is Las Vegas. It has no ideology, but it has a motto: "Wherever you go, there you are."

In this "place," one must emphasize the necessary relationship between structure and perception. Just because you're waiting at an airport gate doesn't mean that you're in omnitopia, particularly if you're waiting for a loved one to pass through this door of this gate. The structure of nodes that perpetuate mobility from place to place, typically a conflation of consumer and corporate environments, from airport to interstate to food court to atrium hotel to convention center, requires a perception of flow, a sense of seamlessness, to render omnitopia visible.

In this enclave, one finds a set of distinct places that render even exteriors part of a barricaded interior, crafting a synecdoche of the world, individual places -- this tiki restaurant with glowing blowfish and nautical netting, that "New York" themed casino sitting next to "Paris" in the Nevada desert -- which all blur into the same continuum, one safely detached from the real world outside. Omnitopia is not a place but a desire, sometimes conscious and sometimes just below the surface, to be safe.

Naturally I wonder if Waffle House, with its interchangeable architecture, its mass-produced signage, its utter dependability, reflects a node of omnitopia. Or perhaps does it represent something more meaningful?

Part 5 of 10 appears tomorrow.

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