Coloring Outside the Lines
Richard Hunt, on Routine Contaminations:
When tinkering in the world of Agent Orange coconuts for heads in the mushroom clouds of “We don’t give a damn,” you simply must not detonate your head. You may not detonate your head. “Please accept our assurances that it is much safer to stand next to a nuclear detonation than to color outside the lines: flowers in rifles and Huxley’s doors make Leary (be leery) a veerrrry dangerous man.”
Pesticides fine, radiation no problem, permissible levels of acceptable doses of routine contaminations of poison and death is perfectly safe for Us to expose you to.
In other words, to state it differently, or rather to rephrase truth in the form of misinformation, shall we say, please consider the impossible possibility that in order for Us to facilitate your health and longevity i.e. perfect happiness and American Dream i.e. hush now I’m talking son your sterility, leukemia, bone stored plutonium, genetic mutations, hair loss, and death death death must not become an item of concern.
Please believe we have your best interests at heart, PLEASE believe we will always protect you, PLEASE believe we are not motivated by profit, please, please, pleasepleasepleasepleaseplease. Please do not shatter. Please DO NOT color outside the lines.
Genres are lines, in the sense that each one contains certain strengths and weaknesses, specific possibilities and limitations. In her book Routine Contaminations, Deborah Small successfully integrates mixed media and various literary genres to create a work of educational art that is both moving and informative.
Through the astute blending of these various elements, using each according to its individual strengths, she accomplishes a more powerful effect than she could have by limiting herself to only one medium. She is coloring way outside the lines.
Just by looking at the cover of Routine Contaminations, I began to get a sense that the book is quite different than the standard required text for a college course. A drawing of Jane superimposed over a fiery red photograph of a nuclear blast is the first use of mixed media to convey meaning.
It wasn’t until later in the book, after repeated uses of the Dick and Jane characters, that I began to sense that they were representative of the American educational process.
A dominant theme throughout the book is that Americans are indoctrinated from a young age to trust our government. ‘Coloring outside the lines’ is a consistent metaphor that connects Dick and Jane to the educational and indoctrinational processes.
From a young age, we are discouraged from coloring outside the lines. Stay within established boundaries, don’t ask too many questions, don’t think too much for yourself. An example of an image that conveys this to me is on page 246. It features photos of mushroom clouds with Dick and Jane in ooh!aahh! postures gazing at the explosions. ‘Look at the power our government will use in our protection.’ They don’t see the soldiers dying of radiation exposure during testing.
This indoctrination continues relentlessly for our entire life span. It is up to us as individuals to choose to educate ourselves about the accuracy of information coming from governmental and corporate sources.
Another great example of successful blending of genres begins on page 278. First there is a beautiful black and white photo of bamboo. The opposite page features a dictionary entry on teratogens, or ‘monster producing’ agents. The following page is a printed computer screen from the Dow website that reveals the results of a search for the keyword ‘Agent Orange.’ Jane is informed that “No documents match your query.”
This string of information connects and reaffirms information learned earlier in the book. The photograph is a visual connection to Vietnamese jungles upon which U.S. troops dumped Agent Orange, a deadly herbicide and teratogen (a word which is all too clearly defined for me now). The Dow page implies a theme of disavowal of responsibility on the parts of authorities once their disinformation is revealed. I believe this sequence effectively does what Small is encouraging readers to do.
She offers images and information here, but not conclusions, opting instead to leave it up to individuals to make decisions about what to believe, what information to trust.
Small uses various literary genres to convey specific real world as well as emotional information. Her repeated uses of statistics, dates, and other relevant facts ground the text with a sense of honesty and the strength of science as a tool to establish proof.
On page 292 she uses some biography to introduce Rachel Carson as an authoritative personality informing the work. I particularly enjoyed the final section, in which Small uses a poetic form to combine biography, quotes, fiction, historical references, and original poetry. This summed up the book beautifully, leaving me at first uncertain of her conclusions, but eventually very satisfied.
A common thread through the text was Jane’s evolution from an innocent schoolgirl to an educated, analytical, self-reliant adult. In comparison, Dick moved more slowly towards being active and critical, until in the final section he says to her: “Beauty is shattering. Perhaps I am ready to be shattered” (325).
This use of poetic language conveyed more than plain prose or scientific convention could have. Looking at Jane’s evolutionary journey, and Small’s themes of resisting indoctrination through critical analysis of information and willingness to allow our consciousness to expand, it seems that Dick’s willingness to shatter is a personal decision to empower himself, to color outside the lines, to be open to new points of view and individual thought.
Throughout Routine Contaminations the images and artwork are consistently haunting, giving the text more emotional significance for me. The text would not have had the same subtle implications and visual connections without the photography and other artwork.
Photography alone could have stimulated a sense of beauty, but could not have provided all of the information that was necessary for Small to highlight inconsistencies between government assurances and the reality of the situations they are whitewashing.
The poetic language offers a glimpse into the author’s personal conclusions and destinations, but leaves room for private epiphany or the lack thereof. All in all, the combinations of various elements resulted in a book that is engaging, even haunting to read (I had trouble putting it down once I got thoroughly into it).
It is unlikely that the vast quantities of specific information will remain in my memory, but the overall effects of the book will be very difficult to forget.