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  • Writer's pictureRowan Fortune

Thinking About Desks

A Journey Around my Desks, in the spirit of Xavier de Maistre

I have now examined my desk more closely and have seen that nothing good can be done on it. There is so much lying about, it forms a disorder without proportion and without compatibility of disordered things which otherwise makes every disorder bearable.

The Diaries of Franz Kafka

Unashamedly, I spend a lot of time thinking about my desks. The plural there is intentional, since I have, debatably, five of them. And I say debatably because it could be argued that a laptop stand, which I use on one of my desks is large enough to itself constitute a fourth desk, and that my night stand is a kind of fifth. The laptop stand is useful as a standing desk, as it raises my laptop to my full height.

But before I get properly onto the subject of these desks, a kind of guided tour of them, I would first like to profess my fondness for Xavier de Maistre book Voyage autour de ma chambre (A Journey Around My Room) published in France in 1794. Herein the author performs what amounts to a travelogue of his room. A French aristocrat and, unfortunately, counter-revolutionary, in Turin in spring 1790 he participated in an illegal duel and ended up in house arrest, confined entirely to his single room. The intention of the writing was to merely alleviate the tedium of the sentence.

I love this book because its undertaking forces de Maistre to consider the meaning of the mundane aspects of his environment. Rather than a travelogue, he creates something of a psychogeography of the kind of intimate, small space generally passed over. A space in which many will spend the largest amount of their time. He zeroes in on facets of triviality and in so doing shows the truth of Blaise Pascal’s aphoristic and counterintuitive observation, ‘Small minds are concerned with the extraordinary, great minds with the ordinary.’

I think a lot about these desks because I spend an incredible amount of time with these objects of furniture, and they collectively shape much more of my life than I once expected they would. For so long I did not really give desks much thought, and the muddle and mess of them made the daily habits of work, of reading and writing and editing and gaming and watching (which will all occupy most of any day) needlessly tricky.

One is a so-called Cooper Mega Table, extra-large, folding laptop desk for beds. It is in a pale wood colour and has metal legs, and as the name suggests the legs fold under it so that it can be stored when it is not on my bed. It has a small plastic tray draw and because it is not intended to be permanently set up it has no permanent items kept on it. There is a small, thin long white plastic indent at the back to prop phones and the like, and a white plastic arm rest along its front.

The other two desks are in a black wood. One is a standard boxy desk with a draw, from Ikea, the other is a corner desk. They are pushed together in my room. Each has as much surface area as possible left empty. And to that end the Ikea one has the aforementioned laptop stand desk with cooling fan while the corner desk has an attachable under-desk drawer for keyboard and mouse and an adjustable dual arm desk mount for my monitor, which is thereby suspended in the air, to be spun to face either my chair or bed.

Some things need to take desk space. I have a microphone, printer, speaker/Alexa and fan, all black, on the corner desk. Atop the printer is also a book stand, magnifying glass, and art deco strip mirror. And arrayed against the wall of the Ikea desk I have a brown leather pen holder, white board, black VR headset, Focusrite Audio Interface and phone recharger pad. If all of this sounds a little colourless, my keyboard, large mouse mat (it covers almost the complete surface of the under-desk draw), arm rests and mouse are all pink and light up.

To the right of the corner desk is a neatly ordered pile of books atop a series of brown leather paper organizer draws, and atop the books is a second book stand. The books are mostly folio society editions, and are essentially contained in boxes, so rather than imagine a conventional heap of books, imagine almost yet another desk. Together they create a fairly ordered surface.

Between all of this, my wardrobe and double bed, there is not much space in my room, which is long(ish) and thin. Not enough to really make full use of the VR, unfortunately. I make use of the spaces under the desks too, therefore. My Alexa subwoofer is kept beneath the corner one (alongside yet another Alexa it forms part of a surround sound system for music), itself nestled below a single shelf built into the unit on which I keep the (far too numerous) books that I am currently reading.

In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick invented the term kipple. This is how he described the phenomenon, ‘Kipple is useless objects, like junk mail or match folders after you use the last match or gum wrappers or yesterday's homeopape. When nobody's around, kipple reproduces itself.’ For Dick, kipple was a kind of inexorable principle of disorder with its own agency; he noted that ‘if you go to bed leaving any kipple around your apartment, when you wake up the next morning there's twice as much of it.’

Sure enough, keeping a desk empty takes considerable labours. Slowly but with the relentless assuredness Dick ascribes to it, kipple will encroach on an empty desk. Therefore, I make sure that I do not go to bed without making sure to remove all kipple for my desks. It is a kind of ritual against decay. Dick saw such a struggle, at least in the words of the book, as admirably futile. But perhaps worthwhile nonetheless. He wrote:

No one can win against kipple[…] except temporarily and maybe in one spot, like in my apartment I've sort of created a stasis between the pressure of kipple and nonkipple, for the time being. But eventually I'll die or go away, and then the kipple will again take over. It's a universal principle operating throughout the universe; the entire universe is moving toward a final state of total, absolute kippleization.

For the time being, my desks are a space of ordered, constantly maintained tranquility. The emptiness of these surfaces facilitates my days, and in homage to that emptiness I ward off the clutter that seeks to overwhelm it. The attachments and stands and under-desk draws are all devices and conceits I have used to that end. It took some time before I considered these desks to be in some sense finished, in themselves. The thought that I have exerted on them has been rewarded. It is good to think about desks.


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