Learning a word from John Ashbery.
From Edward Burtynsky’s Oil, 2012, color photograph.
It started, as things sometimes do, with an Ashbery poem: “Staffage,” from his book A Wave.
The poem is more than thirty years old now, and it’s remarkable how well it captures the generation then just being born: “I am one of a new breed / Of inquisitive pest” (the poem makes clear-ish that this is a pest from the perspective of the older speaker, not in the eyes of the poet himself) “in love with the idea / Of our integrity, programming us over dark seas / Into small offices, where we sit and compete / With you, on your own time.”
It’s a kind of prophecy Ashbery can still pull off, for instance with the artisanal children of today in a poem from 2015’s Breezeway called “Seven-Year-Old Auroch Likes This”: “Will research tell us tomorrow / of normal morals? Take a Brooklyn family / in fracture mode, vivid, / energizing, throbs to the earlobes … Exeunt the Kardashians.” I predict this poem will make perfect sense in thirty years.
Less than Ashbery’s hypersensitivity to the stirrings of the future per se, what got me about the earlier poem was the title, a word I had to look up. Staffage turned out to be perfect for something I never knew I needed to say, and as the years go by—fewer than thirty, but more than a few—it only seems increasingly central to our time. This is the Age of Staffage.
Staffage is the little people, or sometimes animals, in a landscape painting, there to give it scale or liveliness but not portrayed for their own sake. A shepherd or soldier off in a field somewhere is staffage, or bricklayers on the Tower of Babel, or CGI coffee-drinkers strolling delightedly through a lobby in an architectural rendering. Karel van Mander, the Vasari of the north, called these figures “storykins” (Dutch storykens): “little stories” to animate the scenery and bring it to life.
Sound familiar? Politically, economically, environmentally, online: we are all staffage now, there only to flesh out the bigger picture. The background noise, the foreground filler. It’s not about us at all. This is not a crisis of meaning, as we had in the post-Holocaust, threat-of-nuclear-war midcentury, but rather of being, or maybe status: What do we count for, amount to? In Ashbery’s poem “Staffage”: “We want only to be recognized for what we are; / Everything else is secondary.” But what are we?
For one thing, the age of staffage is the age of -udge. There are a few other words in English, mostly artsy ones, that keep the French -age and the stress on the final syllable: montage (mounting or showing), collage (pasting together, French coller). Others are going native, with a stronger stress up front and the hardening of the -aazh into -ahdge (entourage; garage, French garer). But ‑age is also, as the OED says, “a living English formative,” making all sorts of words on its own, especially for some kind of process or its result: language, marriage, message, usage, image, pilgrimage, passage, voyage.
In these, -age is spoken with a dull -udge. Typical words in this group are for clusters or collectives: baggage, tonnage, signage. Tellingly, their meanings are borderline pejorative. Signs qua signage, bags qua baggage, are not exactly treasured for their special individual nuances, any more, perhaps, alas, than orphans in an orphanage when that word was coined. Carnage—the reduction of bodies to carne, meat. Wreckage. Garbage.
Staffage: In the dictionary, it’s sta-FAAZH; I say it’s time to make it STAF-udge. Office workers have shifted, over the years, from being personnel, to human resources, to staff; from people to raw material to an even more de-individualized mass. Nowadays, I sure feel like insignificant, interchangeable staffage, programmed over dark seas into small offices.
It turns out staffing a position and staffage are etymologically unrelated. The latter started in Dutch a century or two after Van Mander, as fake-French built on the verb stofferen, “to fit out, garnish, accessorize with stuff,” that is, with French estoffe. It quickly moved into German, and that country’s Romantics brought it into English. (The truly curious should consult Sabine Strahl-Grosse’s Staffage: Begriffsgeschichte und Erscheinungsform, also Leopoldine van Hogendorp Prosperetti’s Landscape and Philosophy in the Art of Jan Brueghel the Elder.) In English the word hung around in obscure art history writing for another couple of centuries, waiting for Ashbery to bring it to life.
Other staff words come from German Stab, originally the long walking stick and its offshoots (a flagpole is a flagstaff), then, metaphorically, a support: bread is the staff of life. Since German military leaders used to hold a large ceremonial scepter-like baton, or Stab, the heads of the army were the general staff, under the chief of staff. All the civilian senses—nursing staff, staff of a newspaper, employee of a large-ish business in general—came later.
Today, the convergence of a team of people with a pejorative mass noun is a potent one. The poet A. R. Ammons’s magnum opus is the book-length poem Garbage (2001), written after he saw a giant pyramid of trash in Florida and felt that this was “the sacred image of our time.” In fact, though, the Udge is us. In the visual version of Garbage, Edward Burtynsky’s Oil (2012), a book of stunning photographs of sludge, salvage, oilfields, tankers, refineries, cars, roads, factories, polluted water, and skies on fire, some of the photographs are bird’s-eye; most of the rest are from slightly overhead, so that the picture plane tips us in. There are almost no people in the pictures, except, as it were, for the tipped-in viewer. We are the staffage. Turning page after oversized page of that book makes you feel it: your place in the world.
The narrative implied by Burtynsky’s book is simple and we all know it: Individual action doesn’t make a difference. I think that those months in the summer of 2009 as hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil a day, day after day after day after day, poured into the Gulf of Mexico from an exploded underwater well and we all went about our business even while we knew, because nothing could be done, was when it started to sink in. Staffage. No more storykins.
Damion Searls, the Daily’s language columnist, is a translator from German, French, Norwegian, and Dutch.
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