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Month: September, 2012

Antiquing on an Afternoon—and Mourning

A few weeks ago I returned from an afternoon at the Madison Bouckville Antique Festival in Central New York. Held each year in an idyllic spot on Route 20 to the East of Cazenovia and Morrisville, the festival brings together people from all over the region and beyond who display and view in booth after booth everything imaginable you knew existed and all kinds of things you didn’t. Innumerable remnants of the past find their way there, either because of an accurate valuation, an attempt to hoodwink customers into an inaccurate valuation, or simply someone’s idiosyncratic taste.

Like my fellow explorers, I set sail upon this sea of material culture mysteries and memories to see where it would take me.

It took me many places this year, most of them dark.

Everyone there seems to be looking for some kind of treasure. Why? What motivates someone even to choose to be there, sweating profusely in the merciless August sun, looking through the millions upon millions of pieces of what might appear, if it were not arranged and presented–and priced–as if it counted, to be just so much junk?

What is your aim in this? What strange purpose propels you? What quixotic quest are you on? What are you looking for? The questions are not so different as for life itself. What is it you actually want?

To buy low and turn right around and sell high? Isn’t that the underlying premise for some who volunteer for “Antiques Road Show” and the motivation of many who troll  garage sales to see whether some unsuspecting soul is willing to part with some obscure object for a song when it may really be worth millions on e-bay? What looks like an amateur pastel drawing might instead turn out to be an original artwork by Elizabeth Olds, perhaps, or another WPA artist, as a friend of mine and I discovered at a little antique shop in the middle of nowhere in the Adirondack mountains a few weeks ago. Unfortunately for us, this dealer knew exactly what she had and priced it accordingly. My friend had found the picture “fun” is all, in his words, with the quirky expressions on the brightly clad figures’ faces as they were transported by mirth. He would have paid ten dollars but had not set out to purchase something worth forty times that.

Or is your motivation instead to find something of value to you in its own right? Something useful, something to give as a gift, or something beautiful to hang on your wall or place on a shelf? Something quirky–as in the case of the Olds–, hilarious, of nostalgic value? Something important or interesting you think should be preserved for posterity?

What’s your pleasure, as they say? Resale? Keepsake? Momentary thrill of discovery? Rediscovery of some staple from your youth?

Whatever the purpose for individual perusers, out here in these hot fields in the heart of summer, this activity seems to revolve around things. Miniature, huge, shiny, rusty, delicate, rough-hewn, breakable, indestructible, crumbling things. From dirt-cheap to obscenely expensive. From lovingly crafted to mass-produced. Art. Kitsch. Junk. Pure garbage.

But as is the case with nearly every activity in which humans participate with great relish and riveted interest, is something else going on here? It seems far-fetched that people of all ages, incomes, and walks of life should converge on this patch of land just to search for a meaningless little nicknack–though judging from critics of mass consumption, this might well be precisely what they are doing.

Is it the trip itself that is the real point and not the material object?

If so, just what are we visiting? Or is something being visited upon us?

It seems for many people, judging by the tone of their comments, this is clearly a trip down memory lane. In some cases, maybe it’s an attempt to glimpse perhaps for the last time–through some kind of memento–an earlier period they lived through. Those are the bowls grandma used to cook with. Those are like Dad’s old tools. I had that exact Barbie Doll when I was little. There is that Elvis Presley album, the first album I/my father/my grandmother ever bought…

*

In the past, my trips to Bouckville had been joyful, or at least that’s how I like to remember them. It was an escape for me to go there, to what seemed like this remote little town a drive of an hour or two from Syracuse.

This time, though, the festival’s timing caught me plagued by my own prior worries–nothing more than life’s agonizing disappointments and near misses, the familiar furnishings of the interior rooms of a typical human being even under the best circumstances. Because of that mood, the activity that presented itself before me appeared altogether different this year.

As the objects themselves receded, so new and intriguing to me in past summers, the people instead came to the fore. Yet they came not in their warm-blooded and time-bound particularity, but as one gently-moving, somber ensemble that spoke in hushed and undulating tones, handling and caressing everything in sight with an egalitarian care, unwilling to consign some things to the so-called dustbin of history.

Maybe they were just being polite. Knowing that you might suddenly find yourself responsible for paying for a piece of precious glass you just broke by accident is enough to tame the most boisterous among us. But this was an equal opportunity function, hardly restricted to the well-healed or well-mannered. As people around here say of the annual New York State Fair held a couple of weeks after Bouckville, this event draws the “salt of the earth.” Many people are lively and loud, make no mistake about it: it isn’t a morgue or anything, silly. (Or is it?) But when people looked at the merchandise, whether a rickety old chair that has no business being on its last legs judging by its all-too-recent provenance, or a piece of hand-made lace, their general demeanor seemed serious almost to the point of abject reverence.

Is it possible that along with all of the other purposes of those of us antiquing there that fine day, we were also possibly participating in a collective project of mourning having less to do with buying and selling and more to do with our histories and our souls, or, to put it another way, with our history and our soul? We pick up an item, we handle it with care, our thoughts seem to go elsewhere…then we finally set the thing down. And in this current economy especially, we usually then keep moving, to the next seller’s stall, not having parted with our money too easily. After all, we’re not fools. Unless the item is perchance really valuable, or really quirky. Or useful to us today in our warm-blooded lives.

People shopping together murmur inaudibly to one another, though sometimes you are close enough to hear them. Incredible…what detail…how rare…how beautiful…

It no doubt has the character of a museum, at least in part, this odd gathering. The presentation has nothing, however, of the order and organization of a museum. In many ways these miles of wares are the museum’s very antithesis, whatever the logic and appreciation for chronology of the occasional obsessive-compulsive dealer’s stall (you guessed it, these have a special attraction for the likes of me). Taken together, these things come from many different times and places and makers and users. They’ve seen better days–by definition. They show their age. And then some. They don’t have character: they are character–embodied.

They remind different people of different things, and some people no doubt of nothing at all. One thing pulls gently on someone’s heart strings, another clamps down on it or another vital organ with a vise-like grip. Something glimpsed out of the corner of an eye haunts you and you can’t move away from it fast enough. Something else–not it, even, but just its musty smell or 1970s colors, all shaggy brown and orange–repels you and threatens to seduce simultaneously. Did that item, or something like it, belong to some household in an earlier part of your life and does it even now strangely have some power over you, either for good or ill? Were you even consciously aware of it back then? What is it doing here, still part of the present? What’s past is past.

What is going on here? Is this a kind of mass wake or what? Is this a masochistic mourning ritual, an opportunity to have the past…no, not just the past but many, many pasts all clamoring for attention at the same time…present and accounted for, but in this new disembodied disarray of the current moment, no longer divied-up into separate into households, containable by use and context and safely time bound but ripped from their moorings? What’s the point, to swamp us in such a swirling, sucking miasma of tactile reminders of moments of our own real pasts and just as many provocations to remember through imaginative recreation the infinite pasts of others before us? One shed had not one or two weather beaten wooden milking stools but rows and rows of them, still solid after all these years, ready to support a sturdy farmer, even though not a one might be able to be found in this futuristic age of electrified factory-farms. Crazy. Too much.

Or are we pulling at all these threads from what was some blanket, whole cloth, even if it was just barely serviceable, trying to get it to disintegrate already? We say we miss those who are gone, but by forcing ourselves to revisit their accoutrements, are we trying to get them to stay dead, gone, safely settled and covered in dust. Now that’s old.

The older the stuff is, after all, the younger we are. Not old. Not an Olds–yet. Let’s mourn it. That’s safe. A safe thing for us to do on this summer day. Better the chaos of every other time period crashing in on us than to lose ourselves in the chaos of the moment or the uncharted future.

After awhile all the stuff became, to me, oppressively multitudinous. Table after table, stall after stall–all plopped down like so many cow patties in pastures temporarily claimed just for the purpose of this event, whatever that may be. Improvised street after improvised street worn into the ground by foot traffic like so many cow paths to the milking barn, edged by sharply jutting trunks of long-grass mowed just for this one annual purpose but about to erect themselves forcibly again, unlike the soft, unnaturally green, tame little feathers of the suburban yards to which so many of the shoppers will soon safely return. Those wild grasses will hide all this man-made fuss, with our trivial daily doings. Our must-have vase here, our one-of-kind baseball card there.

*

From E. M. Forster’s Passage to India, after Mrs. Moore has been deeply disturbed by her experience of the Marabar cave: “And if several people talk at once, an overlapping howling noise beings, echoes generate echoes, and the cave is stuffed with a snake composed of small snakes, which writhe independently….The more she thought over it, the more disagreeable and frightening it became. She minded it much more now than at the time. The crush and the smells she could forget, but the echo began in some indescribable way to undermine her hold on life. Coming at a moment when she chanced to be fatigued, it had managed to murmur, ‘Pathos, piety, courage—they exist, but are identical, and so is filth. Everything exists, nothing has value.’ If one had spoken vileness in that place, or quoted lofty poetry, the comment would have been the same—“ou-bourn.” If one had spoken with the tongues of angels and pleaded for all the unhappiness and misunderstanding in the world, past, present, and to come, for all the misery men must undergo whatever their opinion and position, and however much they dodge or bluff-it would amount to the same, the serpent would descend and return to the ceiling….it had robbed infinity and eternity of their vastness, the only quality that accommodates them to mankind….She sat motionless with horror… ”

*

Did you see anything at Bouckeville?

Nothing much. Just a little box…Pandora’s, I think it was called. The top was threatening to come off, so I let it be.

*

Dust to dust, the past is what the past is.

We take a last look, salvage what we can still fit into the current order—that which we think pertains to us, as it is we who are the living, don’t you know–and bid adieu to all the rest. Sad in some ways, but necessary, like a funeral. Right?

A funeral that just happens to take place every year.

-Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn

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The Culture of [fill in the blank]

If we’re to take Christopher Lasch’s 1979 analysis of American culture as authoritative, and also containing some predictive power, the last decade and a half appears to mark the capstone of the “culture of narcissism.”  The spread of the Internet and its most successful offshoots—notably, social networking sites like Facebook and OK Cupid—pushes what Lasch called “the apotheosis of individualism” to an even greater height.[1]  We are awash in savvier new age therapies, now amplified with greater claims to delivering lasting fulfillment because they are powered by increasingly sophisticated means of mass distribution (witness the TED talk).  Gadgets like the iPhone and Android smartphones offer the promise of complete independence from the inconveniences of talking face-to-face or asking for directions at the same time they enforce an ever more total dependence on the digital interface.  Worst of all, there is no sign that any of this will let up soon.

The neologism “smartphone” is an interesting designation worth lingering on.  What does it mean when we dignify a tool with a title signifying intelligence?  Lasch might ask.  Does it suggest that we have ceded some of our own power as rational beings to our more efficient gadgets?  If so, what vision of progress is embedded here?  It’s easy to wonder if the word itself denotes more respect for the tool than the person using it, but this is likely just the tip of the iceberg.  Judging by the leading indicators, the age of Apple, Google, and the new technocrats who herald the virtues of other-direction as repurposed “friendship” (Mark Zuckerberg) or “dating” (Sam Yagan, OK Cupid’s CEO) confirms everything Lasch forecast over 30 years ago.  It is merely a further irony of history that his book is now more readily procured by way of Amazon and absorbed through its Kindle.

And yet, however prone we are to remember Lasch’s analysis when we feel the empty bottles and crushed cans of contemporary culture pressing against us, there is an alternative reading available.  According to James Livingston, we and our gadgets are living in revolutionary times.  The cultural transformations that followed in the wake of capitalism’s great successes over the past 150 years mean much more than Lasch lets on; in fact they prove that his deep pessimism is entirely unwarranted.  As Livingston argues in his latest book, Against Thrift (2011), the discrete psychological and characterological patterns that emerge with modern consumer culture are actually good for us—good for our economy, our environment, and our souls, as he puts it in his subtitle.[2]  More specifically, the distinctive habits, values, and folkways that consumer culture fosters allow us to relate to one another more deeply and to experience activities like listening to music and eating gourmet food more richly.  Taken as a whole, these manifold opportunities make the culture of late capitalism an altogether better place to live than any epoch that came before it.

By breaking down traditional moral restraints that once imposed clear limits on consumption, pleasure, and instant gratification, Livingston argues that our late-capitalist consumer aesthetic—available and prevalent in most western countries, preeminently the United States—helps rein in a new form of social democracy in which everyone plays an equal role: that of consumer-citizens.  Advertising facilitates this tidy procession of goods and satisfying consumer experiences by ebbing away at the residual cultural cache of Puritan thrift and Victorian moralism—and so long as the U.S. government (among its other western, or at least good capitalist, counterparts) ensures an adequate distribution of income—seemingly a strange fantasy on Livingston’s part—progress will continue unabated.  The democratization of consumer-citizenship and its attendant form of pursuing happiness will be the metanarrative of capitalist development long after Mark Zuckerberg is dead.[3]

Such is Livingston’s optimistic counter to Lasch’s dismal portrait of late- twentieth century American culture and society.  They form a convenient opposition for certain purposes—but if we consider them our only options for appraising where we stand in light of recent history, it’s not hard to come to the conclusion that both arguments leave something to be desired.  In their own way, Lasch and Livingston each tend to polarize our understanding; they rely on different kinds of generalizations, and in the end they both present overly stark and totalizing pictures of complex social realities.  If only because both writers gloss over the infinite multiplicity within the singular American culture they attempt to paint with one broad brush or the other, we have good reason to ask for more specificity, more accuracy, and more nuance—if we can get it.

What we need is a new path away from Lasch and Livingston’s two poles.  Following Lasch’s lead, we need to look closely at what we’ve lost in the march toward post-modernity.  But following Livingston’s lead we need to envision the culture of late capitalism as a complex field of experimental culture play in which newly independent agents, often endowed with newly acquired material means, articulate novel configurations of identity, selfhood, and moral values.  Above all we need to try to get at some of the new definitions, discourses, and representations of subjectivity that multiply alongside, and often in response to, our ubiquitous consumer culture.  In other words, we need to think about our culture—and cultural phenomena like the Internet—more anthropologically.  What does the prevalence of smartphones tell us about the particular longings of Americans living in the early twenty-first century?  Is it possible that the culture of options, of manifold available forms of selfhood, which is embodied in the Internet and fostered by the mass consumption of gadgets, carries the premise of democratic citizenship to its highest possible realization?  What do we make of Facebook then?

We will always be scratching the surface of the culture we seek to represent under one light or another.  The question is how we should go about sorting and characterizing those tiny glimmers we can see.

-Michael Fisher


[1] As Lasch put it in 1979, “The growth of bureaucracy, the cult of consumption with its immediate gratifications, but above all the severance of the sense of historical continuity have transformed the Protestant ethic while carrying the underlying principles of capitalist society to their logical conclusion.  The pursuit of self-interest, formerly identified with the rational pursuit of gain and the accumulation of wealth, has become a search for pleasure and psychic survival.”  It is not difficult to picture Lasch perusing Facebook or OK Cupid and coming to the same conclusion about the Marquis de Sade’s vision of republican society: “Sade imagined a sexual utopia in which everyone has the right to everyone else, where human beings, reduced to their sexual organs, become absolutely anonymous and interchangeable.  His ideal society thus reaffirmed the capitalist principle that human beings are ultimately reducible to interchangeable objects.”  In our case, to “friends” and/or potential dates we see scrolling down a screen.  Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (New York, 1979), 68-69.

[2] Although Livingston has been developing his defense of consumer culture for almost twenty years, it is only in his latest book that he opted for such a provocative title and subtitle, which reveal the scope of his ambitions.  As he puts it in the introduction to Against Thrift, “In this book, I make the case for consumer culture: why it’s actually good for the economy, the environment, and our souls, among other things.  In this sense, I’m trying to heal the split in our personalities by demonstrating that less work, less thrift, more leisure, and more spending are the cures for what ails us.”  See James Livingston, Pragmatism and the Political Economy of Cultural Revolution, 1850-1940 (Chapel Hill, NC, 1994), Pragmatism, Feminism, and Democracy: Rethinking the Politics of American History (New York, 2001), The World Turned Inside Out: American Thought and Culture at the End of the Twentieth Century (Lanham, MD, 2009), and Against Thrift: Why Consumer Culture is Good for the Economy, the Environment, and Your Soul (New York, 2011), x.

[3] That is, if he dies at all.  According to Raymond Kurzweil, author of The Singularity is Near (2005), “we will transcend all of the limitations of our biology” in the next 30-40 years.  As Ashlee Vance reported in the New York Times in 2010, Kurzweil is betting on “the arrival of the Singularity — a time, possibly just a couple decades from now, when a superior intelligence will dominate and life will take on an altered form that we can’t predict or comprehend in our current, limited state.  At that point, the Singularity holds, human beings and machines will so effortlessly and elegantly merge that poor health, the ravages of old age and even death itself will all be things of the past.”  Silicon Valley entrepreneurs like Sergey Brin and Larry Page, the founders of Google, are the major funders behind Singularity University, which started offering courses on the latest and most promising new technologies in 2008.  It goes without saying that some of these courses cost upwards of $25,000 per ten weeks, which means that Zuckerberg’s kind of wealth may be a perquisite for entering the next phase of human history in a privileged position.  Strangely, James Livingston has yet to comment on this prospect.  See Ashlee Vance, “Merely Human? That’s So Yesterday” The New York Times, June 12, 2010.