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“Now I have to do the same,” I said as she returned from the bathroom. I followed suit, walked to the pallid porcelain sink, and brushed my teeth at a slightly rushed pace. Spit. Craned my neck to rinse. The water pierced with what tasted like an exotic variant of chlorine, attracting and repulsing like the profane. After finishing the familiar ablution, I retreated back to the unfamiliar bedroom, where she was waiting in a robe. “I like your robe,” I’d said seven hours before, as she strolled plainly from the doorway to the bed. “Thanks, I got it at the thrift store.”

I extended my hand to her side, gripping it with affection that felt resigned. We kissed again, now unsafe under the watch of daylight’s eye, pulsating in a single tone like that soft, ominous crescendo of movies of ethereal moods. And it could just as easily have been a movie. I’d asked as much of the situation in initiating it the night before, leaning over the bar she was tending to suggest that we continue our furtive glances acknowledging prior encounters. In a cinematic register, we’d both direct ourselves to the ephemeral experience of a condensed life, totaling only twelve hours. Maybe it should’ve been two and a half.

I sat at the bar waiting for her to finish. It was approaching 3AM. I pretended to wait patiently, feigning distraction by reading that French philosopher I’m not sure I’ll ever fully understand. Does she care that I’m the type to read such things at such moments? Do I? Earlier in the evening I’d been taken back by two close friends who’d revealed to me that they’d just given up drinking. One for good. One for a “while.” That one can see depths so dark and come out on the other side seems just an exaggeration of what we all do, what we all see always.

The lights turned off. I looked up from my book, catching her smile that signaled her readiness to come out on the other side for now, with me. Now walking side by side next to the overpass, she said, “How have you been?” “Not bad,” I replied, preceding a short silence in which was contained everything always concealed by “not bads”-that sense of never quite being sure if you really are OK, but knowing somehow that you continue to wake up and keep trying to be. And then we were at her apartment. Sitting for a while, anxiously, awkwardly, we could dance unsynchronized around the fact of the matter, which could only make mention of itself in the draft coming in from outside. “It’s cold, we should go to my room.”

The steps to the hallway blended into our caresses: awkward, no rhythm really, filled with uncertainty but certainly felt. And then they were interrupted. Her roommate walked in with others, home after a heavy night of drinking away, by drinking in, their twenties. There was that damn draft again. And then another cigarette to round out the night was our final checkpoint, as we listened to one “Mindy” talk through her intermittent hiccups, her faced aged prematurely by “hitting it hard,” as I’ve taken a liking to saying lately in order to describe someone’s romantic (or sad, or frightening, or ambivalent) abuse of themselves.

But “it” is always hard hitting, no matter how lightly we pretend to tread over its coals, how much we pretend not to need desperately to feel, to embrace. Its “it-ness” makes itself felt on nights like these, where one’s desperation-loneliness on its last legs-comes to the fore almost to the point of its standing in front of you and upbraiding your sense of self, with passersby lowering their heads in embarrassment and pity, suggesting with their eyes the truly pathetic side of human longing.

***

And then this “it” that is life greeted me the next morning, in the daylight, after the exotic chlorine told me to wake up, to both stay and to leave immediately. And “it” stared at me unwaveringly minutes later, as I said “I should probably go,” as we agreed that we should start our days, as she said, standing inside the door as I left, “I’ll see you around sometime.”

-Erik Hmiel

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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

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.

Yes, Where Are You Bill Hicks?

In the end, all that’s left will be Stan Getz, blowing his horn on Jobim’s “P’ra Muchucar Meu Coracao,” calling out in a desire to rewrite songs themselves, to find melodies in the contortion of limbs, the furrows of brows, the death in grimaces. All that’s left will be Billy Holiday, subtly cooing out for languorous help from the depths of a heroin addiction; Charlie Parker resting forever on an augmented fourth like a simile of insanity.

As I ponder these apocalyptically musical thoughts in the middle of the night, unable to sleep, I can’t help but think of the tone of unwarranted optimism that plagues our political discourse. Plagues. It was the source, I think, of my recently having put a damper on an already weakening friendship by consistently pointing to the human rights violations in Obama’s drone strike policies; his shameless yet furtive promotion of neoliberal trade agreements which, among other things, abandon AIDS patients to the greed of multinational pharmaceutical companies; his emphasis on “growth” and American exceptionalism over a clear vision of something even resembling a moral good. He is in fact a politician, a deft pragmatist, taking what he can get, politically maneuvering in the name of compromise. Even Keeled. Rights and goals fall into the vacuum of procedure as an end in itself.

And me? The world I inhabit allows for such easy spurts of vitriol. It is a world in which everyone has an opinion (as they should), half of which are now made public in some way or another, or none at all. I can wade through the chorus of harsh critics and staunch supporters of whatever view, opinion, or ideology, with an eye toward arriving at an informed position of my own. Politics today-a din playing out 24/7, to which we can contribute or abstain without making much of a difference either way.

In the recent issue of The Baffler, Steve Almond has criticized John Stewart’s efforts to condemn this partisan noise and his calls for civilized public debate. Stewart encourages complacency, says Almond, by never engaging in any radical politics, never bringing on guests that go further than just merely calling for more regulation of the financial sector and increased spending for social programs. An incisive piece, Almond indirectly indicts those of my generation who sit enthralled to the tepid, meliorist Stewart, watching in a self-congratulatory way as we revel in our own good judgment, confirmed by his witty condemnation of obscene partisanship and political gaffes. Interestingly, Almond compares Stewart to a more radical comic of the early 90s, Bill Hicks. Hicks was, in fact, a more radical, idealistic social critic than Stewart. Less pointed sarcasm, more biting, direct provocation, all in the name of calling out our own hypocrisy.

In the end, all that’s left will be Hicks telling us that “if you work in advertising, kill yourself…no, really.” But what was behind the effectiveness of statements like these? Hicks’s approach to comedy was that, above all, of the social critic. But he was unique among comedians because his approach came from a place of disgust and disillusionment so great that it had no time for compromise or mere observational irony. No, Hicks wanted to attune his audience to the urgency and absurdity of the Gulf-War and military imperialism, the self-congratulation of non-smokers and joggers, our increasing anti-intellectualism, our hypocrisy in the habits of our substance-abuse qua mere consumption (“You can’t smoke pot; but go ahead, drink your drug-and we’ll sell it to you through advertising all the while”), all of which were, for him, of the same piece: our having relinquished any sense of responsibility to others in the name of an increasingly voracious, complacent, society, supported by imperialism and exploitation.

Since Hicks’s tragically early death in 1994, it seems that those following most closely in his footsteps have become increasingly adept at making us laugh by pointing out the ugly absurdities inherent to life in post-industrial culture. But it seems to be that this is the case because their humor comes from a place of utter hopelessness, so close to the precipice of complete resignation to the futility of life in the U.S that our laughter contains tears.

The poles between which Hicks made people laugh were unbridled optimism and utter despair and nihilism. Somewhere in the middle, Hicks’s rage was a sense of radical hope, the sense that speaking truth to power was not some bygone function of intellectuals and social critics.

Somehow, I find that those comedians following the closest on Hick’s heels, Louis C.K and Eddie Pepitone, are arguably funnier than Hicks, but precisely because their comic lamentations border so closely to despair and nihilism, a sense latent in so many of us that we respond with thunderous laughter when confronted with its truth. They are in keeping with a tradition borne of the discontents of affluence and progress, best represented, I think, in the birth of hip-hop, punk rock, and no-wave, the results of which are confrontations with nihilism and despair that produced, arguably, the most innovative, creative, and sustaining art of the twentieth-century.

Take, for example, a recent episode of C.K’s show Louie, in which we are subjected to the irony of Louie’s crippling fear of seeing his father. After having been cajoled by his wonky uncle, Louie, out of guilt, decides to visit his father in Boston. But as the date comes closer, he experiences a series of bizarre health problems, including spontaneous vomiting, which the doctor tells him is a result of his crippling fear. We think, as the end of the episode nears, that Louie will in fact overcome his fear and visit his father, giving us the happy ending that we seek in television (or at least a “to be continued”). But the episode ends with Louie, after finally having reached the porch of his father’s house, running away after ringing the doorbell, comically and absurdly stealing a motorcycle to high-tail it to the pier, where he steals a speedboat and takes it out to the middle of the ocean. The episode ends with the boat in rest while Louie sits silently onboard, utterly alone and stultified by fear and guilt, with the viewer left to reflect on the fact that his limitation was in fact just that, something not so easily, or sometimes ever, overcome. The camera focuses on Louie in the boat for the last thirty seconds of the episode, which ends in silence; no reconciliation or sense of continuation supported by an ending soundtrack.

The episode was a realization of and commentary on an earlier episode, where Louie meets with a T.V producer who wants to give him a show, only to rescind the offer when he informs her that his vision is of program about a guy who always loses, without any mitigating reconciliation other than the irony and truth of failure and death. Apparently Louie really did make that show.

What separates Louie C.K’s style of comedy from that of Bill Hicks, why he is arguably funnier than Hicks, is his capacity for brutal self-revelation and reflection. But his self-revelation and hilarious deprecation seem to be symptoms of the fact that speaking truth to power in our culture has become so pointless that we are left to defer to nothing but our own self-exposure, revealing ourselves as frustrated mortals without meaningful avenues for change. We expose ourselves because we can no longer expose the system; or perhaps because we’re dying to, but can’t. Combatting what Wittgenstein called our “fantasy of a private language” has become the imperative behind this need for self-exposure. (Why else would I be blogging?) But the combat has taken on the form of self-exposure as merely catharsis, as a symptom of our having pushed the fact of our political resignation to the depths of our collective unconscious, rather than self-exposure as a spur to change.

While humor and creativity have become incredibly conscious of themselves, our attraction to this self-consciousness seems in so many ways based on the unrealizability of basic social and individual goals under late-capitalism; our laughter is a reflection of our moving further away from Hick’s hope and closer to C.K’s despair.

The best artists and performers of this generation are ever more conscious of themselves, their place as human beings striving for expression in a culture which promotes plurality and diversity, but only insofar as these things are supported by shitty jobs, massive college debt, and tepid politicians. And as long as this is the case, art will only get more interesting. Self-creation in the face of limitation is not the postmodern condition, but the condition of modernity, and modern art itself.

Insofar as this imperative of art remains a fundamental form of our recourse in light of the fact that we feel so stuck, so hard-pressed for meaningful outlets of communication or political engagement, we’ll be graced left with the incisive political commentaries of a John Stewart, the existential conundrums of a Louie C.K, the loud rants of an Eddie Pepitone, all of which, to be sure, are political expressions. But these misgivings necessarily fall on deaf ears if we fail to see what they really reflect: deep crisis. If in fact we cannot recognize this beyond the point of laughing at our politicians, laughing at our own ironies, then we may in fact be doomed to perpetual laughter as merely another form of therapy, rather than the beginning of change.

-Erik Hmiel

Why Exult?

Why exult in true connectedness, given the inevitability of loss?

Last week on a remote lake in the Adirondack mountains I had one of those moments in life of pure peace. The sky, the water, the trees all framed this small protected spot in the world where I was spending three nights with family and friends. Earlier I had lost myself in the smooth glide of my kayak through dark water, in the narrow pass between a promontory of evergreens on one side and tiny islands of grasses on the other. I was with two companions, who glided along with me in their boats, and none of us uttered a word. We didn’t need to.

Sometimes one of us stopped paddling and we were suspended there, nowhere to go, nowhere to be, the way forward identical to the way back and to the place we were. Lily pads floated delicately on the water, occasionally supporting a white or yellow flower, raising it on its own little pedestal, as if for us to see, reverently. A hawk circled in the distance, eying the scene.

Now I took it all in from the vantage point of a large porch of a log cabin placed several yards up a sloping bank covered with pine needles. It was the magical time between late afternoon and nightfall and the choreography of the clouds had conspired to allow in just the amount and type of light that rendered everything a silvery-gray unity. It seemed like nothing could ever change, that I was sitting, curled up there in my comfortable chair, in the very eye of eternity.

Things changed. Darkness fell. We made a feast and ate it. We shared a lively, even raucous time, a comradely connection so comfortable we even weathered our first little tiffs here and there in the days to come, before we parted, pried apart by the gentle wrench of time and everyday commitments and plans.

*

Exultation, ecstasy, elation, elevation, exhilaration, euphoria, enjoyment, enchantment. Our inherited vocabulary hinting of our access to infinity, eternity.

What a glorious state of being. Mind-body-soul is one. You find yourself transported to another realm of experience, blissful perfection.

This feeling–or whatever it is–lies at the very heart of what it is to be truly alive and fulfilled. This does not, alas, mean that every living human has access to it often, if ever. But enough have experienced it that Freud gave it a name, the “oceanic feeling.” In shorthand here, of necessity, it has something to do with loss of self, with the deepest connection between people, a sense of oneness with the universe.

Even when not referred to directly, the presence of this phenomenon is apparent everywhere, underlying what we do and how we arrange our lives. It is at the center of religions. It is part and parcel with the highest climes of lovemaking and sexual union, with their most intimate invitations, entrances, mutual inhabiting, vulnerability, and climaxes; it can be, at any rate. Love itself is famously implicated. Music embodies it as closely as can be; it is all beauty, worship, gratitude. Words and wordlessness. Sheer silence. Poetry.

Hawkers try to capitalize on it, but it is notoriously difficult to simulate.

Hunters and seekers try to capture it, but it is notoriously elusive.

Its contradiction–whether it is paradox or simple cruelty, you tell me–is that it is an immersion in timelessness in the rushing stream that is human life, yet it comes and goes. How can that be? It’s like our kayak ride, when our oars moved us forward then sometimes didn’t, suspending us in the moment of going nowhere. This is the moment of pure being and nonbeing the philosophical marvel over. How can an experience like this, of total perfection and completion, our one opportunity for the satisfaction of our inexorable torrents of desire, our window on all things ultimate, just end? Have a heart!

My father once told me he had difficulty with goodbyes. Well, I am my father’s daughter. Is there anything more hypocritical than fate is when it throws us together then, not always as gently as after my vacation in the mountains last week, wrenches us apart?

Why do moments of bliss, so hard to come by that they may never arrive at all in some people’s lives, ever have to end? Must they? In actuality do they? Is that how things work? Is there a way to think about them, a way to re-enter them, a way to sustain or retain them, a way to restore the reverent regard that allows us to lose ourselves to them as I did among the lily-pads? A way out of, or through, the pain of separation, loss, longing? A way to be filled up, healed, overflowing, replete, complete? At one with the beloved? Lost, or found, for all eternity?

Isn’t this, at least sometimes, what a goodbye, however temporary, brings forth? Isn’t this what it is to miss someone so much that one’s life seems to bode nothing but a waking death?

How to deal with absence, how to miss someone, how to accept the movement of time– these are some of the greatest things we are charged with figuring out. And accomplishing. It’s a familiar old question I’m asking, nothing new. It is at the center of entire cultural practices, traditions of inquiry, disciplines. Culture can be seen at root as one great attempt to come up with disciplines against time, loss, death. Or, at its most enfeebled, a way to plead the fifth by refusing to ask or try to answer the question, creating a distraction, erecting a smokescreen, burying the evidence. Is our culture in such a state of shambles that it is engaged in a gigantic coverup operation, driven by the impulse of denying the centrality of this question and how we approach it to our well-being and to our very life, or lack thereof?

Today the answers that are most frequently volunteered come down to attempts to deal with the feelings brought on by an ending of such a moment of bliss or the failure to find one in the first place. Drugs are prescribed to deal with what we call now, in our attempt to name the infinite varieties of sorrow that accompany the knowledge that bliss exists, depression. But beyond the often vital function of sometimes helping someone temporarily survive the very worst, most life-threatening seizures of grief, they are not working. Nothing else is either.

Is this in part because the only antidote is re-entry, as in the blissful return of the beloved?

Is it because our window on eternity is always closed and any small opening only ever a mirage?

*

Many years ago now, though it is all very real and present, a particular friendship came to me completely out of the blue, presenting nothing short of communion, opening up a terrain of inner existence I didn’t even know existed. It can’t be captured easily or fully in words. I didn’t will it, anticipate it, plan for it, or invite it. I didn’t even think to wish for it. If I had known about it, I would have.

Naturally, I found myself looking forward to the time we spent together.

At first I looked forward to these times with tremendous interest and anticipation, thinking in advance of things I wanted to share. I inevitably forgot what these things were in the riveting focus that overtook me in our all-too-rare times together; I was lost, or found, in those moments.

As time passed, though, I realized there was some other feeling that rose up to take its place alongside my eager anticipation of the engagement and connection our interactions brought me. At the very same time I was anticipating the purest, most unadulterated joy, I felt excruciating pain. Why? How could a real connection with another human being bring not happiness alone, as I and so many others had been led to believe it would, but its exact opposite?

I realized that my joy of reuniting was so great that it made parting unbearable. The anticipation of painful parting became ever-more poignant, overtaking the anticipation of enchanted times together.

To my friend, I confided one day what I deemed a brilliant, if necessarily tragic, solution to this dilemma of pleasure and pain, of painful pleasure. If we never reunited, we would never part. The pain of parting could simply be overcome by not getting together in the first place.

So I put it to you:

In the face of the anticipated pain of parting, of the unbearable wrenching of the poor wayfarin’ stranger from her rare “oceanic” moments, why should we ever knowingly enter into bliss?

It is obvious now to me just how much easier it would have been never to have exulted than to have exulted–and lost.

-Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn

Lost Opportunities

“Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends — hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism — these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility — a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task. This is the price and the promise of citizenship.”

But is it the price we’re willing to pay?

It’s hard to read these words and not feel moved by them.  Even after the Tea Party, the 2010 midterm elections, and the rise of Mitt Romney, the eloquent vision of civic virtue Barack Obama articulated in his Inaugural Address still appears delicately within reach.  Whether or not we approve of his policies, his rhetoric smacks of unassailable truth.  And yet somehow we know it rests on a hollow foundation.  When he speaks of a vision of America as bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions, we smile faintly and assuredly, knowing he’s referring to an era other than our own.  Like the good film critics and English professors we yearn to be, we quietly register his calls for humility and restraint as the polite gestures of a politician who must radiate confidence and idealism, regardless of their content, because this is what politicians do.  (Half smile, opposite eyebrow raised.)

And so the real question is lost in translation, or rather in the transaction between Obama’s sentiments and our affections.  Feeling sated, as many of us were on January 20, 2009, by his strong dose of heady inspiration, we can return to what we know to be true through experience rather than abstraction and skirt the issue of civic virtue altogether.  Because our culture makes it easy for us to avoid the calculus of sacrifice in this among other social arenas, the affect of the contented consumer—of rhetoric, goods, and experiences—suffices as the price and the promise of citizenship for now.

This conclusion may not be as cynical as it sounds.  Given the prevalence, and the evidence, of our culture of options, perhaps we no longer need civic virtue as a central organizing principle.  Has it been rendered obsolete by present social and economic realities?  Or do the Internet, the service economy, and other recent developments offer us opportunities to retain the concept but define it according to a broader range of possible meanings than Obama recognized in his First Inaugural?  How pragmatic should we be?  What degree of pessimism is warranted at this stage of history?

These are some of the questions facing Obama supporters on the eve of the 2012 election.   No matter what the answers, the contemporary ideology of choice appears to be the root determinant.  What we make of our (in some cases) hard-won autonomy will likely decide the future content of American citizenship.  Yet our ability to use our autonomy well depends on our ability to see its effects clearly.  Nearly all facets of the dominant culture celebrate the liberating power of choice, especially in the garb of consumer preferences, and one oft-unacknowledged consequence is the way in which this power leads us to devalue others as necessary, intrinsic parts of our lives.

In a 2011 Atlantic article on changing attitudes toward dating and marriage (“All the Single Ladies”), Kate Bolick highlights this dilemma at the same time she points to one of the high-water marks in the history of autonomy:

“Now that we can pursue our own status and security, and are therefore liberated from needing men the way we once did, we are free to like them more, or at least more idiosyncratically, which is how love ought to be, isn’t it?” 

The situation, and the ambivalence, Bolick describes here gets to the heart of the paradox surrounding civic virtue in Barack Obama’s America.  On the one hand, she recognizes that women’s emancipation from an earlier era of circumscribed gender roles represents moral and political progress.  It is part of an enduring legacy in the American political tradition.  But in the same breath Bolick also exhibits a peculiarly modern form of egotism, a soft inclination to view others as means of personal satisfaction because they (in this case, members of her opposite sex) happen to exist within a marketplace indistinguishable from others.  Earlier in the article she makes this egotism plain in what appears as a casual aside:

“as women have climbed ever higher, men have been falling behind.  We’ve arrived at the top of the staircase, finally ready to start our lives, only to discover a cavernous room at the tail end of a party, most of the men gone already, some having never shown up—and those who remain are leering by the cheese table, or are, you know, the ones you don’t want to go out with.”

If this passage gives us any indication of the current state of American social (not to mention gender) relations, we have more to fear than the prospect of overt political defeat this November.  No matter whom it applies to, the assumption that others are non-essential parts within an anarchic void of inter-penetrable exchanges flouts every element of civic virtue traditionally understood.  It espouses an opportunity-based vision of American citizenship and personhood entirely at odds with Obama’s rhetoric of the collective good; but perhaps it also confirms the extent to which the president really is out of touch.

Whatever his political fortunes turn out to be, he’ll be able to say fairly that he warned us.

-Michael Fisher

Confessions

-I want to be less self-conscious about my weight, to defeat the invidious comparisons I’m always making between my own size and that of other men.

-I want to be not so prone to addiction.

-I want to merge with someone, with everyone I meet and connect with on some deeper level (though I know it’s impossible), as if suggesting to myself the wish for an early death.

-I want to fall in love (but I’m not sure I’ll ever really know what that is, nor do I care to)

-I want to fast forward to a point in my life where hindsight is twenty-twenty. I’ve wanted this, I think, since I was about eleven. I hated being a child, and I still lie about my age to strangers, claiming to be at least two years older than I really am.

-I want to be sexually intimate with nearly everyone, as if to find in them what I find in myself, a void needing to be filled, to speak for the world in pairs and trios and every permutation in constant deferment of the end, relishing in process, reflection, physical contemplation opposed to mere ends.

-I want acknowledgment of the fact that confession is so, so cathartic, without judgment, without the backlash to the extent that my writing and thoughts are perceived as too personal or effusive. Are we not all exposing ourselves in veiled form all the time, wishing that someone would understand us on some fundamental level, a level we ourselves don’t really understand beyond acknowledgment from others?

-I want to be less self-conscious, to the extent that I’m not compelled to spill my guts in this fashion (but I’ll keep going).

-I want to be able to have a political conversation with someone without feeling like an aberration, or without coming to an agreement on a blanket indictment of “the system.”

-I want so badly to tell everyone how much my every thought is informed by death, without coming across as morbid or weird or depressed or alone (though I’m a bit of all of these things)

-I want to stop using the internet altogether, because as much as I try to reconcile myself to the reality of change, I hate it; I hate how much I use it, how dependent on it I, and everyone around me is, and how it mediates reality (despite the claims by my more overtly post-modern friends that everything is “always already” mediated).

-I want to read without ever having to take notes.

-I want to kiss without ever having to say goodbye.

-I want to swim in places without water: on the couch, on the floor, in my bed.

-I want to tell certain people all about myself…really.

But most of all I want not to want these wants; I want words to do less than they do; I want to do away with the fact of my being human (I don’t want to commit suicide). But I want less self-consciousness, less humanity, and more of those things that mitigate the longing that is the human condition itself. This is the funny thing about blogging: we want so badly to say all of this (or something to this effect), because no one else will listen except, paradoxically, ourselves. We want so badly to tell and listen to our own stories because we’re so deprived of other outlets for them, so unsure about whether they might matter, so disillusioned with our work-a-day lives and marriages that we can’t understand the “place of reach” that actually informs our deeds and our words, a place of anxiety and desire for connection.

“Can you hear me…anyone,” I think with every blog I read. “Do I matter…am I real…?” One could argue that culture is a perpetual struggle to prove to ourselves our own reality, our own existence. But blogging seems to me a more desperate attempt to deal with the “truth of skepticism.” That is, it’s a way in which we can connect on a level that reminds us of another dimension, only imagined as escape. It’s not a remembrance of things past, a wistful longing of something that once was through digital recapitulation, but rather a frantic, collective, testament to the ephemerality of our longing itself, a way of reaching out in whatever way we can so as to ask questions, arguably the questions: “Can you hear me? Do I make sense? Do you relate? Do you know what I mean? Have you felt this way before? Have you thought about your own funeral? How often? Do you long for something that can’t exist?

-I want to be more than human.

 

-Erik Hmiel

Letter Writing

For this week’s post I am presenting the links to two pieces I posted this week on the award-winning U.S. Intellectual History blog that I think might also fit well here and be of interest to our readers. These meditations touch on topics we regularly explore here on our blog, including technology and the texture of everyday life.

http://us-intellectual-history.blogspot.com/2012/07/inarticulate-by-choice-decline-of.html

http://us-intellectual-history.blogspot.com/2012/07/inarticulate-by-choice-decline-of_29.html

-Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn

In the Matrix of Modernism: Veganism, Sociopathy, and OK Cupid

We were standing in Gimmie! Coffee for good reasons.  As she can tell you at the drop of a hat, they use certified coffees including Fair Trade, Organic, Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, and Rainforest Alliance.  They feature local, hormone-free milk in their espresso bars, corn-based compostable cups instead of plastic, and local providers of other goods and services whenever possible.  None of their products are cheap, of course.  But the price of Gimmie! Coffee is part of the price you pay for feeling like a better person.  Starbucks is the New Death Star, everyone knows that.  You have to be a little dead inside to buy coffee there.  You have to be one of those people.  She knows who they are.  Ask her and she’ll point them out on the street.

I didn’t ask any questions while we waited for her soy latte.  It had been a calm morning so far, and I didn’t want to introduce any discord into what promised to be a nice day together.  We’d been having problems in the relationship.  The long-distance between Rochester and Ithaca, not to mention other complications, had pushed things to the brink more than once in less than three months.  But today was to be a recovery day; we planned to take a long hike together to talk about what we could do differently.  Both of us said we wanted to save the relationship, and the hike was billed as a kind of sustainability event to determine whether or not we could.  All we needed was her soy latte and we’d be on our way.

Waiting alongside the other ethical customers, I thought it was a good time to tell her about the special lunch I made for our hike.  First there was the peanut butter and jelly sandwich.  It was actually quite sophisticated.  I started with two slices of Ezekiel 4:9 Sprouted Grain Bread, organic of course, toasted them lightly, then carefully applied Crofter’s Organic Just Fruit Blackberry Spread to the first slice.  I thought of it as the luckier of the two before I moved on to the peanut butter.  She’d voiced some misgivings about the mid-grade Smuckers I had in my cupboard the last time she visited, so I made a special point of buying a much more expensive organic brand for this particular sandwich.  It was accompanied by organic sliced carrots and cucumbers, but the trail mix, I admitted, contained only organic peanuts.  The raisins and walnuts I brought were, unfortunately, non-organic.

Knowing that she really prefers to eat everything organic, and that she takes her veganism very seriously, I half-jokingly apologized for this least decorous part of the menu thinking she’d still be impressed by my considerable efforts to please her.  The meal was certifiably vegan-friendly as far as I could tell.  But the raisins, she informed me, really were a problem.

It became an educative moment for me and anyone else who happened to be listening.  Some foods have higher pesticide residue than others, so if you’re going to decide which to buy non-organic, she said, you should make sure they’re not tree fruits, berries, or leafy greens.  These are all part of “the dirty dozen,” she explained.  There is a hierarchy and we should observe it.  Otherwise who knows what chemicals we’ll be exposed to.  My failure to buy the right product at the right grocery store now culminated in a harsh look on her face as she enunciated the word “raisins.”

Some people have a way of doing everything just right.  From the first conversations we had on OK Cupid, she appeared to be one of them.  Her diet, her intensive exercise routines, including 90-minute Bikram Yoga classes sometimes twice a day, her former Buddhism, her gourmet cooking expertise, her precise knowledge of poetry, art, and music, her meticulous composting and recycling habits—nearly every choice this woman made seemed to conform to the most rigid dictates of physical, aesthetic, and ecological excellence.  And yet something was missing.

On the walk back to my car from Gimmie! Coffee I couldn’t resist asking any longer.  I’d noticed a hickey on her neck when we left her house and I knew it would drive me crazy if I didn’t ask if I had given it to her.  This was conceivable since I had been in Ithaca two nights before.  But the large dark mark on her neck looked fresh.  Some part of me knew I hadn’t given it to her.  So, after a few more minutes of light conversation during which I looked for an opportunity to change the subject, I asked, and she proceeded to tell me the story of what happened that morning while I was driving to Ithaca.

She and her fitness buddy used to date.  I’d known that.  She even told me early on that she still had feelings for him, and I chose to continue.  It was only after our first month together when I asked if she’d told him about us that I began to worry.  She hadn’t told him, and she didn’t plan to because she felt it might endanger their friendship.  They were, after all, trying to rebuild a friendship after he’d ended the relationship several months earlier, and she felt like this effort was still somewhat fragile.  She wanted to protect it from anything that might dampen their rapport, and she asked me to understand.

I was of course uncomfortable with such an awkward arrangement—her continuing to see this fitness buddy, whom she still had feelings for, almost daily for their various fitness-related activities without any open acknowledgement that she was in a long-distance relationship with me.  But because I wanted to preserve our relationship at an earlier point of turmoil I eventually acceded to her wishes.  I promised to trust her to do three things at once: to honor our relationship while sustaining her close friendship with her fitness buddy without making the two worlds collide.  As far as she was concerned, she got the best of both of us.  I was still uncomfortable, but I reconciled myself to keeping the faith.  I believed her when she said she loved me and that she was in control.

It turned out she wasn’t.  Even though we’d planned to start our long hike at 9am, she decided to go biking with her fitness buddy earlier that morning.  At the end of their ride, she told me, he kissed her, and then he gave her the hickey.  He’d been emotional lately, and it seemed to come out of nowhere.

As soon as I asked her the question—“did I give you that hickey?”—and she responded, coldly and flatly, with “nope,” I felt every ounce of feeling I had for her drop out of the pit of my stomach.  But I wanted to hear more of her story.

“How did you feel about it?” I asked.

“Conflicted,” she answered.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, I knew you were driving here when it happened, so it was weird.”

“But obviously you kissed him back?”

“Well, yeah.”

“So where do you think that leaves us?”

“Well I guess that’s up to you.”

I’d re-joined OK Cupid almost exactly three months earlier because I thought I had no argument against it.  A friend made the case that the site and others like it are really just extensions of modernism and the city, and I was convinced.  The neat moral injunction that emerged from our discussion one night at a bar—either embrace the bricolage of possible human interactions, meanings, and experiences, or face the consequences of rejecting this latest iteration of modernism—led me to decisive action.

The day I re-opened my account I received the first message from the woman I would doggedly pursue for three months until that fateful morning.  In the beginning, I thought it was one of the most remarkable success stories of modernism in action I’d ever experienced.  But driving home that day the panorama of my idiocy was undeniable.  This is what you get when you participate in a medium that sorts people like commodities, I thought.  Bricolage ends in the possibility that one can merge extreme ethical sensitivity on the one hand with extreme ethical impoverishment on the other.  There are no rules in this new wild west.  There are only aesthetic preferences, whether they be early morning bike rides, dates with six different people six nights in a row, or coffee that makes you feel like a better person.

The peculiar form of ethical bricolage I encountered in Ithaca was not invented by OK Cupid, nor was it likely conceived in the modern era.  But one has to wonder how much the online format—particularly the primary node of the screen—reinforces a pattern of behavior that tends toward treating other people merely as means of personal satisfaction.  The OK Cupid app available on most smart phones epitomizes this pattern by turning each individual profile into a mere face on a menu, not unlike a cup of soup or an arugula salad one evaluates on the basis of taste and appetite.  At this extreme, “services” like OK Cupid and Grindr begin to look like data dumps of lost souls.  Lost souls are of course nothing new, either.  But this particular way of congregating and exchanging lostness (and loneliness) may be.

Whatever the truth about OK Cupid, I think I should have rejected this latest iteration of modernism.  I should have abstained.  Still, the seduction of experience lingers.

-Michael Fisher

Why Desire?: Part II

This was the fifth time I had seen the ad in two days, a white sign featuring Ben and Jerry’s new Greek Yogurt: there’s peanut-butter banana, some sort of fudge flavor, but most significantly to me, blueberry vanilla graham. I’ve been living in Brooklyn for the past two weeks, so travelling by subway I’m exposed to many of these sorts of ads. Everything from AIDS awareness and online colleges to the newest attempt by Adam Sandler to recover his goofy-kid glory days. I find myself wondering, after having experienced this daily deluge of advertisements, how effective they really are, and why. We all know that advertising works, as the screeds against its pernicious influence are wont to remind us. But I’d like to think that most people aren’t the dupes they’re made out to be by these polemics and academic studies and, in New York, it seems to me that, with so many people with so many interests and concerns, the last thing that many on the subway are thinking about is imbibing the faux mountain scene constructed from blueberry frozen yogurt and graham cracker pieces. Though, I certainly was.

On going into a bodega a few days ago to buy a snack, a healthy and oh so bourgeois container of prepared quinoa salad, I noticed the ice-cream cooler as I was in line to check out. I walked over to it, and there it was, the blueberry graham cracker mountain scene contained in a compact pint I could take back to my apartment, presumably to devour in solitude with a romantic comedy. I had to buy it, and did, and the experience of eating it lived up to the expectation the mountain scene provided; it was delicious, exhilarating, somehow, even scenic. Not too sweet or sugary like most ice creams, not terribly heavy, the tart blueberry was offset by the sweet crunch of graham cracker swirl. Ben and Jerry’s had done their job. The flavor had gotten into my head like a virus, only to be cured by the compulsion of frozen dairy consumption. It felt great.

I thought, in the midst of my enjoyment, of how cliché the whole thing was. Seeing the advertisement enough times had led me to buy without thought upon confrontation with the frozen pint, beckoning to me as if it knew I was coming. Maybe it did. The act was exactly what the advertising department had intended. To have been acted upon by persuasion was a strange feeling, though in many respects this was no different than having been told about a book or a movie to look into, maybe even to buy eventually. “Try our new ice cream flavor kid, you’ll love it!” is what I imagine the old-time Ben and Jerry’s traveling salesman would say. And I did. I did love it. “Thank you sir, and thank Ben and Jerry when you see them!”

But what’s the psychological import of this sort of persuasion? My desire for sweets was activated by a corporation (albeit a more or less ethical one); I paid to fulfill that desire. I don’t think of this hedonistically, and I think of the camaraderie often engendered by such exchanges in bars, restaurants. (The fun-time ads for TGI Friday’s come to mind, though I’ve never been there).

“But can this be truly fulfilling?” asks my good friend Mike Fisher. Having thought about the implications of James Livingston’s provocative and incredibly intelligent new book Against Thrift: Why Consumer Culture is Good For The Economy, The Environment, and your Soul, he’s led to wonder if consumer culture is all that we have left in modernity for the fulfillment of solidarity and emotional communion. Tough question. Can we be fulfilled by consuming? Can we exchange our desires together, in such a way that the togetherness outweighs the medium, where the medium of consumption is somehow irrelevant? And if we can only do so through the stultifying constraints of the work-leisure cycle, working to consume to escape work, then will these joint or collective exchanges prove to really be so fulfilling, or rather just collapse in on themselves in an endless cycle of repetitive consumption, as Hannah Arendt pointed out in her critique of Marx, subject to the psychology of diminishing returns?

First, perhaps we’re wrong to set erect such a stark dichotomy between the pleasures of consumption and those of communion, being with and for another. I’m not suggesting that my desire for ice cream is equal to my desire for other human beings (though it’s been suggested). What I mean is that our desire for others is, initially, the desire to consume them, and that the emotional dynamics that go into our being with others, our social discourse and acts of communion, are laden with acts of persuasion that act on this desire, at both conscious and unconscious levels. When we’re attracted to someone at any level, they act upon this desire, and we become persuaded by them to the extent that our desire to consume them transforms into desire to lose our self in them, as a sort of transcendental fulfillment.

At work in advertising, the acting on our desires through persuasion in those enticing ice-cream mountain scenes on subway walls, is a similar process. Of course, when we wind up in endless cycles of consumption disguised as permanent fulfillment, transcendence even, then we lose the initial significance of desire contained in consumption, a significance, I think, that points to our separateness, and perhaps to our own mortality. That is, if we cannot realize the significance of human desire contained in consumption, the fact that we all long to be “whole” yet can never be, then we’re blinded to the absence of heaven on earth, something we so deeply yearn for in our longing to be more than human, and forget the mark of our mortality that is the mark of separateness. But if one could come to recognize and appreciate the significance of this limitation, and appreciate the “place of reach” in our desire to consume, our perpetual yearning for fulfillment and its inevitable unattainability, if we could come to recognize this in our yielding to advertisements, then might we come to rethink the uses to which we put consumption, the purposes and goals to which we attach its name?

What I have in mind here is something like what Lyle Rubin seems to hint at in his excellent piece on James Livingston at Dissent when he writes, “I’m unwilling to issue a cheerful endorsement of our buy-and-sell predicament. What I’d like to see is a better consumerism, a better corporate America, a better modernity.” What this better consumerism, this better corporate America might look like, I’m not so sure. But it seems to me that one of the first steps in realizing it might begin on a psychological and philosophical level, realizing that we consume for many of the same reasons we desire others, the most significant of these being our imperfection.

The sheer sensory enjoyment I receive from eating ice-cream, I think, is a mark of this imperfection because, as Norman O. Brown put it, embracing our desires (even the small ones) means dealing with death, recognizing its place in our psychological landscape. Blueberry graham cracker frozen yogurt is a synecdoche for my wanting to “get on with it” (life, that is) in the best way I know how, but also a recognition that such desires, a common fact of humanity, should bind us, attune us to those around us (We can all eat ice cream together!). It’s an attunement, I think, which, if collectively articulated, could channel our desires into something greater, more ethical, something that might change the nature of our stultifying “buy-sell-work” predicament which keeps us isolated and tethered to the imperatives of the middle class and the nuclear family. We might think of it as a secular way of coming to grips with dependence and limitation, an acknowledgment of finitude as “separation” that might allow us to see in our personal concerns with work, school, and consumption, a sense of the brokenness and isolation our current political and economic climate fosters.

Such an attunement might begin, paradoxically, by recognizing the commonality in our desire to consume “things” and “others,” both of which so often end in the routine of over-consumption and addiction, like the valorization of romantic love as transcendence, because we lose our ability to recognize our separateness from these “things” and others, and so unconsciously assign to them a divine mandate that they simply don’t, and can’t have. Recognizing this limitation, even more paradoxically, should form the basis of solidarity, political and otherwise, channeling these too often unacknowledged desires toward greater social goals.

What a better consumerism might look like, bearing this in mind, could be a boon to cooperative ventures, localism, and corporate accountability because these collective efforts entail a mutual recognition of dependency and limitation, an appreciation of the fact that we mortal creatures want something ineffable out of life that will never come, but in the meantime we defer to our stuff and to other people, a deference that meets in the nexus of our Keynesian economy of consumption that, for better or worse, isn’t going anywhere.

In this deference, however, as we find ourselves in the mire of desire that is communion and consumption, finding the place of desire in both, as a recognition of separateness, could arguably be exactly what is required from us to break free from the restraints that turn this “separateness” into alienation and isolation, instead of cooperation.

-Erik Hmiel