I responded that people are capable of much more than they think. I said that, like in rock climbing (this was the example I chose), we are constantly faced with challenges we are sure we cannot meet, and then we meet them. Of course, self-transformation and personal growth of this radical nature takes either great courage or great trauma. The limitations have to be burnt away, the pain has to be seen and felt. It's not easy. And for most, our educational system teaches the exact opposite of this radical personal empowerment. It teaches conformity and materialism: sit in rows, speak when appropriate, rank yourself according to popularity as expressed in clothes, cars, etc. Our rhetoric is one of individualism, but so many expressions of individualism are forbidden (the use of drugs other than alcohol and nicotine, for example; or non-standard sexual practices; or having taste in music or fashion that deviates more than a little from the mainstream) that the Holden Caulfields of the world still have ample occasion to point out how phony it is.
Really, the boundaries of 'success' are so tightly demarcated - around economic and family lines for all but a few - that this 'individualism' is at best a domestication, at worst a lie. We are told to "Just Do It," but we are told that "just doing it" means consuming a certain brand, not engaging in spontaneity. At the same time, the zones of "just doing it" are increasingly constrained by ever-narrowing parameters set by an ever-shrinking number of elites. The middle-class suburb dweller doesn't care about the pesticides on his lawn because of ignorance, because of a system which brainwashes him not to care, because the harm is diffuse and remote, because he doesn't believe he can really anything about it, and because what, really, can he do about it? If the only choice is a radical one, my mother is right that it's a lot to ask. So the system itself engenders the fat, lazy inertia both positively (by sitting that fat ass in a recliner in front of a TV) and negatively (by making it hard to get off the ass and do anything).
This critique is not new - it has roots in the Frankfurt School and branches in Commodify Your Dissent - but the phenomena it observes are becoming more and more central to American life. "Freedom" means freedom to consume, not civil liberty. "Patriotism" means being for the government's policies, not supporting the ideals of America. And "success" - I might say "self-actualization" - is about fulfilling one's cultural role, not about self-actualization, not about flowering into a new manifestation of Being at this time and place. To paraphrase Joyce's Stephen Dedalus, the language we are using is the market's before it is ours.
The Protestant Ethic married to hyper-capitalism has created an American culture is one of defeat on the big issues, and of a displacement of value the desire to succeed to zones which are functionally impotent. What is the measure of a man? For many Americans, conservative and liberal, this question is still answered in terms of family bonds, ethical/religious character, and personal achievement. This is true for John Ashcroft as well as for the anonymous artist on the Lower East Side. Yet for an increasing number of Americans, it seems to me, the real measure of a man is in the extent of his comfort, even though comfort is what we need precisely when we distract ourselves from what is most important. When I'm sick, and can't write, I watch TV; when I'm tired, and take a vacation, I lounge around. But these comforts are an escape from my personal process of self-actualization - not the process itself.
I have so much personal pain surrounding the capitalist social system (particularly as it is manifested in Tampa, where I grew up) that it's hard for me to see the great fear lying within it: the fear of treading outside the carefully-marked boundaries of what success can mean. It's hard for me to get past my own experience of having felt bullied by the jocks as a kid, and see that the jocks were jocks because deviating from that norm was terrifying to them. I 'm sure they never envied me, either consciously or unconsciously. But I don't know if they could've handled being me. We want the comforts of bigness, the assurance that our egos will transcend our deaths. We want the approval of our community, and trophied achievement recognized in their eyes. It is easier to attain such things than not to attain them. So I can gain some acceptance of the mass American phenomenon by recognizing and having compassion for the fear that underlies it.
Of course, I feel the fear myself as well. Recently, after watching the film Winged Migration, which closely observes the behavior of birds, I held forth at the bar about how Darwin is right, how the jocks are successes, and how we misfit intellectuals are just the weaker birds who couldn't get laid. I said, and feel, perhaps wrongly, that the various consultants, attorneys, and bank managers are happier than I am.
Zeek in Print
Spring 03 issue available here
Simulacra and Science Fiction
I Hear America
I wish I was...
Josh Gets Contacts
When I Met Humility, I saw Letters
Zeek @ Low
June 26, 2003
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