Monday, April 13, 2009


"Our culture...desires men who will be willing to be mowed down in anonymous rows if need be, used up in families in farms and factories, thrown away on the streets of sprawling towns, who want to pass through existence so cleanly no trace of them will ever be found." --William H. Gass, Habitations of the Word

American society does indeed desire and shape people "who want to pass through existence so cleanly no trace of them will ever be found." These are exactly the Americans to whom politicians pander and whom they implicitly insult by characterizing them with long strings of cliches: they are 'ordinary Americans' who 'play by the rules,' who 'work hard' and 'do everything right.' They are the docile subjects the system creates to perpetuate itself. But reality is more complex and surprising than any ideological model. People can and do rebel, and when they do so in significant numbers, the system is forced to alter itself. This is very far from revolution, though, and the problem Gass identifies remains rampant in America. The extraordinary pressure to be unexceptional, applied most effectively by and among peer groups in the early grades of our public schools, is an awesome and rarely discussed force in American life. And it's little discussed, I imagine, because it's a side effect of one of the brightest aspects of American culture: representative democracy. A generous and originally radical levelling instinct, the idea that "all men are created equal," has been perverted into an antipathy toward those who display intellectual superiority. Intellectuals are 'book smart' (a phrase always spoken sneeringly), while Sarah Palin's 'real Americans' are 'street smart,' a distinction that implies the latter group acquired its knowledge more naturally, through experience, rather than through the unnatural and probably unAmerican activity of reading books. (The distinction is bogus and won't withstand the slightest amount of real thought-pressure. Anyone who doesn't consider reading an 'experience' has never read well.) Demonstrations of obvious intellectual superiority in an American context will often provoke belligerent or resentful comments such as "You think you're better than me?" The best reply to this would be, "I think I think better than you, which is not exactly the same thing." Rejoinders rarely work, however, when interlocutors are excessively proud of their thickness. The best conversation to have with such people is none.

On the other hand, just as there's much truth in Gass's remark, it conceals the more diverse reality of American society as a place where the overwhelming pressure to conform and be unexceptional tends to force the exceptional to the margins, where they find a (perhaps dubious because marginal) measure of freedom. The pressure to paint oneself in one of the many shades of corporate bland (The corporate world is like a Baskin Robbins with 32 flavors, all vanilla.) can be figured as an enormous leather loafer (a jackboot would be far too gauche for the smiley-faced corporate fascism of our time) bearing down on a flat steel plate that represents the various disciplinary structures of our society (from cradle to classroom to cubicle to coffin--the alliterative through-line of the American Corporate Dream; its resemblance to a nightmare is one of the great unthinkables of the American Now). Almost all of the soft human clay underneath the steel receives the impression of its flatness with minimal resistance. But a few harder clumps of earth, a number of pebbles, some irritatingly persistent weeds will be squeezed out along the edges of the plate, thus arriving by conformist pressure at a position--the margin--from which the mechanism of conformity can be seen entire: corporate foot, societal steel, human clay. Thus does conformity, by a mechanism that woiuld leave Hegel and Marx unsurprised, create nonconformity. This is not a too-clever linguistic game or an essay in moldy dialectical dogma, but a recognition that the same force that turns the mass of men and women toward lives of corporate desperation also creates a minority resistance to itself.

(A brief autobiographical aside. I feel the truth of these ideas in my own life. My experience of the repellent force of corporate conformism predated my readings in Chomsky, Zinn, Marxism, anarchism, etc. Corporatism repelled me first, then I began transforming my mind into a site of resistance [if such rhetoric isn't too delusionally grand, as it almost certainly is]).

The nearly insurmountable problem with marginal resistance lies in its marginality. (Now's the time to say, "Duh!") Anything on the margins of society can be labeled crazy and easily dismissed, labeled criminal and easily silenced, labeled inconsequential and effortlessly ignored. Isolated, alienated, often mutally antagonistic even to the point of violence, genuine outsiders are difficult to romanticize--like the dingy, smelly reality of poverty, something the marginalized know all too well. Powerlessness comes with the territory and is sucked from the mother's breast, so it's extremely difficult for those on the edges to see their position as in any way 'privileged,' to appreciate that they are in a position to see how America really works--a much better position than, say, a bond salesman for Merrill Lynch or anyone else who has become the hegemonic ideology, an embodiment of corporate capitalism, one of the pure products of America who need never go crazy because he has plugged himself into the general madness of the 'new normal.' From outside the structure, its mind-killing madness is obvious; from inside, those on the outside can only be seen, if at all, as targets of exploitation (recall the Enron Tapes, a fleeting glimpse into the uncensored corporate mind that received far too little airplay a few years back). The corporate mind is technocratic and inhuman. Its only morality is the maximization of profit. As the authors/filmmakers of The Corporation argued compellingly, the corporate mind is psychopathic, and we are thus an entire world in the grip of a psychopathy (or several distinct psychopathies: corporatism, religious fanaticism, totalitarianism). And as Marshall Berman reminds us, in All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, capitalism is essentially nihilistic, and the nihilism of the powerless is nothing compared to that of the powerful. A fact that must be remembered whenever we hear a representative of power calling anyone else a 'nihilist.'

Let's wrap this up by thinking for a minute about this nihilism. Corporate nihilism, capitalist nihilism, American nihilism, the terrible, tragic darkness at the center of our national life, a darkness we've now exported to the world under the name of globalization. It's the spirit that informs the best and darkest of American literature, from Melville to Cormac McCarthy. The meaninglessness, the nothingness, the terror that arise from a consciousness of the nothingness at the center of American life. This is the true emptiness in our lives. It's an ontological hole, not a God-shaped theological one. It's an aspect of our being, not our thoughts. The self formed under capitalism bears an emptiness at the core, a void over which we perform our selves, an essential meaninglessness identical perhaps to the absence of essence that's the starting point of Sartre's existentialism. (Of course it's not really a ''blank slate" upon which the culture writes. A significant amount of what we are may be inherited, but this is mostly basic stuff common to all members of the species (the cultural universals) or is in the nature of tendencies rather than imperatives.) Our emptiness is ontological, not theological, so religion can't cure it. Religion is only another time-honored way of stuffing the void with garbage. So-called 'popular' culture is a more modern method of arriving at the same shit-soiled end.

That said, Little Richard still kicks ass.

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