Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Sartre: The Flies

Sartre, Jean Paul. No Exit and Three Other Plays. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.


The sky above Argos, even when the sun is shining, hangs heavily over the earth. The ground seems barren, whatever may grow on it. The streets are largely silent. And in their houses, the people pray for repentance, for salvation from their crimes. The Argos of Sartre’s “The Flies,” like its people, is filled with, in Zeus’ words, “the good old piety of yore, rooted in terror.” (54) This is Argos after the Iliad, after Agamemnon has returned home victorious only to be murdered in a scheme by his wife, Clytemnestra, and her lover, Aegisthus. A man who fought for Greek honor (dishonorable though he was) returned to betrayal, and the people, in their lust for blood, relished his death. The story of every person in Argos on the day of Agamemnon’s death is the story of the old woman of whom Zeus says, “while you peeped behind the curtains and held your breath, you felt a little tingling itch between your loins, and didn’t you enjoy it!” (54)

This is the backdrop of Sartre’s play about freedom and responsibility: it takes place amidst the very personification of guilt and repentance. After the cruel death of Agamemnon, the city began to feel dark, however bright the skies were; the soil became barren, landscape bleak; and in came the flies, to torture the people who listened to Agamemnon’s cries that night. They and their children wallow in repentance every day of their lives, wishing only to be forgiven. And one day every year, the dead rise from their place in hell to torment the living, to take revenge on those still breathing. The living in Argos regret many things, but nothing more than their forgetfulness of the dead, their ability to live while the dead linger in Hades; above all, they say, “Forgive us for living while you are dead.” (78) Only such regret, they believe, can make them whole.

Into this setting walks Orestes, son of Agamemnon and heir to the throne of Argos. Thrown from the city when he was a youth, saved from death only by chance, Orestes has no memories of his home to cling to or be restrained by; his past was one of high education, skepticism, and light-heartedness. He was never given to regrets, nor was he given anything to regret; in fact his past remained, until shortly before the events of the play, a completely mystery to him. Orestes thus stands as an absolute opposite to the people who were to be his subjects: they are weighed down by the shame of their actions, their desires, and their past, whereas Orestes can say truthfully of himself: “I’m free as air, thank God. My mind’s my own, gloriously aloof.” (59) Orestes is free; he has nothing to bind him, no secret regrets to enslave him.

Yet one must always be wary when quoting a play; a poorly chosen quotation hides the context, the subtext that only performance can show.

When I was seven, I know I had no home, no roots. I let sounds and scents, the patter of rain on housetops, the golden play of sunbeams, slip past my body and fall around me—and I knew these were for others, I could never make them my memories. For memories are luxuries reserved for people who own houses, cattle, fields, and servants. Whereas I—! I’m free as air, thank God. (59)

Argos is scorched earth; all in Greece know to give it a wide berth. And yet Orestes has entered the town itself to see it with his own eyes. Why? He has no memories of his family, no bond to lure him. No belongings of his are there, nothing to retrieve. Instead, he seems driven by a desire to see the thing that should have been his home: “an Argos evening like many a thousand others, familiar yet ever new, another evening that should be mine . . . .” (60) Orestes was raised an enlightened Greek, given the best learning and the finest fruits of civilized life. He had no need to suffer for crimes that he did not commit, that children who were not alive are paying for (“Please forgive us. We didn’t want to be born, we’re ashamed of growing up.” (78)). Yet he has a strange desire to return to his home, to have its past be part of him. He seems to be almost willing to take on the suffering of the people, a suffering that isn’t even his own, to do so. The question is, why?


Another question lingers as well: what of the people? Why do they stay in Argos? After all, the whole world is not cursed with swarming flies and repentance as Argos is. What keeps them there year after year, regretting their lives but unwilling to end them? There is at least one that doesn’t accept this fate: Orestes’ sister, Electra, who remains captive in the palace. Washing dirty linens all day, she scorns her fate and hopes for the day when it will end, when justice will be paid. She refuses to fall into the cycle of regret that the rest of the city has fallen prey to: “if I let myself be tainted by your remorse; if I beg the gods’ forgiveness for a crime I never committed . . . . Ugh! The mere thought makes me sick.” (67) Electra has suffered vengeance for a crime she did not commit. The people of the city, even those too young to remember the cardinal sin, allowed their freedom to be taken away by guilt; she, however, seeks only the moment when things will be set right. And every day she prays for the day when Orestes will be there to free her from her suffering, to make everything right.

And on this day, Orestes has come for her. He arrives and does the job, killing Aegisthus and Clytemnestra, who is also Orestes’ and Electra’s mother. In so doing he sets his people free of their corrupt king, and sets his sister free of the slavery their parents inflicted upon her. The people, driven by whatever drives their repentance, are livid; they beat on the door in anger the next day. But the people one can almost understand. The greater question is, why Electra?

For Electra does not celebrate in the shadow of their victory. She feels the weight of Orestes’ actions, and thus her desires, weighing in upon her. “Your crime. It’s tearing off my cheeks and eyelids; I feel as if my eyes and teeth were naked . . . .” (109) The sudden regret on the part of Electra is surprising, and it’s not clear where it is coming from. Is it the simple realization that what they have done will have consequences? Was her lust for blood just the longing of a foolish youth who didn’t yet understand the gravity of her choices? Perhaps it is a strange surge of filial piety?

It’s something else. For this crime was theirs both, but she said, “Your crime.” And she says it again, more clearly: “I dreamt the crime, but you carried it out, you murdered your own mother.” (111) She was the one who begged him to do it, she was the one who snuck him into the palace, she was the one who commanded Orestes to strike Aegisthus down at the vital moment. So why regrets now? Why does she, in the moment after her passion, act in the same way as the other people of Argos do? And why does Orestes not? What is their difference?


It’s not because Electra loved her mother; she hated Clytemnestra far more than Orestes could. It’s not because Electra is an innocent soul and Orestes has no morals. It is because, in the end, Electra couldn’t commit herself to her crime, and Orestes could. For there is an important difference between Orestes and Electra, the same difference that separates Orestes from all the other men and women of Argos, and the single difference that animates the play. Electra, like the people of Argos, is ashamed of herself, of her choice. In wishing death upon another, and in seeing the dead, she suddenly sees herself a criminal, the same as all those citizens of Argos who wished death upon their previous king. Her past becomes her shame, and she wishes to disown it, to put it behind her. For this she prays to Zeus, who offers her this solace: “You never willed to do evil; you willed your own misfortune.” (114) Electra was, Zeus tells her, the tragic heroine, tortured by living itself until, like any human would, she acted rashly, and in so doing brought about her own misfortune. She did not choose to be treated so harshly, to be degraded; had she known better, she would have been just. She did not wish to be so. There is a similarity here that is no coincidence. The children did not wish to be born; but they were, and now they can only regret it, and hope to be forgiven. They are criminals, all of them, Electra included; but they do not want to be; they only want forgiveness.

Except for Orestes. “I am no criminal, and you have no power to make me atone for an act I don’t regard as a crime.” (113) Orestes is not, with these words, pleading innocent to the killing of Aegisthus, nor trying to defend himself against Zeus. Nor does he wish to excuse himself of his crime by calling it a youthful indiscretion or a moment of passion. His act he declares without qualification to be his own:

Do you imagine that my mother’s cries will ever cease ringing in my hears . . . ? And the anguish that consumes you—do you think it will ever case ravaging my heart? But what matter? I am free. Beyond anguish, beyond remorse. Free. And at one with myself. (111)

Man is free; so says Orestes. And the god of thunder himself is powerless before this freedom: “Once freedom lights its beacon in man’s heart, the gods are powerless against him.” (102) Zeus can do what he will, summon whatever powers he chooses, throw lightning and crash down thunder, but he cannot take from Orestes the ability to choose his own actions. Determinism is of no account, for determinism is a matter of atoms and particles, of physical laws and constants. It never touches the person, who is free to make of his past, his future, of all of the events of the world what he will, to own or disown them freely. (If you think I’m being flowery here, it will be seen shortly just how literal this notion is for Sartre.) What of the past? What of one’s desires, wishes, and actions? They can crush one under the weight of fact, or they can be thrown aside in an instant. Orestes has no past to crush him; but those who let their pasts weigh them down, the people of Argos and Electra, are just as free to throw it all aside. First, however, they must accept the past for what it was, for the real events that they did or didn’t do, what they wished and desired and hated. Only then can they choose how the past will decide their future.

This is the weight of Sartrean freedom, the responsibility that comes with being the owner of all of existence:

Thus, totally free, undistinguishable from the period for which I have chosen to be the meaning, as profoundly responsible for the war as if I had myself declared it, unable to live without integrating it in my situation, engaging myself in it wholly and stamping it with my seal, I must be without remorse or regrets as I am without excuse . . . . (Sartre, Being and Nothingness. New York: Washington Square Press, 1992 709-710.)

This requires the recognition that one cannot step away from one’s actions, one cannot lay the blame on the contingencies of history or moments of weakness. History is one’s own to take as one will, to ignore or be controlled by, to love or hate. Humanity is free of gods, but as a result is left solely to its own devices. The past is the past, but it is still one’s own. The future is open. This tremendous responsibility on one’s shoulders is the greatest of burdens, as it is the recognition that there is no relief in confession, either to the priest or one’s own conscience. In light of this, Electra commits the same crime against human dignity as the people of Argos; she disowns her act, and thus her freedom. She succumbs to the temptation Zeus has offered her: an excuse, a story about her that takes away her freedom and makes her the plaything of social forces that forced her, like a doll, to act according to the assigned moves. But acceptance of this, like the repentance of the townspeople, is to throw away one’s freedom for the comforts of slavery to the gods.

Orestes, however, knows that such slavery is never absolute. Try as one might, freedom cannot be given away or disowned; “Outside nature, against nature, without excuse, beyond remedy, except what remedy I find within myself. But I shall not return under your [Zeus’] law; I am doomed to have no other law but mine.” (119) Every citizen of Argos is just as free, but they flee their freedom and themselves. Orestes is free, and he cannot escape it. All he can do is find a path of his own, choices of his own, which were what he lacked and what really brought him to Argos in the first place. “Today I have one path only, and heaven knows where it leads. But it is my path . . . .” (105) With the killing of his mother and her suitor, the taking of a sorrowful throne, Orestes has finally taken on a responsibility worthy of human freedom. Rather than being an insect flitting over the pages of history, he has a story, a life of his own; his mission is the liberation of his people, his task to free them from themselves. “Fear your dead no longer; they are my dead. And, see, your faithful flies have left you and come to me.” (123)
Continue after the jump

Sunday, September 12, 2010

On Muslims

This year’s 9/11 has had a different tone than in years past, enough to take notice. In previous years 9/11 was a very straightforward day: it was the day that today’s America remembers its morality. Remembers that we, too, can suffer, that we, too, may be asked to sacrifice. There’s something terribly human in this that brings us together on days like these. But times have changed, it seems. For this 9/11 was clouded by two things above all: first, the controversy over the construction of a mosque. Second, the decision by a preacher in Florida to burn several copies of the Qu’ran, later cancelled (thank the gods). That these two things happened at the same time, and around 9/11, is mostly coincidence (‘mostly’ because the Qu’ran burning was planned for 9/11 for obvious reasons). That they both represent the same thing is not coincidence.

In both cases, the anger is about Islam. The mosque being built near the site of the former World Trade Center, which is actually a prayer room rather than a full mosque, is, according to some, an Islamic victory mosque celebrating what happened on 9/11: “A mosque is built on the site of a winning battle,” he said. “They are symbols of conquest. Hence we have a symbol of conquest here? I don’t think so.” Terry Jones, the leader of the church that was to have the “International Burn a Koran Day,” has in the past posted a sign that said “Islam is of the Devil.” The conflict is one of either American or Christian values (some conflate the two) against Islam.

I’ve followed these parallel stories long enough, and there is much to be said. Luckily, most of it has been said, so I will only linger on a particular point I want to make, one that can be emphasized by reflecting on the good pastor himself:

Mr. Jones said that nothing in particular had set him off. Asked about his knowledge of the Koran, he said plainly: “I have no experience with it whatsoever. I only know what the Bible says.” (Source)

I don't want to address everyone who opposes the center at Park51 near the World Trade Center site, as they're clearly not all quite that bad (though I'm not going to make exceptions for members of Jones' congregation). Though I think those who oppose the center are generally wrong for other reasons, some of which I'll give a sentence to below, they are not what I'm interested in here. Rather, I'm interested in people like those quoted above, who exhibit what is simply an appalling level of stupidity. It’s not just because burning the Qu’ran is a surefire way to bring Al Qaeda more recruits, though it is. It’s not just because the 9/11 mosque is actually one part of a community center that will include, among other things, a swimming pool and a 9/11 memorial, nor is it just because there are, among other things, adult stores at a similar, if not closer, distance to the WTC. These things are true, but my concern is something else.

Islam is the world’s second largest religion, having about 1.5 billion adherents. It appeared almost thirteen hundred years ago, and has expanded to include most of the Middle East as well as much of South Asia and Africa, and is currently expanding in Europe. Both Terry Jones and those who call the prayer room a “9/11 victory mosque” seem quite certain that they know what Islam is. Why, in Terry’s case, it’s not even necessary to know anything contained in their holy text! No, they know what Islam is, all right.

So what is it, according to these people? Clearly, it’s a single, unified religion, all of whose adherents follow the exact same list of tenets, with the exact same beliefs and goals. The Muslim, apparently, is an appendage of the Islamic system, which is a single strain of belief that is bent towards clear goals towards which all Muslims expend their efforts. All Muslims think, act, and believe the same. They all have the same ideas of what society should be, and there is no other option. All one billion, five hundred plus million of them.

Apparently, the concept of the individual is unimportant to people like pastor Jones. Either that or individuals with independent capacities for thought do not exist outside of their narrow worlds. Not that everyone is so simple: pastor Jones would quite likely agree that not all of Christianity agrees with his particular interpretation of his religion. There are those who believe that the pope is supreme, and those who think he is the mouthpiece of the antichrist. There are social liberals and those who think that blood transfusion is a sin. There are literalists and those who take the Bible as symbolism. There are some that think some of these groups do not count as Christian at all. This profusion is, as I'm sure even Terry understands, the work of human beings over history, taking Christianity in accordance with their own understanding of the world and the meaning of life. Obviously, people take Christianity to mean different things, because they are different people. Even if there is one Christian truth, the simple fact that we are talking about human beings means that there will be vast difference of opinion. I don't think any of the people against the "victory mosque" would disagree there.

But apparently, then, the people who follow Islam are not humans in the proper sense. Instead, Muslims are like the Communist armies of the 50’s, mindless waves of perfectly organized machines that act upon the singular mission of the manifesto, in this case the Qu’ran. Its purpose is to fulfill its role as the power, and to replace all else that has any difference from its clear dictates, and the Muslim individuals exist for nothing else than its fulfillment.

Whether they admit it or not, those people who say that what’s being built is a “victory mosque,” those who think that we are at war with Islam, they believe this. How else could you explain being at war with Islam? That puts us at war with millions upon millions across all the continents. The Middle East, South Asia, Africa, large portions of Europe are all full of the enemy, and wherever they go, the goal is the same: install Sharia law and overthrow democracy. Those Muslims who say otherwise are apparently not to be counted. This is what is being held, consciously or not, by the people who never stop to ask whether Islam is a real thing, or whether it’s a collection of over a billion individual Muslims who all have thoughts and perspectives their own. They never stop to consider that they are making claims about real, existing human beings; rather, it’s reduced to a group, and the group is the enemy. This is the only proper way to interpret a mosque as a monument to victory against America: assuming that all adherents of Islam are against American values, that they all basically agree with the actions of Al Qaeda on 9/11.

Is it any better to say, as one man does, “Not all Muslims are extremists, but all the extremists are Muslims.” Does Islam really have a monopoly on extremists? Was it Muslims that were behind the Oklahoma City bombing? How about the attack on the IRS building early this year? Were Muslims behind the Holocaust? How about the Crusades? Islam has no monopoly on extremism. But does Islam, as a religion, support extremism as a principle? When one stops reading news stories about radical Muslims and starts to talk to ordinary, non-radical Muslims (which, as it turns out, exist), one finds otherwise. Christianity has its radicals, yet it is far more than that. The point is obvious: extremism is a human thing; you'll find it wherever there's room to interpret it in. It's not a religion defined by extremism that could preserve Greek philosophy during the European Dark Ages.

Whether there are legitimate concerns about the prayer room at Park51 (I see none) is not the point. Nor is freedom of speech the point. The point is that, nine years ago, nineteen men launched an attack on American soil, nineteen out of 1.5 billion. Al Qaeda probably has, at most, a number of members in the four-digit range. Even if you claimed the entire Middle East as one groupthink block, you have less than 500 million people; that is, less than one third of all Muslims. The point is that Islam is Sunni and Shiite, who are in conflict more with each other than with America, as well as the mystically-bent and peacefully minded Sufis. The point is that, just like we all know there is no singular entity called "Christianity," but rather a profusion of different sects and systems that fall under that general heading, and as we know that there is no single set of beliefs and practices that defines an American, there is no “Islam;” there are Muslims, who are people with real lives and concerns all their own. There are liberal and conservative Muslims, those who take the Qu’ran literally and those who don’t, those who support terrorism and those who don’t, and many who are too busy being poor and downtrodden and trying to get on with their lives rather than caring about such things. They’re human beings; it’s about high time they were recognized as such by those who would demonize them.
Continue after the jump

Friday, September 03, 2010

Sartre: No Exit

Sartre, Jean Paul. No Exit and Three Other Plays. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.


So this is hell. I’d never have believed it. You remember all we were told about the torture-chambers, the fire and brimstone, the “burning marl.” Old wives’ tales! There’s no need for red-hot pokers. Hell is—other people! (45)

So they say (and, in fact, this is where they got it from). Harsh words, and not only harsh: here they are meant literally. No Exit, probably the best-known of Sartre’s plays, takes place in hell. In hell (at least, in Sartre’s hell) there are no flames, no pitchforks, no racks: just a series of rooms, some of which are apparently “Second Empire drawing rooms.” (3) Into this room go three people: Garcin, the reporter; Inez, the postal clerk; and Estelle, the rich girl. Also, there are no mirrors and one no longer sleeps, and one can see what the people still living are saying about oneself on earth. That’s the extent of it. Not very gruesome. So what’s so terrible about it? What is it about being stuck in a room with two other people (granted, it’s forever) that can lead Garcin to make that famous claim about what hell truly is? Whatever the answer is, this is a one-act play, so Sartre had better explain quick.

Of course, at the beginning the three new arrivals are just as confused as we are (amusingly, and not surprisingly when one thinks about it, they were expecting flames and pitchforks and whatnot). When they come to find that it’s a drawing room that they’ve been brought into, and that they don’t seem to be leaving any time soon, they do what one would expect and just kind of sit around awkwardly. Garcin seems nice enough, if a bit cool and distant. Inez is straight-up cold, but she’s honest and a realist, if nothing else. Estelle is somewhat frivolous, but at least she’s cheerful. A strange combination of people, but it could be worse; they could be shacked up with psychopaths or genuine torturers. Granted, it might get tedious after a while as is, but there are greater torments than boredom.

There is at least one thing to keep them busy: the fact that they can see earth. They can only see what involves them, however; people who are talking of them, mourning their deaths, and so on are clear, but when thought of the deceased ends, the vision fades as well. In the end, then, they keep coming back to themselves – or rather, each other.

‘Each other’ is the proper way to put it. It is rather difficult, after all, to just ignore two people whom you’re locked in a room with. They’re always there, even if they’re not talking to you. Eventually, they might notice that little twitch you do (“INEZ: Can’t you keep your mouth still? You keep twisting it about all the time. It’s grotesque.” (9)) It should take more than unconscious tics, though, to drive people to insanity. But it’s Inez, in any case, and she’s just like that. It’s not as though she denies it: “Well, I was what some people down there called “a damned bitch.” Damned already. So it’s no surprise, being here.” (25) Unfortunately, this doesn’t resolve the problem of her being a bitch; an honest bitch is still a bitch. Though she’s also pretty sharp, and with that honesty it leads her to be the first one to state what seems to be going on: “It’s obvious what they’re after—an economy of man-power—or devil-power, if you prefer. The same idea as in the cafeteria, where customers serve themselves . . . . I mean that each of us will act as torturer of the two others.” (17) Or at least Inez will.


Not that Inez is having fun herself. Given that, there’s at least one solution to the problem: just stop talking to each other. And that’s exactly what they all do. Hell apparently suffered a rather serious oversight in not considering that people could just quit communicating with each other. Although you have to admit, even when you intentionally avoid talking with someone in the same room (or rather, exactly when you intentionally avoid talking) it’s kind of hard to ignore them. You get a bit self-conscious. Eventually Inez starts singing. Thank you, Inez. Garcin keeps quiet. Estelle has been playing with make-up but then realizes that she has no mirror to see (since, despite not allowing mirrors in hell, they apparently allow lipstick). Apparently even in hell she’s concerned about her lipstick, though it’s not clear who she’s going to impress. Inez, though, is perfectly willing to help her perfect her appearance: “I’m your lark-mirror, my dear, and you can’t escape me . . . .” (21) A bit creepy, though. And she keeps going: “Suppose the mirror started telling lies? Or suppose I covered my eyes . . . .” (21) Estelle seems disturbed at the thought, and Inez clearly has the upper hand. But, as one could guess, it’s not Inez that Estelle is really concerned about. “But I wish he’d notice me, too.” (21)

Now, Garcin is not a particularly attractive man by any measure. At least he has some dignity, though; he died trying to escape from being forced to fight in the war (this was written during the 40s) because he didn’t agree with it. But is he really worth the attention of a pretty girl like Estelle? Inez doesn’t think so, though it might just be more the fact that Estelle wants his attention, and not hers, that’s the problem: “even if I didn’t see her I’d feel it in my bones—that she was making every sound, even the rustle of her dress, for your benefit, throwing you smiles you didn’t see . . . .” (22) It’s rather painfully obvious; Estelle is one of those people who has to always be seen, always put on a show. She lives to be looked at, to be that perfect flower: “how empty it is, a glass in which I’m absent! When I talked to people I always made sure there was one near by in which I could see myself.” (19) Just like a doll; all show, all perfect appearance, with something else altogether behind it, or just nothing at all. Without a mirror, she’s helpless; after all, there is a man in the room, she can’t be a mess in front of him! Inez sees what’s coming from a mile away. Estelle sees a person she cared for on earth; or at least, someone who cared for her. But time passes faster on earth; she is long gone, and he’s found someone else, her friend (or supposed friend, given the circumstances). Just like the minx she is, Estelle wastes no time in turning to Garcin: “I don’t want to be left alone.” (31) Inez doesn’t intend to give them the right of privacy, though she’s surprisingly shaken by the whole thing: “Under my eyes? You couldn’t—couldn’t do it.” (35) But Estelle’s had enough of her gaze, in which “my smiles will sink down into your pupils, and heaven knows what it will become.” (21) Inez feels the situation turning against her; she knows that this won’t go through, because she won’t allow it, because Garcin won’t allow it. But Garcin, who maintained his dignity up to this point, finally gives in to Estelle, in part because he is as tired of Inez as she is.

But something stops him. “Will you trust me?” (36) A final flash of earth, of those who remember him. Coward! they call him. An outright lie; he died for what he believed in. Not surprisingly, Inez doubts this. Turns out she was right: “INEZ: And how did you face death . . . ? GARCIN: Miserably. Rottenly.” (38) But he tried! Or he wanted to try, to be brave, to know himself a brave man. At least Estelle still believes in him. She’s willing to give him everything: “I’m giving you my mouth, my arms, my whole body—and everything could be so simple . . . . My trust! I haven’t any to give, I’m afraid . . . .” (36) Except her trust. Not that it would be genuine, anyway. In a sense, she’s even worse than Inez: “You’re even fouler than she . . . . Like an octopus. Like a quagmire.” (41) At least Inez is honest. Estelle doesn’t have a dignified bone in her body; she only wants attention. Still, why can’t Garcin even earn the trust of the woman who is giving himself to her? He tried to stay silent, but they had to get back to talking. He tried to avoid contact, but they dragged him back in. He took the high ground in every case, and now look where it’s gotten him! He spent his life trying to be a man, trying to be the man he should be with the respect such a man deserves, and now Estelle is clinging out of desperation and Inez is parading his cowardice for the world to see.

At this time Garcin is struggling to force the door open, to escape the liar and the cold-hearted bitch. And it opens. The hall is outside. There is no monster behind the door, no bottomless staircase: they are free to leave.

“GARCIN: I shall not go.” (42)

Why? Garcin has been besmirched; his worth as a person is gone, he has no honor, so long as Inez, who knows his nature, continues to see him as a coward, as someone who never proved himself. And as long as she sees a coward, so does he, and he knows it to be true. “And how did you face death?” The question still hangs over him, because he knows he has no good answer. Estelle will protect him; she couldn’t dare leave Garcin, the only man left, the only one who could worship her. And why would Inez want to leave, when she possess power over Garcin, when he is paralyzed until he earns her seal of approval?

But let’s not pretend that Inez, or anyone else, won this round. Estelle knows what to do: “Kiss me, darling—then you’ll hear her squeal.” (44) Squeal she does; she can throw all the insults she wants, but one act like this shows her powerlessness. Not that that’s forever: “What do you hope to get from her silly lips? Forgetfulness? But I shan’t forget you, not I!” (45) Garcin the coward, forever remembered. The greatest nightmare. Estelle, of course, is caught between the tyrant Inez and the man who can never love her because she could never have an honest respect for him. Inez the tyrant, who dominates those around her with her piercing gaze and cold retorts but crumples when she sees her influence wane. Estelle the seductress, dependent on everyone but herself to accept her, to need her, to worship her, and nothing in a moment when she is no longer the goddess; and Garcin the martyr, the man who must be a man, who must prove himself, but who cannot live until he’s proven it to others. Hell is three people in a room where none can escape the others’ gaze; where one is always watched, always being examined and defined by the other’s eye. You can never control the gaze of the other; it is always free, always behind those eyes, no matter how you try to possess it; it can always turn away, always see you for what you are. An eternity under this power with no reprieve, no rest, is hell. “There’s no need for red-hot pokers. Hell is—other people!” (45)


One question has not yet been answered: just why were these people sent to hell, anyway? What were their crimes?

Inez lived with her cousin and his wife. The cousin got on her nerves; when he died by freak accident, she threw the widow into a depression by insinuating her in his death. Cold remarks and bitter half-lies took control of the defenseless woman, and Inez relished it:: “When I say I’m cruel, I mean I can’t get on without making other people suffer.” (26) Eventually the widow turned on the gas in the house while Inez was asleep, and both died.

Estelle had an affair with a young but poor man. This man adored her, worshipped her; she was his everything, she possessed him. But then she became pregnant. Now the whole relationship changed, the whole story had to be rewritten; it was no longer innocent love, no longer his pure and simple adoration. “It pleased him no end, having a daughter. It didn’t please me!” (28) She tied the baby to a large stone and threw it into the river. Her lover killed himself soon after.

Garcin the moral had taken a woman from out of poverty and made her his wife. He was her hero, her everything, the most important thing; she lived safe because of what he had done. She believed him perfect. And Garcin exercised this power. “Night after night I came home blind drunk, stinking of wine and women;” (24) he was in bed with one mistress when his wife brought him his morning coffee. She said nothing; “she admired me too much.” (24) She died of grief several months after him.
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Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Jean-Paul Sartre: Nausea

Sartre, Jean Paul. Nausea. New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1964.


Antoine Roquentin is a man with a problem: he sees things. Not exactly strange things, or unusual things. In a sense, he sees the same things that we all see, day to day, hour to hour, minute to minute. It’s just that he sees too much of things. He sees them exist. Everything exists for him, including himself. And apparently this is a problem. “I have no troubles, I have money like a capitalist, no boss, no wife, no children; I exist, that’s all. And that trouble is so vague, so metaphysical that I am ashamed of it.” (105)

Yet it is a problem. Nausea is about a metaphysical problem, the sort that most people would never bother themselves about; and those who ever have, have probably never done so except in the abstract, which is to say, they haven’t. The fact that things exist, that, for Jean-Paul Sartre, they exist absolutely, beyond, behind, and before all of our attempts to think through and thereby categorize them, to organize and thereby mollify or control them, is a problem that is of the most extreme order, at least if you are a person like Antoine Roquentin. Roquentin is a man with no connections to anything: there is only one person in the world he almost cares about, someone now just a memory he can hardly grasp. He has no mission, no purpose besides writing a book about a dead Frenchman, a task he comes to abhor with time. He has no serious financial troubles, no enemies, nothing to challenge him. At the same time, he has no home (he spends the entirety of the novel living out of a hotel room, one he has lived in for years), no one close to him, nothing to give direction. He has no concerns, no ties. He just is; he just, as he says, exists.

And that’s the problem. Existence, that is. When you spend enough time apart from everything that binds, you risk becoming unbound yourself. The story of Nausea is the progressive unbinding of Roquentin, as he becomes more and more separated from the human world around us, more and more disconnected, and for that reason more and more clearly recognizes the true nature of existence. For what Roquentin finds, and what Sartre wants to argue, is that, when one strips away all the layers of meaning and significance that are placed onto the world by ourselves, everything we build into our meaningful world, one finds existence plain and simple. That is to say, before all names, before all designations, there is what is, and that means everything. This is the reality that Roquentin finds himself in the middle of, the reality that Sartre thinks is our own, behind the scenes: raw existence, complete plenitude literally without definition. The distinctions, the names, are products of ourselves, of our social mores, our language, our little shortcuts through life. The world around is divided into concrete objects by the way in which we have chosen to make our way through it, the designations we have as individuals taken on. But the designations are not the things themselves. What Roquentin is coming to see is reality itself, existence freed of human meaning. In these states “[t]hings are divorced from their names. They are there, grotesque, headstrong, gigantic and it seems ridiculous to call them seats or anything at all about them: I am in the midst of things, nameless things.” (125) In such moments Roquentin finds himself unable to act, think, or speak; he is afraid to touch anything; everything forces itself upon him in its total selfness, its total existence. It is, and this fact is something deeply unsettling.

What are we supposed to think about this problem? What is the nausea, really? And who is the man who can see what we apparently cannot? Nausea is a novel about seeing the world as it really is; though he certainly acts like a crazy person at many points, the point seems to be that Roquentin is the sane one, the one who understands. But why should we believe this? What should we think of the nausea that reveals reality? Is such an experience believable, even possible at all? Does Sartre have something here, or is this all just pretend?


To understand the nausea, and our connection to it, we need to understand the man who lives it, Antoine Roquentin. As I said before, Roquentin is a man with no connections to anything, which is to say that there is nothing driving him, nothing possessing him or compelling his day to day life. He has no passions, no interests, no real motivations. Most of his days are spent sitting around cafés or walking down streets. His only recognizable project, and the only reason he is in the town he is in, is a biography of the Marquis de Rollebon. But over time this project, too, suffers from a lack of passion, until it is finally given up altogether. But take away Rollebon and there really is nothing. No reason to do anything or be anybody. Roquentin is simply left with his existing.

What would happen to such a person? Certainly it’s not a normal sort of thing, and not even unusual; is there one man or woman that actually lives a life so absent of interest? Without friends, without passions, with hardly even a will to survive? Roquentin has, to a degree virtually unimaginable, shed any connections to outside sources of value, of meaning. In this sense, he is importantly different from any of us who read or think about him, much less those who just go about their lives. Only this inhuman perspective can allow a proper view of the world, for the world we know is an impure one. The world we look at for every moment of our lives is a world full of names, of significances, of tasks which need to be done and ways through which those tasks are accomplished. The light, the chair, everything takes on a significance in accordance to the systems we set up. This is not a revolutionary point, either now or when Sartre wrote Nausea in the 1930s (by that point Heidegger’s Being and Time had already presented an existential conception of worldhood, one where the world is a collection of significances rather than an objectively defined thing). But what had been missing from such discussions is the real feeling of such a claim. To say that the world has no significance in itself is an abstract claim; to see it is something else altogether, a task that is much more difficult. For we cannot simply throw away the meaning that we find in the world; it must be broken down, degenerated, ripped out like teeth one at a time (to understand this point, simply ask: who among us can just “unsee” meanings, unsee the way the world is organized at our most basic levels of understanding?). Our ‘world’ is a conceptual thing, then; the world in the sense of the actual, existing world is something else.

How does one show the world in its purity, then? For that, you would clearly need someone who either never was or no longer is operating under the conditions that seem basic for any functional human being. But how could such a person even survive without grasping the world in the way that we typically do from moment to moment? Even in Roquentin’s case, the way that the world is understood is by and large the way that we ourselves understand the world. A café is a café, his hotel room is his hotel room. This is the ordinary way of experiencing the world, and the one that we are in basically all the time. Yet there are times when, for Roquentin, it all collapses at once. Everything loses its purpose, its alignment, and it all becomes an oppressive force, a massive fact pushing on him. His ability to function virtually ceases in these moments; he is afraid to even touch anything. And this, the recognition of existence, is the nausea.


What is the nausea? It is the moment when all distinctions brought about by human endeavor collapses. The world, as has been stated, is there independently of us, before our names for it and utilizations of it for ends. But the world without us is one without meaning, without significance. All facts, all understandings fall to the wayside. Things don’t exist with purposes, to fulfill function, they are just there. It all just exists. Roquentin’s nausea is the moment in time when the scales over his eyes fall and he sees things as they are, which is to say, things which are nothing more than “are.” What are things, after all? Are they colors, like black?

Black? The root was not black, there was no black on this piece of wood—there was . . . something else: black, like the circle, did not exist . . . . I did not simple see this black: sight is an abstract invention, a simplified idea, one of man’s ideas. That black, amorphous, weakly presence, far surpassed sight, smell and taste. (130-1)

The tree root that Roquentin is looking at, is focusing on with all his effort to the point of being possessed, is not a thing that is black; there is no colorless substance which has the ephemeral characteristic ‘black’ that clings to it. There is only the root, its being there as it is: “It looked like a colour, but also . . . like a bruise or secretion, like an oozing—and something else, an odour, for example . . . .” (130-1) It does not mean something, it is not a sum of parts; all of that is our coloring of the existent. This root is reality; but more significantly, this moment is the seeing of reality, reality without filters, without concepts, just pure seeing. It’s a bit disconcerting, to say the least.

But it’s certainly not something I’ve seen, and I doubt you have. Why not? Because we live and die by our concepts, in a world organized (not created, not shaped, but organized) by our minds and reflecting a permanent, solid, graspable and ordered structure. This way of living ignores the existence of things, existing in the sense recognized by the nausea, instead simply treating existence as a predicate, a checkbox below such categories as “black,” “solid,” and so on. The existence of things is buried by our categories; the existence of persons, the fact of one’s existing just as free of purpose as the tree root, is covered up by one’s projects: “Each one of them has his little personal difficulty which keeps him from noticing that he exists; there isn’t one of them who doesn’t believe himself indispensible to something or someone . . . . But I know. I don’t look like much, but I know I exist and that they exist.” (111) We follow through on our tasks, our objectives, with a constancy that doesn’t once allow us to stop and recognize existence. Sure, we exist; everyone knows that. But that’s just as empty as the admission that trees and chairs exist. They exist, but for us they are just ordered parts of an ordered world, where things have significances which we can see the moment we look at them. If Sartre is right in this interpretation, then we can confirm that people today are less likely than ever to recognize existence. So much activity, so little time. Everything we see either is or is not part of our purpose, be it completing a job, getting something to eat, meeting a friend, avoiding harm, and so on; the significance of something is understood immediately according to one’s purposes. The resistance of things, their existence pressing on us, is a property to be dealt with, rather than a fact to be marveled at. Heidegger’s question, “Why is there being rather than nothing?” is metaphysical speculation, the occupation of idle minds (who themselves are no more cognizant than anyone else of what existence really is). Roquentin himself was one of these people, even during the time of the novel, insofar as he still sought purpose in the Marquis de Rollebon:

M. de Rollebon was my partner; he needed me in order to exist, I needed him so as not to feel my existence . . . . I did not notice that I existed any more, I no longer existed in myself, but in him; I ate for him, breathed for him, each of my movements had its sense outside, there, just in front of me, in him . . . . (98)

What makes Roquentin so special is that all of the significances which we normally accrue from our absorption in a world of projects is missing for him; there is nothing, absolutely nothing, which requires a world of significance, and so it all starts to fall apart. This is the nausea; the loss of all meaning, awareness of existence qua pure existence, naked reality. And this is why only Roquentin can see it, why it takes a novel to tell us about it, and why even then we will likely never see it ourselves.


But if we will never see it, what good does a novel do? Not much, one would think. Certainly Sartre, even through the medium of Roquentin, can’t directly portray the true nature of experiences which by definition are beyond description. But what Sartre can do, or at least attempt to do, is to show the process by which one discovers these experiences, the sort of person who would see them, and how she would come to a recognition of them. It takes a person who can separate herself from all projects that assign importance (a task much more involved than just quitting your job), from all driving desires; someone who can live outside of the procedures of daily life itself. Roquentin is this person, or at least a chance. But even this is not enough to let us see. That is something we have to do on our own.
Continue after the jump

Monday, August 30, 2010

The Reformation

I'm still here, and in fact I'm about to move in a wholly new direction. Blogwise, it's actually something of a return to form, but the motivation on this end is rather drastically different. The culture blog is now absorbed into this one, and the posts from it condensed into single-link pieces as a special part of the blog. Coming up next, Sartre. We're moving into new waters, people, and with a sense of purpose at that.
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Sunday, August 29, 2010

Douglas Adams: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

It’s small, made of hard plastic, and has “Don’t Panic” in large, friendly letters on its cover. In fact, it seems a lot like the sorts of things that we use today, both in terms of how it works and what it does. It’s the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and it’s a device meant to give you a guiding hand in a universe that is, for all intents and purposes, basically insane.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was first a radio play, becoming the series of novels, the one discussed here, in the late 70s and early 80s. The story starts when the Earth is destroyed to make way for a hyperspace bypass. One human, Arthur Dent, survives, along with a strange friend, Ford Prefect, who is actually from a planet somewhere near Betelgeuse. These two later encounter Zaphod Beeblebrox, the president of the galaxy (who has just lost that very title because he steals a ship of incredible importance and power), Marvin the Paranoid Android, who is everything but emotionally stable (well, I suppose he is stable if scorn and loathing are the sorts of emotions that can be stable), and a host of others. What happens along the way is largely incoherent and unrelated to any sort of plot whatsoever. Ostensibly, the first two novels are concerned with two issues: finding the true ruler of the universe, a task that Zaphod set to himself before wiping his own memory, and finding the question that matches the answer to life, the universe and everything, a purpose for which the Earth itself was built and the key to which, therefore, lies in the head of Arthur Dent. (The later novels start to move in their own directions, and also change structurally somewhat, and so won’t be the focus of attention here.)

This is what is supposed to pass for a plot, but the plot is notable above all for being basically ignored thereafter, not simply by the author, but by the characters themselves. Zaphod doesn’t want a damn thing to do with finding the real ruler of the galaxy, though he set himself up to do it. As for life, the universe, and everything, pieces of the puzzle are thrown in virtually at random, with a new lead or some such suddenly emerging by chance. It’s almost as though it appears to say ‘yes, there is something bigger motivating these people, but really it’s not that special.’ In the end, the plot is not very significant, and the ultimate revelations only become significant in terms of their ridiculousness and triteness. I will not spoil it, but the conclusions to both story threads are not merely underwhelming, but fiercely opposed to any satisfying answer. The basic resolution is that, in a nutshell, the galaxy is nuts.

And this revelation, in terms both of what it really is and how it is played out, is the whole point. The first thing to understand about HHGG as a series of novels and as an idea is that, in the end, there’s no point to everything, no conclusion with some sense of finality which makes everything fit. The galaxy where these events take place, when all is said and done, is ridiculous. The hunt for answers doesn’t give the characters, much less the reader, much satisfaction, because the galaxy is not a satisfying thing. In fact, the galaxy as a whole ends up feeling much like our own world; arbitrary, full of self-serving individuals and bureaucratic nonsense, diverting its energies to progressively more useless results, and all around something that looks worse the closer you look at it. The only moments in which Arthur, the man in whom the answer to life, the universe, and everything supposedly lies, is truly satisfied are the moments where he is furthest from the whole, the times when he is (literally) making sandwiches rather than pursuing the truth. Ford, the hitchhiker who’s seen the universe, would rather chase drinks than save galaxies, and is quite clear that he doesn’t care enough to act. Zaphod is even less serious than Ford. And Adams takes it less seriously than all of them.

If there is a real main character to this story, it is not Arthur; he is more of a perspective, a way to wedge our own limited perspective into a story spanning space and time. (Perhaps for this reason he is also the only genuinely believable character. The others are all amazing, beyond belief, and intentionally so; they are mostly caricatures of various sorts. Arthur, on the other hand, in his confusion, irritation, and constant resorting to sarcasm when the situation least calls for it, seems very average in his attempts to reconcile with existence.) The real central character is the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy itself, or, more specifically, the editors who create its content. The guide, rather than being an impartial encyclopedia, is more of a how-to guide for life in the galaxy. It is practical and cynical; it recognizes the ignoble side of the universe and lives it, offering advice on making drinks and on what planets to avoid, on how to charm your way into the exclusive club on the exclusive planet and on what any idiot should now about space-time disruptions and how to take advantage of them. There is no grandeur in the tone of the guide; just a recognition that, despite it all, people just want to get by as well as they can, and possibly reduce their misery on the way.

Adams’ writing style, again particularly in the first two novels, revels in and perfectly reflects the nonsense of the world he portrays. A towel is the hitchhiker’s best friend, because you can use it to, among other things, keep warm, fight off enemies, store bits of wire, food, and other handy items, and even keep yourself dry. Doors have personalities, excited to open and close for you (which is about as irritating as it sounds). The ship Zaphod steals is powered by the improbability of events, which it then makes happen in the process of propelling itself through all points in the universe at once to reach its destinations. It is these oddities, their genesis and purpose, that make up the real content of the novel, because they all engender a sense that the galaxy is full of fools who make and do silly things, and as a result have made the galaxy a complete mess. A door that is excited to open for you tells a lot about the sorts of things people buy in the supposedly advanced galaxy, and makes for a lot of fun. But at the same time it almost sounds like something we might do. An elevator that can see into the future to be at the right floor ahead of time is a phenomenal waste of resources, and perhaps a danger. But there’s also something about it that doesn’t make it seem to stupid not to be made by somebody. What we see here, beside the humor that keeps us reading is a perspective about the way our own world works, a backdrop where great power and effort is expended in useless ways. This universe that Adams has made is broken, but it is also believably our own, and it’s this scene that is the real story.

A short story written by Adams taking place in the setting of the novels, “Young Zaphod Plays It Safe,” highlights this more clearly than the rest. Though the usual Adams comedic writing is there from time to time, this story is strangely serious in its tone. In it, Zaphod is charged with investigating (along with a couple public safety officials) a crashed ship full of dangerous items. The usual items, such bombs, poisons, and so forth, are present. But there are other things. One is a device that harnesses energy from the past in order to use it in the present. There was a lack of energy at some point, so someone had decided, why not take energy from the past? It’s not like they’re using it. Of course, this not only was self-defeating (that energy is no longer there in afterwards, reducing available energy in the future and starting a cycle) but terribly damaging to the past itself, and by extension the present. The most dangerous item of all, though? “Designer personalities,” artificial people made to order, who were in some cases designed such that they could get away with anything, and no one would suspect them. There’s something eerily believable about the possibility of these creations, not necessarily in terms of technological possibility, but as the sort of things our human race as we know it would do. Once again, this universe is believably our own in its insanity and incoherence.

And it’s that universe which HHGG is really about. It’s not about the plot, which Adams appeared to try and finish off for good at least three times. It’s about a world gone mad, about new technology suffering from the same old problems, about all the disaster that new opportunity brings. Basically, it’s about us, the power and stupidity we simultaneously wield, and how, no matter what changes, our problems always seem to stay the same. Adams was no fear-monger or conspiracy theorist; he was a greater fan of technology, and a more avid user of it, than just about anyone else. But unlike many others, he was also acutely aware of the very human problems that technology couldn’t solve, and HHGG is the chronicle of that. It’s the story of a world gone mad, where the characters, the plot, and everything else serve to show us this picture. And like the best parody, it’s simultaneously hilarious, engaging, and really, really disturbing.
Continue after the jump


We all know from the television ads you see late at night that there are a lot of starving children out there. We also know that not most of us who see those ads don’t bother to donate a rather small amount of money towards helping those starving children eat. We know that we should, and we know that it wouldn’t be very painful for us to give what’s being asked of us. So why doesn’t it seem to bother us much who don’t give? Why don’t the starving children of the world haunt our dreams, our thoughts, our consciences? Why is it that we seem so much more concerned about the destruction of a local landmark, even one we don’t care much for, than mass starvation?

The same question can be asked in the political realm. Ostensibly, people want politicians who will cut back on pork-barrel spending and focus on what’s really important. Yet every congressman (and woman) fights to get money to his or her district, to get special local projects financed, and this always pays off at the ballot box. At home, the argument is: “Look at what I’ve done for us;” in Washington, it’s “We need to cut this wasteful spending!” Thus, one man’s bridge to nowhere is another’s support of the local economy. Certainly, we know as a general fact that other states and locales have projects at least as important, if not more important, than our own, and that, if our projects deserve attention, so do theirs. So why don’t we take this into consideration? Why do we tend to keep the big picture out of mind?

The salient is that which strikes us, that which grabs our attention, and salience is the degree to which something is salient. Salience is not to be confused with relevance, which is the actual strength of the connection of something to an issue; something can be very salient to us while having no real affect on us, and something can be relevant without it even being on our radar. Salience, in short, is how something rates on our attention span, and understanding how it works in our minds can help to explain why some issues grab our attention while others that should do not.

Salience itself is not a complicated concept. The idea is simply that, the more salient something is, the more likely it is to draw our attention. The important question is why some things are salient and others are not. Why isn’t world hunger salient? Why are those pork-barrel projects salient in the positive sense when they’re local, and in the negative sense when they’re not? An easy answer seems to be selfishness. We are selfish, so we don’t care about others. The starving children in Ethiopia are not my problem, nor are voters in another state or district. But this doesn’t always hold. People who give to charitable causes don’t always think in terms of what cause specifically does the most overall to combat need. People always seem more likely to commit to causes that are more local; we give to local fundraisers and such more often than to distant causes, even if the distant causes are greater. Might this still be attributed to selfishness? Not if the local cause, despite being local, doesn’t affect us. Some give to local organizations that have no direct impact on them or those connected to them, and do so more often than to those charities that focus their work in other countries. Likewise, with the example of pork, we support projects that keep the local economy strong, and congressmen who look out for our interests, even if we ourselves and those we know are not in need of such help. Such a congressman (or woman) “cares for the community.” But don’t the others as well, if they are operating in a similar way? Perhaps selfishness has some involvement in the overall equation. But at the least, it doesn’t seem to be the sole factor at work here.

Might it be knowledge, or, more specifically, awareness of the issues? Perhaps those who are concerned simply don’t know enough about the plight of children in other countries; they may not realize the depth of the suffering. Likewise, when we support the bringing money to our home state through political means, we may not really stop to consider the situation of others, and how having a senior senator on the appropriations committee is rather unfair to most other states. One doesn’t see the other side. Again, this isn’t quite sufficient. Salience isn’t all about mere knowledge; for, as noted in the very beginning, we all very well know that people are actually starving to death in other countries, and that for a very small amount of money we could feed some of them indefinitely. We know that those pork-barrel projects in other states create jobs for those states, and that some of those states may be worse-off than our own. But this knowledge is abstract; while we know that kids are starving, do we really feel it? Has each of us spent some time today considering what it is like to not have any food for a week? For two weeks? Has each of us considered that, by forgoing a minor pleasure each day, we could keep people from death?

The truth of the matter is, we really have not. We are too preoccupied with our own lives; our jobs, our relationships, the circumstances of those close to us. These things have more salience to us. Likewise, issues in our own state or country have more salience to us than those in other states or countries. And now, perhaps, we are ready for a better definition of salience. It includes all of the elements mentioned so far; a bit of selfishness (not necessarily in the negative sense), a bit of knowledge, and a good bit of feeling. Salience is the degree to which a circumstance grabs us by the shoulders and gives us a good shake. It requires knowledge, and is often accompanied by selfishness, but most of all it requires emotion, specifically care; salient things are those we care about, in the general sense as those things we are somehow concerned with. It’s important to us as individuals. This, of course, does not necessarily imply that it is important in general, or important at all; but it is taken as being important, and here, that’s what’s important.

So, to return to our question: why isn’t world hunger important to us? We have knowledge of it. Given the smallness of the contributions usually asked for in those late-night commercials, selfishness is likely not central (or else it would be a very petty selfishness indeed). The answer is problem a combination of distance and overexposure. For one thing, world hunger is a very abstract problem, one that seems beyond our capacity to change. Sure, we can help one child, but what does our tiny contribution really do? Further, it’s very difficult to conceptualize any influence one actually does have. What do our donations actually result in? What have I done? Sure, a family is saved; but that’s still too abstract. It’s some family out there, five thousand miles away. There are thousands, millions of families like that. On that scale, it seems virtually unreal; the family saved is lost in the multitude. Thus abstraction and distance form a major stumbling block to salience, as they loosen the visceral emotional grip that the most local, the most visible acts and consequences have on us. It is to fight against this that those late night commercials ask you not just to give money, but to sponsor a child. If you sponsor a child, it sounds as though you are directly responsible for that person’s well-being. Your impact becomes tangible in the letters and pictures you are sent from that child’s family. Solving world hunger thus becomes more relevant, because it becomes more personal, more pointed straight at you. It’s tangible, and beyond all else the salient is tangible.

Keeping to this thread, overexposure (and constant exposure) is perhaps just as great a threat to solving world hunger as distance and underexposure, ironically enough. Overexposure, seeing images again and again and again of starving children, leads to a dulling effect. Everyone is starving over there, it seems; what can I do? While it’s not necessary for salience, novelty is an easy means through which to make something salient; likewise, familiarity does not always make salience disappear, but absent some other reason to stay salient, with it goes interest. If something is new, mysterious, unknown, or surprising, it grabs our attention and does not easily let go. Once we understand, or have seen it repeatedly, we lose interest as our mind categorizes it and moves on. Thus, the first time you tied your shoes, it was novel and cause for celebration; now, you give it virtually no conscious thought whatsoever; it occupies no place in your schedule or planning; its salience is basically nil; whereas, at age four, it was all-consuming. When we see examples of corrupt politicians again and again, it ironically serves to dull the interest of many in fixing corruption, as we just resign ourselves to the idea that all politicians are corrupt and that there’s nothing we can do about it. Selfishness and laziness play a hand here, as they often do; but, if anything, we should be expected to fight for our interests as we find more corruption. Yet, those who fight corruption actively and vocally seem a minority; for the rest of us, we are more concerned with immediate issues, such as whether our local economy is suffering and our jobs are safe. Thus, pork-barrel spending is an abstract problem, bad but not something that we feel directly impacted by; money just flies in all directions in government, and we can’t be expected to know what to do about it. We feel powerless and distant before the scale of it all. Local issues, on the other hand, the money we have for community projects and such, are clear, direct, and impact us immediately (and, though I downplayed it to a degree before, it would be stupidity to deny that how something impacts us literally (and financially) has no effect on salience). We not only know, we see with our own eyes what a little extra appropriation can do. We know it’s needed, and the government can live with a couple million dollars less (our yearly GDP, after all, is greater by a factor of six zeroes). In other states, other local economies, things may be worse and have greater need; but that’s distant from us, not something that we can see the effects of. It’s not mere selfishness; if we saw, if we felt the suffering a community in bad financial straits is going through, we would likely feel more sympathetic. When we talk to relatives in other communities, we can feel genuine sympathy for those otherwise distant communities. But without that eyewitness account, we don’t feel it. And if we don’t feel it, it’s that much harder to muster the will to argue for change. To get true involvement, then, in politics and otherwise, requires a proper method, a way of making salient.
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Being in Time

There was once a time, not too long ago, when time itself was something that we had precious little of. Back in the height of the industrial age, for instance, when young boys had fifty hour workweeks just like their fathers. Back further, in the centuries of agricultural predominance, when the daily clock and yearly calendar revolved for most around the tasks that had to be done in order to maintain orderly operation at a farm. Even further back, before agriculture, when survival depended on making good use of your time. Compared to these ages (except perhaps the earliest, depending on the specifics of their lifestyle and the predominance of food sources), we have far more free time than anyone ever in history. Western cultures in particular, including America, have a lot of free time, to put it simply. We have limits on regularly paid workweeks. We generally make enough to have a lifestyle that is at the top of the worldwide heap. We don’t have to watch after our own lives in most cases. We, civilized men and women that we are, have it good.

But if that’s the case, why do we never seem to have enough time for anything? For isn’t that the way it always is these days? We don’t have time to do all the things that need to be done. We have chores, we have jobs, we have family, upcoming events, children’s sport games, shopping, housework, bills, so on, so forth. As the time and place for which the least amount of work is required in order to survive, we seem to have the least time of anyone else. How come so many, especially in the cities where all basic needs are basically provided for assuming one has the money, have so little time? What do we do with our time that leaves us so limited? Do we actually need to do more in order to have the same standard of living, or is it rather our sense of time that has it changed?

A comparison might help here. With labor laws and living wages that provide us with a universal way of access to necessities, the advent and constant advance of technology, and the overall move forward in coordination that humanity has undergone, the intuition seems to be that we should have more time than ever before. After all, we don’t have to work all day to supply enough money to live, at least not in the case of your average middle-class (and even lower-middle class) household. So something else must have changed in the shift from agricultural to industrial, or from industrial to technological, society that has more than offset any gains in literal free time. Perhaps a change in perception, or maybe in what sorts of things are necessary. Perhaps both.

Let’s first take a look at the more literal aspect: what sorts of things do people ‘have’ to do to maintain a basic level of living? Note that I said ‘basic’ level of living, rather than something such as subsistence. This will, of course, be important later.

For much of Western history (which is what’s under consideration here; other culture, which have less clear developmental paths, will be left out for now), the farm, and agriculture in general, was the standard way of living for a broad majority of people. Cities were not the centers of human population, and with their absence came the absence of a centrally coordinated process of production. As a result, much of what was necessary to live was produced either wholly by oneself, or wholly by someone else. A blacksmith acquired all the necessary materials and made his product himself; hence the need to train someone, an apprentice, in all the necessary steps. The same went for a miller, a baker, and so on. Everyone put their lives into their product, and that took a long time and a lot of work. Technology, of course, was also lacking; farming, blacksmithing, and so on were done by hand. Each product cost a great amount of labor. And because of the lesser degree of urbanization, and the general lack of technology, people had to do much more simply to maintain basic security. Even daily products unrelated to one’s work had to be made by oneself. You couldn’t just go out to market and find, for instance, ready-made clothing; often, someone in the family had to make it. Thus everything required effort, and the time spent meeting a base level of existence was consuming.

The assembly line represented an amazing change, as it completely altered the way in which a thing is made as well as the role of the worker. Rather than going through the long process associated with the creation of a single thing by a single individual, now a person practices a single step, simple and quick on its own. The process becomes streamlined, with people whose job it is to acquire materials, others who build basic components, and others who put the basic components together into a complete product. Much time is saved, and much more is produced. Further, with the advent of the industrial age, many of the most basic needs of societies were starting, slowly, to be taken care of. Cures for diseases were emerging. Basic management of waste would start to show up. The move to cities would reduce the problem of security against a hostile environment, taken in the literal sense. Many basic supplies that would take hours, days, months of work to produce at home now could be simply purchased as mass-produced products.

However, the industrial age did not eliminate some of the most basic problems. Sanitation, health, and so on still had little outside support. Most seriously, rampant poverty existed. The time not spent making one’s own livelihood was now spent making a wage; the fourteen-hour, six day a week work schedule does not count time spent maintaining the household along with any of the other affairs of daily life. Thus time was still nowhere to be found for most.

But what about now? In America there are forty-hour workweeks (sometimes less in Europe), and for perhaps the first time a good number of people don’t have to work those extra hours to maintain a subsistence level of living. Our basic needs are in many ways met simply by our working, in the form of taxes. We no longer face any real external dangers, there are cures for many of our illnesses, and we have a culture with many pastimes. So why do we still seem so busy? It still seems like we always have something that needs to be done. There’s always something to get out of the way, something unfinished. What hasn’t changed from the past, if everything seems so different?

The answer seems not a lack of change, but in fact the exact opposite; what has changed most essentially is our frame of reference. First we must ask, what sort of lifestyle do we today consider, to use the term I used before, ‘basic?’ In the agricultural and industrial eras, what was sought after was not what we today would consider a sufficiently complete life. Everyday life, of course, was extraordinarily hard back then, and the most one might hope for was a life that met basic needs. One wanted bread on the table, and much more was not expected. In sum, what seems ideal for the starving person is food, not a palace; likewise, what is important for the life of the agricultural or industrial person, what has to be done, is enough to maintain the basic means of living.

But if a palace is not what makes the starving person happy, what about the person who is well fed? More food will only do so much; soon one wants more. A life where the basic needs are already met, and where (relatively) little effort is spent achieving such ends, is a rather boring life in practice. People want more, not simply more to do, but more to have, to accomplish. In fact, we grow up with the urge, the drive, the desire, whatever may be its source, to go further. The person raised in a middle-class household is generally not satisfied with a lower-class existence, even if it would be enough to supply basic needs; such a life is worse than the one spent growing up, and we think that we should at least be able to do that well. A good capitalist economy runs on such desires, where people want not just to be getting by, but to be more successful than they have been. It’s always better to do more and to have more; if this is a fact, then not even the rich man should be expected to be satisfied with what he has (and almost never is, it seems). In times past, this was perhaps true for only the few; but now, we are all raised with a sense that we can do better not only than the minimum, but better than whatever we have started at. Thus, from the beginning, we are driven to do more.

But what more? One usually becomes rich not by increasing working hours, but by doing something new. One breaks into a new area, or works one’s way into a position that isn’t easy to acquire. The drive for greater success means that more effort than is necessary must be expended to succeed. But even this doesn’t seem to give a complete answer to the question of lost time. For though many are absorbed by such desires, and all of us usually feel them, it’s more than that that takes up our time; what makes us so busy now often don’t seem necessary from a subsistence point of view, but when viewed from outside, say from the perspective of a middle-class person in a third world country, don’t seem important at all. Things like community groups and associations one is a part of, side projects one takes on, the many small tasks associated with raising children (more on this in a bit, as it’s not quite right, of course, to just call this ‘unnecessary’), and so on. Many of these things, from the perspective of the past, don’t seem necessary. What is the vital importance, for instance, of being a part of the PTA? Why do our kids need to be in a sport, or to practice an instrument? Surely these things have good effects, and prove their worth, but how necessary are they? Couldn’t our children get by without them? For our own part, why do we spend so much time attending shows or meetings for things that aren’t at all essential? Why do we try so hard to get in touch with the culture, to know people, and so on? Are these tasks really necessary, and can they even truly be separated from our success drives? What are we aiming for here?

This mode of reference constitutes a real change. What was ‘necessary’ in the past? Basically, things tied to survival. There were some things beyond that, but they didn’t have the simple presence of something that needed to be done. What is necessary now? Or to go back a bit, what sorts of things are required to live at the current minimum standard? No longer survival; now, we want well-rounded, capable people who will succeed and reach a higher position in the world than those that came before. We need a complete personality, whatever that means, not just a breadwinner. Our children are going to be astronauts, presidents, whereas children of the past had the certainty that they would simply do what their parents did. Their jobs were time-consuming, but straightforward; we, of a more obsessive generation, want more for ourselves and our children. There’s nothing ignoble about this dream of social mobility, and we do now have the real means to make it real; however, it doesn’t come without a cost, a sacrifice. That cost is that we can only settle for more. To become a success, or to be a real member of the community, or to have kids that we can be proud of, seems now to require so many more things; keeping up with the Joneses is about far more than a bottom line. These infinite tasks take on the hue of necessity, because we can’t see ourselves aiming for less. Even vacations become part of the program; we have to see so many sights, do so many things together; we allot time spent as a family relaxing. There’s something a bit disturbing, and decidedly American, about this constant striving, though any culture that starts to shift its emphasis to the success story, the story of rags to riches through hard work and dedication, is probably going to see it. Less than ever before is needed to carve out a simple but sufficient existence, but as I sit here typing on my computer with the intent of working towards the development of my thought, so that I might someday become a serious writer that can get recognition based on the quality of his ideas, someone for whom being a career janitor would be seen by his friends and family as a failure plain and simple, it seems that the leisure we now have the possibility to act on has been absorbed by a new world of needs.

A final question, in that case, is whether it is even possible to live a relaxed life for someone who is raised in such a culture. The answer is of course; people do this all the time. But one must have the right mindset for it, one that is willing to step back every once in a while and doesn’t become obsessed easily. Some have this by nature, whether because they are naturally free of stress or naturally lazy. For the rest, we need to make sure to instill in them a sense that sometimes you need to not do anything useful if your goal is to keep your head on straight.
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Conservatism and Small Towns

It seems strange when you give it some thought. Small towns, it is said, vote conservative, by which is usually meant Republican. Partly this is because of the ‘values voter’ (which will probably be the subject of another post), but also it is economic; people in conservative, small-town America, insofar as there is such a thing, are generally distrustful of ‘big government.’ Yet, looked at from a perspective of self-interest, it seems like it is the Democrats and their big-government style that are best for people in small towns. Small towns as a general rule are less prosperous, and both families and individuals tend to make less, simply because there is less opportunity; there’s not much in the way of career choices and advancement, not much of a market whose demands need to be met; and social services are limited for obvious reasons. Thus, big social programs such as Medicare, Social Security, welfare, and so on seem more likely to benefit a greater percentage of people there than in big cities or more populous areas generally, where there is both more upward mobility and more access to services. So why is big government an epithet in the very sorts of places where it would seem to be most needed? Up to this point in this blog we’ve dealt mostly in abstraction from the reality on the ground, talking about culture as from a distance. Now, we’ll see if we can’t learn anything practical from this. As you can probably guess, I think we can.

But back to our question, which is this: why are the types of persons who live in small towns generally distrustful of government, as opposed to people in cities? This is not a cultural fate etched into the populace, but does seem common enough to be significant and worth explaining, at least if all those red/blue vote maps that show up on election night are to be trusted. As our general rule, ‘the heartland’ is conservative (which, for the purposes of this article, is equivalent to ‘prefers smaller government, generally distrustful of bureaucracy,’ and so on), the more populous coasts liberal. Likewise, people in cities tend to be more liberal than people in small towns. Before we start, let’s recall what was asserted previously, that there is no really uniform American culture outside of some symbols and values understood in the vaguest sense. Within one country, there is a wide spectrum of values. Further, those clusters of values are not arbitrary. As noted, the issue here is that small towns in particular tend to distrust government, and big cities are more trusting, comparatively speaking. This is probably not without reason. So what’s the reason?

Let’s begin with some general observations. When conservative and liberal politicians alike (but mostly the former) try to appease anti-big-government people, among which small-town people are a large portion, there are consistent themes to how they work. The anti-incumbency theme in current political times tells us a lot. In particular, there are two themes that keep coming up: Wall Street versus Main Street and the Washington Insiders. Remember, we’re not interested inthe particular issues and facts at play in these cases; rather, what’s relevant to our question is the context, the ways in which these messages are presented and what they are supposed to appeal to. For instance, when stocks surge while unemployment continues to be low, it is said that Wall Street is gaining while Main Street is being left behind. Economic policies of the Obama administration are often being attacked as being too friendly to Wall Street, and therefore somehow against Main Street. The other title, the dreaded Washington Insider, is not something isolated to one party), and in particular has become a catch-all theme for the upcoming election. However, the language itself, along with the movement in general, is far more closely associated with conservatism (as, for instance, seen at http://www.prisonplanet.com/loophole-exempts-washington-insiders-from-obamacare-mandate.html), and when it goes against conservatives it is more often than not in the name of something more conservative. The fact that much of the discussion is about whether or not the Republican Party can incorporate this sentiment is telling as far as what side it falls on is concerned.

These two labels reflect current events, but are also instances of the general trend that was noted above. What these labels share is an image: the image of either the stock broker or the politician, distant from his or her constituents, off far away (this is important, we will see later) doing things that are anything but in our own interests. Granted, people come to distrust the government for many reasons. Often, those reasons are probably related to particular events in their lives. Or it may be more abstract, coming from the idea that the government is doing too much or too little. Still, this image always seems to resonate more with conservatives in general, and especially with small-town conservatives who don’t trust their government. What I assert is that growing up in a small community will make it more likely that you will distrust the national government. It doesn’t guarantee it, but it makes it more likely. This is not a drastically new proposition; the question is, what might be behind it?

The answer is distance, both figuratively and literally. In fact, it’s a part of the same phenomena in which people complain about the disappearance of “mom and pop” stores and their being replaced by large chain stores. In a small town, there isn’t much distance (again, figuratively and literally). Town councils are made up of people you are familiar with. Local businesses are run by people who you have known for all of your life. You are always at a short remove from the people who are acting at these cases; no one with a position of prominence in a small community has any anonymity of the sort that an unknown city controller or district manager for a grocery chain has, in the sense of lacking personal connections to customers or constituents. The most substantial consequence of this is that the integrity of the person in charge is on the line in every decision he or she makes. You know the ability of the person who makes the product, as you know how much integrity the person who makes decisions has. With this knowledge of what a person can do and their immediate recognition of you as an individual there comes trust, and these informal trust-relationships are an important component to the way life in small towns works. After all, you know everyone. These relationships are important for getting things done neatly and effectively, and do work. One need not live in a small town to recognize this: just like you would be willing to let an able friend hang on to your car for a while if she says she can fix it, leaving a car with a local businessman who runs a tiny shop and who you see every day is not an issue. Certainly, it’s not an issue compared to bringing your car to get fixed at a large market auto center in the middle of the city, where you have to be vigilant to make sure everything goes okay and that you don’t get overcharged. That is in large part because of the sense that the people at the large auto center feel no personal accountability to you: you don’t know them, you aren’t important to them beyond being a customer. In this vein, you often see mottos such as Big Enough to Serve You, Small Enough to Know You, and Small Enough to Care, Big Enough to Serve. These mottos unwittingly recognize a conflict that is central to our discussion here: even when the large, faceless corporations offer us convenience and a lower price, we are inclined to trust the smaller company ran by someone we trust.

As business, so politics. I noted in passing that the idea that politicians are far away from us is important. The reason is, for a small-town mindset, the same as that which highlights the difference between the local manager and the guy sent in by Wal-Mart to manage the new Supercenter. Trust relationships are important for the conduct of business of any kind in a small town; the facelessness of more bureaucratic, corporate, large-scale operations, something familiar to the citizen of a city of ten million, is almost offensive to someone whose daily life depends on trust and familiarity. If you’ve grown up in a context where local familiarity is absent from the basic conduct of daily life, then having a familiar face isn’t a necessary or even important feature; other factors which were present in the small-town case as well, but not completely central, come to the fore. On the other hand, if trust and direct contact is central to daily goings-on, it will influence the way you see politics. In that sense, it’s hard to get much bigger than a group of people, many appointed, way off away from you (out of sight, out of contact, out of range of accountability - this is where distance comes in) using your money to finance some big program explained in a thousand page bill. You don’t know whether to trust such people, because you have no idea what sort of people they are, and this is vital information in a context where the informal rules of interpersonal relationships often take priority over the exacting enforcement of compulsory laws (after all, these guys are the ones making the laws). Big government, as a distant, unaccountable entity made up of people who have no reason to care about you or listen to your opinion, are inherently less trustworthy than the local candidate who’s helped you personally, because of distance. This is why, for instance, a black man in an area broadly considered racist can become an important local political figure, not because of a sudden change of belief of the people, but because he knows the way people think. ““James Fields,” you will hear whites explain again and again, “is one of us.”” James Fields could succeed as a black man where Obama couldn’t because Fields, unlike Obama, is not an abstraction to the people he has worked with since he was young. “Fields has no office in Cullman — he comes to you. Most of the county seems to know his cellphone number, with a result that, like an old-time family doctor thrust into the wireless age, Fields’s days unfold from house call to house call.” James Fields is a man who’s proven himself to the people, something which has the potential to overcome powerful barriers. In short, if politicians want to avoid the supposed anti-incumbent, anti-establishment wave that’s coming, and if big-government Democrats want to show that they “understand the American people,” that they “get it,” they need to be out there with the people, not just giving speeches but putting their face and integrity into the hands of those whose trust (and vote) they want, providing not just a name but a person.
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What is American Culture?


What is American culture? Since this blog will probably be read by Americans for the most part, it seems relevant. Given the American, or, more broadly ‘Western’ role of moral leadership in world affairs that continues to this day, it’s an important question for everyone. Wherever the tides may be turning, at the moment America still stands as a figurehead for world leadership, the lifestyle of its people something to be aimed for. But there are also many problems, many critics. Many think America, or rather Americans, to be ignorant. It is thought that they pursue a selfish, materialistic way of life. Alternatively, America and Americans remain in some ways an ideal, a goal to be reached, and immigration to this country continues. So what exactly is American culture? What are the elements that shape a distinctly American identity and way of life? This is the question with which we start.

To answer any question of the form “What is the culture of x like?” the most workable way to move forward is through simple enumeration of common characteristics of the people in that culture. This should work for Americans, Europeans, atheists, punk fans, vegetarians, and so on; what we want is those set of elements that sets America apart, and that all Americans (or at least a broad majority) share. This list would include beliefs, icons, habits and tendencies, a sense of one’s own history, and so on; basically, it is a list of factors that make up the socially constructed part of one’s identity. Not only must the concrete elements be shared, but there should also be a shared sense of meaning; two very different groups can start from the same basic ideas, documents, historical figures, etc. and draw very different lessons from them, based on other factors. Keeping all of this in mind, what do we find when we look at America?

Maybe the most firmly established line of commonality is a shared historical identity. There is a definite history, beginning with European discovery at the end of the Middle Ages and leading through colonization, war, and independence. The Founding Fathers represent both war heroes and icons of statesmanship; they set standards for bravery, sacrifice, prudence, and so on. In a way, the Founders are like the figures of a religious epic; larger than life figures who faced a great opponent and great odds, and came out successful, with their work establishing the foundation stone for many customs, habits, and practical facts of life that we encounter today. Thus, for example, the Constitution is the standard for law, having an absolute authority that shall not be superseded (and not just because it says so); unlike the laws of daily life or younger constitutions in younger countries, the Constitution has a sort of tangible sense of importance and necessity attached to its provisions, of historical destiny. Of course, it is a human document, made by human minds; but time and story changes many things, and the Constitution, along with the thoughts and beliefs of the founders themselves, has become something more than the sum of its parts.

This document provides a huge source of shared identity and sense of selfhood for what is a very large nation. One can compare, for example, the American reaction to 9/11 to any number of terrorist acts in Iraq during the occupation period. When Americans saw the terrorist attacks on television, what many felt was a sense of patriotism and compassion for the victims, despite in most cases not knowing a single person who died. Iraq, where terrorists attacks are still all too frequent, does not go through this range of events. What happens is more frequently a process of blame, and a consequent increase in tensions between ethnic groups. This is important; what is widely seen, in the news at least, is not related to a national patriotism in Iraq; if anything, it’s a threat to a commonality and a cause of further danger and potentially warfare (as Al Qaeda knows). Americans feel proud of their country -and what it stands for- in a way rarely seen, neither in Iraq nor Europe nor elsewhere.

But, as noted, we must pay attention not only to symbols and ideas but also how they’re interpreted, that is, their meaning. It’s not enough to share a belief in the role of the Constitution; there should also be some common ideas about what it stands for, exactly. After all, Christians and Jews all share a set of texts, but they deviate greatly in the significance those texts, foundational though they may be, play in identity. We run into something similar here, for, as recent events have demonstrated, there has been developing recently a very vocal dissention between groups as to what exactly America stands for. I’m of course referring to the conservative anti-government attitude that has developed recently, the Tea Party. These are people who see a great danger in what is happening to America and the direction it is headed. They hold firm to their understanding of the Constitution, and cite it frequently. Further, they hold that the opposition is not simply misguided but anti-American (note: this does not describe the whole Tea Party. It is, however, a clearly visible and driving undercurrent in the movement). Those on the other side, including the Democratic government leadership and opposing protest groups, think the same thing, that they are doing what is right according to fundamental American values and objectives. Where does this difference come from?


Whatever it is, it isn’t new. Though we might want to think otherwise, serious dissention and mass protest movements are not new to American life, nor is the scale a novelty. It’s not too long ago that the Vietnam protests occurred, as well as the civil rights movement. And for anyone who thinks that this can be isolated to recent decades, one ought to remember that the Civil War involved differences great enough to literally split the country. What I’d like to point out here is that, while it is true that there is considerable dissention in America about many fundamental issues today, and many of those differences seem poised (or are said to be poised) to affect the structure of American society, this is not a new phenomenon, and not without precedent.

What led to such differences, in this case and others? Much of this will be discussed in greater depth in the next article, so I am anticipating somewhat. But there are some important general features that can be made out now. The first is the very unusual nature of America’s development. Unlike, for instance, most European and Asian countries, America doesn’t follow any sort of rough natural ethnic boundaries. In fact, it went directly towards the opposite direction; America was a recipient, starting long before it became independent, of a broad mixture of ethnic, religious, and other groups from many parts of the world, something that continues to this day (though more now come from Asia and Mexico/South America than from Europe). What those people found was a huge swath of land, what has become one of the largest countries in the world. Thousands of square miles and everything from desert to tundra to Pacific Island are found in America. There are collectives of port cities on the coasts, and broad swathes of farmland with towns through much of the middle. You can find a huge variety of local habits and shared interests, different common practices (theater-going is still a possibility in New York City, and hunting remains important throughout the Midwest) and different levels of contact with the world at large. In short, America’s sheer size, variety of geographies, and different immigrant influences (the latter having perhaps less significance now than in the past) lead to a huge diffusion of ‘mini-cultures’ within American culture, more broadly construed. The incredible degree of variety, as well as the unusual history, allows greater variation than might be possible in many smaller countries, making America uniquely open to difference.

Which makes it very strange that America has held on so well through the years, particularly today, when, in the wake of greater world-exposure and the increase of casual relativism, one would expect more dissention than before. Yet again, there are influences for commonality at work. With the rise of world-exposure came the ability to move farther and quicker throughout our own country, an expansion of political, economic, and social spheres. This combines with the fact that the United States government has remained a consistent player in American life to strengthen a common element in daily life; the presence of persistent institutions that frame common problems and methods for their solution for people throughout the country. This provides a common backdrop of issues that every person deals with and reacts to (everybody, after all, is supposed to pay taxes) and thus another important piece of identity. These institutions are not just political; in addition to the Founding Fathers, there are pop stars that provide shared entertainment and information interests, common trends, visible social movements, and so on, with the latter being a bond of identity (whether you love or hate the newest television show) just as the Constitution is, since both provide a common object towards which one relates and against the context of which one defines oneself. What is important here is not the ‘purity’ or historicality of these sources; rather, it’s how they help to define one, and whether these sources give us a common starting point from which there is a mutual understanding of what is up for debate and interest, and what, broadly speaking, is to be held close to one’s heart, even when there are cases of disagreement. In this sense, taste in music or food has just as much possibility for forming identity as the Constitution of the United States; it’s something that helps us to announce who we are, in the process explaining to ourselves who we are, and letting us know who is like us, who shares our world.


This last point is important, since it seems to me that this form of identity is moving more to the forefront than the more traditional, historically based forms of identity. History has become less central to our identity than it was before (another subject of a later post), which helps in part to explain what the Tea Party members (and conservative movements in general) are after. The new small-government movement is a curiosity in part because of its obsession with its interpretation of history; the sight of a Tea Party member wearing colonial clothing and holding up a copy of the Constitution was not always an everyday thing. Part of what they’re trying to preserve is the identity that comes with that outfit, the historical values that they feel are threatened. Of course, whether those ideals are ‘historical’ in the sense of being the exact values the Constitution was meant to uphold is up for debate; what isn’t is that these protests are meant to represent of a sort of culture that the average Tea Partier feels is being threatened. A set of values is now being challenged, or so it appears; and the danger is significant enough to make sometimes substantial sacrifices to preserve it (as a note, this isn’t reflective, of course, of everyone in the Tea Party movement; but at the same time, it’s clearly present often and as one of the major driving factors in the movement). The same was true in the other historical cases, such as the civil rights movement; there was a growing conflict introduced between a shifting universal ‘American’ identity and the ‘American’ identity of a certain way of life, a subculture within the broader American culture.

Such fragmentations are not limited to America, of course; what’s interesting about this case, however, is the fact that the idea of ‘American’ culture in the universal sense is fighting with ‘American’ culture in particular instances. It’s not like an ethnic conflict with national implications, such as in various separatist movements through history. Think again of the civil rights movement; both sides not only claimed to be preserving American identity, they most certainly and strongly believed it. This is a very strange thing; America is shared as an idea, as a common history, set of values, and so on. But at the same time, there is great differentiation in practice, in what ‘America’ means. Part of the conflict is the distinction between symbols and meaning; the common symbols have different meanings that lead to conflict in cases such as the ones highlighted. At the same time, the symbols (and understood meanings) are so powerful as to preserve a common identity against all opponents, even the American culture itself. Whether this has ever happened before, I don’t know.

We’ve wandered far and wide here, so let us finally get back to our question before we close. What is American culture? Overall, it seems to me that there may be no such thing. There are clear common elements in history, figures, and so on, and they have clear unifying power. Even if one assumes that the role of such things is declining, there are shared institutions (and with it many shared issues and concerns) and many shared media that convey common messages across the country with ease. We share a general economic outlook and lifestyle as well, meaning that our position relative to other countries is mostly consistent. Yet at the same time one can find vastly different ways of living in different states, vastly different sets of values, and so on. It is clear that there are differences in how life is lived depending on where you go and who you talk to, to a high enough degree that you may sometimes think that you are in another country. What is not clear is how deep these differences run, and, the most difficult thing of all, how, in spite of it all, we can still claim so many common symbols and still stand together as a country when the time calls for it. How has America stood so strong, in spite of the challenges it has faced? And what can we learn from this? Might we be able to find, in this seeming contradiction, a way to strengthen the unity of other societies?
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