Americans at millennium’s end
How we learned to love the media and forget who we are
I. Mr. T
To get a pretty good idea of who Americans are (or were), one need look no further than Alexis de Tocqueville. Visiting the U.S. in 1831 (during a quiet wrinkle in time when the Revolution had been over long enough for American life to start to look like itself, not Colonial England; when the nation was prosperous, and wealth, at least in the Northern states, was fairly well-distributed; when the Industrial Revolution and the Civil War were still slightly over the horizon, both of which would drive Americans apart, socially and economically), Tocqueville wrote a remarkably durable book describing and even defining what it meant to be “American” – and, by extension, what it would mean to be a citizen in the emerging European democracies. Many of his observations – his comments about the treatment of blacks, his pre-Marxian analysis of manufacturing, his comments about impeachment (“When the American republics begin to degenerate, it will be easy to verify the truth of this observation by remarking whether the number of political impeachments is increased”) – aren’t merely prophetic but seem written yesterday, if not tomorrow. Never the most organized of writers, and torn between his admiration of democracy and his fear that it would level experience and lead back to state despotism, Tocqueville scattered observations about the American “character” throughout his two-volume, 1000 page De la dï¿½mocratie en Amï¿½rique; the following is my awkward attempt to assemble them.
Maybe the most important thing to note is that Tocqueville believed that there was an American “character” qualitatively different from anything that had come before. Because the U.S. had never been anything other than a democracy, rather than having to throw off a long-entrenched monarchy Americans imbibed the principles of equality and Lockean self-interest, according to Tocqueville, with their mothers’ milk. (The testimony of other visitors like tends to support Tocqueville’s sense of this across-the-board “Americanism”: Chevalier observed that laborers and privileged classes shared, if not an equality of wealth, an equality of knowledge, habit, and even resourcefulness that, 150 years later, sounds like jingoistic fantasy.) Here are two of Tocqueville’s lyrical descriptions of the representative American:
[E]very individual has an equal share of power and participates equally in the government of the state. Why, then, does he obey society, and what are the natural limits of this obedience? Every individual is always supposed to be as well informed, as virtuous, and as strong as any of his fellow citizens. He obeys society, not because he is inferior to those who conduct it or because he is less capable than any other of governing himself, but because he acknowledges the utility of an association with his fellow men and he knows that no such association can exist without a regulating force. He is a subject in all that concerns the duties of citizens to each other; he is free, and responsible to God alone, for all that concerns himself.
The citizen of the United States is taught from infancy to rely upon his own exertions in order to resist the evils and difficulties of life; he looks upon the social authority with an eye of mistrust and anxiety, and he claims its assistance only when he is unable to do without it. This habit may be traced even to the schools, where the children in their games are wont to submit to rules which they have themselves established, and to punish misdemeanors which they have themselves defined. The same spirit pervades every act of social life. If a stoppage occurs in a thoroughfare and the circulation of vehicles is hindered, the neighbors immediately form themselves into a deliberative body; and this extemporaneous assembly gives rise to an executive power which remedies the inconvenience before anybody has thought of recurring to a pre-existing authority superior to that of the persons immediately concerned. If some public pleasure is concerned, an association is formed to give more splendor and regularity to the entertainment….There is no end which the human will despairs of attaining through the combined power of individuals united into a society.
These optimistic views of the harmonious flow between the individual and his society, between independence and submission to the will of like-minded individuals, can be found in the first volume (1834) of Tocqueville’s work, when he was still flushed with excitement about what he’d seen in America. Six years later, perhaps because his enthusiasm had waned, or his experience in the Chamber of Deputies had soured him on the prospects of the system he’d lavishly praised, the second volume had a decidedly different tone. Now “in most operations of the mind each American appeals only to the individual effort of his own understanding.” Cut off from tradition, “every man there readily loses all trace of the ideas of his forefathers or takes no care about them.” Learning from his contemporaries is unlikely also, since everyone is tediously alike:
As to the influence which the intellect of one man may have on that of another, it must necessarily be very limited in a country where all the citizens, placed on an equal footing, are all closely seen by one another; and where, as no signs of incontestable greatness or superiority are perceived in any one of them, they are constantly brought back to their own reason as the most obvious and proximate source of truth. It is not only confidence in this or that man which is destroyed, but the disposition to trust the authority of any man whatsoever. Everyone shuts himself up tightly within himself and insists upon judging the world from there.
What’s common to both these light and dark pictures of Americans (and one can see versions repeated throughout American literature – in Huckleberry Finn) is the Rugged Individualist, the man of action rather than reflection, the canny opportunist on one hand, the Outlaw or Cowboy on the Range on the other–in short, the man who creates himself through his own ingenuity and self-confidence. Depending on which Tocqueville one reads, these qualities may be seen as either virtues or faults: the American is practical rather than perfectionistic (“The man of action is frequently obliged to content himself with the best he can get because he would never accomplish his purpose if he chose to carry every detail to perfection”); driven by concern for life in the present, especially physical well-being (“The taste for well being is the prominent and indelible feature of democratic times”); self-involved but–if guided by the “proper application of the principle of self-interest”– able to identify with his fellow citizens enough to treat them with respect and even kindness. Proud, unpretentious, mistrustful of people who “put on airs,” these Americans would be recognizable to later Europeans in a novel (where they have marvelous names like Casper Goodwood!) or a tank-riding World War II G.I. – the self-effacing but canny soldier who knew instinctively how to bargain chocolate and nylons for wine and feminine affections.
What would a society made up of such people be like? Even though, according to Tocqueville, the more extreme manifestations of individualism are checked by a well-balanced, ingenious web of interconnected governing bodies (as well as the force of public opinion), the picture of American society that emerges from his work is one of unrest, compulsive activity, chronic discontent:
In the United States a man builds a house in which to spend his old age, and he sells it before the roof is on; he plants a garden and lets it just as the trees are coming into bearing; he brings a field into tillage and leaves other men to gather the crops; he embraces a profession and gives it up; he settles in a place, which he soon afterwards leaves to carry his changeable longings elsewhere. If his private affairs leave him any leisure, he instantly plunges into the vortex of politics; and if at the end of a year of unremitting labor he finds he has a few days’ vacation, his eager curiosity whirls him over the vast extent of the United States, and he will travel fifteen hundred miles in a few days to shake off his happiness. Death at length overtakes him, but it is before he is weary of his bootless chase of that complete felicity which forever escapes him.
At first sight there is something surprising in this strange unrest of so many happy men, restless in the midst of abundance. The spectacle itself, however, is as old as the world; the novelty is to see a whole people furnish an exemplification of it.
This “bootless chase,” it seems to me, is even more characteristic of Americans than it was in Tocqueville’s day. In fact, what I’d like to look at in the rest of this essay is how Americans (and much of the rest of the world) are driven by a search for a “felicity” that they can’t reach, which has been exacerbated by the spectacular spread of the media in the last fifty years. What might have been a force for community has instead created a sense of shared isolation.
But first, a personal reminiscence about the two last Tocquevilleans.
II. My Own Jimmy Stewart and Humphrey Bogart
Right after World War II, my father moved his growing family from a three-room apartment in Manhattan to a big house in a tree-lined neighborhood just within city limits. Both the move and the history of the neighborhood couldn’t have been more Tocquevillean; in this case, the Jews were driving out the well-to-do Protestants, who’d moved there three decades earlier when the estates that had existed since Revolutionary times had been subdivided into plots much too small for the developers’ swollen, pretentious houses. (But my father had no particular desire for land: it was rooms he wanted, a home that really was a castle, lots of furniture, fresh fruit in the refrigerator – the most visible signs of success.)
How the black entertainer Cab Calloway had managed to break the color-barrier of an all-white neighborhood ten years before the Jews moved in and buy the house across the street was a mystery to me, but since Calloway was loved by whites, was himself light-skinned and was married to a red-haired, alabaster-skinned woman, it wasn’t impossible to imagine. However, soon after we moved in they moved out and sold to a man whom I’ll call Mr. Bromley. He became my father’s best – actually his only – friend.
It’s necessary to see, first of all, that both of these men were pure manifestations of Tocqueville’s representative American–both “self-made,” both without a past or one they didn’t want known:
Dad was the son of a shochet, a ritual slaughterer, the lowest rung on the rabbinical ladder. As restless as any 19th century New Englander, he’d been a civil engineer, an insurance salesman, a travelling salesman selling hams to Polish farmers (!), a deckhand on a tug boat – and finally a lawyer with his own practice, who’d made his money helping refugees immigrate to the States. Bromley had been no less active. Though I only learned about it decades later, after entering the country by stowing away on a Jamaican fishing boat he’d become a Harlem gangster – he was involved in boxing, horse-racing, and other less-than-reputable sports – until the mid-30’s when he turned “state’s witness” for the Seabury Commission (a municipal committee investigating Harlem crime), was given immunity, and spent the next 10 years hiding out as a chicken farmer in upstate New York. When he felt the coast was clear, he moved back to the city, bought some buildings in Harlem and spent the rest of his life as a respectable landlord (some called him, unjustly I think, a “slumlord” – he was proud of his buildings, which were sparklingly well-kept); though who knows exactly what else he had his hand in?
Every morning Dad drove Mr. Bromley to his Harlem office before going to his own. They never called each other anything but “Mr. Blecher” and “Mr. Bromley” (“If [the demeanor of Americans] is often cold and serious, it is never haughty or constrained; and if they do not converse, it is because they are not in a humor to talk, not because they think it their interest to be silent.”) They spoke in low, unanimated language, with lots of pauses, mostly about politics and the Stock Market, but the dignified, familiar tone of the conversation made it clear that they considered themselves the equal of any politician or magnate. When public figures like the President or local Congressmen entered the discourse, I got the feeling that whether or not my father or Bromley knew them personally (sometimes they did), they could know them, they weren’t inaccessible to either. And though Bromley and my father rarely ate in each other’s houses (“Each [American] willingly acknowledges all his fellow citizens as his equals, but will only receive a very limited number of them as his friends or guests.”), they were the best of neighbors, perfectly dependable and trustworthy.
Now the fact is that ethnically, my father and Mr. Bromley weren’t Tocqueville’s Anglo-Protestant Americans at all but a black Jamaican without a passport and a second-generation Eastern European Jew. Yet they were so American! In those days it seemed possible–and essential– for every immigrant to assimilate and become American! Since they really had no other choice, they worked hard to bury their pasts and reconstitute their personalities in the New World.
Immigrants or not, my father and Mr. Bromley had public-life equivalents not only in the folksy, shrewd President Truman and the cowboy poet Will Rogers (himself a mixture of Cherokee and hardscrabble Baptist) but in movie stars; for it was still a time when media reflected the “reality” of American life, not the other way around; when you could say that it was at least partly a tool of the “people,” not simply a fantasy- (and money-) making machine.
Jimmy Stewart could have been modeled on my father. Informal, awkward, boyish like Stewart, Dad wore cardigan sweaters with holes in the elbows with the charming sloppiness of Stewart crushing his hat in the famous scene in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. As lean if not quite as tall as Stewart, he had the same combination of sincerity and American “horse sense” as Stewart’s on-screen persona, especially when Stewart played opposite “foreigners” like Cary Grant or “aristocrats” like Katharine Hepburn. One could tell – and not only in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, but in every one of Stewart’s films – that he was an athlete, a lover of children, a competent but not outstanding student, the child of a devoted, attentive mother (“[The] children [of the American woman] cluster around her, full of health, turbulence, and energy… to look at their strength and her languor, one might imagine that the life she has given them has exhausted her own, and still she does not regret what they have cost her.”) Both my father and the Stewart character were men of principle, but not ideologues; generous men, but not fools; possessors of a philosophy that extended only as far as they could see, but within those boundaries committed to getting the best–and fairest–treatment for themselves and those they cared about. Tocqueville would have recognized them in an instant.
Bromley had antecedents in the movies, too. Bogart. Cagney’s simmering anger. Some of Edward G. Robinson’s steely (but melancholy) authority. Cigarette dangling from his lips, watery but intelligent eyes, he exuded a sense that he wasn’t to be trifled with. Sometimes he arranged elaborate fishing trips, and invited my father and me. The chartered boat could have been out of To Have and Have Not. The captain was white, fat, and smart enough to recognize who was boss. All the other guests were black – friends, associates (or henchmen) of Mr. B. The food was sumptuous – fried chicken, potato salad, green salads, roast beef, Scotch, gin, Coke for the boy. Bromley’s stewardship was quiet, almost invisible. His voice, like Bogart’s, was hoarse, low, never insistent. It only acquired an edge when someone proved himself a poor fisherman. Bromley himself sat at the stern, totally focused on the underwater omphalos where fish recognize the difference between ordinary and irresistible bait. He caught as many as the rest of us combined. After a fish struck, he’d set the hook with a move as graceful as a master gambler turning up an ace; his face, usually implacable, gave way to a slight grin.
Here was the underground Tocquevillean – the poacher, the swindler, a type with a lineage going back to Thomas Morton, the notorious founder of the Merry Mount Colony who’d offended Miles Standish and his Puritans with his moral “flexibility”and ease among the Indians. ( short story, “The May Pole of Merry Mount,” is a timid appreciation of Morton’s Bacchanalian colony.) If one regards Huck and Tom Sawyer as two halves of the American personality, then Bromley was Huck, a liar and petty thief but the soulful one, the individual who created his own moral system out of personal experience, ambition, restraint, and an instinctive sense of Style.
As Bromley and my father conformed to Tocquevillean parameters, so did their spouses. Though my mother and Mrs. Bromley had “a precocious knowledge on all subjects” (Mrs. Bromley had been trained as a classical actress, my mother had responsible bookkeeping jobs before she married), marriage isolated them (“The independence of [the American] woman is irrecoverably lost in the bonds of matrimony.”) But it was far from true that our family and Mr. Bromley’s were “equal” to other Americans in all ways, no matter how much we may have wanted it otherwise. Early on my father had been rejected for an engineering job because he was a Jew – and lost all interest in engineering. No doubt Bromley’s “career” from his illegal immigration to whatever the Seabury Commission granted him immunity for was shaped by his second-class status.
Nevertheless, they saw themselves as loyal Americans. Whether or not they recognized themselves in Stewart and Bogart (and in other characters in radio shows and comic strips), their reflections were in the cultural mirror. Media and society were joined by exactly what Tocqueville observed in the 1830’s – the organic, for the most part benevolent relationship between public and private life. In a complex, unsentimental way, Americans were still a family, if not necessarily a happy one.
III. Longing to be Seen
Much of the current writing about the negative effects of the media seems to me driven by false nostalgia: whether we like it or not, a time without media saturation of culture feels impossibly remote at one end, inconceivable at the other. So I add the following thoughts about the media not to rhapsodize about a Golden Age that probably never existed but to try to get a better grasp on why our sense of Tocquevillean unity (assuming it wasn’t a complete fiction) grew thinner in the last fifty years until the very concept has a dated, slightly mad ring to it.
First of all, however, it’s clear that other events of the last fifty years contributed to the current lack of cultural cohesion – or, putting it more positively, multicultural variety. Vast waves of immigration (combined with the possibility, through cheap airfares, of living half in one country, half in another) made it less desireable and necessary to become “American”; internal movement even greater than that which Tocqueville observed put into question the very idea of community; a movement of wealth toward the top in the 80’s comparable to the robber barons of the late 19th cen. served to foster envy and isolate people from each other. All these couldn’t help but destabilize a citizenry that in my childhood seemed so boringly secure that its critics called it the worst of times, its supporters the best of times – and for the same reasons!
Furthermore, it’s in the very nature of communication to change and distort, and probably the need to reduce experience to media cliches was programmed into our Manichean Puritan genes. Carl Sandburg, Lincoln’s ebullient biographer, pointed out that the picture of Honest Abe the Rail-Splitter, our highest Paragon of Virtue, was largely the creation of pre-J. Walter Thompson publicists. And with the rise of Yellow Journalism at the turn of the century in the hands of William Randolph Hearst, the media started to feel its power, if not to create news then to shape and inflate it. One might even make a case that the media’s singular power in the U.S. is an extension of our belief in majority rule ( the “tyranny of the majority” that Tocqueville worried about); for the apparent immediacy of media has the effect of making the audience feel that it’s speaking for everyone, not merely some executives and a programming committee– and maybe Americans are more likely to buy into that impression than citizens of ex-monarchies, who have had more experience with the manipulation of media “truth.”
Still, it seems fairly obvious that instead of bringing us together, the technological leaps forward of the media in the last half-century, and its success at taking up our time, actually separated us, or more accurately created a sense of shared isolation. McLuhan’s Global Village supplied us with the same TV programs and computer games, but also fostered a feeling of incompleteness, a sense that life isn’t enough like TV. And this feeling undermined–or at least obscured–the self-assurance of the private citizen that Tocqueville described so well.
In many ways, the turning point was the day of the Kennedy assassination in 1963. Not only was it the first time that an assassination was filmed and broadcast on television, but also the first time that an actual murder (the killing of Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby) was broadcast live before the world. This had to be a watershed in the blurring of the line between “sign” and “signifier,” reality and representation. On some neurological level, we were stunned and confused: had we just watched a staged drama – some sort of acting out of a national wish to take revenge on the murderer of the President? – or had it been pure accident that the cameras caught the shocked expression on Oswald’s face as he raised his arms to defend himself against a dark shadow that seemed literally to enter the picture from the wings of Reality?
Whichever way one turned it (and the staying power of conspiracy theories makes it clear that even now the nation can’t come to any “closure”), it didn’t make sense. Since television up to that point had been about craft, not accident, could we accept that what we had just witnessed was spontaneous and unrehearsed? But if it hadn’t been accidental, it must have been staged; but if staged, why were they telling us that it was “real”?
I think this is when many people started to sense, albeit unconsciously, that there existed a new kind of reality somewhere between theater and unselfconscious life, a reality determined by the always- open eye of the camera. (Baudrillard would later call it “hyperreality,” not a bad term because it suggests increased intensity, a reality “better” than old-fashioned Reality, where experience has been sped up and refined; where all tedious build-up, preparation, digressions, distractions, hesitations, aftermaths, consequences and coterminous events have been eliminated, leaving only a brilliantly short, focused, highly stylized fragment of time.) From then on–and with increasing intensity– personal and public experience in America (whether it was war, politics, sports, sex, travel, leisure or professional life) would attempt to approximate the recognizable, replayable, high-intensity moments that only the media could devise.
This recasting of reality is probably easiest to recognize in the presentation of war following the Kennedy assassination. ( Among many others, Paul Virilio’s writing is useful here.) Though at first the efforts of the military and the media to discover a workable form for a TV war didn’t meet with great success (in the 60’s the leaders of the anti-war movement, nurtured as they were on radio and TV, were better at manipulating the media than the military), as time went on the blurring of the lines between fact and fiction became smoother and more professional, until by the Kosovo war the media was skillful enough to mask the fact, for example, that all the participants shared some responsibility for brutality and aggression.
War wasn’t the only thing that TV learned to stylize. As angry 1976 film Network pointed out, all news gradually became fictionalized. And there were other changes: drama and comedy became more technologically immediate without being more “lifelike”; advertisements imitated drama; documentaries and pseudo-documentaries edited “reality” down to the same heightened moments as sitcoms; jump-cuts and switching from camera to camera created a frenetic rhythm that kept viewers in a state of constant anticipation. Reality became not just “hyperreality” but “hyperfiction,” a glittering, breathless, high-pitched world of soaring adrenaline and constant climaxes. Next to this world, our own lives felt slow, unruly and full of contradictions. Instead of media imitating us (as it had to a great extent in my father’s and Mr. Bromley’s day), we tried increasingly to imitate it–to be as beautiful, as strong, as witty, as thin, as fast as the alluring figures on the screen.
How can one avoid seeing, for example, in those lonely Colorado teenagers spraying their classmates with bullets a wish to be stars of their own movie? How can one not be chilled by the matter-of-factness of their suicides, as if they felt like ciphers, hardly deserving to be alive, and perhaps believing that by virtue of the flood of information that they’d received from TV, films and the Internet they’d seen and “done” everything worth doing? How can one avoid hearing in one’s own language and that of friends and acquaintances an urge to imitate the “wit” and quickness of TV sitcoms? What about the way one’s heart skips at the thought of being on TV, the envious reverence in which one holds a friend of a friend who knows a famous person? Isn’t the lust for TV recognition a quickening of the blood that not even sex can match? Why else would we let our bodies become walking billboards, if not to share some of the thrill of the hyper-world? Couldn’t the dramatic rise in the use of anti-depressants be seen at least in part as the need to damp down the misery we feel looking into the abyss between our expectations (that “bootless chase” that Tocqueville talked about, now amplified and modernized by the media), and the lives we actually lead?
One might ask exactly what all this has to do with the representative American we left tending his garden, making his money, protecting his family, and looking at the world with a slightly jaundiced eye. How was he affected by the flood of images, the fictionalizing of experience? I suspect that it left him numb, confused. While the immigrant population and the super-rich worked so hard they were largely impervious to the media, his behavior was harder to read, though focus groups and consumer research organizations spent millions trying to learn his TV viewing and spending habits. His more extreme (and visible) kinsmen gathered in loose enclaves in states like Maine and Oregon, which over the years collected a of disaffected hippies, New Age spiritualists, environmental purists, right-wing militiamen and committed Luddites. In general they shared an anti-technological bias, but this wasn’t universal: computer hackers who took pleasure in puncturing holes in the electronic walls around banks and the Defense Department (couldn’t one see them as American tinkers for whom no challenge was too great?) were included in this group. All felt invaded, either by the government, technology, media or commerce. Unlike the activists of the 60’s, however, they weren’t interested in influencing mainstream culture; their solution has been to develop small, indeed infinitesimal, micro-cultures whose main goal is survival.
But I want to suggest that another, much larger group exists, one closer in spirit to the Tocquevillean American without ever having heard of Tocqueville.Nixon’s advisers called them the “silent majority,” though in his era the term referred to middle-class whites angry at what they perceived was unfair treatment from a federal government favoring minority groups. Now I think the term could be used to describe a vast, media-sated group that feels disaffected yet identifies itself as part of the central culture. They’re the anonymous public who made it clear during the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal that media coverage had gone too far. Not that they didn’t watch TV during the impeachment – the uniqueness of the event was too powerful to resist–but poll after poll showed that they weren’t concerned about the President’s private life, they felt that the story had been inflated by print and visual media, and they were quite aware that underneath the smoke and mirrors was the bitter partisan politics that has characterized (and paralyzed) Congress for the past twenty years.
For me, the public’s response to the Lewinsky scandal was remarkable. For years the public had been called immature, Puritanical, sheeplike. The only thing they liked, we were told, was sex and violence. And yet this juiciest of scandals left them cold. Had TV programmers and journalists exaggerated the public’s need for prurience and sensationalism? Did the airwaves really need to be flooded by trivia, mindless interviews and endless video-loops to mask the lack of new information? Wasn’t there some way to restore a balance between investigative journalism and propriety? And was it possible–God forbid!–that most Americans were sober, reasonable, sane adults?
These and other questions brought about a most curious phenomenon. During the impeachment, journalists appeared on TV confessing that perhaps they’d gone too far, and that in the future they’d try harder to draw a line between public and private life. The flood of crocodile tears was breathtaking. And even if it was far too early to trust media self-flagellation (after all, it may have been nothing more than an imitation of the President’s own breast-beating), it did suggest a profound misunderstanding of the public mood. Perhaps the words of the demented TV news anchorman in Network as he railed against his own industry – “We’re mad as hell, and we’re not gonna take it anymore!” – were about to be taken up as a public battle cry.
Did the public’s refusal to buy into the false excitement of the Clinton/Lewinsky affair prove the existence of a media-sated citizenry? Hardly. But then maybe that other group – the media lovers, the Internet surfers who we are told comprise the majority of the American people – may not quite exist either. They may have been dreamed up, the statistics teased this way or that, by research groups paid by media executives chronically terrified of losing their audience.
IV. The Post-Media Citizen
Imagine, say, a young woman who since birth has been filmed, videotaped, recorded; who has lived with TV and computers, Walkmen and CD and DVD players in every room of her house so that screens and amplified sound are more familiar to her than paintings and barking dogs, and the images on those screens and voices in her earphones are part of her “family” (though what exactly the relationship is between these and “real people” isn’t at all clear); and, most important, who has no particular need–indeed, no awareness that a need might exist–to protect herself from the camera, or a desire to perform before it. Since the camera and microphone have been so present in her life, they no longer suggest a world to be sought after or fled from; by now the “real” and “virtual” worlds really have merged in her head. Due to her familiarity with the media, she is always performing, always on– and for this reason takes it completely for granted.
If we could see inside her head, we might find answers to some nagging questions. In what ways does her experience of emotions like hate, love, loyalty, pride resemble ours? In an atmosphere of prepackaged, standardized sound and images–a world of Kundera’s “lightness”–is there anything “heavy,” anything that lasts longer than the time it takes to switch channels? Where every disease, every exotic place, every human act has been photographed, broadcast, made boring and banal by repetition, is there anything left for her to investigate on her own? Given the range of her vicarious experience, how can she tolerate the mundane daily experience that makes up 99% of our lives?
By now you may recognize her as one of the central characters in Brave New World or Fahrenheit 451, grim visions of citizens of the future pacified by drugs and TV. But maybe there’s a slightly less drastic version.
Let’s say that one day while watching one of the multitude of guru-self-help philosophers who will populate the higher bands of cable TV, she’s surprised by something, some reference to the past that she’s never heard before. The feeling will be akin to hearing a faint echo but more thrilling, like a stranger touching her arm. We might call this sensation curiosity.
If books still exist in her time – and perhaps the future won’t be quite as anti-literate as Bradbury depicted it – she may find her way to a library, or its equivalent. There the sensation that she first felt will come back to her, only this time in a more disturbing form, as if she’s about to break an unspoken taboo. In that moment she may get a glimpse not only of the vast file cabinet of knowledge she hasn’t yet opened but a sense that something basic is wrong with her very way of looking at her life; rather than its being simple and resolvable (or unbearably painful when it won’t conform to her expectations), she may see that it is less predictable, less able to be circumscribed, full of variables for which she has no names yet but which would be familiar to us as Chance, Fate, Tragedy, Luck, and the Inevitable. If her curiosity can withstand this fit of existential terror, she may open a book that leads her to another book, and another. Rather than staying in a world where impatience can be relieved by pressing a button on the remote, she may enter a whole new epistemological realm where knowledge is gathered slowly, and where boredom can be a prelude to creativity.
This education of hers will take time–the rest of her life. She’ll start and stop many times, and curse herself endlessly for leaving her secure, vicarious world for a bigger but more anxiety-provoking world of uncertainty. But of course it’s just this boldness, this willingness to go into the Unknown, that Tocqueville admired most:
No natural boundary seems to be set to the efforts of the [the American citizen]; and in his eyes what is not yet done is only what he has not yet attempted to do.
Published 8 February 2000
Original in English
First published by Wespennest 117 (December 1999) (in German) / Eurozine (in English)
Contributed by Wespennest © George BlecherPDF/PRINT