Thursday, April 30, 2020

The American background: from active strain to estrangement

Edward Hopper, Intermission (1963)

Two months in, it might be measurable in petabytes: the internet traffic to newspaper articles, thinkpieces, and short YouTube about the ways in which COVID-19 has unraveled the fabric of day-to-day life in the United States. To be sure, sickness and death, a six-month freeze in public education, and the frightful economic costs (which undoubtedly are being and will be borne most by wage-earners) are nothing to be dismissed. But the parts of our day-to-day repertoires that stay-at-home orders and social distancing have left unaffected also deserve some attention.

A joke circulated on Twitter in mid- or late March; I won't pretend to remember where it originated or in what form (it might have been a comic strip), but the gist of it was:

"What did you do yesterday?"

"Oh, you know, I stayed at home, bingewatched Tiger King all afternoon and then stayed up until two in the morning playing Doom Eternal."

"Well, it's good to give yourself a break from worrying about the pandemic."


"Americans are," runs the headline of a Forbes piece from early April, "Excessively eating, drinking, smoking pot, playing video games and watching porn while quarantined." So—what we've already been up to, but a bit more of it. Businesses have closed their doors and self-isolation guidelines preclude public gatherings or events, but American cultural life doesn't look that much different from before—especially if you're in a sub-middling income bracket and are not yourself a Highly Effective Person or keep such people in your company.

The museums, concert halls, and community theaters have closed—but let's be honest, most of us weren't visiting them more than once a year, if that. Ditto libraries and bookstores. Those of us upset about the closure of our favorite little coffee shops are probably less disappointed about missing out conversations with other regulars or open mic night than having nowhere else but our own homes to hunch over and punch at our laptops. The average sports enthusiast is more likely mourning the national leagues' hiatus than disheartened at having to miss out on attending or playing games on an amateur team. If we go out to see local bands play in small venues more often than never, odds are we're in our twenties and personally know at least one person taking the stage that night.

Subcultures and small arts scenes do exist, but to most of the population of a given city, these strains are irrelevant.1 Those who are not directly involved in them pay them no mind (possibly while deriding its participants as "hipsters") while they watch Netflix, follow strangers on Instagram, read middlebrow thinkpieces by people living in Brooklyn or San Diego, pantomime congregation on Reddit, play video games, or watch remote strangers playing video games—like everyone else does everywhere else.

In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam attributed the erosion of civic engagement in the United States to the focal position that electronic mass media has come to occupy in the loci of our habits. (He was writing in the 1990s; he hadn't seen anything yet.) Few sensible people would gainsay Putnam's diagnosis, but we'd be shortsighted to believe this is a novel trend. More than a single mutation was required before sunflowers bent their stalks and rolled their heads to follow the sun; training human beings toward phototropism was likewise accomplished as a quantitative extension of processes that had been grinding along for centuries.

William Carlos Williams (physician, poet, occasional essayist) provides some useful exposition. Writing in 1934 about Alfred Stieglitz's contribution to American art, Williams takes a long but productive detour into the "the American background." His intent is not to convey the quiddity of the United States' art or culture, but to expatiate on the socioeconomic tidal forces that shape their topography.

In William's conception, American culture was from its secessionist inception the grounds of a quiet, protracted antagonism between "two cultural elements...battling for supremacy, one looking toward Europe, necessitous but retrograde in its tendency...and the other forward-looking, but under a shadow of the first." Williams isn't concerned with designations of nationality or ethnicity per se, and neither are we. Though he employs no Marxist jargon in his brief history, the agent driving the narrative's plot is capital—its nebular accretion and gravitational field of influence.

Williams drops a few names from America's founding mythology, but the overwhelming mass of his "forward-thinking" contingent is anonymous: frontiersmen, homesteaders, residents of small rural communities, and members of sectarian enclaves who lived and negotiated their survival in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries. We are not asked to consider their lives through the distortions of hagiography, nor are we to overlook their various faults of crudeness, bigotry, or outright backwardness. Williams does enjoin us, however, to challenge ourselves to imagine the facts which confronted them.

Winslow Homer, Two Guides (1877)

The first waves of European migrants arrived on the shores of an alien continent with an unfamiliar ecology, nothing they would recognize as infrastructure, no recourse to a central authority, and no access to any appurtenances other than those which they'd carried with them or could fabricate from what materials they could find. They were animals that had transplanted themselves into an environment with which they were incompatible. The Puritans' well-documented and veritably religious aversion to the forests girding the borders of their dominion, and European visitors' accounts of settlers razing trees with the zeal of crusaders conducting a siege must be understood in this context.

A digression toward ecology is unavoidable here—though to consider the land is never to digress, because the land is never beside the point. Settlers on the American continent would have needed no reminders of this fact. In 1800, about 94 percent of the United States' population lived in rural areas. To the scattered residents of the North American backwoods, more or less cut off from the culture and commerce of the cities (at the turn of the nineteenth century, it was actually cheaper to move goods in bulk across the Atlantic than to transport them a fraction of that distance inland), the immediate environs, the "gigantic newness" of the ecology, would have been a dominating influence upon their thoughts and habits. If history had played out differently—inconceivable, unless we can imagine a scenario in which the Atlantic somehow became untraversable for a century or longer—Williams imagines new languages might have been spoken in the villages and forest hollows.

Again, we mystify if we romanticize: neither we nor Williams entertain flowery delusions of a back-to-the-land return to innocence. He is talking about a brief interval in history where proto-American culture consisted of "relation to the conditions of the immediate matter at hand, and a determination to assert them in opposition to all intermediate authority." Don't read this as an endorsement of the "rugged individualism" trope, but rather of localism: a life in which one's conduct is guided primarily by the concrete facts of his environs, and the right-in-their-face happenings in a group's own backyard become the lodestar of collective imagination.2

What interests Williams are the seeds of culture that might have germinated under such conditions, where the vivacity of local influences, the seasons' cycles and exigencies, and the relations and rituals that alluviated around them were given an opportunity to prevail over the customs and values carried over from a now-foreign context. What he's after is the elusive "realization of the qualities of a place in relation to the life which occupies it; embracing everything involved, climate, geographic position, relative size, history, other cultures—as well as the knowledge of its sands, flowers, minerals and the conditions of knowledge within its borders."

In other words, he wonders what might have occurred if America had realized a culture before it went about trying to build a civilization. The availability of readymade alternatives—to be discussed shortly—obviated the necessity to do so, and thus precluded development in that regard.

Of the artifacts the inchoate "culture of immediacy" left behind, Williams mentions domestic goods and local crafts—glassware, woodwork, ad hoc architecture, and so on. He treats Shaker furniture in some detail:
Beautiful examples are these of what could be done in a related manner with the materials in hand; they are plastically the most truthful monuments to the sincerity of the motives that produced them that could be imagined. Here was a sect, isolated by their beliefs, living in small self-sufficient communities, seeking to make what they needed out of what they had for the quiet and disciplined life they sought. It was a bigoted, small life, closing in of themselves for a purpose, but it was simple and inoffensive. All these qualities appear in the workmanship, a kind of gentle parable to the times.
We see these same motives in early American folk art traditions. Between the mid-eighteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries thrived the Pennsylvania German art of Fraktur. Usually composed from ink and watercolor on laid paper, a typical Fraktur piece would consist of a block of devotional or commemorative text written in a characteristic "fractured"-looking script, set within a concinnous flourish of decorative motifs, plants and animals, domestic tableaux, and religious symbolism.

True: we don't have to look long at a given Fraktur piece to deduce that its maker was an amateur with little or no formal training and was either ignorant of or indifferent to any development and fashions in visual art that circulated more recently than the fifteenth century. They were made by members of a community for use in that community; frequently they were made and given as gifts, and served ecclesiastical or pedagogical ends. But when we praise one of these works for its "primitive" ingenuousness, it's likely because we don't know what it is we're seeing. A veritably foreign viewpoint is thrust before our eyes, a selective representation of those objects and events which a small, active culture found most deserving of communal attention. These visions are strange and perhaps wonderful to us because their artists see significance where we do not, and respond to it in ways with which we are unfamiliar.

What we're looking at is an embryo of culture.

Maker unknown (Pennsylvania German), 1815

The story of the dominant, "retrograde" current in Williams' history correlates with that of capital accumulation in the United States. Its center of mass was on the eastern seaboard, in those established cities with entrenched wealth and relatively direct access to European commerce and men of business. The first textile mills went into operation in New England during the 1790s; the first United States factory to use power looms went into operation in 1815 after its founder smuggled the machines' designs out of England. After 1830, the United States began producing textiles for export. Meanwhile, in the same region, subsistence agriculture more or less dried up during the first decade of the nineteenth century as farmers availed themselves of lucrative urban markets for their crops. As manufacturing ramped up and infrastructure was laid to connect the cities to the provinces, many of those provinces followed New England's lead. With the availability of cheap, mass-manufactured goods, local crafts were increasingly devalued—their production reduced from a household necessity to an indulgence or a pastime, the practice withered. Farmers no longer grew crops to feed themselves or sell locally, but to cash them in at burgeoning domestic and overseas markets, expanding their pastures and depleting the soil in pursuit of profit—and exposing themselves to financial ruin if they doubled down on the wrong commodity at the wrong time. During a period where the expansion of industry and a labor shortage coincided, one was more likely to accrue wealth by following the money to the railroads, cities, and mills than by staying in place, tilling the soil, and quietly attending to the weather.3

Here we ought to quote Williams at length:
The decay of the small community was an actual decay of culture; it was a sack by invisible troops, leaving destruction for which the gains—and they were considerable—did not compensate. It was a loss which degraded, which was compelled by circumstances but which promised a return to sources in some form later on...It was the overwhelming desire for an immediate realization of wealth, for escape from the isolation which made wealth paramount and to be fought for, at any cost. Wealth meant, as it means today, the control of movement, mobility, the power to come and go at will. In small communities, being drained of wealth by the demand for it in the cities, men died like rats caught in a trap. And their correctly aimed but crude and narrow beginnings died with them.
The dominant mode swept into the vacancy with the mechanical inevitability of dense air circulating into low-pressure regions. In international contexts, such activity is often called "soft power."

We should not be surprised that the bourgeoisie of the northeastern cities seized on the manners and fashions of Europe with the gauche eagerness of the nouveau riche. European architecture, art, and literature were easy to import and adapt off the shelf, while their nascent homegrown counterparts were still being cobbled together, piecemeal. Like the homesteaders allured by fast money and inexpensive goods, the people of the cities were seduced by the expediency of the readymade. The prosperous owner of New York shipyard or foundry couldn't expect to project the wealth and taste (that most persistent and most mutable of positional goods) that entitled him to membership in a trans-Atlantic coterie of rentiers by visiting the symphony hall in homespun breeches or covering the walls of his drawing room with devotional paintings by a Quaker artist whose day job was making shop signs.

"Europe extends to the Alleghenies," Emerson wryly observed; "America lies beyond."4

Like funhouse mirrors rowed in contraposition, the aspirational petite bourgeoisie reflected the reflection of European cultivation. Through the printing presses and over the railroads, a secondhand (and frequently second-rate) "Europeanism" took hold. Landowners and homemakers who hoped to earn a modicum of respect from their peers were expected to follow the dictates of genteel taste in landscaping and decor, which were disseminated through magazines written in the cities, pronounced by devotees of Archibald Alison.5 For every Dickinson or Whitman who dared to chant a new verse, scores of now-forgotten Tennyson imitators filled the magazines with their stanzas. Thomas Cole, central figure of the Hudson River School and, for a time, America's most renowned painter, specialized in the kind of romantic landscapes whose vogue was already on the wane in Europe. Composers such as Thomas Hastings and William Mason despaired at the prevalence of "debased" popular music in the provinces and among the lower classes; their reform-minded pedagogical works sought to improve American music-making by bringing it into closer alignment with the material of European symphony orchestras and chamber music.6

Suffice to say we would need much more room for a thoroughgoing etiology of the country's subjection to the rule of the towns (to borrow a phrase from Marx and Engels), but we can summarize. Modes of living approached a uniformity as modes of production and consumption became standardized along lines of efficiency. The metropolitan centers of capital became the ticking metronome setting the tune to which the nation's heart pulsed and synapses fired. When the individual can feed, clothe, and keep himself warm without having to pay attention to the ecological particularities of the land, the land recedes into the distance. When it is unnecessary to rely on or compromise with one's neighbors because pat transactional relations carried out elsewhere are more expedient, community degenerates to tenuous association. When one receives instruction in how he ought to look at the world by remote agencies that do not see what he sees, he is susceptible to missing what's before him because he's been taught to train his attention elsewhere.

Paul Virilio wrote that history progresses at the speed of its weapon systems. We might enlarge on this aphorism: hegemony crystallizes at a rate determined by the efficiency of its logistics and the penetration of its distribution networks, and divorce from the immediate multiples by a media-technology coefficient. In fifteenth-century Europe, the use of the printing press and the subsequent standardization of vernacular languages facilitated the ignition of European nationalism from European regionalism. In the nineteenth-century United States, an increasingly literate population's conception of itself and its world were informed by newspapers and magazines.7 In spite of the fairly uniform national consciousness that had solidified by the late nineteenth century, regionalism persisted—the material realities of life on the ground in the Northeast were sufficiently different from those in the Deep South, the Great Plains, and the West Coast—and while relations between the denizens of a given town or city were increasingly of a urbanist character than communal, local engagement was sought after. One could spend one's leisure time sitting alone at home and reading in silence, or one could participate in social and cultural life.

What happened to the viable modes of cultural participation between 1900 and 2020 could be written on the back of an envelope and consist only of buzzwords from Marx and Virilio. The living event its superseded by the mass-produced cultural artifact; the "content" encoded in the artifact is subsequently freed from its material fetters, becoming intangible and omnipresent, accessible at all times and in all places through a confluence of transnational manufacture, logistics, and networks of infrastructure representing (and accruing) an unprecedented mass of wealth. To give a single example: the live theater performance was vitiated by the motion picture, television (and then home video) sucked revenue from the cineplexes, and today streaming video outflanks televised broadcasts and has killed video rental. We could go down the list, ticking off the dwindling relevance of live music performances, public lectures, farmers' markets, civic organizations, and local sports leagues (to bring us back to Bowling Alone).

David Hockey, The Room, Tarzana (1967)

Culture has become a labile matrix of supernormal stimuli delivered from the cloud—transnational, industrially manufactured, and privately owned. Rather than participating in it, we for the most part consume it—watching it, listening to it, scrolling through it, and playing it, quietly staring and poking as we sit in bed, walk down streets whose sights we'd rather not see and whose sounds we'd rather not hear, or while we're getting a ride home from a name with a car of a color. When we do participate—via "sharing," "posting," "liking," "replying," or following any other such discrete pathways of data production—our engagement is with formats and interfaces, not with people. When we're good at it, we know what "content" to submit that will most effectively accrue explicitly quantifiable (but wholly intangible) tokens of social currency.

It's astonishing now to remember a time when the millenarian hopes of the early internet enthusiasts didn't seem unreasonable. But even before transnational corporations carved up the world wide web like the European colonial powers drawing their territorial borders across the Middle East and Africa, something was subtly amiss in the infant culture of personal sites, webrings, and message boards. True: during the 1990s and early 2000s, the web was decentralized, not very crowded, and seldom seen as a reliable vehicle for fortune and fame. But as Silicon Valley apostate Jaron Lanier has observed, online culture irresistibly drifts toward self-reference: its formats excel in eliciting analysis, riffs, remixes, redubs, mashups, loops, deconstructions, de- and recontextualizations, and so on. From the beginning, the raw material from which online culture was melted down and hammered into form has been extant media artifacts, including those which has already gone to work on. Now it is become a vertiginous spiral of abstraction. The prevalence of "Aesthetic" in internet discourse (often employed as unitary statement) implies the distance at which its content stands from material touchstones. All of it's just light and sound and plicated context with vanishing reference points.8

The facility with which we can analogize the fate of the American frontier with that of the digital frontier may suggest something of how naturally we're now inclined to treat the mediated as fungible with the immediate.

"Inaction with a taste for the draperies of thought," was how Williams described cultural engagement in the early twentieth century. However provocative the statement may have have come across in 1934, today it registers merely as a sensible observation with fustian sugarcoating. If one were given to cynicism or paranoia, he might suspect that these epiphenomena of cultural consumption—self-isolation, disinclination toward civic involvement, and a tendency to ignore the contiguous facts of one's existence9—are an intended consequence of the system's design, and not just a happy accident for transnational capital.

Our inculcated fidelity to a mediated, rootless culture leaves us inert, estranged, and alone. It needed little help from COVID-19.

1 Cities like New York and Los Angeles are exceptions. These are the places one goes to audition oneself as a prototype for a manufacturing run within the cultural-industrial apparatus.

2 The Aeneid's saving grace, that which elevates it from a Homeric soft reboot turgid with Julio-Claudian propaganda, is Virgil's arrestingly vivid treatment of the Italian landscape, his attention to the seasons, rivers, and trees.

3 Williams has little to say about the antebellum South—the obvious example of a pre-industrial milieu that resisted external influences. It is a pregnant reminder that cultural autonomy is no virtue in and of itself. (He also refrains from weighing in on the European Americans' campaign of genocide against the native tribes...for the most part.)

4 There is nothing essentially "American" about McMansions. If ever there was, that ceased when they began sprouting up across China, Eastern Europe, Ireland, and elsewhere. The McMansion is as transnational as the fast food company its epithet riffs on. America was merely the site of its chrysalis. In Emerson's epigram, we should substitute "Europe" and "America" with terms characterizing the conditions of production which prevail on either side of the Alleghenies.

5 Scottish priest and author, Christian conservative, and staunch opponent of electoral reform in England and Wales, whose 1790 book Essays on the Nature and Principles of Taste had seen several North American printings by the mid-nineteenth century.

6 Ironically, the "debased" forms of American popular music would become a soft-power siege engine when the international axis of capital (and consequently, culture) precessed from Europe to the United States, and recorded music became commodified.

7 Magazines in the United States first began to achieve national distribution around the 1850s. One wonders if Manifest Destiny would have taken hold as a civic chiliasm if editors weren't so eager to print pieces about American exceptionalism.

8 McLuhan correctly identified a key point of contact between pre-literate oral traditions and the paradigm of electronic media—namely the simultaneity and instananiety of information transmission/reception—and nobody can dispute the dense kernel of truth in his prediction that a process of retribalization would accompany the shift from print culture to digital culture. But an important distinction must be made between the simultaneous/instantaneous modes: in an oral culture, the speakers and listeners must be in the same location, and the material of their discourse must generally be only of a degree or two of abstraction from the shared realities of what the group is seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling, tasting, etc. In digital discourse, where the "sender" and "recipient" are more often than not at a significant geographical remove, what's most fit to be communicated is the shared experience of mass media content. 

An indirect cause of the environmental crises (note the plural) that will ravage us in the decades ahead will have been our inability to respond appropriately to unambiguous ecological feedback that would already be terrifying us if we had more than a superficial acquaintance with local biota.


  1. Its depressing that the Zero's now feels like the " good times" because even as bleak as things seemed, now even those times seemed hopeful after how bleak the future will be for so many people, for how little options people might have by the time the crises is over, if it ever ends. I'd ask if you ever thought about doing a follow up to the Zero's based on today's environment but I know that might be to depressing to even start.

    As for your article, it does ring true, but I fear if this isolation lasts to long, it could push people to nearly live entirely through the internet and hardly interact in the real world. Though, if my fears come true and this leads to a even greater depression that could shatter the middle class I fear most people might only be able to find happiness in the digital world because there will be no chance for anything in the real world...or maybe I have to much time to think these days.

    Well, hope you do a article about the FF7 remake one day.

    1. Way ahead of you. Zeroes: The Reunion will probably be out in a month or so.

  2. I just thought I'd say that I very much enjoy your writing.