I wrote a book.
It’s not a hard thing to say. It’s a hard thing to think about. Supposing that one actually wrote the book, and aren’t just saying that one did, that is.
There was all the thinking that was needed before the writing of the book. There was the thinking as the writing proceeded. And then there was the thinking, re-thinking, and paranoia, and doubt, and regret, and hate, and despair that occurred after it was written, and as one gets ready to say that the writing is done. So, perhaps much of that is not actually thinking. But the emotions are what we think about, as they occur. Like swimming in a river. You don’t swim the water, you swim in the water. Only by the water moving around your body, and your body moving through the water in a certain way, do you manage to not drown your ass in the fucking river. And so forth.
Anyway, I could say a great deal about the various emotions that occur to a person, namely this one, while getting ready to say that he wrote a book. And again, about the process of thinking through this whole process, and not drowning in it. I could, and I’d like to, but at the same time, I really can’t.
There are plenty of people who already talk about writing. They know much more about it than I do, because a good number of them have written several books, and therefore thought much more about it. My book is about twice as long as most books, and it is actually my second book, second completed book that is, because there was another one that wasn’t so great, and other ones that didn’t even get to be not so great. But none of this matters, because I am only saying I wrote a book, and it is only one book for a reason, and this has to do with the way that I think about it, which, I think, I will decline to share.
I could take the “quote Bukowski” route, who said something to the extent of “only assholes talk about writing”. Actually, it was one of his characters who said that. I always took that statement literally. Not to say that I thought that was the author’s words coming out of the character’s mouth; I understood it to mean only anuses talk about writing. There is something particularly anal about the idea. From a Freudian perspective, the act of talking about writing is particularly anal—being obsessed with minutiae and taking a very aggressive approach, swinging wildly back and forth between love and hate, and having a particular aspect of control. The mothering instinct is, in a way, very anal. As you give birth to your creations, you have a very ego-oriented way of considering them. Despite the fact that a great many of your creations are, again literally, lumps of shit.
I would rather talk about the Freudian anal stage than talk about writing. For one thing, I know more about it. It is also no less controversial. And additionally, it would seem to be a more popular topic than the intricacies of literary theory, because whereas we all shit daily, few of us actually seem to read that much anymore. But then again, nearly as many of us are literate as those of us with the capacity for expelling waste, and if we discuss anything less than books, it’ our bowel movements. Just how regular we are when it comes to literature is hard to say, but I could probably make conversation on the bus about it much easier. Luckily, I’m not on the bus, and I’m on the Internet. On the Internet, you can talk about anything you want.
There are many things that I would rather talk about than writing, and on the Internet, I can talk about all of them. And I have. Many of them, in this series of essays I titled Museum of Small American Museums. Some of them came out better than others. That last one about the ocean was pretty half-baked. Just some rambling sea stories, really. I did like the one about cultural speciation. And some of the writing in the piece about fast food and Walmart parking lots was really enjoyable, at least for me. Who the hell knows what you like to read.
As far as what I’m interested in… well, where do we begin? We already talked about Freud’s anal stage, at least a bit. I’m interested in the psychoanalysis of eating and body image, in nationalism and geography, in architecture and technology. I’m interested in other things that don’t necessarily have a ready pairing. Things like anarchism, economics, the mad rush of enthusiasm in crowds, in sex, in many disgusting aspects of sex on both the sexy side and the physical side, in the human capacity for violence, in the deep drives of creativity that seem to occur in our species, in drugs and why people take them, in machines, in mud, in soil, in blood. I get my curious-rocks off on friendship: I mean, really, why do we even have friends? I spend time reading graffiti that is probably meaningless. I investigate conspiracy theories, the crazier the better, just to see what other people are getting paranoid about. I wonder why people stick bits of technology underneath their skin. I think about how astronomy came directly out of astrology, and how math and time were invented to better serve astrology. I think about what gods would be like if they ever existed at any point in history. I wonder and think and ask questions about all the weird little things that other people ask questions about, even though to the rest of us it may seem totally obvious, even if it is actually not. And I wonder about why people talk about the things they talk about on the Internet.
Because it seemed that in order to talk about all of this on the Internet it would take many more words than anyone would ever want to read on the Internet, the natural course seemed to be to write a book. And here we are. Now I can say it. I wrote a book. A book that contains all of those things above, and more. And even, actually, a little bit of plot.
If you are also interested in those things, you should read my book. It doesn’t have everything that I’m interested in, of course. You have to hold a little bit back for the next book, and also you have to stop writing at some point. Otherwise all those emotions I’ve mentioned will catch up to you.
I could also talk about the aspect of publishing that is related to thinking about the act of writing, but I will save us all that time, and say that things, at least from where I’m sitting, seem kind of fucked. And then I will stop thinking about that. But I will say how I’m publishing this book.
I’m going to be serializing this book on the Internet. It seemed like it would work nicely, because the chapters are only about two thousand words a piece. I’ll probably do two or three a week, depending on the story so that the flow stays nice. There will also be an ebook. Even better than this, is that there will be a beta test of the ebook. If you are accepted into the beta test, you get a free copy. How’s that? I’ve never made an ebook before, so I figured it was only fair.
All of these things you can see at the website for the book: http://www.lightonfire.net
Oh, that is what the book is called, by the way. Light on Fire. I’ve been dreading the actual pitch, and I’ve written no less that fifteen (seriously) that all were equally applicable. And I’m still stuck. But you know what? I’m serializing this on the Internet, so I can write whatever the hell I want about it. So instead of a real pitch, you can have this:
There’s children in this city. Adults too. Ecoterrorists. Animals. Drug-imbibing students. There’s the police, but we’re not sure where. There’s houses, and bicycles. Buses. Coffee shops. Bars, and the people inside them. There’s the handicapped, and there’s the unemployed. There are the quitters, the joiners, the followers, the organizers. There are the suspicions and there are the ideas. There is the carnival, starting in a few days. There is the sun, and the clouds, and the stars. There is the fire. And there is something else. Something we’re not sure about yet. Oh—and there’s the Angel of History. He’s retired. He lives here now. What does he do? Pretty much the same as everyone else. You can go visit him if you want. Yeah, check him out. He likes visitors, actually. He’s a little old though, if you know what I mean. Just go on up. There’s a bus that goes right there from here.
So that’s that. I wrote a book. Check out the site, and thanks in advance.
You’ve been reading the Museum of Small American Museums here on POSZU for the last month or so, and thanks very much for stopping by for that, as well. POSZU will be back to regular broadcasting starting next week.
Keep on living that Freudian anal stage, America,
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Posted: February 23rd, 2011
, Museum of Small American Museums
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There are the things you think about, and then there are the things you feel. I’d put sex in the category of things that we think about. Sure, we feel a great many things about sex. There are entire realms of feeling beneath the cogent level, and no doubt these deep veins of strata, containing everything from repressed childhood memories to ideas repressed for proprieties’ sake, to the deeper machines actually controlling how our minds work, would be illuminating if we could mine them up, process them, and use them to drive the turbines and engines of our conscious thought. But there is so much of it up here on the surface already that digging below the awareness’ permafrost is more effort than necessary for most of us. We already are thinking about sex all the time, so why find more sex to think about? Our brains are so polluted with the raw material of sex, sometimes it’s a wonder that we can ever think about anything else.
And yet we do. We think about impossibly vast, diverse networks of things. We think about the course our lives ought to take. We think about the many distances separating us from the rest of the things in the world which we are always navigating, seeking to increase and decrease the distance between particular objects and ourselves. We think about what things mean, and how the way we find things in the world changes what they might mean. As if we could ever know. And then we share these ideas with other people.
And then there are the things we feel. These things. Emotions we call them, at least when we can identify them. We’re all a bit more emo than we’d like to be. We feel these things cropping up at the worst possible moment. When having an argument with a lover. When being screamed at by a stranger in the street for no apparent reason. When your boss tells you something only an idiot would need to hear and only something an idiot would say. For the third time that day. And you just sit and listen to it. What would you different if not for emotion? Would you simply tell him or her to fuck off? Or would you not need to say anything at all? There’s absolutely no way to tell.
It’s not all as bad as that though. There are the good emotions too. I don’t need to run through them for you, because there is no need to stew over good emotions. We bask in the sunshine, and we huddle indoors and moan about the rain. We have no problem thinking about nothing when all is well, adopting a zen-like pacifivity to that which we would not seek to change. But we start sharpening knives when things go poorly. We develop a legal suit to indict the entire court of universal fairness. We brood, and write manifestos on the walls of our mental cell, and each trickle of rain water running down the wall is a personal insult and attack upon us.
And then one day it rains fire.
Lots of names for this. Anger. Hate. Terror. Fear. Like ember, like flame, like heat, like smoke. Metaphors and categories. Theories and hierarchies. Cause and effect. Thermodynamics. It’s part of the structure of our psyche’s physics. It’s always been here, and it always will be. Homes burn down every day. Bad wiring in a cheap appliance. Candle left by the bathtub. Dirty flue. Used water on a grease fire. Struck by lightning. Smoking in bed.
And this says nothing of the fires that are set by purpose. A crime with many rationales, and yet one name dedicated to the method. Arson. Maybe for money, maybe for love, maybe for hate itself. Maybe just for fire. To watch the flames consume. To see the historical process writ large in light, the entire life and death of a structure compressed into an hour or two, maybe less. With the lives of humans inside the structure too, maybe. At high enough temperatures, everything burns the same. Breaking down into it’s components, releasing gases, converting molecules into simpler forms. But once you reach much higher temperatures, the process reverses. In the sun, fission turns to fusion, and things get bigger again. Relatively.
And so what does this mean for you? What is the layperson to take from such exhibits? Sure, we can be aware of hydrogen fusion, but on a daily basis, what is the point? Well, it only matters twice a day. When the sun comes up in the morning, and when it goes down at night. These are the transition points, at which we notice, no matter how we try to ignore it, that another day has begun or is ending, during which brief and arbitrary but endlessly repeating period of time, the sun will not crash into the earth. The truly amazing fact of human civilization is that all of the incredibly flammable shit we have built all over the face of the earth is most of the time not on fire. We are more often than not, not rioting, not screaming in panic, not torching the homes of the people we hate, and not burning the evidence of what we refuse to believe in. This is spectacular. It is miraculous. A species capable of so much destruction, fighting daily against the flow of hormones and the fire of synapses within their complicated nervous and endocrine systems that they do not understand, and for whatever reason, and mostly it seems in a complete lack of reason, finding something to distract themselves, something to think about, so that they do not exercise this power. They–we–keep building. We make things more flammable by the minute. We stack up fuel, and we let it dry out. We build our houses bigger, and our cities more tightly packed. We huddle closer together, even though there are no doubt far too many of us in here as it is. And it could all go up at any moment. Evidence is building that eventually, it most certainly will. So what? It’s just a bad day, a bad feeling, a bad idea that we’ll work to correct.
We all have bad days, bad feelings, and bad ideas. Some of us let this bother us, and some of us don’t. Either way, regardless of how you are programmed to react to these facts of life, it will never get better. It will change, no doubt; but this will never be a world that does not have a sun a certain distance away from it, around which we spin, whose fusion furnace we depend on for everything, that causes this planet to grow thick with flammable bodies and materials, explosive gases and minerals, with which we surround ourselves. The potential energy builds. The electrons climb ladders up into the sky. The vibration increases, and the velocity continues to build.
It’s only emotion, I suppose. We should probably just deal with it, get over it, convert that anger and rage into something productive, sublimate the heat from those sparks into growing more fuel. We shouldn’t focus on it too much, because focus concentrates the heat and the light, and then we’re right back in the explosions again. Thousands and thousands of our progenitors before us managed to overcome the brutality of their emotions and live peaceful lives. Or perhaps they simply burst into flame, at such a point that it no longer effected their ability to pass on their emotional genes. More potential energy, building up and passing it along. Up the ladder. A ladder with a top?
If you look out over this continent, you can see the lights of all kinds of fires burning. It sounds romantic and melancholy when I say it, but it’s not. It’s not a metaphor. There is a tractor trailer fire off the side of the road in Wyoming, where a truck filled with who knows what blew off the side of the road and caught. A brush fire starts at a rest area in the Utah desert, sending clouds up over the bluffs and into the air. In many of the Midwest states it’s still legal to burn your garbage in your own backyard. In Florida, and many other eastern states, they burn trash to build steam to run turbines, and use it to generate electricity. I know a story about a truckload of polypropylene that accidentally went to the wrong place and ended up in a trash incinerator. In Ohio, maybe? The plastic burnt so hot that it melted the boilers, fusing them into solid lumps of steel. And you’ve probably heard the one about the burning coal mine in Centralia, Pennsylvannia. Burning underground since 1962. These sorts of things happen in America. I wouldn’t really know, but I would imagine that they happen in most other places too. And if you look out at night, you can see all these fires burning. All kinds of fires burning. All right, so some of those lights are parking lots, cars, street lights, homes, airports, and industrial sites. But if you think any of these are safe from catching fire… well, just don’t say I didn’t warn you.
When I look out at these lights, I can’t help but wondering why the fires are so few and far between. The distance that separates them–like that between sunset and sunrise. I wonder what’s going on in that darkness, because fire, at the very least illuminates. Photons set out in jagged harmonic paths from an exothermic oxidation reaction. You can see what burns. But everything else is hidden. Dark as the sea at night.
One of the most dangerous places for fires is at sea. Because there is no where to run on a burning ship. Not to make too gothic a thing of it, but it’s true. Next week, we’ll visit the Museum of Ships at Sea, and Seas as Flat as Parking Lots.
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You must be of a particular age to view this exhibit, because of its profane, sexual content. A restriction that is ironic, because the content of the exhibit is often below that age. You could set that age to whatever value you like, and it really doesn’t matter. Those who are old enough to view will never be quite as young as what is being viewed, because it is about the division between minor and… what is it—major? It never loses its perversity. It is the difference between one and the other that is in some way desired, and so therefore specifically not allowed. Between the internal youth within our sexual selves, and…
Okay—let’s stop for a moment. Let’s back up, and let’s try this again. The problem is that there are so many ways to start, and so many of them are wrong. And even those that begin by seeming right so quickly turn in the wrong direction, often times ending up worse than the complete wrong direction at outset. And as for those that in the end seem right—well, its a prize that hardly seems worth winning, by the time we’ve gotten there. And for what? What is the victory we’ve achieved?
And… but wait, I haven’t even explained to you what we’re talking about. I began with a slight warning and perhaps a briefly titillating advertisement about the sexual nature of this subject matter, and then immediately began backtracking into the territory of meta-apologia, through which I ended up ruining this essay through the discussion of the possibility of ruining it. And here we are now. You’re confused, I’m embarrassed, this essay has three useless paragraphs, and we’re all standing around wondering what we are supposed to do. We are beset by literary impotence, or perhaps it is premature literary ejactulation, or perhaps it is just a confused, incestuous tumble into the province of a critical essay on sexuality, myself a weak anti-hero at best, caught in the eternal archetype of sexual theory hubris, thinking that I could thwart the gods will, leaving my readership wishing it could stab its own eyes out.
So I’m cutting this, right now. Enough with the evasion. We’re beginning again. Now.
Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, folks of all ages—because this is the Internet, so any and all may feel free to read and think anything they wish.
I know you thought you were here to see a museum exhibit, but in fact, you are here to witness a play. Tonight’s performance will be experimental, and therefore necessarily flawed. However, we hope that the experiment has been so designed that we might all learn something in the process. And even if it is not, there will be sex, and hopefully you’ll all stick around at least until that point.
Let’s introduce the characters, in the order of their introduction.
My name is the Master of Ceremonies. Don’t worry who I might be, because I am not important. I am no more than some recognizable name, who was hired to show up here with his name on the cover of the program, and to say a few meaningless words. My statement is prepared, and my role is exchangeable. I will get us started, and then let the performers take it away.
Next, we have the Narrator. He is a man not very different than myself, but he will be saying the important things about our scene, so you’ll want to listen to him, rather than flipping through your program to see how long this thing goes on, as you are doing now when I am speaking.
Then, I am honored to introduce the Subject. He is a white male, twenty-eight years of age. He has some difficulties, of a sexual nature. His is a very sad story, tragic, I would even suggest; though many scholars of such tales might beg to disagree. He is mostly heterosexual, and although I should have mentioned this a few sentences earlier so that you might make use of it to categorize and better understand his motivations, the truth is that he might also be bisexual. Calling him heterosexual is a problematic statement in and of itself. However, I would caution against thinking of him as bisexual; to do so would begin to set up certain assumptions about his thoughts regarding a choice of sexual partners, just as it would if you had considered him heterosexual. I only wish to make this distinction about the difficulty of distinction clear, so that when you think of him as “perhaps bisexual”, you do not let this discount any purely heterosexual motives he might have behind his choices. I’m happy to have made this clear.
Lastly, and unfortunately, also least, we have The Woman. The Woman will be played by many different women in tonight’s performance, so many that we need not stop to mention their names, occupations, ages, hobbies, sexual preferences, or anything else. As I said, she is the last to be introduced, and therefore the least important in our little narrative. Do not throw things, ladies and gentlemen; I am only the Master of Ceremonies, and I am happy to say that I have no writing credits in the program. Perhaps, rather than you all shouting and getting out of your seats, I ought to hand this over to the Narrator, so that we might quickly get underway and distract you from your objections.
Thank you, Master of Ceremonies. Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome once again. I am the Narrator. Our story begins in a museum. The Subject is attending this museum, doing whatever it is that people do in museums. And then, enters The Woman.
The Woman enters, wearing a short dress, covered in sewn sequins, arranged in a large star burst pattern, beginning where her attractive blond hair touches the front of her shoulder, descending over her perfectly shaped breasts, down the seductive length of her torso to the widening of her hips, and stopping only just short of the hem of the dress, which itself stops short above mid thigh, leaving the eyes with plenty of room to admire her legs, twitching in a beckoning manner back and forth as she walks on her high heels, each step an opening of a deadly scissor, threatening to maim and cut the eyes as they question what exactly may lie in the crux of this blade, tight and awfully sharp, shrouded in mystery just under the short edge of the dress, which all too easily could be flipped upward to reveal….
…And thank you, Subject, but that is my role, and I will narrate the entrance, if you please. You ought to be enjoying this museum exhibit, and not sharing every lurid detail of your disgusting imagination with our guests.
But, Narrator, this is a story about me, is it not? Why shouldn’t I be the one to describe what I am seeing, in all of its detail, whatever form that might take?
Yes, it is a story about you, Subject. But this is precisely why. The audience would naturally like me to mediate between the… details… you have come up with, and themselves. For propriety’s sake, of course.
You Narrators are always the same. Dumbing things down for the people, circling around it with your euphemism and “interpretations”. Look at her! She’s so fucking sexy! I mean, we should just show the people what I want. What they want. I’m going to go over there right now, and…
Ahem, uh, Subject—thank you. That will be quite enough. And will you keep your voice down! The Woman can hear everything you are saying! Look at her, she’s looking uncomfortably at you, and getting ready to leave the room.
The Woman isn’t going to leave the room, Narrator. Where would she go? This performance only has one scene. And besides, clearly she’s looking for that sort of attention, otherwise should wouldn’t have worn a dress like that.
Ladies and gentlemen: I would like to apologize on behalf of all the performers here today. The Subject does not speak for all of us, and we would never wish to offend any of our audience members by implying, officially, that any woman, let alone The Woman, would be seeking such disgusting attentions from any man, simply by wearing what it is that she is wearing.
Narrator, I haven’t touched her! I haven’t even said anything. How is it disgusting to just think those sorts of things? What is one supposed to think about a dress that is so short, on such a body? Should I think about sequins? Sequins are boring! Unlike what’s she’s got underneath that dress…
She can hear what you are saying, Subject! You are assaulting her with your words.
If you were doing your job, Narrator, I wouldn’t be forced to make my stream of consciousness audible.
I was trying to narrate your thoughts, Subject. Until you decided to change the subject of the Subject unilaterally.
Come on, Narrator. Let me just go talk to The Woman for a moment. I’m sure I can make her understand. Maybe we can go have a drink and discuss it. Then afterwards, we can…
That is quite enough! As Narrator, I am taking control of this scene back immediately. Under no circumstances, are you to think any perverted thought about The Woman, or any woman, unless specifically narrated by me.
But isn’t that the point of The Subject? That I’m supposed to be thinking dirty thoughts about The Woman in that she is the sort of woman about which one might have dirty thoughts?
You don’t know what sort of woman The Woman is, Subject. You don’t know anything about this scene. You are merely at a museum, and The Woman has entered.
She’s going to leave unless I can go talk to her.
You’ve talked quite enough. I think the audience would agree with me here.
The audience? They want to see what The Woman is like too! Or at least half of them do. Let them in, Narrator. Let’s all talk to The Woman.
The Audience cannot see you, Subject. I’m not letting them anywhere near you. I am the Narrator, and I am going to control this situation, and implement some narrative discipline here, so that we might get to the point, which is diagnosing exactly what is wrong with you. What is so horribly wrong with you, in that you are such a pervert and a threat to women everywhere.
I’m not the one wearing the dress, Narrator!
No one is wearing any dress. Audience, your attention here please: The Woman has left the museum.
No she hasn’t!
Yes she has. She was so disgusted by The Subject’s thoughts that she ran away from him to go see her boyfriend, who cares for her character, and would never be sexually interested in her costume. Or if he did, only with her permission.
She didn’t even get to have any lines!
You had more than enough for both of you. Are you happy now, Subject? Oh, and look who is here! The Woman enters.
You said she left!
This is a different The Woman. This The Woman is your wife, Subject! How are you going to explain those nasty comments to your wife, whom you are supposed to love with all your heart? Look at how she is looking at you, you ingrate! She loathes you.
I’m married? She’s the same The Woman, anyway! She’s wearing the same dress!
No she is not! The new The Woman, who we will call Mrs. Subject just to keep it straight, even though she kept her own name when she married The Subject because frankly, The Woman wasn’t sure it would work in the long term, though she didn’t tell The Subject this…
She kept her name for professional reasons. Not that it really matters, but…
She thinks you are a mental child. A sexual teenager, who can’t keep his mind out of the gutter long enough to make his name in anything. She’s wearing a floor length ball gown, and a turtleneck sweater…
Her dress is even shorter than the other The Woman.
It is not. The turtleneck sweater is black, and thick, and goes all the way up her neck, covering all of that soft skin which you find so sexy and love to kiss while she sleeps.
Her sweater is really tight around the breasts.
It is not tight around the breasts, and you have never been less attracted to your wife, because you are a philanderer, and a disgusting human being, and would not know love. You are a sex pervert.
I walk over to my wife, and I whisper in her ear with breathy words, blowing air against the soft hairs just behind her ear in that way that drives her wild. She pushes her hip against me involuntarily, and I whisper all the things that I’m going to do to her in the family bathroom of this museum.
You do not!
And she responds back with what she will do to me, in that tone of voice that makes me crazy, pushing herself against me, rubbing her hand gently up and down…
In the bathroom I lift up my wife’s dress, to reveal that she had once again left the house without underwear on, because that is the sort of woman she is when she wants to be…
This museum is closed! Everyone please leave the galleries immediately, especially the couple who is engaging in far too much bodily contact for a public performance, with children present, for god’s sake! No, no… not you, Audience! Not that museum. The museum within the performance is closed. You stay, so that I might get this narration back on track once The Subject has stopped having his way with The Woman, and… oh my goodness! Please avert your eyes for a moment, Audience. I’ll let you know when The Subject has put it away.
Look at this, you bunch of voyeurs! You perverts! You want to see what a real Subject looks like? You want to see what it looks like when he touches The Woman! This is what I think about, you sluts, when you lay in your beds at night, fearing the approach of any slightly kinky thought!
Curtain! Curtain! Curtain!
You want to see what perversion is? Show them, baby! This is perversion! This is what your children will do when they grow up! This is what men think about young girls, and would do to them if they were only a few years older!
You like that, Narrator? You do! You like it more than any of them, you old slag! Get over here and touch it; touch it, I said! We’ll all do it together, here on stage, for all to see!
Get him away from me!
Okay—hold it! The two of you separate. Now! Sorry folks, it’s the Master of Ceremonies here. This isn’t part of my prepared remarks, but propriety is forcing me to step in here, and cancel this performance. We tried, we really did. We only wanted to role play what happens out there, what is going on in the real world when it comes to sex. We wanted to cut through the politeness, and the theory, and the hype, and the marketing. We were going to show you how a real Subject thinks about sex, but then this happened. I mean, I wasn’t going to show you, because I’m not in any way involved in this production. But I am the Master of Ceremonies, and my name is attached to this thing, so I can tell when to say when, and pull the plug on the whole deal. Perhaps this experiment only goes to show that you really can’t have a public conversation about sex without the participants ending up chasing each other around with their sex organs flopping around on stage. Without succumbing to the urge to turn everything into pornography. If I might speak freely—I’ve seen this happening for some time now. Every year there’s more nudity on television, less clothes on the people on the street. Where is it all leading? What is to become of us? Ladies and gentlemen, we have reached that end, tonight. I… and I’m not even going to describe what they are doing now, because you can all see, all too well. So just please, please leave, and let us try and forget this. I’m cutting this again…
Go home! Go home and touch someone’s crotch!
Shut up you! I said I’m cutting this, right here. Now. It’s over.
I said, it’s over.
Curation fixation. How to cut it at the right point, before it goes too far. How to know how to cut. How to talk about enough things without talking about too much. Deciding what you should leave out, and ignore, even though it’s absence might be blatant and obvious. How to look at a young girl in a short dress and look straight through her without seeing her. How she might look back, right into your glassy eyed stare which she thinks is creepy. How to at least know that your thought process is pure and innocent, even if your body is not. How to be attracted to the right things. Not only attracted to them the most, but only and always. How to not worry about what makes you fear for our human condition in the future. Going only to the right museums. How to find what satiates and fulfills.
There is another museum that is similar to this, and it’s the next stop. It’s troubling. It’s called the Museum of Fire. It needs no further introduction.
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There’s a museum purporting to present evidence of a bizarre, marginal theory on the origins of life. No, not the Museum of Creationism. And not the Little League Hall of Fame, either; though their ideas of creation are curious. I’m talking about the Museum of Cultural Speciation, which as it happens, does not as yet benefit from having a building dedicated towards housing its expanding collection of evidence.
Let me fill you in on some of the details of mainstream evolutionary theory, with which I have only just now become acquainted. (For more info and sources, type a few phrases into Wikipedia. It’s easy!) You already know about evolutionary selection, if you are not from a Texas school system. (Virginia school system? Colorado school system? It is becoming hard to track this sort of thing.) Selection describes the process by which the benefit given to the reproductive “fitness” by certain inherited traits will serve to increase the instance of this trait in a sexually reproducing population. You may also know about genetic drift, a somewhat more difficult concept, and the less teleological cousin of selection. This is the aspect of randomness in genetics, whether it be the metaphorical mutational tree that may fall on a particular individual or the other random aspects to a species overall genetic makeup that no less effect how a species may evolve, causing the expression of traits to leap in bounds rather than trickle. If selection is the slow, plodding work of a species’ R&D department, genetic drift is the sudden flash of insight from an inventor, or junior-level programmer. In a way.
Now, these two mechanisms control the evolution of a single species, but where do new species come from? It turns out there are several different models for how we reach speciation: a “branch of the tree”, so to speak. Primarily, these splits first manifest across geographic pattern. Let’s start with allopatric speciation. Some sort of geographic isolation occurs to split a population, like a river changing its course to split a species of rodents into to isolated groups. These two groups evolve on their own, and when they are somehow reintroduced into the same territory, they have become two different species.
(The easy distinction of species is an inability to interbreed, either because of genetics, sexual choice, or physiology. This is, interestingly, an “agonistic” definition, in that it is difference from others that creates a unifiable sameness. One might try and re-phrase, saying that the ability to breed positively defines a species, but this is not exactly true, and not every member of a species can or will successfully breed with every other member. Whereas, absolutely no member of a species can breed with any member of another species, definitively. Each species can only be defined by its difference from other species, and therein lies its unity. But then, hybrid species create a problem for this definition—and we begin to see the difficulty of discussing species taxonomies.)
Then there is peripatric speciation, a subset of allopatric. In this instance a smaller subset of the population is somehow separated from the majority of the species. This is notable, because genetic drift plays a larger factor in small populations, where a sudden individual change can more quickly resonate through the entire population. Speciation then occurs relatively rapidly. A cool example is the London Underground mosquito, whose provenance is self-explanatory.
Next, and more interesting, is parapatric speciation. Check this out–there can be a continuum of related, interbreeding populations in a linked geographic area. Several species, spread across a long, lateral terrain. But, the species on one end of the continuum cannot breed with the other end, because over the course of the habitat zone, insurmountable changes in the species occur. Some of these are called “ring species”, like the Larus gulls; their range extends around the Arctic Circle Eastward from Scandinavia, across Russia, across the Bering Straight to Canada, and then to the United Kingdom. Each neighboring species differentiation (there are seven) can interbreed with its neighbor except between the UK and Scandinavia! The differences become too great as those minor variances add up. (Note: there are other unclear species with different levels of interbreeding ability in the same domain, which complicates matters. But the Larus gull is a well-known proof of concept.)
Lastly, there is sympatric speciation: in which two species develop from one species in a single habitat. There are many theories of why this may occur, and disputes about what constitutes clear and distinct sympatric speciation. One theory is that sympatric speciation might actually be heteropatric speciation: a case of micro-allopatric speciation. In other words, although the general habitat of the entire species might be intact, there could be small-scale geographic differentiation that allows the speciation to occur. The distinction of difference in geography is as hard to make as the distinction between separate species, so it seems. What constitutes a difference in geography that is strong enough to attribute speciation to its presence? What other factors might be involved? Geography, as it turns out, may mean many different things, and may only be the easiest ways for humans to measure and define speciation. Take a good example of sympatric speciation: there are two species of Orca whale in the Northeast Pacific. There are the resident population, that have a particular territory that they stick to, and the transient population, that migrates. Though their habitats overlap and are contiguous, these two species stay away from each other, and do not interbreed. What sort of geography might these whales be seeing that we cannot? Something to do with continental shelves? Average ocean temperature? Salinity? They have different whale songs. Is this a language barrier? What sort of lessons do parental whales teach their offspring about the opposite species? Do they somehow teach the message, “don’t hang out with those filthy transient whales,” or is it in a more implicit sense that they make the distinction? What sort of consciousness to whales have, that they might be able to conceptualize these identities, or even, the concept of difference itself? Come to think of it, how does any animal that is not human think of different “species”, whether the competitors for habitat sites, or those that they eat? Do they think in rigid taxonomies the way we do, or is “nature’s” view of nature more fluid? Can we even conceptualize how a non-spatially linguistic consciousness would think?
Perhaps you see what I’m getting to here, other than animal psychology. In case my rambling discourse and marginal, Wikipedia-synthesized theory isn’t clear, I’ll lay it out, and in doing so take a sharp turn from established evolutionary theory. My question: is it possible that the human species could undergo sympatric speciation, and we wouldn’t even know it?
This is dangerous ground, because speciation theories about humans has had a bad history. From the postulated difference between the Caucasian races and the mongoloids, to the more para-science ideas of phrenology and other so-assumed inheritable behavioral characteristics (as it turns out, skull shape is nothing like the shape of a finch’s beak), to even horrifyingly recent case law regarding inter-race marriages, there has been many efforts to draw distinctions between groups of humans based on superficial differences, and they have proved false. The American Anthropological Association Statement on Race says that 94% of noticeable differences in physical characteristics widely construed as “race” occur within commonly defined races. So in other words, when we identify someone as being of a particular race, we are basing these distinctions on a set of physical assumptions that are not statistically significant in any way. Blond hair, blue eyes, nose size, eye shape, skin tone: none of these actually define a categorical difference, because their varietal distribution and common co-occurrences only exist in our mind, not in the actual human species. These false categorizations of humanity are construed and perpetuated for nefarious reasons, not for any real insight into our species. I don’t think I need to go into reptilian-focused conspiracy theories to drive the point home.
Even the most geographically isolated of human cultures are easily part of our species. But no group has been completely geographically isolated for more than a few hundred years at most. Geographic isolation, as we might think of it within our own lifespans is not necessarily firm over the history of population groups. Just because a group of humans lives on an island or in the middle of the jungle, doesn’t mean they have no contact with other humans on the next island or on the edge of the jungle. Humans are notoriously migrant, especially for the purposes of sexual contact. Physical isolation is another misaligned condition of a colonialist mindset; just because a place is hard for a European to reach or does not have roads does not mean it is isolated.
But what if there were traits of categorical difference that were not immediately identifiable by eye? The misnomers of race and physical distance are both visually construed. What if there were subtle human cultural geographies, within the contiguous species habitat of humanity?
What is the extent of genetics’ effect upon our behavior? I’m hardly a genetic determinist, but there seem to be a number of, well, let’s not call them behaviors, but instead call them patterns of thinking. A young man is of the sort who enjoys a messy household, where everything is visible. A young lady likes a fastidiously clean home, for no reason except a sense of comfort. This is not a trait that will improve genetic selection for this trait (at least not with a modern general level of hygiene to the “messiness”). But it might direct the course of genetic drift. Those who prefer a messy household will have more chances of swapping genes with others of a similar predilection, and vice versa. As mutations and other selection occurs, this population within the population will have a greater chance of evolving separately from the rest of the population because of its preference to a certain sort of mate: a potential for speciation by sympatric speciation. Their levels of cleanliness becomes a geography, separating a population within a population. IF, and I stress, only if, cleanliness is a trait that is genetically inheritable, and so the child of a neat parent will also be neat, and this geography can persist in separating a population for long enough for speciation to occur. If this geography collapses after one generation, then the effect of separating out part of the gene pool is negligible. So this is clearly a long shot. But there are many things we find attractive or abhorrent in potential mates.
What inheritable traits could serve as a “ridge” of cultural geography? Or, what traits, through one mechanism or another, find themselves echoed strongly enough from one generation to the next, that they could be considered to be a feature of cultural geography? In the case of sympatric speciation, sexual choice plays a large role. Certain birds may select mates based on their call, which in turn is informed by their beak shape. A small physiological different then transforms into a bigger difference from the perspective of the harshly competitive world of bird song American Idol. Certainly a taste in food will inform which individuals are more likely to mate, in that they will be close to each other, eating in the same places. So a taste for salt could lead to a romantic encounter in the snack aisle. Or would the competition drive them apart, because your mate keeps raiding your snack stash? What about appearance? What sorts of appearance that is found attractive is based upon gene selection, and what sorts are just pure aesthetics? At what point do aesthetics begin to reflect inheritable traits, and not just good old-fashioned sexiness? Is there really a difference between the two?
We know certain otherwise un-genetic patterns are extensible through generations in humans. A pleasure in reading is something that is often passed from parents to children, by nurture if not by nature. What about taste in music? An appreciation for genres of art? How about family card games? Sure, you could teach your significant other to play trump games. But if his/her family didn’t play trump games, maybe it isn’t because they simply never learned. Maybe they dislike them, instead preferring word puzzles. And so their children prefer word puzzles. Are your other forms of genetic attraction powerful enough to never want to play cards at home again, and to never pass them to your children? Will you adopt these puzzles to please your spouse? It’s not just about items of small preference—it’s about small preferences adding up to define our lives, and accordingly, defining who we spend our lives with. Is it just deciding what to do with the family on a Saturday night, or is this cultural-genetic selection at work? What features of cultural geography are mere rivers, and what are oceans?
Clearly, a great number of rhetorical questions may be applied, but I am over-running my question mark quota. Let me just say this to you: I can foresee several… let me say “traits”, at work in human culture that put the possibility of me breeding with particular individuals completely off the table. In fact, I perceive such strong “cultural geography” separating me from certain females in the population, that there would never even be the least inkling of the likelihood that we would accidentally, drunkenly, completely blacked out, marooned on a deserted island, be in any sort of position to swap gametes. Never. Under no circumstances. I’ll leave the exact topology of this geography for another time, but let me say there is no crossing those mountains, and no swimming that sea. Granted, I’m an hot-blooded American male. We all have… traveled to new territory to see what’s going on across the river. As a fellow once said, “you always say to yourself, ‘I will never sleep with a girl who wears Uggs.’ And then one day you wake up, and there is a pair of fuzzy boots next to the bed.” (That being a river I have never personally crossed, thankfully. But everyone has a story they are not proud of.) We all have our standards. And then we have our standards that end up broken underneath a bottle that was kicked off the arm rest of the futon of someone whose name you didn’t quite get by a leg stuck in a pair of pants in the dark.
America is a big place. There are a lot of young people out there, and they all are looking to breed. So many potential mates to choose from—they must be pairing up based on something. The same sort of music. They grew up in the same sort of town. Maybe they do the same drugs, which are the same drugs their parents did. The fact is, there are so many different ways of separating ourselves culturally, I would be surprised if there wasn’t a combination of cultural behaviors that separated us beyond all possibility of willful interbreeding. Maybe a human ring species will develop, leading from punk rock to vegetarianism to pacificism to Christianity to mysticism to cult member to masochist to soldier to engineer to teacher to soft rock fan. We love the notion of star-crossed lovers, but let’s admit it. Each of us has that category of “no way, absolutely not”, and while we may have mutual friends with mutual friends, between some people, it just ain’t going to happen. I could probably construct thousands of these potential cultural continuum chains if I sat and thought about it. This is a different sort of geography. It doesn’t matter than these links aren’t always assured, or that people aren’t always so cut and dry, or that the linkage doesn’t always stay the same. Is it inconceivable that my next thousand engenderings will never exchange genetic information with gene lines from rural Alabama? Or from urban Novosibirsk? Or from suburban Chicago, even? How big must our population become, and how diverse much our cultural geography grow, before these sorts of rifts are not just possible, but assured? And we’d never notice as these difference develop, because which each neighboring cultural territory keeps making babies with its neighbors, the ends never interbreed, and genetic drift is meanwhile allowed to make the difference actually genetically real. Until one day, when a Boy Scout leader from Saskatchewan just happens to settle down with a post-punk singer from Curitiba, they decide to have a child, and then their fertility counselor sits them down to discover something very interesting the doctors discovered in their genetic profile.
One more thing. A common, every day way of deciding the difference between our species and another species, at least for the non-biologist humans in our population, is basically no different that how we choose what to eat. What sort of life form, culturally, can we kill as indiscriminately as if it were a food source? What is different enough from us, that our widespread murder of its kind is more akin to farming than genocide? We kill other species, and it may be cruel, but it is never murder. Our cultural violence reifies the difference between our species and others. We kill chimpanzees for research purposes. And yet, genetically, we could potentially interbreed with chimps.
Chimps often eat each other. Humans have eaten each other throughout history, for mostly cultural-symbolic reasons. But this is interesting: all documented forms of human cannibalism either choose to eat humans within the cultural group, or from without of the cultural group: but never both. What we allow ourselves to kill affirms cultural identity. What we allow ourselves to kill affirms species identity. What we would eat / what we would kill / who we would fuck. Cultural geography–don’t say I didn’t warn you. Cultural geography is potentially dangerous to our species: both, potentially to our shared genotype, and to us as individuals. Who knows, once these differences become established, what it might justify in our minds. The war of all against all might be a myth. As chaotic as the vastness of the human species and its culture might be, the simplistic duality of us against them might be our natural state. The agonism of us versus them, among the human species, is spread out over a geography so complicated, we haven’t even begun to comprehensively map it.
Next week we’ll look up something much more sexy than evolutionary theory, though not quite as alluring as cannibalism. Step right this way gentlemen (and ladies with a strong constitution and a purely scientific interest), for a naughty peek at the Museum of Short Sequined Dresses.
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Posted: February 10th, 2011
, Museum of Small American Museums
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And here is where we put our money in our mouths. In exchange of course. The market-substitution metaphor takes the money from your possession and substitutes physical food. You paid for the food, you are not literally eating the money. Let’s not play verbal games here. Except, that you are indeed putting your money in your mouth. You are taking it out of your wallet, so that you might satisfy the eternal hunger, and then putting sustenance directly in your mouth. If you were shopping for your weekly groceries, or perhaps, investing in corn oil and pork belly futures on the Chicago Exchange, you might be doing something so complicated as buying food. But to satisfy the hunger, we are just going to stop and grab something quick, we are going to swipe our debit cards without even getting out of the car, take the bag, put at least a little bit in our mouths before we step on the gas, maybe take a little sip of water and corn syrup, the hydrocarbon of humanity, and then zip off to rejoin the rest of the species on the freeway, moving in the same direction, encased inside similar assemblages of metal and plastic, each of us slowly but surely getting hungry again at the same rate.
A grocery store, or a farmer’s market, or a stocked pantry shelf, or even the freshly slaughtered carcass of an animal, those strips of flesh only recently converted by symbolic knife stroke into cuts of meat: these are places where we go to find food. These are the components of nutrition. The brick and mortar of the proverbial food pyramid. These are the ingredients we combine with alchemical precision, with the mystic-mechanical sculpting of thermodynamic processes, acid-base reactions, and even the harnessed life-cycle of animate life-forms that are equally the radical form of our life and an element in its continued sustenance and evolution. This is not to refute the restaurant process—the social experience of dining aside, there are plenty of restaurants who catalyze the elements of food as well or better than any of us could, and the item descriptions on menus alone may be educational pamphlets to those of us whom, for whatever reason, never learned the magical art of cookery ourselves.
But there are other places where sustenance can be had, and yet the mechanics are quite different. Here food is only symbolized, in Technicolor images of synthetic food stand-ins, meant to semiotically stimulate your desire-for-appetite more than to advertise any actual product for sale. The process revolves around the orderly exchange of money for a reduction in appetite, and maybe if you are lucky, a saturation of the gustatory organs at the same time. Colloquially, we call this “fast food”, and yet the process is not so much about reducing time as about removing a stage in the process. The preparation, the cookery, the reaction, the production: all of it is removed. In other words, excising everything that makes a food really a food. The exchange is expedited, so the connection between the food-labor and the product is alienated. The money is paid, the hunger is satiated. Did you eat? Does it matter, as long as the void that stimulated the desire to eat is removed? Hunger is the negative, food is the positive. If you remove the negative, who is to say that the positive was ever needed at all? Unable to provide Jetson-esque “cube meals”, technology, instead, replaces whole foods with a most apt and fluid metaphor. This is the “feeding tube”. A feeding tube sustains life; but it does not provide food. The act of feeding it provides is to remove the need to actually eat. The term “fast food” finds its metaphorical connection to technology through routed speed. From the manipulation of actual objects, to a mere regulation of a tube’s flow. A shortening of the production, a reduction of desire. Minimization, and therefore, maximalization.
This is all very interesting. As you move across the country, you begin to see entire districts set up for this sort of procedure. It’s as if there are giant, stationary herds of people sucking on the fast food feeding tube, and you are merely migrating through them. They call it the commercial district, or the strip mall strip, or the Business Route x (the x replaced by the designation number of whatever lonely freeway the main artery of the tube snakes out from before looping back dutifully to return your automobile to its forelorned interstate road). It’s a rural thing, and yet it isn’t, because they are everywhere. They are themselves an urbanization by proxy, a built up-ness of areas that would not city-ify themselves. It is capitalist irrigation. Without these asphalt conduits, the cash and people flowing out over the parched earth, and the single level buildings on major intersections serving as the ionic pump houses driving the intake of sodium, corn sugar, and saturated fat, why, this would be just another open piece of the country.
The most excellent of all feed tubes is not so much a tube as a giant rectangular prism, reminiscent in their own way of the cuboid meals produced by Rosie the Robot (you burnt the toast, Rosie), but from an alternate and more realistically unpredicted futurism. A future in which the food size inflated rather than concentrated. to such an extent that this American staple gave birth, or at least synthetically incubated, the term “big box store”. This tube among tubes, is Walmart. The logic that would remove the entire production process from nutrition and turn it into a infantile negation of desire finds its home on those hallowed, endless shelves.
Nothing makes sense in a Walmart. Or it does, but it does so on terms of its own devising; it is a Wonderland or an Oz-logic, where both the resident mythos and meta-satire subject is America. Already re-branded countless times in that confusing eternal renewal of Newspeak permanency that a brand image is supposed to provide (we have always been at war with high prices/those bourgeois city folk/terrorism), the current incarnation of our formerly smiley-faced god is now a silent asterisk footnote, a sibylline future-echo of what we will be some other time’s history; the super-novaed remnants of the pre-black hole, what was once the solar light of the American Dream; and the cartoon diagram of an asshole (cf. Breakfast of Champions)–nothing more profane than this orifice, through which we encourage ourselves to forget is the root of all of these illusions, the fundamental concept of the store, the management strategy of its employees, and that pocket-full-of-naughty-holes that is us. The asterisk marks the eclipsing of the Luke Helder emoticon (look him up), and the dawning of a new star not only in the East, but over nearly any city with a population of over ten thousand. In short: Walmart puts the “*” in “What the fu*k”.
All of these explicit invocations you have probably heard in one form or another, or could have readily assemble yourself if you are the sort of person who would be reading this essay. But here is something you might not have known: you can camp in a Walmart parking lot. Did you know this? The folk-beliefs behind this fact vary. One story said that Sam Walton, founder of Walmart, was an avid RVer, and wanted to spread the love. The more materialist explanation is that inviting RVs to their parking lot is a clear attempt to sell more barbecue briquettes, hamburger patties, ice, bottled soda, etc. After sleeping the night away, you can enter the store to stock up. And there are moral explanations as well. These don’t necessarily explain how this fact occurred, but this particular strain of Uncle-Samism gets very worried that there are a growing list of Walmarts that don’t allow camping, and blame this decline on the poor behavior of certain “lot rats” that overstay their welcome, and promote a sort of karmic list of best-practices for “guests” in order to help the gift of free Walmart camping to continue and grow, and in this way justifying its existence. It’s a kind of “freedom isn’t free”, negative theology of corporate alms-giving.
As one who has actually confirmed the belief by camping in a Walmart parking lot, I can tell you a certain number of things. The “allowance” of camping stems directly from the fact that nearly every Walmart is open twenty-four hours a day, and thus, there is no period of the day-night cycle at which it is not permitted to park there. Employees cars are there for about eight hours at a stretch, so if you were there for a similar length of time, no one would even be able to tell the difference. You do see a number of RVs staying over night in Walmart parking lots. As all that is really required for an RV occupant to camp is the ability to stay parked for awhile, and therefore, Walmart camping is easy enough. When I was a guest at Chez Sam Walton, we slept in the back of a station wagon, and thus our camping footprint was a similar four stopped tires. I have no idea of Walmart’s policy or individual locations’ attitudes towards the stringing of clothes lines, the pitching of tents, or say, camp fires. My guest is that this would be pushing the envelope of this un-official camping site pretty far. On one morning, we had a wake up call from a local police officer, who seemed friendly enough as we noticed his obviously watchful presence nearby as he ran the license plates from our car. We proceeded to excuse ourselves at a reasonable pace. In other locations, we had a bit of attention from private security that was patrolling the parking lot, but other than that sort of uncomfortable “hard glance” which I normally get in places that are not coastal cities, we were never specifically rousted. Another common rumor I have heard is that while Walmart does not stop campers, certain towns have passed ordinances against various technical aspects of sleeping in cars or parking in one spot for too long, and earn a certain amount of revenue from transient Walmart campers unwittingly unaware of these local statutes. So, let me say and in doing so excuse myself from any sort of culpability for the potential variances or vagrancy citations of your future camping experience; dear reader: I found sleeping in the parking lot of various Walmart’s across the country to be a doable endeavor, but you should obviously only do whatever your own will and reason prescribes for you.
But let me tell you something else: there is something deeply uncanny, and even more disturbingly oracular about the experience of sleeping in Walmart parking lots than the uncomfortable godly-erotic implications of Walmart’s logo. In addition to the experience of going to sleep in a parking lot and waking up in a parking lot. In excess of what it is like to open your eyes in a succession of departures from sleep, the segmentations separating them being of unknown length, and see the blurry sky beyond the fogged windows gradually lightening and changing in color from the all-night glow of white floodlights to the white-cloudy sunlight of an apocalyptically wintered Great Lakes city sky, like the spectrum steps of a paint chip in the home improvement section. Beyond the sensation of your glass, steel, and plastic bubble enclosing you from a vacuum of continental vastness, each early morning shopper’s car that sizzles past on wet pavement sounding like more and more spaceships stretched out in an endless convoy of interstellar trade, passing by our society’s closest excuse for hyper-sleep, easing the pain of aging during travel. Besides all of this: you are sleeping in a Walmart despite what misgivings you might have about its capitalistic position in society, because it is free. It is the easiest way of reducing that desire for rest and for sleep–not exactly being well-rested, but staving off the need to close the eyes, that heavy weight that is so willing to let your car drift from the lanes of the late interstate night, and end your life in a flipped coffin of metal and flame. Sleeping an a Walmart parking lot is the easiest and quickest. It is the feeding tube of rest, the little death drive of tiredness pushing off and at the same time pulling towards the single, endless, infinite death at the end. You are glad to see Walmart. That mystic asterisk becomes the symbol of your release and relief.
You wake up, and you find your shoes, and you roll out of your vehicle. You pad across the macadam, wrapping your coat against the cold in a way not at all like a bathrobe or piece of sleepware. You enter the Walmart, blink at the light. The greeter says hello, never good morning or good evening. The bathroom is always in the same place. There are only ever hand dryers, and not the paper towels you need to wipe the secreted oils from your face, eyes, and ears. You look like shit in the mirror. So does everyone else. And you start to realize, as you try to remember what state you are in, that this could go on forever. The ruins of America are yours today, and they look like the Walmart in Maumelle, Arkansas. Or the one in Fairfield, California. Or the one in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. I can’t remember which.
Once the feeding tube is inserted, it is hard to pull it away. Our relationship to our desires, both the presence of desires and the temporary resolution thereof, is one a hairsbreadth away from the unhealthy condition of behaviors known as addiction. Feedback loops are of the essence, in today’s world. Every action perpetuates something. The rut becomes everything, a smooth plateau as wide as the parking lot. As all encompassing as the triple-wide big box of the modern, re-branded Supercenter. And as the hunger and tiredness fades once again, you can see a glimpse of our future, spread out in front of us. From no bigger a point than the human act of eating and sleeping, we see a portion of the exhibited evidence of our species on display. I envision a future in which squatters camps surround Supercenters. This gray asphalt area gathers, as all cities do, around the centers of economic activity. Armed greeter guards check your remaining credit limit before you are allowed into the temple proper. Teenagers with hacked RFID credit tokens shoplift organic produce, buying only the cheapest of gift cards (I imagine the amount equally about 50 cents in 2011 dollars) as a cover for their crime. At night the lights shine on, and everyone sleeps, eats if they can. Whatever it was we used to do when we “went shopping” will seem as foreign as “cooking”. And we all get a little older. Why not? It could be our present some day. It’s not less possible than nuclear war. The mushroom cloud has only been re-branded. We’ll have to see. The mechanics of what we will in the future systematically streamline, efficiently reduce, and eventually lose are the mundane tasks of the present. Who is to say in what orifice they will plug the feeding tubes into tomorrow. And where we will line up to receive this treatment.
On Wednesday I will plug the feeding tube into our crotches, and thread it all the way into our genome. Follow my instructions to enter the Museum of Cultural Speciation, and don’t forget to clean your orifice port well before hand.
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I hardly would like to implement a hierarchical taxonomy of American culture, either with upper and lowercase C’s, or with any other modifier to the word. No judgment, please, on what is good culture or not. No suffix of “Americana” for example, to connote a certain sort of nod and wink behind the back of certain less popular states in the middle of the country. Nor would I, through my abrasive tone of a curmudgeon seeking to willfully impose anti-establishment incitement upon people far too busy to think about such foolish things, and as part of my lifelong role as generally ungrateful son of these shores, seek to simply lambaste and deride any particular part of the cultural content of this vast continent. Whether through the expositionary exhibition of suspicion and distrust at which I excel, the ad hominem insult and verbal roll of the eyes I all too often express, or the openly paranoiac philosophical theory I pull out of my pocket and wave in the air when I’ve had one too many and forget that I’m in a public bar and that they’ll probably call the cops. I would hope not to take on, any more than the average writer, such tendencies we typically summarize as bias; the mental price of doing business that we inwardly acknowledge as what we must reign in and control if we wish to take part in a liberal society. I have my own opinions about what is good culture and what is… well, otherwise than that. As do we all. I acknowledge them, but have no need to tack them to any cathedral door, nor cast them in stone and deposit them on a courthouse lawn.
Not to say that there is any good reason to hide these opinions, so long as they are presented as a (albeit, often argumentative) theoretical basis for self-motivation to aid the production of worthwhile cultural products, rather than those that are… less than worthwhile. I would hope and expect that anyone else would be just as willing to justify their own pursuits by judgments about its cultural worth, at least internally, so as always to be pushing the envelope towards whatever it is that they seek. Just as I would also expect that upon confronted with criticism towards oneself, a person would be able to either surmount that criticism in his or her own mind, or otherwise interpolate it, to emerge with one’s own course improved and/or reified. Whether that course is the creation of a controversial piece of avant-garde artwork, or the decision to take a cruise to Cozumel. Maybe the rationale is apropos of nothing; but this is still a rationale, and ought to be defended as such. “What is the reason? No reason!” Perfectly acceptable and difficult to refute. And therein, a cultural process on such firm ground should not be wary of receiving criticism. And so we shouldn’t shy from giving it, if we feel it is necessary.
But, this sort of epistemology and hermeneutics of judgment and justification is dry and dull. Because really, once you have attained a certain perspective of relativism for critical judgment, you are simply locked into a cycle of your own self-improvement. If all criticism can be taken or given constructively, then everything, critical or not, becomes constructive. And there is no choice but to construct. This is good, of course, because you can finally stop castigating television for ruining society and start working on actually improving society; you can stop complaining that there is nothing worthwhile in the world and begin making what is worthwhile; you can stop basing your career around proselytizing against certain things, and base it on supporting things. In general, criticism becomes a very positive activity, because even when you are lambasting the shit out of some poor artist/tourist you detest, you are only ever preaching to the choir. Your negativity is transmuted into positivity, because once you’ve realized the person you are criticizing probably doesn’t give a shit, you are only going to be stimulating yourself in your own chosen direction. The thesis and the antithesis are synthesized; the dialectic is complete; we wake up and try harder tomorrow. And this is boring. You can’t burn anyone at a stake once you realize everyone is playing different roles in the same stage-play that is the human species. Real progress, as it turns out, is as boring as world peace.
Luckily, there is another sort of epistemology that we can turn to for that carnivalesque excitement. The sort of rush, a will to power and manifest destiny that will get us out of bed in the morning. We’re not slaying barbarian hordes, and there probably won’t be a medal in it for you. But we are discovering and claiming resources, in the biggest gold rush in human history. The borders are open folks, and tickets are cheap. Welcome to the cultural gold rush. Get in while the getting is good.
Let’s turn that mischievous metaphor aside, because it is mischievous, and because it is not really accurate. There used to be a resource market in culture. This was called Classicism, Antiquities, Anthropology, Folklore Studies, Archaeology, History, Literature, and more generally, the Humanities. There was a rush to accumulate all kinds of cultural artifacts and artistry, once these minerals were discovered. As the waters of criticism receded, the value of everything was laid bare, and it was ripe for the taking. Land once considered valueless was determined to have vast veins of semiotic deposits. Economies that had been sinking for centuries were boosted when the boom of cultural production came to town. Entire civilizations were revitalized. Great mercantile exchanges were founded back in the home countries, to which the cultural colonists could send the fruits of their prospecting, for sale on the open market. Entire educational industries developed, feeding on the flows of these resources, and the liberal arts education was one of the hottest commodities out there. Good for a thousand uses, the liberal arts education was made of cultural minerals, and ran on cultural minerals. Nearly every home in America had one—the first member of the family to obtain such a commodity was more celebrated than the main bread winner of the household. And with this gadget in his or her (but often his) possession, the task of winning the bread often fell on to the shoulders of this new education-bearing class.
But you know all this. Ancient history. We might have learned it somewhere along the way, as sort of an explanation for while our modern versions of that cultural commodity don’t seem to pack the same punch. Or maybe we deciphered this history through our own intuition—via our suspicions that somehow they’ve changed the formula somewhere along the line, or that perhaps the construction quality just isn’t what it once was. At any rate, there is a sense of the old, the obsolete, the outdated to our current liberal educations. That maybe this commodity had more of a relationship with ancient history than it ever had with us.
Thankfully, I don’t have to solemnly add that the former boom towns are now decrepit wastelands, and that the once proud factories stand like ghosts, uncanny reminders of the curse of economic cycles and the fleeting, transitory nature of any wealth and success. On the contrary. The culture industry is just as strong as it was, and it is probably more profitable now than ever. More educational commodities are produced each year than the last, and the countries that mine the cultural minerals are getting more of a share of those profits than they ever did. Something is changing, it just isn’t reducible to GDP.
The functional monopoly is fading. The luster and quality of the mineral isn’t diminishing, but its effectiveness is. Not in a way that it is being less effective, but that its presence doesn’t guarantee anymore success than a synthesized substitute. What is running out is the metaphor. Now it isn’t liquid gold. It’s only book learning. The molecular structure is less structured. The reaction was only ever a catalyst—and now the reaction is running on its own.
Okay, really—enough of the poetic license. I’m overstepping the bounds of my land grant. You don’t need me to dig this out for you, and that is the whole point. Cultural products and the skills we use to develop them—be it liberal education, a general appreciation for the humanities, an artistic goal, or even cold hard cash—are better distributed than ever before. It turns out that culture is not a mineral after all. It doesn’t have to be compressed in the earth for thousands of years before it becomes virile. It is not only found in certain places. It doesn’t only form in the rare pinch-point between a set of specific historical circumstances or at the hands of great persons. Meaning is now found in the least assuming of places, and in this way, meaning means more to the people to which it means than it ever did in the past. The metaphor that constricted how we understood and used culture, is broken. Anything goes, as long as it explodes. If you can light it on fire, it’s fuel. Culturally, that is. Maybe for other things later.
One of the best ways to see this is by, as ever, seizing the means of production. Visit the mines and the factories. The former centers of educational production are well-funded, but they are beset by problems. As they add wings and libraries, found new on-site museums and repatriate artifacts, they only draw further criticism. They get the money they need eventually, and perhaps they even spend it well. But are they doing it right? Are they up with the times? Are the customers satisfied? Is the product worthwhile? No one seems to know anymore. We go to the museums, we read the books, we take the classes. But have we learned anything? What’s more frightening than this fate is not knowing how to fix the problem or whose fault it is. Everything seems educational, and yet we don’t feel any smarter.
But this is not the end of the tour. Perhaps it has always been around to a certain extent, and we just ignored them in our thrill at the tall skyscrapers and massive smokestacks, the expansive parking lots and the expensive executives of the major industrial centers. There is, mostly unseen, a cottage industry in culture. A distributed, effective, industrial grassroots. A thriving network of culture that we hardly notice, and perhaps doesn’t even notice itself. These are, for lack of a better unifying rubric, the Small Museums of America.
You’ve seen these museums advertised when you drive along the interstate. The Museum of Western Industry and Mining. The Cowboy Museum and Alligator Center. The Tri-Country Fabric and Textiles Museum. The Town of ______ Heritage Center and Museum. The _____ Museum, with the blank filled by some unknown person’s last name as indicator of, what? How are we supposed to fit these small museums into the ecosystem of our cultural industries? The large museums, the Smithsonian, the British Museum, and the Museum of Modern Art all hold particular places. They fill roles in the canon. The big exhibitions travel to a certain number of pre-designated spots, like a large concert tour. We know how to treat these institutions. We know why we visit them: they are the central trading houses of certain cultural markets. We know what we can find there, and we go there for that purpose. But what about the small museum? Is it a tourist trap, just meant to suck a little cash out of the pocket when you stop for lunch? Is it simply something to do, in an area that has no other attractions? Or is it a vanity museum, only in existence by bequeath of some person or group that would like to see a particular “museum” dedicated to a certain topic in a certain place, and this was the limit of their resources? How do we know that anything important really happened in this place, and that this museum has any cultural artifacts of real worth?
We don’t know. It could be a worthless waste of five dollars. It could be a waste of time and gas to drive that far from the highway to find out. Or worse, it could simply be boring. Any of these things are possible. But here is something that we do know: it will be a museum. What good is a shitty museum, you might ask? The very thing that makes it a museum. Perhaps amateurish pit stops along the highway could be enjoyed on the level of kitsch, or in that nod and a wink Americana way I mentioned previously. But there is something about a museum that cannot fake or mimic what it does. There are no fake factories: a factory produces things, and if it does not produce, it is not a factory. Similarly, there are no false museums. You could argue the merits of that museum’s production, but you could not argue that it produces. The very act of calling oneself a museum denotes a very real effort to collect a certain amount of objects, and to present them to the public in a meaningful, cultural way. It is a dedicated arena of exhibition, whatever that may entail. Perhaps it is a collection of memorabilia, with only handwritten index cards to identify them. It could be a house full of antiques, with a volunteer staffer the only guide for their interpretation. It could be art that would never be shown on the walls of a canonical museum, and yet someone picked them to hang on these walls, in lieu of others. Every museum is curated. Every museum exhibits. And every museum wants you to come and see what it has waiting for you.
If you talk to the people who work at these museums, you will find a good number of volunteers. You will find people who already have an intimate connection to the subject matter, and not just a desire to work in museums. They will tell you about how they got barely enough donations to stay open this year, and how they have plans to add another room, or to build an accurate recreation of _____, if only they can reach their new fund raising goal. They will tell you of other small museums in the area that are similar and worth your while, or completely different and worth your while. And they will be glad to see you, and glad that you are hear to see what they have to show you.
Yes, it’s off the beaten path, and it’s a breath of fresh air, and it’s something different, something unique, and something new. But what it is, more than anything else, is culture. This is the stuff, right here. Not the true, the authentic, and the real: but the actual, the close-up, and what remains. A lot of this stuff, if it was not in the Small Museum, would not exist. No one else wants it, and no one else has the money and time to care for it. But this museum does, and so it exists, entered into the vast catalog of human culture. It might not be the most superlative instance of whatever it is, but it very much is what it is. There is an element of actual being to these things, a different sense of the world historical. They are not perfect specimens, preserved against the ravages of time. But they are what’s left. They are what could easily not exist, except for the fact of their exhibition. And in this way, they are art. They are cultural production. They are nothing more than what someone took the time to create with his or her own hands, and in that, they are everything. It is not a class of culture, or an aspect of culture that we’ve previously overlooked. It’s culture, no different than a Michelangelo or an Air Jordan sneaker, for exactly the same reasons. It is this culture, the vastness of the Small Museums in their totality, that is reducing the vitality of the canon. For better or worse. Far be it from me to judge.
What you get from a visit to a Small Museum is all up to you. There are no guarantees from this sort of cultural criticism. Like all consumption, what you get largely depends on you. The Small Museum is something of the “getting to the bottom of things”. As I stress, this verticality is not in the sense of a hierarchy or systemic ranking, nor anything radical or of deconstruction. But underneath the larger structures of our cultural production and distribution, there are minor structures and systems. Smaller, and yet the same. The hand that picks two shells out of thousands from a beach, tosses one into the ocean, and puts the other in the pocket. The mechanisms of choice. The Boolean logic binaries hiding within the vast spectra of aesthetic preference. The oddly human way in which we pour our memory over unsuspecting inanimate objects using our senses. This is going on all the time—not so much at the root of everything, but comprising the root, the stem, the sap, the leaves, and the fruit of everything. Everything that we would want to refer to within the easy confines of a metaphor. Once you’ve visited some of the Small Museums of America, you’ll want to see more. It will become a “thing” with you. You might, if you let it get to you, even start thinking of non-museums as Small Museums. The gum on a sidewalk. The bathing suits that people choose to wear. The names of gun shops. The taste of shitty beer. Other people might think it’s odd, even though they are doing the same thing more and more often, even though they don’t realize it. We are all judging, offering our criticism, and then turning around and showcasing, exhibiting, viewing, consuming. And then moving on. Others might treat you as an odd specimen. But don’t let it bother you too much. We’re all moving in this direction.
If you like, you can accompany me on my visit to yet another Small Museum of America next week. We’re going to the Museum of Walmart Parking Lots. Don’t forget your permission slip, and $9.99 for an extra value meal.
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If there is an idiot born every minute, every five minutes one of them says, “Let’s go to Cozumel!” And then s/he does. There is something about awful tourist attractions and awful tourists causing them to fly together like rare earth magnets, perhaps even lacerating your fingers if each object is of a great enough mass, and you happen to carelessly put your hand between them. Of course, there must be some place in the world for the itinerant masses to go, when they decide it is indeed time to go somewhere. And hell, who am I to judge? We would all like to go some place warm in the winter (all of us in the Northern hemisphere, anyway). The water in Cozumel is insanely beautiful.
And yet, there reaches a critical mass of massy masses—so many overweight Americans bringing their vacation dollars to a particular place—that either through unwitting clodmanship or through straight-up rudeness they end up pushing other people off the crowded jewelry-salesperson strewn sidewalk directly into raw, Mexican traffic. This is not hyperbole; this actually happened. The fat, sunburnt, sunglassed, cruise ship of a woman who threw an elbow into my father’s chest did not even look back to see who or what she hit. She motored off on her flip-flops, just like any other hit-and-run, BMW-driving, American businessman after he knocks over an unmanned motor scooter in downtown Portland, Oregon (I just seem to witness the nicest people all the time, just in the act of living their lives).
How did we get to this point? Not to the point at which I have a thousand and one sob stories about the callousness of others; but to the point at which vacation destinations, through their own advertising and industry, become so beyond over-capacity with customers that they become less vacation factories than the Stanford Prison Experience™? Do we really not have enough third-world beaches we can harvest for the color of their water and sand? Why do they all seem to go to Cozumel? Do the red, white, and blue flip-flops, swim suits, and sun visors really have some sort of strong-attraction force, magnetically collecting into these conglomerated asteroid super-fields of holiday makers?
I admit that I am biased, being not one for crowds and certainly not one for large groups of fun-seekers. I don’t have to seek fun, and don’t always care for those who do. This is not to say that I am somehow more able to find fun than most people; rather, I have fun doing boring, mundane things. I’m always having fun. Exploring the nether regions of an underpass might as well be taking a hike, for me. Taking a hike, well, that’s a trip to the beach. And a trip to the beach… that’s my own personal roller coaster on the roof of a casino.
But I do like to see new places. And some places that are new to me, unfortunately, are old to the tourist trade. Key West, for example. Beautiful reef waters, within sight of the uninhabited Key West Wildlife Sanctuaries. The beautiful island architecture inspired and housed some famous American artists; best-known, of course, are Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams. You can still visit Hemingway’s house, which is… right between the bar-strewn novelty T-shirt district of Duval Street and the cruise ship pier. I guess you can go if you want. Maybe I will not.
At some point, the aesthetic qualities of a place that attract artistry and travelers like myself—traveling for the sake of traveling rather than the destination—shrink in comparison to the mainstream economic-based motivators that draw the masses. New York is famously going through this problem now, as the artistic climate that has made New York what it is in the art world conspires to raise rents even in an economic downturn, chasing the artists themselves away. Until there are no artists left. It’s all part of the same cycle: attraction, and repulsion. And then what? I believe that gentrification is not a new phenomenon. It has been a problem ever since it because commonplace for people to move within a city. Times change, neighborhoods change, and people on the short end of the real estate stick end up moving to less than desirable places out of necessity. The cycle continues, life begets life, and the hipster chorus hits the high note as the credits roll. But, what perhaps seem un-cyclical is the extent to which these re-culturalizing forces are now becoming mono-cultural forces.
Certain places become miserable, all to their economic gain. While they rake in the dollars, I have a hard time believing that anyone really has a good time. They get drunk, yes. Spend money on stuff they don’t need. They buy antibiotics and painkillers over the counter; all of these are things we normally enjoy. But it is just so concentrated, so canned, and so monetized that it is really no more than a shadow of these fun things, now at twice the price. Will there be a tipping point at which Cozumel is no longer desirable, because it is notorious for being lousy with tourists and the hyenas who thrive upon their steaky wallets? I would have thought we reached that point long ago, but for some reason, people are still showing up. The mono-culture keeps paving, and people keep coming to park.
What is that we are trying to escape through travel, anyway? I mean “we” in the most populist sense—me, and those sorts of tourists and people whom I spend my life trying to avoid. I like to think there is a bit of capital-C Culture going on in where I choose to “tour”. A little bit of my high-falutin’ taste. But I like a dual-culture, if not more multiple than that. I like my small art galleries, but I like bars, too. Aren’t we all just trying to have fun? To see something different. To get drunk and stumble back to hotel. To eat some different food. And maybe take advantage of a beneficial currency exchange. A little warm weather. Maybe a sugar-coated moment of historical significance. Is this balance so much to ask? Is it so hard to find?
Cozumel, in trying to attract tourist dollars by promising just this sort of experience to so many people that it could never deliver on the promise, is really no different than any town in America. The mono-culture of economic expediency would extend itself everywhere, if it could Proof is in the billboards and signs on the sides of the Interstate. Thousands of towns, called out for their uniqueness. Redding. Amarillo. Lawrence. Elk Hart. Drink specials. Kids eat free. Free Wifi. The lowest prices on 1-40. The brithplace of a former Miss America. Memphis might not have the azure waters of Cozumel, but they get the scam. They know the hustle. People are passing by, thousands per day. They are going to spend money somewhere. Why not here? If you put up one sign, you might as well put up twenty. You tell a few tall tales. Then they might start to believe. Give it a couple years, hand out some bumper stickers, and before you know it, you have Wall-Drug—the Cozumel of the middle of nowhere. You get people to believe they’re having fun even though they’re not, and you have just created a tourist economy out of nowhere. And the mono-culture that is the mindless pursuit of capital flows.
The carnival of it all—that is, whatever that unnameable “fun” is that is sold to us for dollars on the penny—is not just in exotic destinations. Although some exotic destinations have some pretty great carnivals. But there are exotic destinations without carnivals, just as there are many carnivals in non-exotic locations. The carnival is everywhere. And so, it becomes that the carnival is only where someone has set up a sign. Wherever anyone sets up the economic tent. Some tents are bigger than others. Doesn’t mean the small ones aren’t tents. And all of a sudden, you aren’t having fun unless there’s a sign, a tent, and someone to take your money.
I wouldn’t suggest stopping at most of these tents any more than I would suggest going to Cozumel. The carnival ugliness is only so interesting in an academic sense, before it is just another freak show. And you have to watch out for those whom you’re gawking at. The anecdote about getting pushed into traffic wasn’t fiction. There are other ways they get at you, too. There’s evil in those crowds, just lingering underneath. A real mob is just below the skin of every good party. The truth about humanity is, that the distance separating a busy street and an orgy of beasts ripping each others’ limbs off and eating them, is about as long as the distance between a noun and a verb. Look into the eyes of a man who has had four daiquiris, and is about to buy jewelry for his wife. That is the seat of evil, my friends. As cold as a frozen drink, and the color of investment grade Tanzanite. Just before I went fully “small town Americana kitsch” on you, I thought I’d leave you with that.
But this is where we are, and this is how I somehow ended up in America, no different than other beasts of my species. More or less. The secret of vacationing, in my opinion, is to read all the billboards, but look for certain ones. You can’t avoid the tents, but you can choose. Don’t go for the biggest, the brightest, or the best deal. The signs you want are smaller, and probably a little broken, because the advertisers don’t have much money. For whatever reason they haven’t grasped the idea that to really make money you have to sell booze. Instead of foot-long daiquiris they’re selling culture, of all foolish commodities. And yet, their doors are still open. They are collecting nickels, but they’re collecting enough of them. That says something. And the something that it says is both what we’re looking for, and the subject of the next museum.
If you’ll follow me and try not to get separated from the group, Wednesday I’ll take you on a tour of the Museum of Small American Museums.
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“With the coming of ____ ________ began the part of my life you could call my life on the road.” And so begins the third sentence (with the pseudonym-dropping reference to the Beat scene excised) of the most over-gifted book in America besides the Bible, and the bane of everything creative in this land. You are going to have to excuse me while I vent a little bit about the state of literature in this country, as represented through a particular book that is in no way representative of literature in this country. Okay—so I’d be willing to concede that the book isn’t that bad, and like every so-so book that is wildly popular, there is probably a time and place for when it is exactly the right book. The right time and place for On the Road is when you are a fifteen year-old white male feeling unsure in the first year of high school. But that doesn’t change my criticism of the Beat Poets and a loathing for what they did to America: a white, phoning-it-in, irreversible, suburban coffee shop graft, perpetrated upon American literature.
What they did was create a gold road of unlimited devotion; they lionizied a cursory appreciation of the American literary canon, a lack of hard work, and generally unrestrained hippie optimism that is about as untenable to modern problems as Picasso is to the Internet. And it is not so much that they did, because that could be forgivable as no more than a symptom of their times. It could be a hindsighted mistake, a pathology we will no doubt suffer ourselves in spades come another forty years. But the problem is that we can’t seem to get over the Beats, even now. The continued celebration of this metaphysical pap is not necessarily because there is somewhere within it a canonical truth—it’s just that we have nothing better. We can’t talk about American poetry, let alone write it (at least if we are men), without somehow mentioning the Beats. We just haven’t grown up. We are still teens in high school. You can’t write about modern times in America without obliquely referencing the soaring, anti-America-The-Beautiful tones of Ginsberg. It’s inescapable, like crappy magazines in the doctor’s office. Sports players are male role models today not because they are good role models, but because without them our need for role models would lead us to bend down to politicians and… for fuck’s sake, business men. I remind you that Kerouac was a varsity athlete before picking up the pen.
More crucial to my own personal problems, is the fact that you cannot write about traveling across the American road without at least mentioning Kerouac, or taking two paragraphs to invectively disparage him, both being more than he deserves. This is what canon means to us, today. It’s what we hate, but talk about anyway. Even though the America Kerouac traveled is dead, it lives in the Interstate Highway System of our minds.
Dear readers, I now invite you to purge the Beat from your inner cloverleaf interchange. Expel it, with all the released kinetic force of a eighteen-car pile up caused by a drunk driver in a five-ton pickup jumping the median, soaring through the rusted and outdated guard rail, and landing on top of the busy, commuter-traffic filled, EZ-Pass only, HOV lanes below. The power of crushing metal compels you: exit now. Thank you. We have rubber-necked at the canon, smoking against the Jersey barrier. And now we can drive on.
Flying cars existed back in 1955 when On the Road was published. Huge vehicles, made in America by American Labor out of American Steel, would carry you across the country at incredible rates of speed. The pavement would zip by beneath the singing tires, as you climbed over top of mountains and raced across deserts. The miles per gallon were low, but the fuel was endless. There was nothing quicker than a car; it was the one-manned, streamlined, asphalt aeroplane, carrying newly individual, nucleated American Supermen faster than a speeding locomotive. Death by automobile accident was the heroes death, and the crushed frame beneath your twisted body was the shield your people would carry you home upon. The cars… had fucking fins.
Today, driving Route 66 means driving “Historic Route 66”, the heritage road celebrating unrestrained American road travel in the past tense. On its hallowed, pock-marked surface, just off the real highway, you can get good old American gas for about $3.00 a gallon, which will power the average sedan for a cost of about fifteen cents per mile. At that rate, it will cost you $367.20 to drive Route 66. It will cost you $435 to go across Interstate 80, which travels from San Francisco to New York. A single room at Motel 6 will run you a little less than $40 a night. Meals at Hometown Buffet will cost you… well, I have no idea, and I don’t want to know. Suffice it to say, if you have two or three people in the same car, it might be as cheap as flying. Naturally, there are other ways to do the road trip on the even-cheaper. But low-budget, American family-style travel is hardly budget at all. The only thing soaring, rocketing, and flying are various metaphors involving credit cards.
But we, (meaning us, not you; I have no idea how you choose to travel) are already on a road trip. We have gotten in the car against the wishes of our family who would prefer that we just fly, (even though they bought us our copy of the 40th Anniversary edition of On the Road some years before as a gift) we are out of cell phone reception, and the pavement is, along with the gas, evaporating away beneath us. What are we doing here?
We sure as hell don’t know Dean Moriarty. I know some people on Twitter, though. We didn’t so much hear that Dean was in Spanish Harlem, as see some Flickr pictures, and maybe click around in the Atlas Obscura. We might have killed entire hours wandering over the topology of Google Maps, with the Wikipedia layer turned on. I don’t know if this exactly prepped us for what we would never stoop to call “our life on the road”. It sure wasn’t as sexy as a couple of beatniks talking to each other on a dirty mattress, out of their minds on uppers. But all the same, this is how it happened to us, and here we are, rocketing towards points on the compass, leaving in our wake nothing more than a single geotagged post in each state if reception allows it, and at the same time moving away from all points on the compass at the exact same rate.
Because here is the thing about our new social understanding of speed. The faster the pace of history moves, the less distance you have to travel to go the same speed. Velocity is now 1 / Distance x Time. Entropy is our fuel additive. As a species, we’re slowing down. We’re asymptotically approaching zero no matter what we do. But along the curve of this simple, rational function, the individual can cover less ground in an atemporal universe and still be moving at the same rate. The calculus of a road trip is the inverse of every algebra example about road trips and distance that has ever been taught to you.
Flying, for whatever On-the-Road-given reason, is not an option for us. The future is not an option, either. Inevitability is the zeitgeist, and this zeitgeist is inevitable. There is no place to run towards, waving your arms and screaming for shelter. Your present is your future; you credit card limit just hasn’t been distributively absorbed by participating vendors yet. We are not driving towards anything. We’re simply driving away. And this is why we’re still behind the wheel. You could fly around the world in 48 hours, but then you’d have to do something else. If you drive across the country, you’ll kill at least ten times as much time and twice as much money waiting for the future to get here. That is a pretty good buy. The most anyone can ask for their money these days is that it take up more time than it would have taken this time last year. Now that is progress.
Modern vinyl-interiored mp3-capable automatic-transmissioned cars do fly a little. Living on the inside of a safety glass bubble, you are at least a few inches up off the ground. More if you’ve inflated your tires properly. Music sounds better played on certain cheap car speakers. It’s all about bass beating within a sedan-womb. Cheap food tastes better if you eat it while moving. I recommend corn nuts. Caffeine is more effective over fifty miles per hour, bringing the nerves and the brain up to speed, ideas slinging past like mile markers flitting by in the furthest reach of the headlights. I had at least ten ideas in the stretch of road between Nashville and Louisville. I was only able to remember six when I stopped to write them all down. When you are tired, a car seat is more comfortable that it would be ordinarily, when you are not tired. A parking lot with a public bathroom that has paper towels rather than just a hand dryer is about as much of a home as anyone with four wheels underneath them could want these days. You can take more luggage in the car than you could on the plane. But you don’t need to. The car is your luggage. Just throw your extra clothes in back. If your seats fold down, you can sleep in your suitcase. Is this American life? Who the hell knows anymore. If I did a keyword search, I’m sure I could find someone who has written a book or a song or a blog that could tell me for sure.
Modern tourism is just the process of living your life. You could live your life in one spot, or in many. Maybe. I’m not going to tell you anything definitively. There’s just too much at stake, and not enough payoff to start authoring platitudes just yet. I’m not saying I won’t write a book about it though. Or at least start to write it, before it mutates into something else. There are just too many books out there by this time to every write a single book on any single thing. Every book is now every other book, in a hyperlinked process of extension that so tritely networks together all of the things that we think about, in the way that every road trip ever taken is every bit of every other road trip. Driving towards, and driving away. If we’re six degrees of separation away from every other human on earth, you are no more than two from every other road trip on the North American continent. My life on the road, your life on the road. The biggest/fastest/best 3G network in America. Where’s the best hamburger in the United States? There’s not just a single app for that. There’s at least ten, and a couple of shows on the Food Network too.
If I was going to give advice about driving across the country, I’d tell you to not read On the Road, don’t eat a single hamburger, and whatever you do, do not to listen to the radio. Read the road signs instead. And I’ll tell you why.
Don’t tune in next week for: the Museum of Tourist Economies No More than 15 Miles from An Interstate Highway.
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When a reader of Marx is laid off from another crappy job at a poorly run business, we might expect him not to be surprised. It’s just one more aufhebung of the old alienation. Another kick in the pants from the capitalists. Yet again, the pain of surplus value being extracted, like a sambok to his special spaces. We passed tragedy, and then left the farce behind, long ago. After the farce came the parody; after that, the fart joke; surpassing that, history was an email forward; and I’m not sure what’s came next, but I believe we’re now somewhere in between novelty T-shirt and minstrel show.
But no matter how much he (or as the reader might be aware, I) might be fully conscious of class relations, being laid off is still, apart from being a monetary problem, a big old ideological mind fuck. I had agreed. I was working an hourly wage. I was doing the work my bosses didn’t do, because they were lazy, stupid, or simply not there. I wasn’t happy with it, and even though I might have written a thick volume on all the materialist contradictions of history at play, I showed up every day on time. I worked hard. I didn’t steal. Didn’t complain. I didn’t even unionize. I agreed to the capitalist mindset, in order to earn a buck. And it all fell through. Some sell-out.
Of course, maybe because I did all this, was the reason I lost. If I had joined a union trade, I could have kept my job (even though I might have lost my pension). Or on the other hand, maybe I didn’t buy into capitalism enough. My mini-American dream of slaving for a low-stress hourly wage without health care (my health is already fully secured by my partner’s union membership) so I could spend my real efforts on my own projects was still, just a dream. If I had tried to make my buck on the backs of other people, then I might have had a chance. I should have worked on commission. I should have been banking a percentage, rather than making things with my hands, of all bodily organs to exploit. I should have been a capitalist, not just a capitalist whore. It may be the oldest profession. But for all of that history, whoring has always revolved around getting fucked.
So what am I, the good, capitulated Marxist, to take from my second trip to the Oregon Department of Unemployment website? A good dose of shame. You were right, Marx! And you too Engels, to a lesser, more sociological extent! I never should have put down Das Kapital, and picked up my resume! I should have been punching scabs, not the clock!
Well, I suppose that is shame, and anger. But in addition: simple horror. It really is that bad. Playing by the rules gets you nowhere. It’s no longer a decision between liberal arts and hard science. Between the career path, and the artsy hike-through-Europe path. If I had accumulated the amount of credit card debt I collected in the process of finding and losing two jobs instead in the process of traveling and having fun, I’d be in the same more place but with much better stories. Let’s face it. Debt is looking like a pair of twins I accidentally fathered in college (I name them BA and MA), that I will be stuck with for a good thirty years, because they sure as shit aren’t going to find jobs right after college either.
There is one more thing that I have taken from this experiment. It is a nice, thick scar. Do you have a good flesh wound scar? I’m not talking about a neat surgery incision; I’m talking about a wound on the surface, that you can see, and you watch every day as it heals. There’s something about the process of a scar forming. At first, it is a wound, and it hurts. Just touching the swollen, red skin around your inadvertent orifice reminds you of the horror of looking down as the accident happened, and seeing your own blood, and maybe even some raw muscle exposed. But little by little, the pain fades, and it closes. You can touch it. Skin grows over top, and it is tender, white and puffy. It still hurts when you press on it. And yet, it is a pain you begin to relish. Like a loose tooth reversing its course, growing back into your jaw, you pick and twist at it, unable to leave it alone, feeling the steadily numbing pain fade back into the asymptotic reflex arc as the scar rejoins the rest of your flesh. You press harder, taunting it, willing it to hurt you more. Really? You’re healing? That’s all you’ve got?
In the end, you have a thin line, tracing the path of where your skin was cleaved. It is hard, like gristle, but made of you. It is part of you forever, even as it continues to fade. Whatever it was that cut you has made its mark. But that mark isn’t part of that damaging knife, edge, point, or flame. It is you, and now always will be.
As far as scars given at the end of capitalism’s danger go, mine is pretty light. I didn’t have my child’s leukemia treatment revoked by an insurance company. I wasn’t murdered by scabs and dropped down a West Virginian coal mine shaft. I wasn’t even conscripted to fight in a war. But I feel it all the same. It’s really nothing less than everything my college counselors, teachers, TV, and America ever taught me about working for a living, either implicitly or explicitly, being proved wrong. Sure, I was unlucky. I could have just as easily had jobs where I didn’t get laid off. But I didn’t. And I’ll tell you, it has nothing to do with luck; both times I was laid off, it was done by actual people, who made actual decisions. Or perhaps, didn’t make any decisions. Not out of random chance, but because they didn’t give a shit. They were idiots. And they were in charge. And I suffered for it. And this is the scar I will remember.
Yes, I am pissed, emotional, and angry. I don’t want to make this all about me, and we will get to the more interesting museums soon enough. But I must make this clear. I must show you these exhibits here, and tell you what they mean. I blame certain, specific people for doing this, and I believe I should. I could spell out the whole narrative (both of them) and then appeal for your judgment, to tell me I am either correct or I am not. But I won’t do this. It won’t change the results. If this was just an attempt to placate my sense of moral outrage, then I would. But the point is this: different people, in different situations, twice allowed their own personal laziness, and their own pursuit of short-term overhead reduction, and their own unwillingness to listen to advice or observations, and their own complete inability to make any sort of concrete plan, not only ruin their own businesses (both are in tatters currently), but destroy the livelihood of their hardest working employees. We worked hard, we took extra weight upon ourselves, and we listened to their idiotic speeches about “hard-times”, and “belt-tightening” and “urgency”. And for what? So they could hide from their problems for an extra few months. The surplus value they earned from our labor, in this case, was their freedom from everything: work, responsibility, planning, and care. I’m carrying all of that now. All the way to the unemployment line.
The alienation, in the end, was not so much the distance between the worker and the product of his labor. I cared about the product. I might have been the only one. My real disconnect was from the job. The commodity I had bought into, the hourly wage job, something so simple as obtaining a regular income, is now a lost dream, flitting away. I have seen the historical contradiction here, and it is the whole damn thing.
Why bother anymore? Really? I defy you to give me a good reason. Why wake up in the morning, and sleep at night? I like being awake at night, and sleeping through the morning. These are the hours of the unemployed. Why should I spent hours trying to find a job, when I can spend hours working on my own projects? Every hour spent fruitlessly is another hour closer to death. What is the benefit of pursuing “adulthood”? As far as I can tell, the only benefit of being “grown up” is I own more tools, and there are fewer people I feel obligated to be looking up towards as role models. I still don’t have any money, I still don’t know what I’m going to do with the rest of my life, and I still feel like I’ve failed some test I didn’t know I was taking. This is adult. This is maturity.
I’m not selling everything and moving to the Yukon (yet). Nor are we going to live in the car and mooch the library’s Wifi (at least not for more than a week or two every so often). What I’m trying to say, is that it’s not so much as I lost the job, as the job has lost me. The big, Titanic luxury ship of gainful employment has left me standing at the pier, as it steams into the sunset, no doubt on what will be a successful trip across the Atlantic Ocean. The idea of a job has alienated me so far, that I fell off. I sat in the dust, watching it keep going without me. And all I have left is the scar.
The compromise is over. Capitalism broke the agreement. From now on, I’m on my own. I’ll pay the bills, I just don’t know how. I’m going to work, but on what I need to work on, not for what some ass who just so happens to have bumbled his/her way into owning a failing company thinks is important. I’m going to have a really hard time of it, probably. But hey, as I’m finding out, that’s what “real life” is all about. It’s about getting angry, but about waking up the next morning, walking outside, and looking at the condition of the lawn. For the same reasons we climb mountains and go to the moon. Because it is there.
My fellow Americans: we have a good many things to do. We have to quit our jobs. We have to feed our families after we have quit our jobs. We have to put our pride in our fists, so that prevents against calluses as we begin to work. We have to work. The only question is, what are we going to work on? For this one, I have no answers. Don’t listen to anyone who tells you that they know, either. Because they are just guessing, or trying to sell you something. I can only recommend one thing. Get really confused, and then go for a walk. You might not find what it is your are going to work on, but at least you’ll get some fucking exercise. We could all use it. Especially me.
But, before all of that: because I’m an American, the first thing I’m going to do when I’m disoriented, confused, and perhaps struggling with hand-eye coordination tasks and basic judgment, is get behind the wheel.
Tune in Wednesday for the “Museum of the Destruction of all Beat Poets.”
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I was laid off for the second time, roughly two weeks before Christmas.
I don’t celebrate Christmas, so that part was moot. But it seems to get a sympathetic look from strangers. On the other hand, I think it also distracts from the “second time” aspect, which to me was the important bit.
Getting laid off even from a job you dislike is nothing like quitting, so I had to find a way to quit something to make up for it. We (my partner M and myself) already had promised to be back on the East Coast for various family/holiday things, so we re-oriented our plans, argued on the phone with airlines, and drove across the continent. We called it the Minor American Cities Tour. We often give trips little names like that. To pretend they are more planned than they are, I suppose. We did the family stuff, and then we drove back to the West Coast.
In all of that driving, there was a lot of time to think. I had a big plan, in the weeks after being laid off. The plan was to write a series of ten intelligent, thought-provoking, wide-ranging essays, showcasing my skills as a writer. I would front the series with my resume and a thoughtful and honest cover letter asking for writing work, put it out there on the Internet, and then use the essays as the force to back it up. The punch behind the fist, so to speak. Except—more of a friendly, firm, “hire me please” handshake, I suppose. The plan had all the hallmarks of a New York Times article, and therefore, couldn’t fail.
Since that hour in the dark and snow on the freeway somewhere in the middle of the country when I came up with that plan, I’ve read two different resume/blogposts that had the same general idea, both of them written by people with a much fucking better resume than mine, getting way more retweet coverage than I could possible hope for. So I trashed that plan, deleted the cover letter I had already wrote, and in the remaining essays, started using the word “fuck” more often.
But the essays came out great.
I’m calling this series, The Museum of Small American Museums. I explain the concept in detail in the titular essay (I believe it’s number four), but basically, each essay is a “museum”, styled after the minor museums you see advertised along the highway in overly exuberant attempts to get you to stop and spend money in small American town X. Like anyone would ever stop their car for a museum!
Well, we did, and maybe you will too. Not for camp value, but to see what the hell an American citizen fills a museum with, given the chance. They aren’t handed the keys to the Met, for goodness sake. But they get a piece of donated property, a handful of volunteers, and a sign. If they’re really pushy with the change jar, maybe even some brochures.
These are not those museums. You will have to get out there on the roads between some of America’s lesser cities, if you want to see what it is that America wants to show you. I’m not doing your work for you. Like the kid in elementary school who wants to show you something behind the gym, what he wants to show you is not the same thing he would want to show you in front of the flagpole. If you want to see what he wants to show, you have to go behind the fucking gym.
These are my museums. These are ten small museums of America that I want you to see, for which I am making the fliers. We don’t have to go behind anything, you just have to come to my website. The first museum explains why the second occasion of being laid off really got to me. And the subject matter generally gets worse from there. But the writing gets better each time. With each essay, I get deeper into the really fucking weird shit that is going on around in this country, masquerading as “the unimportant”. In each new subject, I find more evidence that points to what is commonly referred to as the coming of the end of the world. It is not the end of the world, obviously. The common referrals are totally wrong. But it is evidence of something so different than what we know as normal, that if it ever got here all at once, it would seem just like the end of the world would, if it ever got here. My goal is to distribute this evidence, this difference, in a nice, thick, trickle. That way, we can release the pressure a bit, and maybe stop a massive American Seminal Emission Weirdness Event. No promises, though. I’m not a professional.
We’re going to do two of these museums a week, on Mondays and Wednesdays. That will give us five weeks of essays. You can find them here on POSZU, or if you’d like an RSS feed of only this series and nothing else that will die when the series is over, you can use this one here. Well, that’s enough bullshitting. Let’s get started.
This way to the exhibits →
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