April 12, 2010

Life is a supermarket.

Walking through new places, especially when we don’t choose to be there, is a strange experience because nothing there was made for us, as we come to expect in our increasingly designed, engineered, and chosen daily lives. From our rooms to clothes to the music on our iPods, we live in worlds increasingly of our own design. Whereas humans for the last 100,000 years lived lives, we of the last 50 instead have lifestyles. Life, for every species on this earth for the last 3 billion years, has been characterized by brute necessity. A lifestyle, for a privileged minority of a single species in the equivalent of a flash on the cosmic timeline, is a profusion of options. And we choose who to be in much the same way we choose which cereal to eat. Everything becomes a commodity, from the identities we put on to which genocides we identify with (how many of your Facebook friends went through a Darfur phase?) Consumerism trains us that everything–including who we are–is just an option to be chosen in the marketplace.

The Justin’s Helmet Principle

De Zengotita puts forth something he calls the justin’s helmet principle. It refers to making his son wear a big goofy helmet while riding his bike, which burdens him and prevents his fully hearing and seeing the world, but what is the alternative? If the child gets hit by a car and dies, his parents will never forgive themselves for letting him ride without a helmet. So they burden their child with one, under the assumption that it’s generally better than not. But De Zengotita fails to notice the inherent selfishness in this principle. If Justin dies, what does Justin care? He’s dead. Really, his parents are burdening him because of some imagined guilt they’ll feel if something happens to him. Is the aversion of a catastrophe as remotely possible as it is terrible worth Justin’s never feeling the wind in his hair?

Though he writes condescendingly of the Justin’s Helmet logic, he never denies its validity (he’s a parent, after all). Can you really say that a coddled, precious little pseudo-life for your kid is really worse than painful reality? In an interview with Chronogram, De Zengotita makes another defense, even while he admits “in almost every case there’s a kind of diminishment of authenticity”:

…so this bulbous bike helmet stands for a whole apparatus of insulation–all this is mediated. You say to a little kid, “How are you feeling?” You’re turning that kid into a performer. The kid’s going–I mean in the long run the kid’s going–“Well, how am I feeling?”…you’re teaching a child to perform their own emotional life.

But if you ask me is it better to grow up the way my children grew up, in environments like that, or to grow up in environments like where I grew up, where people got beat up regularly…And we ran around without bike helmets. We broke our arms. We were out all over the neighborhoods, eight-year-old boys–girls too–that was just how it was. You just let kids alone. And if you ask me would I want my kids to grow up the way I grew up or the way they in fact grew up, with all this mediation and insulation and self-consciousness around them, there’s no question. I’d choose the bike helmet.

It’s a good point, and since I’m not a parent I can’t legitimately disagree, but can’t shake the feeling that the logical extension of this kind of thinking is something like a Matrix for kids, where we plug our children’s brains into machines that simulate perfect little lives, while their bodies grow undisturbed in vats.

Solipsists make poor revolutionaries

Is this why culture has shifted to let everyone live in their own self-designed MeWorld, where everything we do is a reflection of our wonderful individuality? Perhaps beneath that seemingly innocuous admonition to America’s young–be yourself–is really a command to reject solidarity, to reject identifying with one’s fellow oppressed against the oppressors.

Earlier in the book, De Zengotita writes touchingly about being in New York on September 11, 2001, about how on that day an America saturated with marketing messages and political partisanship was touched by something real and raw and unrepresentable. He seems to hope that might have been a turning point, where we might collectively cut through the bullshit and spin and irony and finally be real. But this is postmodernity and reality is an illusion, and the saddest moment in Mediated is at the end where De Zengotita admits this:

A New America is on the drawing boards for the twenty-first century. Various versions are being designed and promoted, and the great assembly of flattered selves is shopping again, shopping for a representation of the world that will distract us from the reality of unrepresentable possibility. As the chosen versions, whatever they turn out to be, take hold of the way everything gets represented, and therefore, eventually, of the way everything gets constituted, the surreal atmosphere will dissipate and virtuality will fuse with reality again, to create a good-enough semblance of normality. Masses of people who found themselves and their world projected into existential nothing after 9/11, will find relief from that state of suspense, and great industries will be devoted to providing it, and profiting from that provision…

The bubble of self-regarding self-representation that has insulated us for so long from the suffering of millions in a world dominated by our interests and institutions–that bubble will reform around and cradle is again. Until next time. (291)