26 July 2005

What's Goin On? (CS)

Recently a friend asked me (and whoever else of her friends were willing to listen), "What's on your mind? And why do we pay more attention to gadgets and celebrities than to what's going on in the world?"

It's one of those extraordinarly frustrating questions that gets posed on a fairly frequent basis and never seems to meet a satisfactory or at least a remedying answer. What makes us, despite the problems in the world and despite these problems being laid upon our doorstep, so complacent and ignorant and obsessed with the frivolous?

In the most recent L-Magazine Adam Bonislawski writes a fantastic essay ("Champions of Forgetfullness: On Terrorism and Moving On") that I recommend my fellow NYers to pick up and read (it's free, for chrissake). In it he says:

For some, the victims' families in particular, 9/11 did change "everything." For most of us though, July 2005 looks very much as substanceless as July 2000. People still outsells Foreign Affairs. Bobby Brown has become a reality TV star...An even cursory glance at the day's scene suggests that our much-discussed gravitas never quite arrived. There are among us serious persons,but as a people our seriousness comes still only in starts and fits.

so.... How does this happen? Consumer culture is a cancer. That about sums it up for me, i guess.

There could be any number of things on my mind at the moment, but i don't think I account for the majority.... I live without television, my preferred radio is BBC 3, and lately i've been reading a fair amount of Cicero and Marx. I of course can't avoid being a part of consumer culture in general. I buy stuff, even sometimes frivolous stuff, certainly enough in the way of comic books (although there's a fair amount of smart ones out there and even the capes and cowls try to say a thing or two about politics, albeit quietly). But I cannot consider myself a part of the larger crowd of trends and fads. I can't even seem to bring myself to buy an air-conditioner, much less the latest overpriced gizmo.

Meanwhile, look at the hipsters. This is the "cool" youth of America, no? New York is our cultural capital and Williamsburg is played up as "the new village," the new scene. But do you think you'll find many activists there? Certainly not on the level that you would have in the village decades ago, the largely poor and yet politically minded village of old (and whatever poor, but politically minded neighborhoods and scenes that would have come before it). The hipster scene is almost entirely predicated on money and status. As Jesse Michaels put it recently in Too Much CoffeeMan Magazine #22, "[the hipster catagory] isn't a movement but a social phenomenon. In [a movement] you have a group of people who share one or more basic values and seek to assert their aesthetic or political principles in the world at large. In the case of hipsters, you simply have a widespread but difficult-to-define way of acting, thinking, and dressing based on no values whatsoever, except for stylistic affectation." Michaels explains further that when the "stylistic affectation" becomes paramount, one needs money to keep up with the fashion, music, etc. What's more, one becomes a bit of a self-important asshole as how one ranks on the scale of "cool" is pretty much what its all about. Self-indulgence is king.

On "the other side of the tracks" you have hip hop culture. There are a handful of true artists, like the bomb the system type kids or the modern poets, looking for what the new art is or may be. But the overwhelming aspect of modern hip-hop, the music you hear coming out of every car and apartment window when you're walking through the neighborhood, seems to have little, if any, to do with the world at large or something deep. It is on one end about anger, the rough life, guns. Shootings involving The Source and Hot 97 lend it legitmacy within its own bounds of "thug life" but rob it of any legitmacy as a movement. On the other end it's about obtaining flashy cars and flashy jewlery, going to flashy clubs, getting a flashy house (and i'm sure i need not get too far into the "piece of meat" role that women often play in all this)..... Everyone wants to be Scarface, who lived a life of destruction and corruption, but had the money, the women, the power after coming up from nothing. They don't care that in the end he was destroyed by it all and destroyed many others, they care only that at one point, he was on top, and he lived "the life."

Bonislawski concludes that our general apathy comes from a desire for normalcy and a strength in "getting on with things." But I don't see why we can't have it both ways, proceed with business as usual and yet be focused, aware, and involved. In the end, I think what's at the root of American (and general) disengagement with the world is personal interest and ego. Consumer culture and its trappings become a distraction as everyone wants the good life..... for themselves. Few, if any, TRULY realize that "the good life" has little, if anything, to do with money and status. The few that do realize this also seem to realize the age-old, often stated, picked up by nearly every culture SOMEWHERE along the line idea that If you honestly want to help yourself... You should help your brother.


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