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Our American Identity Crisis

January 20, 2012

The debt ceiling debate is well behind us, but with the swelling momentum of election season it is once again difficult to walk around in this country without being reminded of the fact that nobody–in Washington or anywhere–can agree on anything. Beyond the typical differences of opinion on how the government should function, the endless Republican debates and incessant media coverage of the election once again casts into a stark light the fact that there is an active debate in this country about the identity of government itself; we can’t agree on what it is fundamentally for.

This worries me.

Rather than launching into my views on what the government in this country should be for, I’d like to emphasize how important it is for us to come to a consensus. Not that I think debate is unhealthy, and not that I think just any consensus will do. But of all the aspects of contemporary political life there are to debate, the absolute function of government should not be one. The fact that our government is increasingly unable to work together  is emblematic not just of a new type of Gingrich-championed divisionism, but also of our American identity crisis.

While it is easy to glamorize Europe, it is also easy to envision their distinct cultures. Amid an influx of immigrants, amid warring political parties and economic classes, European countries seem capable of maintaining a unified cultural identity. And while this isn’t about fetishizing smaller nations as easy places to live where everyone agrees with one another, a certain degree of cultural unity cannot be discounted entirely from how they influence respective political processes.

America is too large for such unity. Division is built into the very framework of the country, which would be one thing if the states themselves had overriding cultural distinctions. The closest we have come to this phenomenon is a rough generalization one can make about red and blue states, as if that encompassed all there could be about American culture. We are spread out and fragmented, as isolated as early settlers in a vast open plane.

But what’s so bad about rugged individualism? Isn’t that, in itself, a viable American culture? I think so. In the same way that progressives want to equalize opportunities for everyone, conservatives want everyone to be able to retain what they have earned; both are policies concerned with fairness.

There is a danger, however, in individualism: when people decide to isolate themselves, or to stress the individualism of what they are doing above all, there is an abdication of responsibility involved. The individual has no imperative to contribute to a society or community, and he is not motivated to do so by the powerlessness inherent in being a single voice.

American culture right now, if anything, is this abdication of responsibility writ large. We have abandoned any notion of a shared identity, cultural or otherwise, with anyone outside of our immediate geographic area. As a result, we have no investment in each other. We are all looking out for ourselves.

When we don’t take control of our culture, we pave the way for mass-media to sell us theirs. When we abdicate responsibility for our society, it paves the way for the kind of deregulation that caused the financial collapse, the kind of corporate infiltration into government that sparked #OWS. When we decide that government is meant to serve us, when we decide that we have no responsibility to serve it or each other, we allow those at the top to control our culture. Ironically, it seems, the best way to ensure that government properly serves us is to serve it ourselves.

We should not be surprised at corporate lobbying, Rupert Murdoch, Citizen’s United, Bank of America’s foreclosure mess, or the 24-hour news coverage that indoctrinates people with almost ideas. We gave up our responsibility to each other long ago, and in the vacuum of our inaction, the powerful have done what they like.

Still, the thing about America is that it is difficult to make generalizations. There are cultural and political groups working hard to bring people together under a shared American identity, and therefore a shared responsibility. It is those groups we should jump in with in the coming election and beyond.


Pretend It’s Black

January 18, 2012

Well, WordPress has made it a little more difficult to blackout this site that it might otherwise be. But go on, get out of here anyway.

Books: The Marriage Plot

January 16, 2012

I anticipated reading The Marriage Plot–the much lauded new release from Pulitzer Prize winner Jeffrey Eugenides–more than I have any book in recent memory. Recent college grads (like me) who love reading (like me) find themselves involved in a sort of love triangle (er…) that recalls the ostensibly comic plots of Austen & co., while the characters struggle outwardly and inwardly to find their places in the world. What’s not to love here? Unfortunately, quite a bit.

Eugenides is brilliant at exposing the inner universes of his characters–placing issues of economic status, love, art, religion, and the question of how to spend a life inside the view of recent college grads in a way that seems both authentic and easy. But don’t believe The New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani when he says “No one’s more adept at channeling teenage angst…not even Salinger.” Though I’ve not read Eugenides’ other work, such a claim cannot be made of this book, which more often than not introduces a set of circumstances and works backwards, filling the reader in with plot details; while such a move initially creates suspense, the repeated need for the reader to play catch up begins to read as a dry report of events. Then he did this. This is how that. Angst itself struggles to be felt.

The most exciting part of the book is the very beginning, which unfolds in the moment. A beautiful but bookish heroine wakes up massively hung-over with her parents banging on the door to her apartment. She is a kind of fascinating girl, with quirky parents and an unexplained issue with a class-mate who dresses like an old man. Between her literary interest, her lack of a future plan in the face of the recession of the 80s, and her recently collapsed relationship, it was nearly impossible for me, a 25 year-old master’s student (or anyone who at one point was) to not relate. Shortly after we discover all this out for ourselves, however, Eugenides begins to explain everything away. The characters lose their vitality, and our connections to them go with it. Worth a read, if it seems like your thing.

Books: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

January 10, 2012

If you are looking for an entry-point into Murakami’s work, there are probably any number of books that can fulfill that role. This one worked for me, to the point that I purchased 1Q84 after only reading a chapter or two of Wind-Up. There are so many aspects to this book with the potential to hook a reader, it is difficult to imagine escaping altogether.

Take the style of the prose: the narrator’s voice is clean and inviting, like a meticulous sushi plate. I don’t know how this compares to Murakami’s other work, but here at least, the economic lines and chapters move out of the way, easily giving up their poetry. While the mysterious plot becomes more and more convoluted, the prose gives no resistance in the reader’s search for meaning.

The plot of course is another draw: the mundane and the supernatural melt together almost immediately, creating a kind of dream universe that is at once believable and captivating.

The characters are wonderfully bizarre as well, and on down the line through the stunning use of leitmotivs, the inventive use of multiple narrators, the structure of the novel itself ; everything one looks for in a novel is here in the kind of high mastery that feels like it could only be the work of a singular, massive talent.

Finally, the aspect of this book that appeals to me the most is the constant struggle for  its main purpose. At first, it appears to be the kind of book in which the plot is simply used as a vehicle to reveal powerful insights into our humanity. As things go along, though, the plot comes more into focus; it becomes a damn compelling novel, the kind of thing that demands frantic page flipping so we can discover what happens. In the end of course, this book manages to be both a great story and an illuminating piece. But this book thrives in an amorphous space. It is only what it is, and I for one haven’t read a thing like it. Worth owning in hardcover.

Best Of 2011

December 30, 2011

2011 was the first year ever for Circle, and we only started in August. Still, there was some good content this year, which we’d like to invite you to revisit. Happy New Year all, and stay tuned.

Photo Essay: The Atlanta Art Museum

Music: St. Vincent-Strange Mercy

Economic Inequality, #OWS, and Graphs

Intellectualizing Graffiti, or Not


Books: Freedom

And my favorite post of 2011 is…

So it Goes: An Ode to ‘This Isn’t Happiness’


Gchat, The Pale King, and Constant Bliss

December 29, 2011

In the most recent issue of n+1 Magazine, “Chathexis” chronicles the history of conversation, beginning with 17th century salons and ending with the video chat. Besides being an entertaining read, the essay is spot-on in its assessments of how communication has evolved online. Chatting, the editors write, evolved first from the bizarre and anonymous AOL version to, after a vacuum, Gchat, where our chat windows stay up against our inboxes while we work, integrated into our very real personal lives.

But as embedded into our routine as Gchat has become, “Chathexis” points to the ubiquitous orange idle sign as a kind of shield with which we deflect our friends. After checking the Oxford English Dictionary entry for “chat,” the editors lament, “What anguish, when the definition of chat implies the desire not to chat!”

Video chatting, which once promised to surpass the normal kind by finally bringing face-to-face interaction (and therefore intimacy) to the computer, has failed to fulfill its promises. “Where have we had our best conversations?” the essay asks. “When we were sharing a booth with someone in the back of a dark bar, or lying in bed, or walking somewhere, or nowhere at all, our faces turned in the same direction: outward, toward the world, into which we moved forward together. We arrive at a shared perspective when we do, actually, share a perspective—when we take, quite literally, the same view of things. There are no such moments in video chat.”

And yet, underneath our idle statuses and sterile video chats lies potential for real intimacy.

“Chathexis” gets to the heart of the matter when it quotes Suzanne Necker saying “the secret of conversation is continual attention,” but ultimately may place too much credit on Gchat itself.[1] Gchat is not the real hero here, but rather it is the potential for us to pay attention to it.

As David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King unfolds, the ability to remain “present” in any given moment emerges as a central theme, the weapon against incredible tedium. Among the notes Wallace’s editor found and placed in the back of the book is this:

 It turns out that bliss-a second-by-second joy + gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious-lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom. Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find (tax returns, televised golf), and, in waves, a boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out, and it’s like stepping from black and white into color. Like water after days in the desert. Constant bliss in every atom.

“We are happiest when paying attention,” the editors write, and this gets at something deeper than some kind of tired “Power Of Now” mantra. For online interactions to maintain their meaning, in order for us not to be swallowed by the onslaught of life-altering technology that integrates itself into our lives on a monthly or daily basis,  tedium and  mindlessness must be combated with constant attention. Only then will our communications be worthy of comparison to a dark bar or a bedroom; only then is there any point in the first place.

[1] “Chat’s immediacy emphasizes response, reminding us that we do not simply create and express ourselves in writing, but create and express our relationships. Gmail—simultaneously salon sofa and locked secrétaire—stores the proof forever” and “Gchat holds out the promise of “free commerce between the sexes” (Hume), which will surely be a feature of any utopia worth the name.”

Books: The Pale King

December 26, 2011

The Pale King does not read like an unfinished novel until near the end. Those who  read Infinite Jest will encounter a kind of strange familiarity with the way chapters unfold, alternating between seemingly unrelated events, narrators, styles, lengths, and so on. But as the end comes into view, the weight of lost potential becomes heavier. Complex lines of plot development hang in the air, and a “Notes and Asides” section in the back reveals how much did not make it to the final book.

The Pale King can be frustrating in this way; committing to Wallace’s writing style is in itself its own reward, but without major plot movements the book becomes largely a series of vignettes. The characters and their stories, despite being largely set in a Midwestern I.R.S. center, are compelling. We care, and are reminded of this caring through their perhaps appropriately unfinished stories.

Yet as the understanding of the book’s nature become clearer it is not just the unfinished nature of the plot that comes into view. The major themes that unify disjunct chapters come into focus, providing all that is really necessary to appreciate this book–startlingly coherent for something an editor pieced together from a room full of notes–for all that it is. At times it is dry, and purposefully so. And in between there are some of the most powerful lines I can recall reading. Lines that, as Esquire’s Benjamin Alsup described, “…make you feel like you can’t breathe.”

I make it a point to keep these reviews brief, and in lieu of going on forever (which I could) I’ll refer you here if you want more. For the record, that chapter that consists of page-turning is one of my favorites. Worth owning in hardcover.

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