3.11.2010

Call Me Ishmael

My day began in a class of Early American Literature, with a discussion about how important the process of cultural "canonization" can be. One student seemed to understand; she said: "so are you saying we can only remember certain things in history, and that most will be forgotten?" I asked them, "How many of you [sophomores] have heard of "The Ides of March?" Zero. None.

I explained that there was a time in history where everybody west of Turkey would've known what that phrase meant. Caesar's murder, Shakespeare's representation, etc.

So I asked, "What would ya'll put in a time capsule under the Raleigh, NC state capital building to be opened by college sophomores 200 years from now--stuff to represent your culture?"

Blank stares.

"Well, would you put in, like... movies? Music? Newspapers? Novels? What?"

"Movies, we guess."

"Okay, what movies?--something everybody's seen, maybe?"

"Yeah... like... The Notebook." "Yeah, and like, "The Hangover."

So that was my morning. Then I went to a lecture by a colleague who spent two months last summer living in and studying Jainism in the village of Shravanabelagola, India. In that village of 10,000 people, every morning begins with an auction to see who gets to pour holy liquids (milks, waters, perfumes, etc.) on the feet of the giant statue of a Jain saint. Then they do a little work at market. Later in the afternoon, almost every day, they have a sort of parade, complete with marching brass band and naked monks, etc.

During the lecture, it occurred to me that we have no culture. Oh, sure, there are cultural relics that each individually could serve perfectly as a collective object of group-energy: various good songs, drum circles, football, whatever. But nothing that pervades our culture. This is what I have meant lately by "we." There is no agreement in this country about what should go in our time capsules, and that is clear evidence that we do not share a culture. We do not all begin the day with any prayers. We do not all read The New York Times. We do not all eat organic food. There's nothing we all do.

I'm thinking this is simply a function of living in a country of 300,000,000 people who mostly don't identify by "village," and increasingly not even by state. But what is it to be an American? Who the hell knows?

I long for tribal affiliation. For meaningful group identity.

6 comments:

Wishydig said...

if the family i grew up in--three sisters and our parents--was to pick 3 objects that should go into a family mausoleum, we would never come to full agreement. i think maybe not even overlap.

except maybe we would agree that totems and symbols of connection aren't all that important to us.

Casey said...

To clarify a little, before I offer my snide, "I'm sorry to hear that" response to your comment:

It's not the object themselves that matter, but the mutual regard that I am desiring. It is true that fifty years ago, academics in the liberal arts shared a significant "overlap" in their studies. It matters little that the overlap would've included Plato and some Bible and Hamlet and Dostoevsky--but it does seem that being willing to share a "gaze" creates an opportunity for a certain kind of epistemological comparison that cannot be found if we all "pod," solipsistically, on our own.

I see your unbalanced effort to watch all television ever put on the airwaves as last-ditch to try to hold the same kind of shared-gaze.

But, anyway, of your family: "I'm sorry to hear that." :)

Wishydig said...

but don't you see, casey, that we have that mutual regard even if you can't (or we don't care to) attach it to a totem.

i hear your lament more as a fear of no easy assurance, than as a fear of faction.

the connection is there. i'm not sure how i'd prove it to you. but what you seem to be saying would 'feel' like proof to you, (shared art and arguments?) wouldn't feel like proof to me.

and before you snicker with pity at my family, just know that if you were to visit, you'd feel right at home and a part of something very cohesive. so much so that when we mercilessly ridicule you, you'd feel 'understood.'

Casey said...

I need a therapist and a guru, don't I?

Jon Sealy said...

Some issues:
(1) When have we ever had a tribal consistency? Isn't the question of identity central to American Studies? Sure, we might look back and think we had a tribal identity, but really it was probably just a group of white protestants hammering everyone else into submission.
(2) The neat thing about the last 50 years or so is that as we've grown more conscious of our scattered culture, marketers have stepped in to fill that void. They create our tribal identity, and it's just going to get worse. Our future might be nothing more than self-selecting pod groups stripped of our agency - DeLillo's Dylarama (Dial-a-Rama).
(3) Maybe it's a good thing to keep our distance from tribal identity, because rhetoric appealing to tribal identity led to National Socialism in Germany: "We have a proud culture, but it's being lost, so let's recapture our Germanness and strip away the unsavory elements from our tribe - the ill and infirm, the criminals, the gypsies, the Jews."
(4) Where is the line between the marketer's "this is the group you belong in" and the Nazi's "this is who we need to keep out of our group"?

For a cool book that addresses American culture without bringing up Nazis or marketers, check out Denis Johnson's FISKADERO - it's post-apocalyptic Florida, and American culture has been run through a garbage disposal.

Casey said...

Hmmmmmm..... I usually hate the "...and then Nazism" argument, but I'm a little convinced here.

And actually, the Puritans were pretty violent because of their city-on-a-hill mindset, at times.

But I guess what I'm saying is fuck it. At some point, we've reached the other end of the pendulum. Yes, one end culminates in genocide. But that's the other end from where we're nearing, which is Blade Runner. They're both terrible ends, and moderation, as always, is my ideal. But to achieve that end (for now) I'm pulling for unity over diversity.