For many Americans a tooth can make the difference between security and destitution. That’s right: lose a tooth in the United States and you lose your chance to live the dream. Poverty and emotional desolation follow soon upon the unfortunate loss. For in the land of veneers and gratuitous orthodontia, “untouchable” status is a shed bicuspid away.
Middle-class comfort, so long anathema to the “tenured radicals” of the academy (who, of course, hurl their invective from the bourgeois redoubt of the easy chair), although agonizingly, fitfully slow in doing so, has finally died. Yet from its corpse no revolutionary class has mushroomed forth. Rather we’re left with atomized biota terrified of losing everything it holds dear, too terrified to think even of reform, let alone of revolution. Cognitive laborer and day laborer find themselves equal members of an all-consuming new class category: the precariat.
Thirteen years ago, when I began my collection of seventies-era cookbooks, how-to guides, and life manuals, the economy was bustling along, nourished by the manna of dotcom stock jobbing profits. This manna also fueled the dullest undergraduate’s daydreams, which danced through his head enrobed in all the finery a salary in the high five figures can command. Today, however, these books sitting around my apartment seem documents from a vanished world — Work and Leisure in Ultima Thule, perhaps, or Homemaking in Atlantis — one which was pried away by force of massive low-interest leverage, or was patiently ladled out of the ship of state during various bailouts. These tomes represent a collective memento mori of a variety of prosperity and equality that is not likely to return in my lifetime.
Unemployment in Desert City hovers at nine percent. What jobs exist are mostly temporary and lacking benefits. Some 11,000 houses huddle empty, having been foreclosed or never occupied. Vast portions of the population sit idle. They have given up on the very idea of employment. The state legislature, its carving knives sharp and poised, stands ready to scrape the bones of already spavined public sector.
State parks, national monuments, public libraries — these spaces ask nothing of us save that we enjoy them in a respectful, sensible manner (sadly, universities are already lost). The keepers of them do not try to pry into our psyches and hearts to discern how to better manipulate our covetousness. The spaces themselves do not beckon us to consume for consumption’s sake, to sicken and impoverish ourselves in an attempt to satisfy desires that do not originate in our hearts and minds but from the innumerable screens and billboards that surround us at any given moment.
You work to buy the perfect gift, but you don’t get the satisfaction of knowing your work made another human being happy. Unless you were given direction as to what to buy, which would have made your work infinitely easier, more likely than not the receiver of the gift is not going to like it. The very surplus of goods we enjoy has allowed each one of us to develop needs so idiosyncratic that only certain brands, and the stories they tell, can satisfy any lack we might happen to feel. We are as finicky as house cats, turning up our noses as everything that doesn’t fit the idea we have of ourselves, an idea made as superficially complex and arcane as a volley of text messages.
Consumerism can make you happy. It has rectified the age-old problem of the self’s division from the world. For in consumerism’s simulated world, in the constant stream of advertisements whose narratives have become as familiar and comforting as bedtime stories, the gap between life and essence is closed. This gives some of us a peace of mind that hasn’t been enjoyed since antiquity when, as theorist Georg Lukács writes, “the fire that burns in the soul is of the same essential nature of the stars.” The world created by consumerism is a world where meaning is once again immanent, and the devoted consumer need never wonder how in purchasing a certain item she can make reality conform to her desires and her desires conform to that reality.
Crowdsourced reviews ensure we don’t get duped. They thus provide a modicum of regulation in a far too laissez-faire milieu. But they also confine our lives to the wan pleasures of the predictable, to the safe wagers we’re sure to receive a return from, rather than allowing us to tempt fate or bet the house.
The mix tape left room for the accidental, for the clumsy-fingered pauses, the crackle of worn vinyl, the skipping of a needle, the crimping of metal ribbon, the intrusion of a voice once loved. Accidents that resist replication on a mass scale, but that exist side-by-side with the products of mass reproduction.
Walkable cities radiate an organic vibrancy. They have dense roots in neighborhoods of storied provenance, have complex zones of eclectic social and economic activity. City planners are beginning to see the virtues of these version–1.0 cities, metropolises that have more in common with the Paris of the Second Republic (minus the smog and the hordes of irredeemable poor) than the indifferent, anomic settlements of the American West.