Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The End of the Individual

By Standard * Other Standard Posts

If a certain friend of mine had any idea I was writing a column with this title, he would declare that I had abandoned everything I have ever said to him.

He wouldn't be right, of course, because he's never right. (He really isn't ever right, but he knows he isn't right. He argues from whatever position seems convenient for his purposes - which are always to attack and humiliate me. That means he's always outside of the realm of right and wrong. He's a jerk.) I have, however, tended to defend the idea of the individual as such - that is, that an individual can and does exist, at least intellectually.

I don't have much at stake in individualism per se. What concerns me is actually the idea of authorship: because I have spent several years reading, thinking about, and writing about literature - and because I hope, in some small way, someday, if I can find the time, to write the greatest work of literature the world has ever known - I can't, like Barthes, declare the author to be dead. I can't even relegate the author to a faceless function, the way Foucault does.

I have argued against the idea that culture thinks us. I do think that most of what we say, do, believe, etc. is dictated to us by the ideology of the world that surrounds us, but I always want to carve out a tiny bit of space so that someone, somewhere - even if it is a select few favored by coincidences of time and place - can add something. Literature (and thought), I have argued, is ultimately palimpsestual: we are always scratching out and writing over what has been written before, but traces of the past keep bleeding back through.

All that being said, I'd like to suggest that the idea of the individual in society may be coming to an end.

Somewhere in the middle of the 80-page philosophical doctrine that John Galt sets forth in Atlast Shrugged - I am speaking of what might be the worst part of what might be the worst book ever written - he declares that in his political system, "every man will stand or fall, live or die by his rational judgment." This is the essence of Rand's argument: the collective cannot succeed unless the individual is allowed to succeed. The idea isn't originally Rand's; it's at the backbone of freemarket capitalism, and it's representative of the type of thought which has dominated American political thought and fiscal policy over the past generation.

I hope the recent mess on Wall Street demonstrates the weakness of that argument. I am not even referring to the "greed" of Wall Street, which politicians and 24-hour news networks have proclaimed as though they are were all surprised to discover that businesses were all out to make money - as though they had expected selfishness to play no part in self interest. Instead, I am referring to the powerlessness of individuals to sell goods and services without consumers who are successful enough to purchase them.

We are anything but independent or isolated. Whatever successes we have enjoyed have been in large measure due to the communities and institutions in which we have lived and learned. We are each something like a palimpsest: our own hard work builds on top of, but cannot efface, the hard work of those who have come before us. Our decisions and our actions, furthermore, cannot help but affect others around us.

We do not have the luxury of standing by, Galt-like, and watching the world around us fail. Like it or not, we're all in this together. The only way forward is to recognize ourselves for what we are - a body of many, a pluralized one that will live or die, stand or fall by our collective rational judgment.

The hope and unity Ned discovered at the inauguration - the collective spirit he hopes will endure even as he wants to protect the rights of the individual - is certainly a promising first step.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Huddled Masses Yearning to Breathe Free

By ned * Other ned Posts

This past Wednesday I entered the middle of the right-center universe known as the Wednesday Meetings. Some have credited this institution, for which I was the minute taker, and my former boss, Grover Norquist, as being the enablers of the “vast right-wing conspiracy.” Surprising to some, 24 hours earlier I was in the epicenter of Obamanation and the other side of the aisle.

Partially motivated by a desire to be a part of a historical moment, I trekked to DC for the Inauguration. The day would require that motivation to make it to “the moment.” On Tuesday I woke up at 4:30am, bundled myself in all of the layers and under armor that I could get my hands on, and walked with several friends to the Mall.

From that moment on, we were just waiting. Waiting for the sunrise of a new day and administration.

One could not help but be struck by the optimism in the air and collective focus on the now. The volunteer greeters we met showered us with ‘good mornings’ sweet enough to make Joan Cleaver appear morose. Once sedentary, people around would shush us so that they could pay attention to pre-recorded programming on the jumbo-tron. With all that energy and focus, everyone was looking for something … anything to let go of their excitement and distract them from the cold. That moment came in the form of a recording of Garth Brooks singing American Pie from the “We Are One” HBO Inauguration special.

Along with those of a contemporary flavor, anthems of the traditional American songbook could be heard ringing in the tubas and throats of people from the dome to the Lincoln memorial. I found this particularly interesting because joining in the chorus were internationals and non-conformists not typically known for their American fervor. Similarly, African-Americans were high in number and red, white and blue dress. They too were embracing a country whom has not always embraced them.

The only discouraging episode of the morning was the inevitable booing of the entrance of George W. Bush. No matter what your politics this time is a moment of respect for the office and, for the winners, dignified victory. But, if anything, the booing was indicative of the sentiments of the moment. The jeers represented all’s desire to cast aside the fear of September 11th and recent financial turmoil.

The challenge of the near future will be to maintain these positive spirits. In the event of another disaster (which, knock on wood, never happens), how will the nation react? Obama is championing a certain mindset in reaction to 9/11 governance and the tide might easily turn another way. My hope is that when faced with adversity we do not turn that direction into a false dichotomy of hope, optimism and mutual respect versus realism and suspicion as a way forward.

Perhaps the president elect has already thought of that. Unabashed, direct praise of pragmatism likely will give him flexibility to adjust to given the circumstances. Moreover, Obama’s address itself highlights how that mindset can be essential to overcoming misfortune:

“America: In the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words. With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come.”

I still believe in power and rights of the individual as central to right of center’s ideology. But, the sentiment of Obama’s speech are probably the main reason why this red state person was found in the midst of 1 million plus on January 20th. I too was singing from the patriotic songbook with the hippy I was rubbing elbows with. Both of us desired to revive American optimism. Both knowing it can guide us through these difficult times.

= = = = = = = = = = = =

The text of the Inaugural address: http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/inaugural-address/

Saturday, January 24, 2009

When We Was Young, Oh Man Did We Have Fun...

By Fidel Martinez * Other Fidel Martinez Posts

I like The Strokes. Is that even a cool thing to say anymore? Or was it ever even cool to say? I feel like The Strokes brought in the 'cool' millenial era in music (eg, see The White Stripes, Interpol,etc) , and yet before you could say 'hipster sock hop party' , BAM their coolness just disappeared. It evaporated like good times spent at a dive-looking bar that's not really that much of a dive, save for the fact that they sell dollar tall boys of Pabst Blue Ribbon and have pretty much everything you own on iTunes (and then some) on their digitized jukebox. Their initial hipster appeal disappeared with their overexposure, and they were discarded for something newer and more obscure.

But no, this isn't about the hipsters and their tastes, because really, are they really worth talking or musing about? Isch don't think so. Nor is this an exploration on the inherent nature of cool, because simply talking about cool makes it…well, uncool. No, this is about something else. This is about finding that one album that kind of changes your perspective of things, and it does so during a particularly impressionable era in your life. Hands down, The Strokes' debut album, 'Is This It', is the musical definition and representation of that coming of age period for this generation--for anyone who was in high school or in college (or just recently out of college) between 2001 and now. Sure there were albums released during that period that are held in higher regard (Radiohead's 'OK Computer, Wilco's 'Summerteeth' or 'Yankee Hotel Foxtrot'), but none of these are debut albums, nor are they really characteristic of the Gen-Y generation.

What makes 'Is This It' culturally relevant is partially due to its place in time-- its place in time being post-9/11. Inevitably, when the planes crashed into those towers, a new chapter in our history was started; confusion, insecurity, and a loss of a sense of self was the tone this tragedy set. Personally, when I saw the news, my first initial thought was 'what will become of us, what's going to happen?' These sentiments became part of the cultural consciousness and it permeated every aspect of daily life.

This confusion is manifested sonically in this album. The song lyrics are somewhat nonsensical, striving to find some level of meaning, and they sometimes come off as trying too hard, but there's a certain kernel of truth behind it. As Julian Casablancas sings in 'Alone Together',"Things, they have changed/In such a permanent way/Life seems unreal." Additionally, the actual sound reflects this disorientation. Both the vocals and guitars are distorted and dissonant, making you feel somewhat out of place, out of sorts.

Despite its somber place in history, the most significant part of the album is not an existential crisis, but instead the overall theme of good times, drunken stupors, and avoiding—while being fully aware—of the inevitable hangover that will follow. The songs (and some of the music videos for that matter) allude to this often with lyrics like 'When we was young/oh man did we have fun" (Off of 'Someday"), 'Well I am too young and they are too old" ('Hard to Explain'), and " Oh you drink too much/Makes me drink just the same" ("Alone Together"). This is particularly fitting; being young is about drinking in excess , staying up later than you should ,and doing things that you'll definitely regret. 'Is This It' is the musical landscape to our sense of arrested development and somewhat narcissistic tendencies. It's why for me, despite being a couple of years older, this album is still relevant.Adult responsibilities naturally set in, but they're not all I am. I'm still too young. At the end of the day, I know that I have to think of what I will do next. Will I go to grad school, what career path will I take? These are important questions, yes. But ultimately, what's important to me most right now is ' will I find enough buddies to go to a bar with me on Tuesday?'.

Someday-The strokes

Oh yeah, and the music itself is kind of kick ass. That's important too.

And so it begins ...

On a Saturday afternoon, not too distant from today, a group of young adults sat waxing politics, sports, pop culture and the like. By this point, their temperaments were relaxed and their cheek grooves well established in their vinyl cushions. You, the outsider, would likely picture cheap cold ones mingled amongst our protagonists. Lo! … you would be correct!

With a rousing college football competition as white noise, rants were volleyed back and forth. After a particularly humorous account of a weekend escapade, our politically engaged friend made a particularly insightful comparison of the platform of Sir Winston Churchill with the characters of SNL’s Horatio Sanz. Who knew?

After a brief moment of silence, the following dialogue took place which may have altered the very fabric of civilization.

“Hark, this chatter is such fun! Why not makest such merry musing public,” cheered one whose diction derived from seeing to many medieval period pieces and may perhaps be the author of this post.

“Here, here!” bullied another of Ivy League distinction smugly sipping a tini.

“We could each write on a recurring basis on variety of topics. It could even be posted on the ‘internet’ on a blog” interjected the practical, literalist whose comments only help to conclude thoughts to prevent awkward and abrupt transitions.

“Hooray!” exclaimed the conformist of few words who was not invited to contribute.

At that it was settled. All concurred and all was good.

Thusly, started "Around the Couch" and its journey through the depths of the human mind.