Suburbanization in Reverse

Last week’s Economist cover featured the death of the internal combustion engine via the electric car. The magazine contemplates a bright future where the air is clean, oil grabs become irrelevant, and people nap during their private commutes. Then, reverse suburbanisation as cities contract, converting now useless parking into homes, parks, offices. Efficient destinations everywhere.

The magazine does not mention the inventors of this great future, but that is whom the article left me thinking about: the few individuals who propelled electric cars forward. These incredible beings basically prevented planetary devastation by ending human dependence on dirty fuel.

Sadly, on the other side of the equation, you have the Zumas, Trumps, and Maduros of the world. Individuals who set entire nations back one year each time they open their traps. See the excerpt from the article below on Jacob Zuma’s reelection, which immediately followed the article on electric cars.

Thus, the equation keeps equal. Or as Fitzgerald might say, “we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

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Image/Identity

About a week ago I visited the Georgia O'Keefe retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum: Living Modern. The exhibit not only centered around her well-known paintings and photographs, but also around her self-made clothing, and how her choice in dress was part and parcel to her conscious artistic identity. Her clothes were black and white, androgynous and practical, refined and subtle. Céline-like.

Parallel to that, I've traversed the Jewish Orthodox neighborhood in South Williamsburg several times in the past month. You know the neighborhood's invisible borders are breached once everyone is suddenly dressed the same. There is a single group identity immediately transmitted by a communal way of dress. In this neighborhood, there is no risk of a Stranger in Our Midst; here, there are Strangers Dressed in Jeans.

Then, at dinner with a friend, a mutual acquaintance came up who'd become a serious body builder. My friend showed me images of a transformed person, whose life revolved around and was surrounded by heavy weight lifting. The dress, colors, angles of our acquaintance's identity had been wholly transformed; too me, he was unrecognizable.

While it may be said that all neighborhoods in all corners of the globe have a particular coda, New York is a city where way of dress almost determines what area a person will seek to inhabit: Upper East Side, North Williamsburg, SoHo, etc. Here, as is the case with Georgia, the body builder, Orthodox Jews, there is an intentionally visible commitment to dressing in a way that reflects who you are.

I feel no such commitment. I like a dress that makes me feel like myself as much as a dress that makes me feel unlike myself. Stuff is exciting when it is new. That is all.

Does this mean I am identity-free? Does identity exist without any conscious external markers? I fear it cannot.

The uniform, be it imposed or adopted, is eerie because there remains a knowing that beneath the cloaks or the wife beaters, lie the several selves. The comfort of the uniform denotes a sacrifice, a negotiation: buy to belong.

But, those who dare commit to the Self dress it forth as a demonstration of will.

Nonnegotiable Time

Neko Case, a the vocalist in cult band “The New Pornographers,” is one of one hundred artists, entrepreneurs and writers interviewed for “In the Company of Women,” a surprisingly unsappy coffee table book. 

Pictured above is what she had to say about time and making it to make art. I agree. 

Digital Chips

During a dinner where cellphones made an unwelcome appearance, a good friend recommended Dave Egger’s “The Circle.” It’s a 1989-type cautionary tale about Big Internet set in a mirror version of San Francisco. 

The quote above sums it up, although the characters and plot make it worth a beach read. And, it’s no doubt good to be reminded that social media feeds an emptiness that can only be filled by real human interactions, ocurring without the constant need to affirm their occurence. Does everyone on the known universe really need to know we had a taco for lunch? Does telling the world make the taco better? Or does the telling just distract from the actual, real, delicious, ephemeral taco? 

There is a deep contradiction in an indivualistic, progress-driven culture that at the same time is consumed by social media, which is built on caring what the other thinks.  Eventually this contradiction drives an inner wedge. 

One of my favorite quotes of all time comes from the always cheerful Sartre: “L’infer, c’est l’autre.” “Hell is the Other.” To live as individuals swayed by what the Other likes or hearts or stars is no life, because, of course, there is no Other. There is the One, multi-manifested in six billion human minds and hearts. 

The emptiness of virtual interactions comes from the illusion they give of real connection between apparently separate individuals. But true connection is derived from realizing there is no separate. 

In any event, “The Circle” will be a movie so we can all tweet our thoughts.