06 March 2007

Structure v. Romance

I write for emotional reasons. I write, mostly, to find ways to hope.

And I haven’t been posting for awhile, and it’s because all the other people writing about Zizek left my thinking about hope in a funny place, and I so had to despair for a little while before I figured out that it is good to have a diagnosis like Zizek’s after all.

Because as soon as I started thinking in Zizek’s terms, I started seeing evidence of his gigantic Loss (or true victory) everywhere. And the only response I could give it was really romantic. I wrote draft after draft of Holden Caulfield-esque rants about this and that being so fake and hollow, and how nobody sees the problem, but I do, and then I would read every single one of these manifestos and shake my head and say to myself that I am not fifteen, and that I don’t actually know much. And that thinking about the culture that we live in in terms of its fakeness in relationship to an ideal (that exists where? In my own head?) is really quite...

...distancing. Romantic. Part of the problem.

Because what is real? And who am I to say that the world I live in is fake? I mean, I hate that Manhattan is, increasingly, a giant outdoor mall, or that Chelsea is full of art that is not very good, as much as the next guy. But if I hang myself with a braided leather belt in a changing room at the Gap, I am still dead.

Seeing that my only responses proved Zizek right made me feel rather stuck. But then I had the good fortune to read Joan Didion’s 1967 essay, Slouching Toward Bethlehem this weekend. I don’t have it in front of me. But she follows some hippies around the Haight, which is full of drugs and naive kids, and kids are starving themselves to death and getting raped and basically it’s not all free love like it was cracked up to be.

But it’s not just about that. She is telling a story about selfish people. They care a lot about being loose and free and breaking down walls. But they don’t seem to see that there are walls, or structures, within a society that are useful. She focuses on the transaction cost that comes with breaking down societal structures. It creates situations where three-year-olds are getting high, in which homeless girls with punemonia are left on someone’s floor for ten days without anyone to care for them. And these situations are genuinely horrible, but she doesn’t tell this story as a moralist. She tells the story as a structuralist. She sees that these hippies’ goal is simply a life without the multiple drags of money or family or responsibility to others. Being a hippie, to Didion in this essay, seems to be the ultimate expression of radical individualism.

And the beauty of Didion is that she sees that this radically individualistic life lacks the love and care that is embodied and expressed in structures like family, law and ethics.

And so it goes, right now. In 2007, not 1967. Where the abject reign of the individual reaches epic heights. The Me Generation has evolved only so far as the My Generation.

The only response to this radical indivudalism that makes any sense is to find the strength in what is still structurally sound. This is not to be conservative. It is not backward-looking. It’s not about valuing what used to be real and is now fake and hollow. Instead, it’s about finding cultural leverage. The Bush Administration is relying on people to be too selfish to understand how democracy works. Has he broken it or not? Is the Chelsea Machine dependent upon capitalism and capable of accepting strong expression, or is it disseminating a specific set of mannered rationalizations for imperialism, and therefore culturally worthless?

These are questions of strength.


Blogger highlowbetween said...

nice. These are hard questions for hard times and it's going to take a lot of bravery from many corners to sort out where we are and to what end we are heading. Narcissism is a rampant pathology. Narcissism breeds violence because the narcissist can not accept an alternative perspective and therefore tries to destroy all that doesn't fit into the mirror. It tramples all that it cannot see because it sees only 'self'.

08 March, 2007 17:38  
Anonymous cjagers said...

The title of this post really got my attention. I realize that I think of structure (geometry) as sacred, and individuality (improvisation) as profane. And that I like both to be wrestling with each other.

Sorry if this does not acknowledge the political aspect of this post, but you got me thinking.

13 March, 2007 03:12  
Blogger Lisa Hunter said...

Read Didion's essay "Goodbye to All That." It's usually included in volumes with "Slouching Towards Bethlehem," and has brilliant insights into some of the issues you're thinking about.

(I love everything she writes, even the sloppy Salvador I-spent-one-week-here-on-vacation- so-I-know-all-about-it book.)

17 March, 2007 14:39  

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