Last week, in response to a number of rave reviews, I decided to check out a new watering hole for hipsters. Although a bit long in the tooth for the bar scene, I stopped by, hoping for the best.
Alas, I found the worst. The bartender, pierced and tattooed to the nines, poured a stingy vodka and then proceeded to turn up the volume on her boom box from which Eminem was making his awful witness. To add insult to injury, the video of a biker jamboree played on a silent television suspended over the bar. Lank-haired mamas lifted their T-shirts for the cameras while leathered brethren egged them on. I quickly drank up and slunk away into night, ready for a nice quiet cave.
After reading Morris Berman’s fine essay, I now know why I feel so bad. I’m suffering from vulgarity fatigue. America has turned itself into a toxic waste site of joyless suburban sprawl, shabby trailer parks and inner-city ghettos, populated with incurious, emotionally scarred youth and their overworked parents, along with more than a few crazy drifters. Lacking any critical faculties, they willfully gorge themselves on cultural shit hyped to the heavens by mass-media hucksters. All existential roads lead to the mall — I shop, therefore I am.
We’ve heard this lament countless times before and Berman offers a breezy compendium of bons mots from fellow doomsayers such as Neil Postman, Don DeLillo and Louis Lapham. His two principal fellow travelers are Benjamin Barber and Robert Kaplan, both recent authors of discouraging words.
Barber coined the term “McWorld” to describe the virulent spread of global consumer culture. Kaplan, retracing Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, offered a scathing portrait of what McWorld has wrought on byways and highways of the American terrain. For Berman, American civilization is about to fold its tent, not just because corporations have turned the populace into shopaholic dummies. The social infrastructure of the country is so frayed that the have-nots are left to their own meager devices, while the haves are locked into a siege mentality, hiding from the rabble behind gates, massive SUVs and modems.
When Rome fell, there was a monastic class that endeavored to sequester the best of civilization and keep it alive for healthier times. The monks accomplished the same vital function during the Middle Ages. Their moment has come again. Berman suggests that it is the very nature of history to decline and recover. Once we accept this organic process for what it is, we can turn it to our advantage. Thus, he advocates the nomadic monastic individual:
An NMI understands that he or she does not have to be enveloped by McWorld, by the skin of a disintegrating society that is abandoning its values and replacing our cultural heritage with hype and marketing. Instead, you can choose a way of life that becomes its own “monastery,” preserves the treasures of our heritage for yourself and, it is to be hoped, for future generations.
Through the operation of saving civilization, Berman argues, you become civilized and inoculate yourself against vulgarity and “vital kitsch.” But the NMI must be vigilant. Anonymity and movement are key, lest you be co-opted into the dying system. Berman uses the game of Go as a metaphor for the savvy NMI. Unlike chess pieces which contain intrinsic differences in power and, hence, mobility, Go pieces are “anonymous mathematical units” which can move about freely.
Strong as these arguments are, Berman’s real coup is his prescription for keeping the flame alive a bit longer. Alternative education based heavily on the humanities should supersede all trendy moves to “distance learning” and postmodern identity politics. Cheap, innovative cultural spaces must bloom in order to keep the visual and performing arts a viable entity on the local level. He offers Olga Bloom’s Bargemusic Project in Manhattan as an example. Finally, innovations to the environmental design of public and private landscapes are essential.
Yet the capacity for accomplishing these goals is limited by the dangers of corporate-culture interference and general spiritual malaise. Every day, entrepreneurs cook up new schemes to get television and advertising into elementary schools. The vast majority of people would rather pay to watch Larry Fine smash his fiddle over Curly’s head than attend an actual violin recital. The town of Celebration in Florida is little more than a Disney Potemkin Village — pie-chart human ecology fronted with a shit-eating grin and a white picket fence.
And so it’s left to the NMI to go off into darkness, find the niches where he or she can confer with comrades and wait. Berman gives us hope that the wait will indeed be worthwhile.
Timothy Dugdale writes about books and visual culture for the Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].