Happiness, broadly conceived, is the predominant endeavor of human existence. It is the state we tell ourselves that we fundamentally want yet fail to achieve. It is what progress promises yet fails to deliver. And whether the causes of the failure are out of our control (as in disease, war, poverty, disaster and death) or within our control (as in desire, ambition, envy, ignorance and anger), a narrow logic tells us that eliminating them should result in the greatest possible happiness, “the best of all possible worlds.” Brave New World is an extension of that narrow logic into the year 2540 AD, after war has brutalized humanity into acquiescence and technology has advanced to control human destiny. Perhaps that’s why Aldous Huxley dubbed his 1931 novel a “negative Utopia”—it presents a civilization that has achieved perfection not only by a morbid distortion of nature but by negation, the elimination and suppression of the circumstantial and psychological causes of unhappiness.
More than any other dystopia, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four concentrates on its hero’s psychological state and his efforts to reveal the truth of the superstate in which he lives. Orwell’s meticulous attention to the engineering of reality and the digesting of the individual into the political entity makes this the definitive dystopia of post-Stalinist authoritarian power. The novel is divided into three books that cover, respectively, Winston Smith’s rebellion under the grind of daily life in Oceania, his love affair with Julia, and his incarceration, torture and erasure. The story is basically a struggle for truth, love and liberty where these are criminal. Gradually, through reflection, experience, and a “successful love affair,” Winston discovers the nature of his oppressor and briefly steals the freedoms that make life worth living, acknowledging from his first crime against the state, writing in a journal, that he is a “dead man.”
–Jeff Spicoli, Fast Times at Ridgemont High
Ever return to your country from a trip abroad and realize that something to which you previously gave little importance is, in fact, important? That was how I arrived at the importance of being cool. I’d just come back from a long stay in Montreal. I was off the plane, sitting at a bus stop, and saw a young guy walking toward me on the sidewalk. His baggy jeans were riding around his thighs, exposing about four inches of boxer shorts. He wore a baseball cap cocked to one side, bill pulled down, out of which flopped about a foot’s worth of dreadlocks. His zip-up sweatshirt was of a fabric I’d seen in little kids’ pajamas—a thick, soft cotton printed with cartoonish designs. His gait was a slow, lopsided shuffle. One arm was out in front of him, bent at the elbow and moving in little circular motions to the rhythm of his walk, as if he were beating eggs. I thought it might be polio or palsy. Then I realized that he was cool.
In 1950, when Fahrenheit 451 first appeared as “The Fireman” in the magazine Galaxy Science Fiction, television was fast becoming a ubiquitous feature of the American home. The big three commercial television networks (NBC, ABC, CBS) had just connected their cables coast to coast. Soap operas, talk shows, sitcoms and game shows were piped into nearly every household all day long. A country of postwar housewives did their ironing to As the World Turns, while their hubbies worked the white-collar jobs of the burgeoning middle class. The freeway network of Southern California, where Ray Bradbury lived, had commenced construction. And the Korean War, launched that year, was one in a series of wars of which most Americans were only dimly aware. Such was the present that Ray Bradbury logically extended into the “insane world” of this classic dystopia.
Vladimir Nabokov’s 1947 novel Bend Sinister doesn’t focus on class war, a projected future or the awakening of an individual under authoritarian rule. It follows an exceptional man’s loss of all that makes his life worth living. Though the book’s protagonist, Adam Krug, is finally crushed by the stupidity and brutality of a police state, the narrative concentrates on his psychic condition, with little attention given to class or politics beyond a farcical sketch of the political ideology and rise to power of the dictator Paduk. If there is any dystopian element here, it’s the ultimate destruction of the hero, a profoundly intelligent, conscientious and cultivated man, under the barbarous and pseudo-efficient regime that seizes his nation.
In keeping with the anti-authoritarianism of the late 1960s and early ’70s, my parents weren’t too stringent about what they left around the house. So it was with the usual excitement of having discovered something “dirty” that I saw my first shunga (“springtime pictures”) woodblock prints at the age of six. My dad was an artist and frequently left books of pin-up art, nudes and those early issues of Playboy on the coffee table. The shunga prints, however, made a more powerful impression on me than any of the airbrushed bodies that Hugh Hefner gave the American public. The swollen, labiated, oozing vulvae and massive, veined, rigorously enthused penises in shunga represented the human sex organs undergoing a physical transformation that was dramatically outsized. Despite my ignorance of the realities of sex, I took them as symbolizing excitement and pleasure, which is how I see them to this day.
Sinclair Lewis wrote this political satire of American exceptionalism in the early 1930s, when one in four Americans were out of work and the complacent assumptions he’d ridiculed in Babbitt were rasped away by real poverty. What most Americans assumed couldn’t happen on the economic front had happened, and even more had happened in Germany, Italy and Russia, with the rise of nationalist totalitarian regimes. So Lewis aimed his satire at the smug assumption of the American politician and parochial patriot that a despotic, militant, nationalist tyrant and, consequently, organized atrocity, were foreign, or only possible elsewhere.
By the time the sun hits the sidewalk in a West Coast city, the East Coast is half done with a day’s work. In the American West you live with a sense that the East has already established what the world will regard as American civilization—Wall Street, Capitol Hill, The New York Times… Six hours behind and three thousand miles ahead, the West looks back at the East as a youth his parents: “You’ve done your thing—I’m doing mine.” Thus identity and lifestyle are not only common preoccupations in the West, they’re reflected in popular conceptions of what the West is all about: psychedelia, pop psychology, chaos theory, virtual reality, New Age, free love, etc… The East Coast may look patronizingly at this vain experimentalism, but it sometimes has to eat its words of critical admonishment—especially when the West profoundly influences the world.
H.G. Wells originally published When the Sleeper Awakes in 1898 as a serial in The Graphic, an illustrated London newspaper. In his preface to the 1910 edition, The Sleeper Awakes, he expressed disappointment with the book, claiming that it was hastily composed and overwrought and that he was badly in need of a vacation at the time. He also claimed that in editing the original he did not rewrite it, as what concerned him at the age of thirty-one no longer did at forty-three. So he cut out some of the fat and reworked the latter part of the book to give it more thoroughness and depth. What has come down to us in this 2003 Modern Library edition, When the Sleeper Wakes, is not one of Wells’ better novels but a template dystopia containing both accurate and inaccurate forecasts, as well as the fundamental dystopian elements of class war and awakening consciousness under authoritarian rule.
Checking the news sites this morning, I couldn’t help but notice that the lead story on Reuters anticipated the Labor Department’s employment report, due out later today. What struck me was not the expected increase in jobs and decrease in unemployment but a factoid that the service sector now accounts for 80% percent of US labor. If true, it confirms my long-held suspicion that the U.S. economy would eventually become a service economy.
Jack London’s political dystopia, The Iron Heel, published in 1905, is not so fantastic as it is relevant, not so prophetic as it is cogent. The question the novel leaves you with, in this age of unprecedented income inequality, conservative-libertarian populism, corporate propaganda fronts and political puppetry, is why the country has not gone down the path that London took it almost a hundred years ago. Why, with our increasingly vast poverty, waning middle class, wealth stratification beyond levels since those seen before the Great Depression and legislators thrall to powerful corporate and industrial interests, hasn’t the republic degenerated into the modern oligarchy as portrayed in this book?
Yergeny Zamyatin’s 1921 novel We is not the first dystopian novel. There was The Iron Heel (1905) by Jack London and The Sleeper Awakes (1910) by H.G Wells, Russian translations of which Zamyatin edited. It is, however, regarded as “the archetype of the modern dystopia”—or so says the back cover of my Penguin Classics, 1993, Clarence Brown edition. We is fundamentally a political satire of the nightmare of total control. Its dreamlike scene shifts, fantastic imagery and atmosphere of confusion and apprehension set it apart from those earlier novels. And it introduces what have become standard dystopian themes: rule by authoritarian rationalism, hyperbolized technological advancement, love as a catalyst of dissidence, and, as a final outcome, the crushing of that dissidence, literally, under the cast-iron hand of authority.
When I started temping, the personal-computing revolution hadn’t yet rescued the American economy. The Internet as we know it did not exist—it was something called “The Well,” which had to be accessed by a 96-kb modem and navigated with code. Nor had the metrosexual with horn-rimmed glasses, pudendal goatee and reverse-wind-tunnel hair ascended the fashion throne. Few guessed that clicking keyboards and spluttering hard-drives presaged the splendors of infotainment, info-consumption, info-erotica, info-identity and the morphing of the egghead from social reject to revered guru.
A few years back, when Dubya was ridin’ his wooden horse hard, I was in a bar talking to a gal who at some point proclaimed, or admitted, that she was a republican. I asked what made her a republican, and she testified to her belief that the government should do nothing with regard to the environment, poverty, crime, discrimination, pollution, disease, illiteracy, stupidity and every other social ill since the age of Cain. Her point wasn’t a stumper: government solutions to social problems don’t work. I asked if public service and governance weren’t essentially social—if these weren’t designed to address the conditions of civilization. To that I got more of the same: social programs are unnecessary because the problems they failingly address would otherwise fix themselves and everything works best on its own in accordance with the natural, self-regulating way of things. So it’s all up to the individual? I asked. To which she answered with an unequivocal yes. In a flash I saw the genius of republicanism: an abdication of the necessity of improving society, thus narrowing the job of governance down to eliminating the public sector and putting public money in private hands.
The drawbacks of a positive attitude are clear enough: first, you can assume one in regard to almost anything from the beneficial to the depraved, thus it is arbitrary; second, having encountered a number of very positive fanatics, liars, lunatics and sociopaths in my time, it’s obvious that a positive attitude is not necessarily a correlate of moral excellence and mental health; and third, a positive attitude in the work place matters less than the ability and willingness to do the work. That’s why a certain poster on the wall of the elevator lobby at the Pacific Gas and Electric Company office, where I temped for a time, struck me as absurd the first time I saw it.
On September 30, 2008 the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer aired an essay by Richard Rodriguez titled “Mexico’s Violent Drug War Wreaks Havoc on Innocent Lives,” in which Rodriguez characterized the relationship between foreign trafficking and the U.S. drug market as “Third-world despair meets post-modern despair.” The essay did not, however, mention that the illicit drug consumption fueling the Mexican cartels has significantly decreased in recent years. In fact, the most recent social science data suggest a different characterization of the current drug culture: first-world despair meets post-modern pharma.
As an editor, I’ve always advocated for less paper, more recycling and digital delivery. I’ve always turned off my air conditioning, lights and power strips before leaving the office. I’ve recycled anything that could be pulped or melted. However, until the folks I work with attended a four-hour seminar on “green publishing,” they regarded me as something of a trash hoarder and Kilowatt miser. Well, now I’m green. Dig it: this pile of empty water bottles under my desk means that I’m not just a slob anymore—I’m hip, I’m with it, baby.
It should have been quick and simple, establishing a telephone account for a new place of residence. As Verizon was my existing provider, I saw no reason to take the business elsewhere. So I navigated Verizon’s website and, having found no option to complete this common transaction there, bounced through a complex telephone menu system until I came to “speak to a representative.” I held to Morris Albert’s “Feelings,” Barbara Streisand’s “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” and Starland Vocal Band’s “Afternoon Delight” until a young man answered. I quickly explained what I needed. He said, “Whoa, got to check the catalog.” The catalog? I thought. The line went dead. The dude had, like, hung up.
About a year ago I bought a gadget that uses wireless technology to play electronic files and Internet radio through my stereo. Not a mind-bending idea. Receivers and transmitters have been around for over a century—telephones, radios, televisions, etc. And these earlier manifestations of our rut toward technological utopia, when finally mass marketed, were fully operational. They were plug-it-in-and-turn-it-on retail products. They required only a limited degree of end-user manipulation—volume, channel, band, tuning—and fulfilled the promise of actually working when you purchased them. Remember?
Getting hired by a temp agency is relatively easy: make an appointment, appear in your second-hand monkey suit, fill out the application, take the software test, and discuss your resume with the “analyst.” Provided you type over forty words per minute, pass the software test and are functionally literate, they’ll hire you. As you leave, however, do not skip, sing, or whistle the theme song to Rocky; you’ll wait before you work. And, as you wait, your day of ostensible triumph will become one of languishing hope, brooding uncertainty, indignant irritation, then cynical indifference. It will become days and days will become weeks and weeks will become months until the day you abandon any chance of the phone ringing as a sucker’s bet. Whatever hopeful signs the analyst gave will cease to evoke hope. Rather, they will evoke abhorrence and disillusionment, thus preparing you for the ultimate sacrifice: that of personal liberty to institutional authority.
Porn has quickly adapted to an explosively facilitated Internet market by not only fragmenting into numerous subgenres that cater to particular fetishes, but by purging itself of what its audience doesn’t want, which is whatever fails to get the chemistry pumping. This substantive evolution in porn product has rendered it less real and more fantastic than ever.
A woman reading a book raises a gaze of exasperated woe. Next to her is a dude whose one-sided babble runs something like this: “Nah, ain’ fuckin’ that bitch no mo’…Crazy-ass bitch be fuckin’ Shafon, now, man…Yeh…Yeh…Fuck that fuckin’ shit—I told the bitch I wanted her to have my baby…” With impregnation all the rage as a show of potency these days, I’ve no doubt this lively, autochthonous vernacular will live on. And having once been young, I also know the pleasures of gratuitous obscenity. I’ve just never known the pleasures of being overheard. Yet, looking around at the twenty-five percent of bus riders talking on cell phones, I realize that they’re not in it to be overheard; they’re in it to escape. If they gave a damn about the audience, they’d heed the deadpan glares around them, and ask, “Are these people annoyed?” But they don’t give a damn because they’ve opted to be preoccupied with someone somewhere else—someone with whom they are, miracle of nonplussing miracles, gabbing.
For three years I remained a temp or, should I say, impermanent. To those for whom I worked I was as insignificant as the tasks they assigned. And when those tasks were done, I was less than insignificant—I was gone. More than any other class of employee my presence was explained and defined by the job. I repeatedly lived the abridged fate of every office prole. I sustained the lie of my indispensability until I was dispensed with.
Awhile ago I was flipping through the New Yorker and saw an interesting cartoon: two men in uniform, guns trained on a pedestrian, behind them a van with “Fashion Security” on the side. The caption read, “Sir! Sir! Kindly remove the bolo tie and set it on the ground—nice and slow!” I find this significant on a couple of levels. First, it has political resonance at a time when civil and personal liberties are threatened by the most incompetent demagogues ever to hold power in Empirica. Second, it takes a personal idea of bad taste and makes it a public danger, thereby exaggerating a fact about taste—that it has less to do with personal liberty than public authority.
On the October 14, 2005 Diane Rehm Show “Friday News Roundup,” David Corn of The Nation complained that the Administration’s policy to rebuild New Orleans as a tourist town would permanently exclude many of the locals. Policy Review editor and Hoover Institution fellow Todd Lindberg rebutted, “Most of those people are the product of a failed social policy anyway.” This comment had an odd effect on me. It tweaked into focus the conservative republican attitude toward the poor. Certain prejudices and preconceptions—not the least specious of which is that people are products of policy—at once took on clarity. So I went to my desk and jotted down the primary ideas contained in the comment: (1) the displaced New Orleans locals are the product of a failure, (2) the failure was one of policy, (3) the policy was “social,” and (4), as suggested by his dismissive anyway, they don’t matter. Delivered in a tone of smug disregard, it boiled down to this: “Quit whining about the poor and put ’em out with the trash—they’re just more damaged liberal-policy goods.”
During the recession of the late ’80s and early ’90s, big businesses were suffocating in their own fat, bloated from non-performance-related capital the Reagan Administration had pipelined from public coffers in the form of deregulation, tax cuts and corporate welfare. As these companies were actually failing and realized that they would have to practice economy all on their own or cease to exist, they downsized and reorganized (laid off workers, cut salaries and benefits, and reallocated the work). This is the fascinating story of how that historic trend was instrumental to my becoming a stellar white-collar asshole.
They had big dictums, deep erudition and cunning linguistics. Marianne Moore translated La Fontaine’s easygoing French into an English of conspicuous difficulty. In Pound’s hands the rudimentary Italian of the troubadours and bare-bones Chinese of Confucius became abstruse Victorianese. TS Eliot gave us the musical equivalent of thought—or sonorous obscurity. William Carlos Williams gave us things, things with ideas in them—supposedly. And Wallace Stevens? Who to this day knows the motive of most of his metaphors?
It is the inalienable right of the individual to publicly demonstrate a feeling. No authority can prohibit it, no civil institution can enforce it. It’s simply a right we all have and exercise as a matter of personal choice. While infants, dogs and lunatics exercise this right in the form of enthusiasm, affection, amusement, frustration and anger, the well-adjusted adult exercises it in the form of idealism, mawkishness, patriotism and belligerence. However, unlike infants, dogs, lunatics and those otherwise mentally and emotionally compromised, the well-adjusted adult does not have the excuse of naiveté, ignorance or disease. He has morality and religion, and with these, the embarrassed witness is left to judge the worth of the particular display of emotion.
If anything in this essay reflects badly on Empirican white-collar culture, I do not absolve myself of hypocrisy. On the contrary, I admit that I have practically benefited from that culture and, rightly or wrongly, feel no gratitude. After all, should a work of cultural criticism, which intends neither to eulogize nor instruct, be apologetic and polite? Is there some kind of debt to be honored? Nah. I’ve paid my dues and I’m no longer beholden to the walking turds I worked with. Aside from an admitted proclivity to piss on, rather than hump, the boss’s leg, I’m objective enough to consider most of what I have to say to be true. So on with it.
I’m going to get me a car
And I’ll be heading on down the road
Then I won’t have to worry
About that broken-down, ragged Ford
—Chuck Berry, “No Money Down”
The automobile is the Empire’s most popular machine. As the name of this machine indicates, it is a means of self-mobility, which is the Empire’s most popular activity. To be moving, to get away from and go after—this is what Americans do. And they like to do it on their own. They like to have their hands on the wheels of their own mobility machines. Chuck Berry’s songs are full of the idea that, with a fast car, your problems are solved. Moving, rambling and rolling are ingrained in American pop culture. To get over it, get on with it, get passed it, let it go, go for it, get ahead, “go, go, go”—the American idiom abounds with mobility metaphors. It boils down to a popular notion that you can leave your sorrows behind and follow your dreams. Who cares if, inevitably, you will arrive and have to be somewhere? Who cares if your problems will abide and your dreams will materialize into another tedious reality? The temporary amnesia of movement is what counts—the escape-pursuit paradigm that mobility is the solution.
Activism is now like poetry or philosophy. Few people take it seriously. These days the activist, like the poet or philosopher, has no public. And as the poet and philosopher have lost their power to engage, educate and entertain, so has the activist lost the power to effect progressive change—assuming progressive change is the objective of the activist. Somehow all public protest of this corrupt and intransigent government appears futile. Mainstream American culture regards such activity as self-indulgent and effete. The present cultural context of activism is now the absence of a cultural context. The only reason to proclaim that one is an activist at all would be to gratify a sentimental delusion that such a role might still exist—a proclamation that would ring as ridiculous as that of being a poet or philosopher. Nevertheless, there are those who visibly assume the role. And it’s embarrassing to watch them as they go public with their naked need for attention. Like impoverished street musicians, they’re mocked and ignored. Folks pass by, wisecracking in hushed tones or feigning distraction to bypass the unpleasantness of being embarrassed for them. Fortunately, most poets, philosophers and activists do not go public. They gratify their vanities in supportive, obscure subcultures, or in universities where they ply their passions on the young, gullible and whimsical. Some survive outside of these safe havens, but only by hiding from coworkers and acquaintances the obscene futility in which they daily engage, closeting their perverse leanings toward intellectual inquiry, esthetic perfection and social betterment. They hide the outrage evoked by a political climate that abets and exploits mass stupidity, shuffling obsequiously from office to market, suppressing an urge to take dramatic action against this pervasive chicanery like a flasher suppressing an urge to show his penis to the checker.
A guy with a couple of decades of office avoirdupois pumps up on his $3,000 touring bike, sporting about $500 worth of highly flammable stretch material in 15 garish colors, covered with the logos of his “sponsors.”
“Passing on the left,” he quacks as he goes by on the sidewalk, where it is illegal to ride. Then, nearly missing me, he cranks his head around and yells, “I SAID, PASSING ON THE LEFT!”
He’s beyond reach. No need to get flustered over a dude posing as Lance Armstrong. But another passes, and another, and it dawns on me that not one of these cyclists is wearing civilian dress—that the jerk in tights (JIT) is not the exception, but the rule.