Postmodern Homelessness and the Distribution of Selfness or The Mind Blown, really

2010 March 11
by Carl Watson

I was listening to some radio show on NPR the other day—it was during one of those endless pledge drives in which a moderator continually interrupts, saying: “I know you are all very busy so we made it easy for you to pledge.” Obviously they don’t know me very well, because ten seconds later, they again told me how busy I was. (I wasn’t.) They had a new streamlined pledge system and went so far as to say that I could get it done in less than two minutes. This was a good thing because, as they never tired of telling me, I was so busy, and far be it that they should take up my time. They were, of course, already taking up my time, although they would not admit as much, believing as they do in the myth that listening to the radio requires no time, that radio cognition takes place in the timeless interstices of our more temporally enslaved phenomenal apprehensions.

Then I saw a commercial on TV for some kind of gourmet meals for busy people. They were saying the same thing as the NPR Voices: “You’re lifestyle is too busy to waste time cooking, so we did it for you!” “Well, why don’t they just eat it for me too, and stop bothering me,” I cried in my mind, as I wondered what I would have for dinner. The Gourmet Cooks claimed that if I ate their food I could spend more time on things that really matter! The subtext was, of course, that what really mattered was working on a laptop all night for the higher power of the Capitalist Pantheon. Everyone on TV is always busy doing just that, lovingly cradling cups of coffee while shopping or booking vacations or trading stocks on their laptops, or having meetings in their pajamas with other important people on their laptops, or saying goodnight to their far-away emotionally distant children, also on their laptops, all the while continuing to work through their ‘leisure’ hours in the name of production and capital flow.

Obviously I had too much leisure, because then I saw another commercial on TV with some country western singer (Toby Black Hat or Bart Belt Buckle) singing “My life is crazy, I’m on the go, I don’t have time to take it slow.” It was the same message as the Gourmet Cooks and the NPR Voices. Toby/Bart meant that I could sign up for cable TV in just a few seconds and it would not interfere with my crazy busy life. Of course the cable TV company was paying him to say this, which not only undermined his message but it probably made him busier to boot, what with all that extra money to spend. And it was true too—he was getting busier. Yes, even as I watched the commercial I saw Mr. Toby Black Hat speeding up, trying to get through his set as quickly as possible like any good Capitalist Cowboy would, riding the broadcast bronco all the way to his Mansion on a Shill Hill.

All this speed is necessary, of course, or we would collapse into both economic and emotional depression. Capitalism seeks (or rather needs) to increase the speed of the transfer of money making it an economic system that is both thermodynamic and Darwinian. Lethargic slackers such as myself are supposed to feel this thermo-Darwinian call to action in the form of envy for the life of being Crazy and On-the-Go, just like famous country western singers. But then I always thought the whole point of being country western was that you were never busy—in fact you rejected busyness—as you preferred to be hanging around in your trailer playing music and drinking. I guess I was wrong.

Not only are we constantly being told that such ‘busyness’ is the de rigueur defining feature of our lives today, but this message is always delivered with a wink to the audience as to its secret meaning: Busy is a code word for being important, it’s an ego-flattering distortion of an old algorithm that was dodgy to begin with—that you are busy because you are important. Nowadays, in the sinister language of consumerism this is reversed to mean—you are important, because you are busy. Don’t let anybody tell you different, in fact you should tell them. Many people do, and many people are. But no one understands or knows this because everybody apparently is so important that they don’t have any time to listen to anyone else telling them how busy they are. Of course, all this talk rings in the emptiness of vast space, because God doesn’t care how busy you are, or even that you are. Maybe God’s too busy herself, or, as is more likely, maybe she doesn’t exist.

Not to get into the Atheism vs. Blind Faith debate here, but what I’m talking about is the radical change such busyness has wrought upon urban life, and increasingly, country-western life. I used to enjoy the sidewalks of New York. You could catch someone’s eye and two hours later you could be hanging around with strange people (outside your demographic), maybe even fall in love, get a job, commit a crime, or have a big idea. Such stochastic adventurism was all based on physical proximity to other crazy humans. But those pedestrian joys of the city are dead.—there’s no more catching of eyes, no more hatching of plots in bodegas by the beer cooler. Nobody even looks at you anymore because they are not there to look at you—they’re somewhere else. And they want you to know it. They want you to know that they don’t have time to be where you are, they’re too busy. Their look of disdain says it all: “Dude, I’m not really here, I’m doing business in London,” or “Don’t look at me I am talking to more important friends in LA, right now.” That’s okay they can get along without me, I understand. They probably do have more important friends. In fact, they seem to be virtually drawn and quartered, pulled apart and dismembered by important friendships, not to mention business locations.

Hell, it’s hard to even live in one city in this age of the entrepreneurial self. Everybody is a business now and everybody has business cards with at least two and often three or even four cities listed on them as their home base. A lot of these people are what I call typically bi-polar, though they call themselves bi-coastal, meaning they are so important that they have to live on both coasts, and their business cards say so. Then some (dare we say pretentious?) people are bi-continental, or tri-coastal, with at least one European city to prove their international credentials. And, since rhizomatic growth is the motor of the biological universe, and since we humans therefore can’t or won’t curtail our wonton expansionism, it is no longer odd to find hipsters who include a fourth city—some smaller, secretly cool, place off the back-slapping, bi-coastal path of self-importance. Often these fourth cities are second or third tier cities located in the “flyover” or some other “non-important” part of America, and are offered as a stamp of humility to temper the sheep-mentality of geographic arrogance so common on the coasts. But it is a false humility, meant as a scaffold to ego, demonstrating that a particular individual can be so hip, so self-secure that they can even afford to have a base in the flyover without losing face.

Now I don’t care where people live, but it has come to the point that even among people I think I know, I probably don’t actually know where they live. Case in point: I ran into an old friend of mine who left New York ten years ago because it was too expensive. I was of course surprised to find she still lived here, even though I knew she didn’t. Her business card said: New York, L.A., Baltimore, Berlin. I started to ask her where she really lived, that maybe I would stop by her place in New York, since she still lived here, but she walked away without answering, supposedly to take a call. Then she must have disappeared, because I didn’t see her the rest of the night. I looked at the card and noticed she had a copyright sign after her name. Then I got paranoid because I didn’t have my name copyrighted. I didn’t have a second city to live in either. I felt depleted, or defeated.

But I don’t blame her. Our multi-tasking economy demands that you be in numerous locations at every moment. Each location increases market viability, providing a better broadcast platform for your glory. In our increasingly crowded business environment the ego is no longer efficiently contained in physical space; the site of identity must be multiple as it spreads like a stain across the map of modern free market economics trying to cover all possible bases in a competition for capital-(P)resence, a competition that no one can win because with true postmodern irony, there’s no one left to win it. I think it was Frederic Jameson who said that in the decentered world of the postmodern, “there is no longer a self to do the feeling.” He was obviously talking about “feeling” and not about “winning” but they are related by needing someone to do it.

Maybe this is a good thing. Maybe this is cosmic evolution. More likely, it is a case of my cynicism being wholly unwarranted. After all, the true home of the soul in most religious traditions has generally been thought to be outside the flesh-and-blood body, living more fully perhaps in the body of currency (i.e. relationships, transactions), as some kind of subjective floating exchange value. Brand names and personal names have merged under copyright protection. The soul has always been a dictation, not an emanation. It might even become a form of legislation. What matters is that the “Great Me” that “buys cool stuff” is primarily an illusion fostered, created by someone else, someone I don’t even know. The trick of the “old world” was ironically that we never knew that. But now, of course, we know with a vengeance: we are not who we think we are. I believe it was Jean Francois Lyotard himself who said: “Everyone knows that that their ‘self’ does not amount to much,” and that’s what bugs us.

Since I seem to be, through no will of my own, citing a series of postmodern pundits, I will propose here a new theory behind this self-dispersion. I am speaking of Peter Galison’s theory of postmodern urban sprawl as he lays it out in “War Against the Center.” Galison believes that the growth of American cities away from their urban cores was, in part, the purposeful formation of a nodal web of multiple centers by which our enemies (the Russians, the Chinese) would find it hard to disable us through the targeting of atom bombs on a given number of locations. The network offers a redundancy out of which our industrial, communication and cultural abilities can be reconstituted in the aftermath of mass destruction. He thus plots the movement away from centralization:

The above graph traces the process (left to right, A—C) of decentralization with the dots representing nodal points. These points can stand for bomb targets such as industrial centers or cities, or, as I contend, sites of dispersed subjectivity, i.e. multiple centers of selfness. The graph remains the same, only the meaning has changed. However, the new interpretation does suggest that such dispersal is the result of a threat to subjectivity—a possible atom bomb- like destruction of the soul which would justify self-dispersal in order to keep various enemies (Russians, revenuers, ego-vultures, emotional vampires, “friends,” etc.) disoriented. If no one can locate you, they can’t ask you to pay your bills or steal your ideas or your identity, nor can they feed upon your psychic flesh. Nor do you need be accountable for whatever moral or ethical stance you might have taken on any particular day. I am not saying anything here that everyone has not already noticed. The government as well as private industry have been practicing this for years through the avocation of vast beurocracies in which accountability (think of Condoleezza Rice’s use of the word) has become a veritable phone tree of deferred locations, each one empty—no one home—and this decentralization has “trickled down” to influence the formation of the Subject, as if the mind or self could literally be blown away at any moment by the bullets and bombs of aggressive modernity.

As a possible solution we might add to the above graph, and to your business card as well, a further (way further) rhizomatic extension—the abstract and thoroughly hip location of “outer space.” While it may seem vague, it is, ultimately, the safest place to be based because—no one can actually go there to see that you are not there. As the saying goes: in space no one knows there is no one. I know this is true as I tried to live in outer space when I was young and dumb. There wasn’t anybody around, not even me. Now I am old and ugly and Outer Space won’t even have me. I don’t have a business card either, but I do have an address, an old fashioned one made of stone and steel and timber. It has a numerical location on a real street in what used to be a real city. My address is (address deleted to protect privacy). If you know where that is, stop by some time, bring some beer—we’ll hang out. But call first, just to make sure I’m home.

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