THE AMERICAN COMMUNIST AND THE FRENCH
I looked at this country from over the Manhattan Bridge. Incidentally, this was the very point at which Russian emigres, passing over in a drunken or stoned stupor, mistook so uncannily and so frequently the brown towers at the bank of the East River for the rows of identically-white apartment buildings with millions of windows in the Orekhovo suburb of Moscow. And maybe that was why as I rode I saw America not as one country but as two, saw them so brightly and so suddenly that I was a little overwhelmed by how much I under-appreciated the one but how I despised the other. The warehouses, the high-rises full of lights at dusk, the neon hieroglyphs in the old fashioned slum tenements of Chinatown as I sped past it all, seemed frustratingly insubstantial. No matter how I tried to touch them materially, to eat Vietnamese noodles out of the right bowl, it all still came down to the eternally theoretic world that I inhabited. It was insubstantial for two reasons- because I lived in a world of ideas and not a world of people, and because two countries, the two realities that I was looking at, both of which made up America, were irreconcilable- but one had already hopelessly and irrevocably swallowed up the other.
But that was not what in itself had so startled me: I had already been thinking it over for a week now. It would take long hours because I would also deeply wonder about why I was the way I was here, and most of all, about the occasional yet sudden and bright image of a girl with her temple pressed against the window of an old taxi as it sped past birches and pines, each branch of which was covered in thick sausages of snow that sullenly rolled off when the wind blew, the girl through whose eyes I saw, the girl who was not me- either my sister or my wife.
It had also grown quite clear to me that I inhabited an ideological world of pairs, pairs that I would only too often mistake for one whole. And that was how I had slowly begun to draw out and separate the concept of capitalist consumerism from the concept of America. It had taken me a week of tedious but very productive conversations with Sergei, the one who wore a new face and was known as the Breadroll, in his Brooklyn apartment, but I had finally distinguished the two, and justified how the one grew out from the nourishment of the other until it finally swallowed it up. The Breadroll had a tendency of arguing with metaphysics, but having enough theoretical practice by then, I took to arguing from a materialistic standpoint, which helped me tremendously. In the end I succeeded- I convinced myself of the symmetry of the constructed model of that which I had so painfully despised.
The neon lights, plastic mannequins, flashing hamburgers, multi-colored Skittles and M&Ms (which the Microsoft dictionary has in its vocabulary), monotonous dialogues peppered with equally plastic intonations jaded by commercial hype that constituted banal assumptions as though they were fact, the sinister arrogance of the sarcasm of ordinary speech, and most of all, the flashing, tempting, colorful movements on television whenever presenting a product and almost erotically displaying its parameters (the I-Mac ad for one, which seductively ran over the translucent computer's luscious contours) or whenever suggesting we watch- all that I could no longer tolerate because its professed appeal reminded me so blatantly of pornography- all that was not really what I mistakenly called America.
That discovery, based on theory that I had myself constructed, shocked me as much as if I had discovered that I was actually a woman. America was in fact pure life, the senseless conversations of slackers and the theorizing of bums, the legacy of folklore showing its face in some rather marginal post-modernist literature that had nothing to do with the avant-garde, but mostly that folklore shone brightest in the simple metaphor and the tendency for its like: "nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs." It was also the innocent, unexploited sexual energy of its underground music, mostly essential to the blacks, formed by a background of wandering over the southwest, hitchhiking, squatting, smoking. It was the life personified by the musical antics of Tom Waits. But I was romanticizing things.
Still, what I had and drawn into an independent sphere was consumerism, and that was all-encompassing and could not be confused with the idealized understanding of America or even with one of its cultural attributes because if that were so, then it would be the only case of such an attribute thriving all over the world. The ultra-kitsch (in the Germanic Romanticist definition, and one presented by Milan Kundera- the hyperbolization of one positive aspect or parameter of a social concept and the erasure of all others) mistaken for American culture, resulting from Pepsi-Cola and McDonald's and Mickey Mouse and cheap Hollywood soft porn was not America, it was the product of consumerism. The reality presented in advertisement, however, was a very delicate one. If America was back-yard barbecues, riding in pick-up trucks over a stretch of desert, the free-style of Jack Kerouac, fried chicken in a back-ground of blues, all which were considered to be things that persons in other countries could never understand, then could it be said that they understood these things only by way of their exportation and exploitation in advertisement? It could- that American "reality" was marketed in the East. In the East, however, even if one tried to imitate the so-called "commercial" life, the life that existed on a different plane but according to Viktor Pelevin did not actually exist, their imitation would be only of the commercial, and to undermine that they would have their own real life which the hyperbolized plane in the commercials was not based on. But if that reality was marketed in the East, then it had to have naturally first been marketed in the West- in America. It was America where they first marketed the life that consumers supposedly identified with most of all- the back yard barbecues and the pick-up trucks. And even though the reality depicted in commercials was based on the reality that those commercials supposedly originated in, what prevented American consumers from imitating that hyperbolized plane, that commercial reality with which they so identified? And if so, then their own reality came to resemble that of the commercial one, but since from the start the commercial reality was based on the American one, then life would continue to imitate an imitation of itself, and the circle closed.
There are two sciences which cannot be determined as belonging to either natural sciences or humanities. The first is linguistics, because language, though said to be the product of man's mind, behaves more like an animal and a natural phenomenon in itself. The second is economics, because the laws of an economy are also considered natural, physical laws, thought to be discovered rather than invented. They can exist, however, only once a society allows them the right conditions. The reason I say this, I continued breathlessly, yelling at Sergei who refused to abstract the images we discussed to the right extent, is because these conditions did not start to become implemented until the Renaissance when the first permanent commercial trading centers appeared, and when the first tendencies of Protestantism began to develop. Now I didn't know what prompted what- whether Protestantism gave rise to Capitalism or vice-versa, but I know at least that historically they have proved to be interdependent, and seriously complemented and helped each other's existence.
Natural laws are by theory Darwinistic- organisms that act according to them spread, and by natural laws do everything in their power to survive. Consumerism is more of an organism than a language, ironically- it spreads and consumes, submitting resources to its own use so that it can grow stronger, influencing its environment as it spreads, just as a species.
The function and psychological power of money was not a half-baked metaphysical force at work, but a natural evolution of things: the overpowering attitude spreading over and subverting American pragmatism was inherently a kind of chauvinism, manifesting itself in the value of things by their function alone, and had its origins in man's relationship to money in a free-market society. That attitude, of course, developed from the prehistoric premise of trade where the value of an object was determined by its function and the rarity of its function, to be traded for another object of like value. The attitude towards money in modern society had reached equilibrium in the sense that money by itself had no function but that of value, and that value was determined by the value of what it bought. Yet the value of what money bought was still to some extent determined by its function, but that function had merged so closely with the force of the abstract value of money that the function of a bought object itself had become secondary. This equilibrium, the functional cycle being almost entirely self-sufficient, could be seen as a testimony to the last stage of Capitalism as defined by Marx (the only difference was that for Marx this last stage implied its downfall, whereas here this equilibrium implies the total transformation of Capitalism into an independent organism), and therefore reflects a certain evolutionary development.
If we recall that other Marxist complaint that he attributed to the proletariat, that of "life becoming not in itself but rather a means to life", we can extrapolate some insights about the nature of today's Western economy. Its current equilibrium can be described by the fact that whereas in the earlier stages of industrialization (I mean late industrialization, continuing well into the 20th Century) economy still functioned mostly as a means to a higher standard of living for all, in the later stages, when the post-war generation began to grow up, economy closed up on itself, became an end in itself, on the one hand serving as a manifestation of that which Marx criticized capitalism for, while on the other transcending it by being manifested in the perfect Marxist utopia: in other words, man no longer made money in order to survive, he made money in order to make money.
But to return to the history: what made this attitude, initially towards money and then permeating everything else, so all-encompassing, and what permitted its development to reach such a relative level of equilibrium was owed to two initial conditions in America: the absence of the overpowering cultural context of history, and the Protestant premise of man's value to God according to his worldly accomplishments. Mind you, that was not capitalism, it only gave an environment for it to thrive. In perfectly healthy conditions, the economic laws of capitalism will require that it thrive in a consumer world, where the forces of supply and demand are stronger than any other. This leads to an aim to consume that burns out every other intention, the consumption instinct is to look at every object with a predominantly sexual attitude- that of, as John Fowles put it when describing a writer or a God looking at his subject, what can I do with you?
The Media in America
It was already well known that free speech constituted neither truth nor freedom. But no other aspect showed so clearly and poignantly the true nature of consumerism than the media, because as long as any media was existing solely for the benefit of advertisers and corporate conglomerates that owned it, the product that any succulently interesting television show, any sarcastic but politically correct expository article in Time about skinheads in high schools, or any radio broadcast, was selling was the public- the potential attention of the reader, the viewer, the listener. It was that potential attention which could be filled with the seductive images of a product. And again as John Fowles so profanely and shamelessly described, if you are aware that a God, a writer, or anything else is looking at you under the premise of what I can do with you, you will naturally feel acute discomfort and turn away, for that is why the worst curses in most languages revolve around one word- to fuck.
This reflected one of the most intrinsic aspects of consumerism, the one that defined its nature but could be interpreted in different ways. Pelevin, after all, defined the animal that is consumerism as something which lived by passing as much money through itself, and subsequently through each consumer that was part of its organism, as possible: it compelled each of its components, or individual consumers, to limit its instincts to earning money and spending money. This model, of course, is for the most part economically objective and not that original, but in contrast to the blatantly sexual allusions I associated with this scheme, Pelevin had the audacity to explain it in terms of oral and anal impulses, which is also interesting, complementing one taboo bodily function with another.
Sergei was silent as I stood with slightly trembling hands. I had convinced him, or at least undermined or confused what he had previously thought of the matter. But the next thing that happened was the one that I mentioned might have scared me for life. The one that made everything I had come up previously imprint upon my mind with even greater force. He knit his brows, took a puff of his cigarette, and said, as true as the air and the earth: "You are a Marxist."
I sat down in shock, looked around hoping to find and reexamine the remains of my words like smoke in the air. Had I criticized capitalism?
I stood at the brink of the ocean after dusk, past the bridge of Brighton Beach, and stared out at the dark water that I had then named the abyss, with my hands in my moist gloves. It was zero degrees- the millions of water drops stuck to the branches of the trees and especially the bushes in that hopelessly transitory state as if they didn't know whether to freeze or to melt, whether to laugh or to cry. There was something else that undermined my existence here, and that was my insistence on the world of ideas- for once a thing is written or said or thought it loses touch with its original prototype, the present moment, forever. Just as memory, metaphor, thought, analysis, story or history, the meaning of an artifact and its definition, all these things had that in common- their consistency, their materialism. Only the present moment was immaterial and transitory, because there would be nothing like it ever again. Those things that we call abstract and immaterial turn out to be the only reality there actually is, the only plane that can be grasped, because compared to the elusiveness of the present moment the constructed novel is just as real as all the composites of a human memory, just as real as the most concise history of the Soviet Revolution. That self-defined reality was unique in one respect- being interdependent like the pages of a novel, each metaphor being so easily determined by its context like the life of a fish in water, that plane, if it could be called such, was characterized by its thinness. Just as America was suffering from a thinning of reality because life and commercial images imitated one another to such an extent that imitations ended up imitating imitations forever like two mirrors standing opposite one another, so the material plane of abstract concepts was so bulging with information that every bit of thought was based on another, previous thought, and that all were so interlinked that one concept became as malleable as water at the hands of its compatriots.
I argued, therefore, not by my own fault but by the irrevocable though fantastically questionable implications of my own up-bringing, shrouded in mystery just like the ethereal woman that was either my sister or my wife. I argued in a context of purely abstract thought in the self-sufficient plane of theory, and I argued with historical materialism. Because I lived in America the World of Ideas, where the unreality of the present moment or the reality of its description were both thinner than air, no idea of mine could ever be implemented into practice and each construction would remain pure, independent of the present moment. All I had in the end was a perfectly abstract construction that had nothing to do with any artifact I tried to describe, any present moment, because the present moment here did not really exist. My idea of whatever it was that I inhabited and could not tolerate, therefore, remained real by virtue of the impossibility of its manifestation. A hundred years ago, after all, thoughts took dangerous, bloody forms. And that was what separated the American Communist from the French.