Monday, July 27, 2009

A Surfeit of Seeming

I grew up in a small town that was transformed into a large, sprawling suburb around the time I was ten or eleven. The change was rapid and total. My great-grandfather's farm- long since sold- became townhouse developments, my family's hardware store eventually closed down, and dozens of strip malls went in. The population quadrupled.

Naturally, I am not exactly happy about what has become of the old town. The strangest thing I notice when visiting there- aside from the fact that the middle aged suburbanites who live there are some of the angriest people I've ever encountered- is how artificial everything is. It's like they replaced a town with an advertisement for a town. The local radio shows- which actually used to be local- give the sensation of hanging out in a locker room; the local restaurants have been replaced with theme restaurants in which you can pretend to be in Venice or Texas; and most of the "entertainment complexes" and stores offer similar make-believe "experiences". One encounters so much marketing and hype- even in the standardized greetings they give you in these places- that you feel somehow untethered. It's as if the economy is completely fueled by artifice.

Whatever happened to reality?

That's a clumsy way to ask the question, and I'm not sure I can do better. Luckily, Ihab Hassan has written a challenging, and more cogent, article on this question. Here are the first two paragraphs to entice you to read more (Aha! Marketing!):

"The way we live: when I think of that in the cusp of some small frustration—say, holding the phone waiting for a warm-bodied techie—random themes begin to buzz in my brain, like restless bees in a hive. Themes like politics, marketing, celebrity, trust, art, the void. How can I quiet these themes, these concerns, long enough to make sense of the noise?

I do not mean to make an essay out of the tribulations of writing an essay—that’s tacky; I mean only to explain my title as a bewildered approach to the multitudinous present, the way we have become. It’s a large topic, relevant to what V. S. Naipaul called “our universal civilization,” relevant also to all those errant souls—immigrants, refugees, displaced persons, expatriates like myself—wandering the earth. It’s a large topic, but I have tried to hew to a particular line: the tyranny of appearances, a surfeit of seeming in America. Yes, now things must seem, not be."



Brian Dunbar said...

the local restaurants have been replaced with theme restaurants in which you can pretend to be in Venice or Texas;

It is hard to express how weird it is - having actually lived in small-town Texas - going to a Texas-themed restaurant in Wisconsin.

That kind of thing was odd enough in Texas where everything was done with a wink and a nudge: hey it's corny but we know y'all are in on the joke. Have some Pearl Beer.

Here: no winks and the accents do not match the decor.

Everything changes, oh yes it does.

Rufus said...

We have a lot of theme restaurants here too. I keep thinking, "What if we made a restaurant whose theme was being in this place at this time?"