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."