floating in america

This essay first appeared on the Dissident Voice webzine. It was later re-published on CounterPunch.

Remaking authentic communities into packaged forms of themselves, re-creating environments in one place that actually belong somewhere else, creating theme parks and lifestyle-segregated communities, and space travel and colonization—all are symptomatic of the same modern malaise: a disconnection from a place on Earth that we can call Home. With the natural world—our true home—removed from our lives, we have built on top of the pavement a new world, a new Eden, perhaps; a mental world of creative dreams. We then live within these fantasies of our own creation; we live within our own minds. Though we are still on the planet Earth, we are disconnected from it, afloat on pavement, in the same way astronauts float in space. –Jerry Mander, In the Absence of the Sacred

If you want to understand the United States of America at the turn of the millennium from whose pinnacle of power we are now beginning our descent – or at least, if you want to understand why you can’t understand it – you need to take to the Road.

First, let’s dispense with the idea of the Road as that mythic place of freedom seekers, pioneers, beatniks and iconoclasts. The Road I mean here is the one most Americans experience on a daily basis, and it doesn’t go all that far.

Here’s the paradox: even though on the average, each adult American spends much of his or her year behind the wheel of an internal combustion machine capable of circumnavigating the planet several times non-stop before its engine wears out – most of us aren’t really going very far. The average length of our collective car trips is just 10 miles. Over 60% of trips over 50 miles long are still within the driver’s home state. Most Americans don’t ever travel outside the country: less than half of us have passports. (And the number of those who do is greatly enlarged by first-generation immigrants.)

In 1903, when Horatio Nelson Jackson, the first man to cross the country in an automobile, took his famous trip, most Americans had never been more than twelve miles from their home. Since then, we’ve become infinitely more mobile, and yet overall, we haven’t gotten much further.

That open road thing, the myth of restless movement: it’s the restlessness of the gerbil on the wheel.

we’re on a road to nowhere
come on inside
takin’ that ride to nowhere
we’ll take that ride

The Road Denies Us Context. The great sadness in our constructed landscape is its expression of contextlessness. The reason why people romanticize San Francisco or small town New England is that there are buildings in those places that have come to seem somehow connected to the landscape they are in. This is not the norm in the USA. It never was the intent of our settlements or our society as a whole to mesh with the land; we had all come from somewhere else, quite recently, in historical terms. The land was ours before we were the land’s as the poet says, with unintended irony. And particularly since the advent of the automobile, it has been more important to us that our buildings have access to the Road, than connection with the land.

So as a result, what is it that characterizes us most profoundly? Disconnection from place. It creates a distinct set of pathologies.

In the Sierra Nevada one winter weekend, my friend and I stood in the great, snowy meadow among the silent pines talking about database management, media coverage of the White House, and the technical aspects of nonprofit accounting: everything but the place in which we found ourselves at that moment. We might have had that same conversation against any backdrop: place was irrelevant.

In the Big Valley driving back, people blew into the diner off the interstate, their lives wreathed about them like smoke. Hard, craggy faces, soft puffy faces, dim eyes in acres of skin. Tee shirts: My Honor Student Got Crabs at Jack’s Crab Hut. Tee hee… Across the access road was the franchise gas station, the chain motel. Traffic on, traffic off – everything constructed so that the place itself had no meaning outside of its function of servicing the mobile. Why would anyone want to stay at this featureless crossroads for more than the time it took to eat, to fill the tank, to sleep a night at most? It’s nowhere.

And yet, like every place, it used to be somewhere. It must have been known once in all its particularity by flocks of migrating birds, by a herd of deer that grazed there or a grizzly who hunted there, or by a band of Ohlone or Miwok people who, each year, on some unvarying date, passed through, camped there, and knew what birds or deer or other creatures would be there when they did. But we have taken its personality away and made it functionally the same as ten thousand other places. And maybe this would be a small price to pay if our people were happy and fulfilled as a result. But are we? Let’s find out:

The waitress has her lines already prepared; she doesn’t wait to hear your answer when she asks a joking question: Like this weather we’re having? (Wind and rain sweeping the great wide valley.) You make a joking answer but it doesn’t fit her program; there’s no repartee. Everyone’s running his own program; everyone talks at once, with loud and heavily underlined goodwill, and no one listens.

The waitress’ whole day is pre-fab. Why waste time re-inventing the quotidian wheel? Just get through it, go home, try to be Someplace by the end of the day. Except Someplace, as it turns out, is no larger than the space enclosed by the walls of an apartment in a housing block, or a tract home in a Development. She hasn’t lived in Someplace more than a few years, much less her whole life; it’s a place, but she’s not really connected with it. So it’s turn on the TV, go no-place again. Watch that show about the waitress that works at that diner. (Prettier this time. Funnier.) You don’t have to do anything. It’s someone else has got her lines all prepared now, for you. She’s got an answer for everything!

What are the people on the Road holding on to? What keeps them from falling forever into the abyss of contextlessness? What anchors their lives?

Well, first of all, logically enough, there’s the Car. There’s Fixing the Car, or Buying a New Car, or Trading It In. And later, if you’re in a little better shape, there’s hope for the Boat, or the RV. Yep, we like things we can move around in. Of lesser value, there are New Clothes (that funny tee shirt) or some Cute Knickknacks for the House. There’s even the house itself, at some point, for most good hardworking folks. And that means Fixing Up the House, and Paying Off the House. And since on average we change houses every four years or so, Selling the House.

Oh, and Church, of course. Where more than 60% of Americans try on a weekly basis to resolve the glaring contradictions of life on the Road. (Troubled? Just ask God about it. He has an answer for everything.)

And buzzing underneath there is Alcohol, and Fights in the Bar, and Fights with the Wife and Kids, and Your Asshole Boss, and Screwing Somebody Else’s Girlfriend or Boyfriend (or Husband or Wife), and Car Crashes (right after you did all that work on it, you totaled it), Addiction, Juvenile Delinquency, a Hard Pregnancy, and Morbidly Obese, and Fighting Cancer or Lung Disease or Heart Disease. Heart dis-ease.

No wonder you just want to drive.

But wait—you, the intelligent, the questing, the ones who read essays—know all know this, right? Or at least it’s nothing new. If you want you can read Sinclair Lewis or Sherwood Anderson or Mark Twain and find the same dull eyes staring from bright pink faces, the hypnotized hysteria of the revival tent (the stadium concert, the football game). The minds narrowed to a point, the terminal depression of the sensitive. Today, Reality TV is telling the same stories those great writers used to tell, without the insight, without the understanding. Then, as now, it was all about people who hadn’t really been anywhere, including the place they lived.

Here we are in the 21st century, and it’s just like the Jetsons, without the rocket cars. Remember the Jetsons? (Well, in a few years you won’t. And a few years after that you probably won’t remember Reality TV either. Heaven knows that’s not a bad thing in itself. But somehow it’s part of what I’m getting at here. Contextlessness…)

Who Are You, Anyway? Before we go any further, though, let’s take a minute to look at who’s speaking. Not really one of us Roadies, is she? No, some urban boho, who went to college and lives in an apartment in a city full of dark people and perverts. For whom the great expanses of land dotted with metal box buildings and swirling with suburban tract homes are a mystery as foreign as Peru. What right does she have to put us down? What does she know?

She knows where she came from: the little boxes in what used to be a forest. And she knows how hard she tried to get away. Like the poor fox fleeing its own tail. That’s all of us, you know. Running away from our own shadows. She says: That’s what we have in common, you and I. You drink canned beer and I don’t. You watch the talk shows and I don’t. You go to the mall on weekends and I don’t. You have a cousin in the service and I don’t. You still try to connect yourself up with the great grid of AMERICA every so often and I don’t. But we’re both running. We have no place on this earth.

Older now, and still pissing against the wind…

A Little History. So what’s going on? How did “we” get like this? How far back do you have to go?

You know, those wags who came up with the Flintstones and the Jetsons were on to something. However far back, or forward you go, they were telling us, it’s all the same folks. It’s all tract homes, and shopping for bargains, and scheming for the Big Break, and fibbing to the Wife, and trying to Outsmart the Boss. It’s the desperate search for a little peace and quiet, a little honest fun, but we keep getting in our own way somehow.

So now let’s get into the Way-Back Machine. Let’s take a trip to the beginning of the problem. (Remember the Way-Back Ma—oh, never mind…)

The locust-like pioneers? (extract, consume, deplete, move on) The slave ships? Before that. The paranoid, demon-haunted Puritans? The Salem witch trials? Already in the cards. Farther. The plagues, blights, and endless wars of Europe?

Farther. The Fertile Crescent? Africa? Let’s start there.

You have to start with the first people who came to hate the land, who hated place and the limitations of place and found in them only misery and oppression, not bounty and beauty and identity. Who came to see the great web of life as an enemy, a funereal spider web, not a safety net, a cradle, a womb. Who were these mad men?

They were, I hate to say it, homo sapiens, the masters of bad, or at least heavily ironic, timing: they developed culture coeval with one of the harshest climatic periods since the Great Extinction millions of years before: the last Ice Ages. On the once-fertile African savannah all was drought, desiccation, scarcity. They carried their race memory of fear of starvation, of clannishness, of aggression against competing strangers wherever they went on the globe—and pushed from one place to another by cruel nature, who ruthlessly dispensed with less adaptable species, including, eventually, homo neandertalis, they migrated ceaselessly. It took ten thousand years of settlement in places where outsiders stopped coming, and there was plenty of room, and plenty of food, and they rediscovered how generous the land could be, for some of them to relax a bit, come to trust Nature, even to worship her. And she in turn, warmed to them—literally. But even so they were always propitiatory, because within the great, stable cycles that they came to recognize, she was still capricious and could kill. In fact, eventually, she always got you. What you did with that knowledge of the inevitable determined what your culture looked like, as we shall see.

These far-flung places: the Arctic tundra, the North American plains, the African rainforest, the Amazon, the Asian steppes, the Australian outback – each became the center of the universe for their peoples: so attached to these places were they that they mostly forgot they had ever come from somewhere else. And really, the people they understood themselves to be had come from nowhere else. They were truly engendered by these places, the selves they recognized shaped by the lands they inhabited. This is what indigenous means.

But there was at least one group of people that never stopped hating and fearing nature. In the Near East, the deserts were so harsh they gave them dangerous and angry visions. And their creation myth was not the story of their reverent connection to a single sacred place of origin, it was the story of eternal exile, and wandering, and of all humanity being descended from a couple condemned to be pariahs for merely having sought self-knowledge – but as a matter of direct lineage descended from their son, a cursed man who murdered his own brother out of jealousy, and was made a fugitive and a vagabond on the earth. Listen to this sad horror, the very beginning of our story:

Cursed is the ground for thy sake; (emphasis mine) in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life. Thorns and thistles shall it bring forth to thee, and thou shalt eat the herbs of the field.

In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground, for out of it thou wast taken: for dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return.

And at the same time these people were ordered by their fever-dream God by no means to worship this hostile earth, but to subdue it. And not just the particular place they emerged, but the whole earth. And it is these desert peoples whose ethic of estrangement from place we are still experiencing, as we roar along the interstate, as we plunge off the psychic abyss into which the TV beckons us. Clutching their fundamental texts of fear and anger, and sharpening their swords, they carried to all corners of the planet the idea that nothing of this earth is sacred, because from time out of mind this earth is the place of exile, of thorns and hunger and blood hatred and dust.

And every time the placeless people came into conflict with those who were rooted to a place, or with those whose empires, however strong they appeared, were weakened by inferior technology and their rulers’ ineffectual multiplicity of gods, the placeless monotheists eventually won. And among the monotheists, those whose philosophy was most absolutist in terms of its rejection of place, the Christians, went the furthest. This whole magnificent planet, whose multiform environments were all-in-all to the indigenous peoples, merely the dreary battleground to gain a heaven that existed nowhere but the mind.

So, the United States of America. The ultimate experiment in placelessness. Everything we’d been shaped by for more than three thousand years finally worked for us here: Our disconnection from the land worked; there was so much of it to buy and sell! Our contempt for the indigenous people too; our “competitors:” there were so few of them; they had no guns, they went around naked like our fallen progenitors. Nothing of this earth is sacred: back we sail to the land we walked away from fifty thousand years before, and pluck our cousins from the soil and turn them into property. Click, click, click, it all fell into place. And we got so rich so fast. That changes a person even more.

The Floating World. Now from here there’s nowhere left on earth to go; it’s on to outer space. The sky’s the limit. Meet George Jetsuuun

But wait. What’s going on? Out on the Road we don’t look like the new Conquistadores, the God-men, melded with their horses (or cars). We don’t look like the earth’s aristocracy, the inheritors of the greatest material wealth any empire has ever known. We don’t look like people for whom the sky is no limit. We mostly look dumpy, or dopey, or wary, or just blank. Our clothes, though generally new and in good repair, don’t fit us well. Our skin is bad. Our eyes don’t focus. We don’t look happy. We don’t look healthy. We don’t look free.

We look, if any word describes it, ambivalent. We are strangers here, with no great love for any particular piece of land, but a keen ability to see how land can be turned into money. Why aren’t we happy? Because such an ability is not enough with which to forge a meaningful identity.

For a while, toward the end of “our” century, we looked like creatures from a garish fairy tale, trapped in some bizarre enchantment, our bodies and our cars growing ever larger, every step we took on the groaning earth exacting an enormous price somewhere else.

And still today we float, comfortably but sadly, on the pavement that is everywhere, our cyclical Road. And – this is key – in our floating world we are terrified of dying. When you know who you are, when your identity is strong because you are connected to something, death is given its place at the table, welcomed in its time, still feared, perhaps, but understood. But when your identity is weak – because the strongest identities offered you are offered not by your family or your place or your labor or your peers but by complete strangers who want to make a buck off you – then somewhere at the back of your mind is the idea that you must not die, not yet, not ever, because you have never really lived. Because to have truly lived is to know who you are.

And now, it seems, we are running out of options. We are Hitting the Limits. We are seeing that the greater the wealth that is generated, the fewer the hands that hold it. That Infinite Possibility for a few just means anxiety and confusion and drudgery for most. That we consume more and more but own less and less. That endemic violence and warfare mock every advance we are supposed to have made. That what was lost was worth more than what was gained, because what was gained for most of us was not happiness, not fulfillment, not identity, but simply a more comfortable cage in which to run our wheels.

And on the horizon now, the Big Storms gather, one after another. Our cages won’t even be so comfortable soon.

But actually, no: we are not all seeing that. We may be feeling it somewhere, in some subterranean part of our psyches, but we are not seeing it. We are seeing a torrent of images of power and pleasure, we are being saturation bombed with seductive images, happy images, simple, friendly images. And we restlessly try to reshape our lives to fit those images; we pay big money to live in phony environments that we think will make us feel happy, make us feel at ease, and we simply spiral farther and farther from the solid ground that could help us know who we are, like the fox running away from its tail…

Our dreams, our fantasies, are being used to hold us hostage.

The Imperfect Bubble. But at the same time, our lives persist in breaking in. The bubble is never completely sealed against real life; real life, that is, real deaths in the family, real physical pain, real love of a task or a creation or a place or a person, keeps leaking in. For flashes of time, sometimes for long periods, you stop floating. Whatever else is happening, you are not just living inside your own mind anymore. You are jolted, you are scared, you are exhilarated, you are engaged, but you are back on the ground. That’s when you wake to what hard and ugly ground it is, this concrete skin slapped over everything, and you start to wonder what happened to the earth.

You visit the hospital. There the contradictions we are trying to straddle are on full display. One of my aging relatives (since deceased), former owner of a two pack-a-day habit, had emphysema, and small infections became a deadly danger to her weakened lungs. I visited her at the lovely suburban hospital she was fortunate enough to have access to, and saw the magnificent resources that were being leveraged to keep her body functioning, to keep death at bay. Sophisticated machines, quiet, capable and reassuring people. Everything in that calming, soft-toned environment spoke out, filling those who entered with a sense of tremendous relief: death is not yet. It felt like entering a mauve and peach-accented fortress. We are strong; we will protect you; we will use all our skill and machinery to keep death on the other side of the wall.

The parking lot outside was filled with hundreds of shiny cars, all in good shape, but carrying bodies that were being besieged, collapsing, seeking desperate sanctuary from the realness of death. Who would not want such powerful relief as this to be available to them? I felt a tremendous tenderness toward the sickened people in their bright new cars. Even as the cancers proliferate, and the mysterious illnesses multiply, the primary emotion felt by those who are protected by this fortress is the profoundest gratitude. Thank God, I Am So Lucky to Live Here.

And underneath? I can’t be the only one who’s asking this, who’s thinking that if we hadn’t, since those ancient times, longed to be free from the earth, one another, and from death itself, we wouldn’t need this enormous superstructure full of cracks that also has the effect of “freeing” us from any real connection with ourselves. Take emphysema: tobacco was used in a sacred way for a thousand years by the people who once lived where the hospital now stands. But until there came a people, materially rich and psychically impoverished, who needed the infinite reassurance promised by infinite pleasure, and until that reassurance was discovered to be a commodity as valuable as land, no one could ever have thought of tobacco as a poison, or as addictive. Addiction was a non sequitur. And no great machinery was needed therefore, to fight the consequences of a problem that didn’t exist.

So now the circle is complete: an enormous apparatus is developed to offset the effects of the enormous, fundamental and useful lie that You (Personally) Can Have it All. And as the lie gets ever more glaring and harder to cover up, the apparatus must grow as well, but it always lags behind a little bit, pieces are always shearing off, cracks appearing, under the ceaseless assault of reality.

And so it will always be. While the salesmen promise rocket cars, and eternal life, and perfect children, and great sex, the people who blow in off the Road are trying to stuff themselves into a series of identities that don’t fit any better than their big-box store clothing, and into relationships that don’t work, because just like with the Car and the House and the Boat, once you take care of Problem A, damned if Problem B doesn’t rear its ugly head. And then you get sick, or somebody you love dies, possibly in a pointless war… or a flood/blizzard/mudslide/heat wave…

But the salesmen can’t solve these problems, so their promises just get wilder and grander and sexier; the pictures get brighter and more beautiful, now everybody seems to live in New England or San Francisco, while if you look around you see they actually live in modular houses on access roads scattered among the metal box warehouses and storage lockers. Or else in environments too dire even to be referenced by the salesmen, except as nightmares, when they take pains to reassure you Roadies that the Cops have Those People under control… so you will again prostrate yourselves with gratitude and reflect on How Lucky You Are.

Another Way. As always, there is another way. If the ailment is disconnection from place, then what, class, is the cure? That’s right, connection to place. This idea is already circulating, somewhere, in the vast bloodstream of this culture, but it’s as invisible to the majority as the Christians once were in the catacombs. Forty years ago, the dry term “bioregionalism” was coined to identify this philosophy: that humans could really only live fully on the earth, and the earth itself survive the human presence undamaged, if we lived in full connection to a particular place upon the earth, with particular characteristics that made it uniquely home to us. But how can we find the places again, underneath the oceans of pavement, through the unending storm of shining, 30-second lies?

I don’t know. I don’t live anywhere near where I was born, and I’ve lived so many places since then, and never have I come to one and said: this is the place. I long for place, but I feel incapable of choosing that connection. On the contrary, movement is my great solace, as I suspect it is for many Americans.

Interviewer: What do you do when you feel really bad?
Interviewee: Just get in the car and drive around.

I hope against hope that the ecologists now elaborating various aspects of the concept of sustainability and resilience: energy conservation, building design, co-housing, “ecovillages,” permaculture, regenerative agriculture, etc.—are not making the same great hopeful error that theorists and inventive types often make, and simply assuming that once a more rational plan for human fulfillment comes along, it will automatically be adopted, eventually.

They appeal to the superego, but the salesmen grab the id by its aching balls, they pump heroin into its hungry veins. Will there ever come a time when all this country, collectively, gets down on its knees like Bill W., and acknowledges that it has a Problem, and that it has hurt a lot of people and Needs Help?

In the meantime, like some of my compatriots, I just try to understand it, to look for the cracks in the pavement, to walk, pedal or take the bus instead of driving my daily rounds. And really to see the Road when I enter its territory again, not just take it for granted, not assume it’s all there ever was or ever will be, Contextlessness Without End, Amen. I try as much as possible to turn the salesmen from my door empty-handed, and hunt through the faces of the blank faces of the affectless crowd for kindred spirits. To watch for birds, and whistle down the ever-wilder winds…

But just like you, I’m still floating. I’d be a liar if I said I wasn’t.

For Joe Bageant, RIP

 

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