Some weeks ago I had a phone conversation with a friend of mine who is around my age. We were lamenting that we’d been denied the punkish post-apocalyptic world of mutants, spontaneous freedoms, and actual battles with manifest oppressors that was promised to us by 80’s and early 90’s era science fiction books and films. What we all got instead is the soul-eroding and -denying banality of the endless shopping mall.
Death of the social, communities transformed into masses, the living world converted to a dead shell of asphalt, the long night of the end of the world.
Last night as I was driving out to the supermarket—or as I refer to it, hell—I had a realization that the world I came from no longer exists. It’s been paved over, rebuilt, remade, and everything now in its place sits as though eternal; beyond my memories, my past has been erased. Where once were fields and owls and oak trees, there are housing developments, restaurants for the pampered and safe, and parking lots. It was already disappearing as I was growing up, though my young eyes could not see it.
Like almost everything about modern “life,” such radical change in so short a time is fundamentally alien to the human experience. For hundreds of thousands of years, we lived the same way our ancestors had “always” lived, and we could count on our descendants doing the same. Life was cyclical, bonded to land, territory, weather, and all our various relatives in the web of living beings. Sure, every few thousand years you might get an ice age or other major geological/environmental shift, but on the whole, life was consistent.
Whereas in my short, almost-four-decades-long existence, so many bewildering changes have occurred in how I live and how humans interact with each other that my imagination struggles to make sense or meaning out of any of it. And that’s part of the simulation, the artificial reality that has replaced whatever existed before—there is no sense, no meaning, only the cold absolute drive of anti-life, the same-ifying of everything, the race to nothing. We’re not supposed to be able to make sense of it, an impossible task. We’re just supposed to be carried along with the signal flow. Plug in, tune out.
Mediated lives. The endless screen. Everything and every act a commodity, pre-defined in advance by a consciousness that perceives everything as a photo-op, every experience a potential subject of miniature documentaries.
I worked a show over the weekend where the band had arranged a VIP pre-show event; about 30 people got to come in early, meet the band, do a Q&A, take some vodka shots, and hear acoustic versions of two new songs. An awesome idea, and would have been a genuinely unique experience, had it been limited to the moment in which it took place. But before it even started, it was already filtered, mediated, defined, limited, rendered dimensionless; the band had photographers and videographers recording the whole thing, and at least half the people who came entered the event with their phones held dutifully in front of their faces, standing in between them and the actual event. Instead of being a special moment, a human moment, it was already artifice. It was already simulated. Whatever lingering magic that could have existed was already gone, deleted in advance.
Back to the supermarket. Consumer and commodity, reflecting each other until neither is distinguishable. Instead of sitting on shelves and colorful displays, we sit in cars in parking lots and stand in lines, herded, processed, just like the things we buy. Alone in our shopping bubbles, we move from shelf to shelf, surrounded by pop music and cold fluorescent light, hoping on some level not to have to interact with any other humans—the ultimate tragedy, to confront directly the isolation that defines our existence by breaking it, just for a moment, by acknowledging another victim.
As far as I know, somewhere in the High St. Mi Pueblo there is, right now, an abandoned bag of potatoes sitting in a random location in the store. I was carrying it, put it down, forgot about it, and didn’t remember until I was paying for my other items. There was no way I was going back for it. I barely survived the first trip through, and I still had two more supermarkets to visit before returning to homebase.
I spent three years in the simulated community of a nonprofit organization. People brought together by employment and mutual disaffection with the standard slave jobs available for working class black and brown people. Who among us has not made a latte, served a meal, mixed drinks, stood watch, hauled boxes, mopped floors, pretended cordiality in the face of obnoxious, rude, angry people? For the promise of something better—the promise of meaning—we signed up for the nonprofit get-down, and one by one we discovered, whether we could articulate it or not, the ultimate truth of the 21st century: there is no there there.
I can imagine that my life is a smooth flow from birth to my current adulthood, but I would be lying about my experience of it, which is nothing if not fragmented, broken into chunks, distorted. Multiple lives lived successively—here now my teenage world, my friends, now gone. Here now my college world, my friends, now gone. Here now my bartending world, my friends, now gone. Here now my restaurant serving world, my friends, now gone. Here now my nonprofit world, my friends, now gone, but not all of them. I kept a couple in the aftermath. How long until they, too, are gone? Even my own dear mother I see only a handful of times a year. The most consistent person in my life is Thomas, who is a cat. He will be with me until death do us part. My deepest, longest, closest, most abiding friendship, having now outlasted my longest romantic relationship (seven years).
Death of worlds and ways of being, without time or space to mourn their loss; endless and ongoing mourning, with no catharsis, no closure, no finality, no relief, in a culture of insipid morbidity—life as a drifting journey through an eternal concrete mausoleum.