Saturday, July 16, 2005

To the City?

In the 1920's Brecht wrote a poem called On the Crushing Impact of the Cities. It ends like this:

"So short was time
That between morning and evening
There was no noon
And already on the old familiar ground
Stood mountains of concrete."

Just as capital is compelled continually to reproduce itself, so its culture is one of unending anticipation. What-is-to-come, what-is-to-be-gained empties what-is. The immigrant proletariat, unable to return home, suffering from being who they were, yearned to become, or for their children to become, American. They saw no hope but to exchange themselves for the future. And although the desperation of this wager was specifically immigrant, the mechanism has become more and more typical of developed capitalism.

Time, they often say in New York, is money. This can also mean that money is what time is like. Money, being purely quantitative, has no content, but it can be exchanged for content: it purchases. The same has become true of time: it, too, is now being exchanged for the content that it lacks. Work-time for wages, wages for the unlived time "encapsuled" in the purchase: the "speed" of the automobile, the eternal present of the television screen, the time "saved" in a hundred household appliances, the peace of the retirement pension to come, etc. etc. The fourth lesson of the city is the pie in the sky, in which the denial of space and time combine.

Photographs of Manhattan, often make the island look like a monument. Fasanella's paintings show it as the most temporary and make-shift of stations. In truth, nothing can be kept there. This is why he inscribes in protest on the brick wall of a tenement building, a plea, which challenges all of the city's lessons, as do his paintings: Lest We Forget.

This plea might be mistaken for nostalgia. It is not. It is a frontal protest against what the modern city, with its empty space and time, imposes: impersonal ahistoricity. It is on the site of such a protest that the only forces capable of defeating urban dehumanization can meet and join forces.

––John Berger, 1978 (About Looking, 101-102)

A simple, half-hearted lament (or, let's be honest, something of an exercise in written masturbation): Recently relieved of his job at the bookstore ("sales are down, lalala"), he thinks to himself, "it's alright, I needed to move on" (they'd been planning this sudden relief for weeks). He knows the truth about the quality of the job he did, although sometimes it's merely the fact of being non-threatening that counts for more. The most common thing in the world, perhaps: Being told. Even at staff meetings (unpaid), where there was talk of which paper bags to order, this is purely the function: Being told. Nevermind the larger problems, the rosy picture being painted over mounting debts. Do the job you're told to do, not the job you could do. It's not about potential standards; it's about the path of least resistance. Don't expect the effort of giving honest feedback; it's easier just to let you go. After all, sales ARE down. You are dispensable; their avoidance of your gaze couldn't be more clear. Some people, nevertheless, so unused to honesty, they first assume the worst about one's motives. Why is this? Is honesty in generally attractive, confident people so uncommon? Honesty of the intelligent sort, of course, not the purely affected, not the faux-profound, therapeutic sentimentality or new-age racket. (God, the books we sold were awful.)

Sovereign, uncurious, Hollow Men, maybe. Hounded and worn thin. Losing the impression management game wasn't particularly difficult, in this case. The boss––who when he spoke honestly, at last, gave the distinct impression of channeling his own father's irrational condemnations––had all the literary sensibility and love for books of a Donald Rumsfeld, and the days were long. No way to spend a summer. Working in Alaska taught him not to expect much gratitude in certain things. He'll miss some of the regulars there, but not the callous charm with which he was used. Nor the endless questions about that book, you know, the one with the pink cover. But no hard feelings here. It is, after all, the most common thing in the world.

Ok, maybe a few hard feelings. Two weeks notice would have been nice. Nobody is having any fun here, the boss had said, as if groceries and rent were always merely an afterthought.

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