Sit inside the unfurnished living room of my girlfriend's new fourth-floor walkup on Eastern Parkway and Franklin Avenue (Brooklyn, N.Y.) and you will, after a sustained period, start to notice the stop-and-go vehicular noise emanating from the street outside. There's a stoplight on the corner there, and cars zip by when the stoplight beams green and halt obediently when it doesn't. Rumbling, rattling, motors buzzing and wind whipping and then, suddenly, nothing. A beat passes. You stare at the nodding tree branches outside the window. Someone's playing Joni Mitchell down the hall. Then the cars come to life again revived, revving, and furiously speed away from the intersection.
Now imagine this over and over again as you're trying to read a novella or paint your toenails or eat something sugary and you'll start to understand my girlfriend's (slight) remorse after having signed on the dotted line of the apartment's lease. She wanted peace and quiet. And if not peace and quiet, at least a steady unbroken stream of cars passing, without the red-light-green-light back-and-forth disturbances at the cross street, a constant hum of motors that after some time starts to fade into the backdrop like a sound machine beside the bed or a dead radio murmuring statically in the garage.
Here's my question: What is the "pink noise" of modern American culture? What are those things that are so ubiquitous, so big and constant, so very here and inseparable from quotidian life that we don't even realize they are, in fact, here? Are there, in other words, behaviors or practices that have taken root in the last 50 years that are so deeply internalized and seemingly vital to what it means to be a civilized person in 2013 America that to confront them would shift those most basic internal emotional, psychological, and spiritual mechanisms that make day-to-day living bearable?
Here's my fear: These things do exist. And they profoundly affect us. They inform how we see ourselves and how we treat other people. They could be all right. Or they could be horribly, wretchedly corrosive to the soul. They could be right now at this very moment sowing the seeds of our demise. And what's (possibly) harrowing is not that we can't imagine life without these things (if they exist); it's that they seem to constitute life itself.
Why is our culture inattentive? Why must we be distracted? Why is it that without a dizzying array of stuff that amuses and piques and beeps within reach at all times we feel un-soothed and unsettled? Why is it that boredom feels like a kind of death?
Here's my best guess: When one's not occupied on a surface level, one has to sit with one's thoughts. One has to think. And when we start thinking those big and constant things start churning and yearning inside of us and do their darndest to push us back into a state of thoughtless ease.
Much of this can be attributed to the salience of commercial media, forever beckoning us with a promise to alleviate the anxiety it itself has expertly, absorbingly crafted. And the salience of commercial media has much to do with the rampant, unchecked spread of corporatism in modern America. Faceless, nameless entities that have an internal logic of their own for which they, the corporate institutions, will fight tooth and nail to prolong and protect. These titanically moneyed institutions have the bottom-line principle of getting as colossal and as conspicuous as they possibly can. Politics, lawmaking, public discourse, the culture that informs these things and is informed by them, have -- in just the last decade -- been dominated by corporate interests, and with this dominance comes the ability to determine for themselves what is and isn't "possible."
Go ahead and roll your eyes. But deep down don't you want to live a life that makes you actually happy?
When I look around, I see all sorts of ways of being and identifying. But what if this inundation is merely an illusion of inundation? What if what I see as a ceaseless list of choices is in fact no choice at all? And if the choices I think I'm making are not just the wrong ones but indeed are not choices at all, what can I say meaningfully about my freedom? What if the stuff we think is here is actually out there, but we've let it in and it liked the look of things and now we can't remember ourselves without it?
What if all we need to truly survey the majesties of existence is an un-wedding of the self from those big and constant things that seem to fundamentally define the very self we so desperately want to fulfill?
What if, instead of gratification, we sought disruption? What if we un-tethered ourselves for just a bit? What if we installed a stoplight right there in the middle of our chests and were maybe just for a minute forced to face our most unpleasant, shameful, and deplorable verities? What if in doing so we also found precious things, truly good things, things worthy of our time and attention, things worth sacrificing ourselves for, things we could deeply, honestly love, things we could love only the way we sometimes love other people?
And what if -- when the light turns green and the traffic of our daily lives resumes and proceeds again speedily and steadily -- we could at least remember a time when it wasn't so? What if we had even a vague sense of those things inside of us that were genuinely, un-ironically special? What if we nurtured those elements? What if we sought out those qualities in others? What if we built a society aimed at unearthing and animating that which is most morally nourishing? Would that be so bad?
None of these obviously lofty inquiries can be answered if we adhere to routine and familiar conclusions. Disruption necessitates exploration and uncertainty, which means that "trying new things" is not merely a well-worn cliché but an urgent moral imperative. It is, it seems to me, sacred.
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