Jul 26, 2021
The road in front of me is lit dimly by my low beams as the suburban highway mercropolis fades in my rear-view mirror. I pass a tower reminiscent of Stanford’s, but this one marks the headquarters of a new-agey religious group; its campus is a popular place to take photos before high school dances. Soon my surroundings darken; it hits me I’m on the route to Kauffman Stadium, where the Royals play. I think about how it feels to drive on paths that connect places I’ve only ever been driven to, the way disjoint nodes become tightly coupled in the map formed by my memories. These connections retroactively tighten the vastness of the world I understood as a child. It is a small world after all.
I have a slight distaste for riding in cars with friends now, mostly because I don’t like feeling tethered to someone else if I’m trying to leave wherever we’re going. It’s not even like I’m always trying to leave anywhere early; I suppose I just don’t like the idea of being tethered.
“Control issues,” a therapist or someone pretending to be one on twitter might say, but I think my qualms come from the same place as my always-packed backpack, which contains any number of interchangeable clothing items, a small first-aid kit, a power pack, chapstick, lotion, and a book I will almost certainly not read en route to wherever I’m headed. I was a girl scout once and learned to always be prepared. And what’s a better plan for preparedness than an autonomous exit strategy?
Hoping to drown out the nibbles of unease bred by the introspection that led to this drive in the first place, I grab my phone and haphazardly navigate to my favorite song on spotify. I put Next Year (RAC Remix) on and turn up the volume. I think I’ve listened to this song more times than anyone else in the world.
I’m driving aimlessly and I can’t tell if it’s because it’s what people do in movies when they’re anxious or if it’s actually something I want to do. If it were a movie, there would probably be a diegetic switch after I started playing the music on my car radio; the hum of my tires and the crunch of the stereo would fade into crystal-clear non-diegetic majesty. Then, the frame of the road through my eyes would cut to a drone shot over my car backing out and out and out until the whole screen is black.
But it’s not a movie and I’m pretty sure driving actually does make me feel better. I used to be a delivery driver and learned that aside from practical concerns, driving on a highway alone for a long stretch of time while playing some good music is a deeply healing experience. It’s even better when it’s too dark outside for other drivers to notice me talking to myself.
I don’t talk to myself in any other contexts, but when I’m driving and something is bothering me I like to play out conversations. I only say my side aloud and briefly fill in the invisible other’s response rhetorically. Talking to myself this way is the opposite of those nightmares where I’m screaming but not making a sound.
As I drive I think about when I got my driver’s license at 16. I was reading Into the Wild at the time, which inspired daydreams of leaving home with a car full of provisions and books. This always culminated with a reckoning with the limitations of my newfound freedom. Eventually my car would run out of gas or break down or I’d reach the end of the road. I wondered, however cliché, what it really meant to be free.
In college I took a class taught by an anarchist with a section on Guy Debord. I was particularly struck by the value of the dérive, not precisely as an exercise in rejecting capitalist influences, but as a way to tap into the way spaces make me feel. I also appreciated the development of a mental map independent from, say, Google Maps.
The situationist movement, however, illustrated a certain catch-22 to me. By engaging with and attempting to emulate Debord, I found myself fetishizing 20th-century French philosophers in a way similar to what Debord calls “The fetishism of the commodity” in The Society of the Spectacle:
The fetishism of the commodity — the domination of society by “intangible as well as tangible things” — attains its ultimate fulfillment in the spectacle, where the real world is replaced by a selection of images which are projected above it, yet which at the same time succeed in making themselves regarded as the epitome of reality.
Mine is a distorted understanding of the spectacle, but when I think about Situationist International and responses to capitalism and deliberate attempts to act outside of the spectacle, I am saddened by the reality that counterculture is still informed by dominant culture. SI only existed because the structures it opposed did, too. I’m sure the movement’s members were aware of this reality, but I think I perceive some degree of arrogance in the assumption that one might have ideas or motives that are anything but fully informed by the culture one is living in.
Do I like wandering aimlessly to subvert capitalist constraints, or do I like the idea of it? Is a dérive a genuine experience for anyone?
Another thread in my understanding is informed by Baudrillard, post-structuralism, the influence of systems on meaning. The context through which I understand Debord’s ideas is quite different from the context in which they were formed. There’s a shallowness to my appreciation– Debord and others reacted to the influence of American culture, capitalism, industrialization, which are all things I, too, have experienced. But it would be impossible for me to fully replicate the places these ideas came from.
I put idealized versions of several 20th-century French philosophers on a pedastal as transcendent and enlightened. If Debord were a 20-year-old in the US presently, though, I might find him annoying or narcissistic and believe he ought to just find a job.
I’m reminded of a quote from one of my favorite essays ever, Surviving Woodstock by Hua Hsu.
There’s the past, and there’s the story we tell about it. Those who benefitted from being in the right place at the right time often write a version emphasizing vision and hard work. Maybe it was just a glorious accident.
I think about this snippet frequently and the way we glorify historical events or people, especially events and people we feel have achieved some degree of transcendence above the influences of consumerism or capitalism. But I have to think even many of the bona-fide hippies and French philosophers wanted, too, to emulate the counterculture figures that came before them.
When I look back at myself, I think my ultimate discomfort with my tendency to glorify these figures comes from a desire to be intrinsically motivated, to have a pure uninhibited desire to be whatever I choose to be. I find myself annoyed by people who like the idea of being something more than actually being it (see: founders of circle-jerk arbitrary tech startups). I wonder if all of the people at Woodstock actually felt free and unhindered and wholly happy or if they thought it was cool to go with the flow and do drugs. Perhaps it’s only in the absence of any intention to be cool or contrarian that genuine counterculture can arise?
I think I also question the value of ideals the further removed they become from the immediate. Something like Debord’s opposition to French colonization of Algeria would be in the first-order as a direct response to a current event, whereas handwavey and often un-actionable higher-level ones, like about the relationship between art and politics or the spectacle, feel like they might only act as fodder for academic conversation.
I think there’s a degree of commodification of ideas and movements as we attempt to meet our needs, like in the adoption of yoga by white people in the West. Rather than seeking the organic development of a practice in response to our needs, we try out exported or re-created or appropriated practices that we already believe will meet our needs. It’s as though we’re starting with the way we wish to feel (happy, stress-free) and looking for things that others have said achieve this. I find it hard to tell sometimes whether a thing that is said to make people happy actually makes me happy, or if I just believe it makes me happy. And if it’s the latter, is that a bad thing?
Often everything that he and Agathe undertook, or what they saw and experienced, seemed to Ulrich only a simile. This tree and that smile are reality, because they have the quite specific quality of not merely being illusion; but are there not many realities? Was it not just yesterday that we were wearing wigs with long locks, possessed very imperfect machines, but wrote splendid books? And only the day before yesterday that we carried bows and arrows and put on gold hoods at festivals, over cheeks that were painted with the blue of the night sky, and orange-yellow eye sockets? Some kind of vague sympathy for these things still quivers within us today. So much was like today and so much was different, as if it was trying to be one of many hieroglyphic languages. Does not this mean that one should also not set too much store in present things? What is bad today will perhaps in part be good tomorrow, and the beautiful ugly; disregarded thoughts will have become great ideas, and dignified ideas decay to indifference. Every order is somehow absurd and like a wax figure, if one takes it too seriously; every thing is a frozen individual instance of its possibilities. But those are not doubts, rather a dynamic, elastic, undefined quality that feels itself capable of anything.
-Musil, The Man Without Qualities