Death By Self-Consciousness in America

 

"You thinking what I'm thinking?" "Yeah. I'm thinking your thinking what I'm thinking."

“Dude, I really don’t give a shit. This weekend, I am going to blow every last cent of what I just worked for all week on fuckin’, ya know, some serious coke and some fuckin’ sick whores, man. It’s gonna be fuckin’ hot dude.”

“Totally. Good by me bro. Sounds like a plan.”

This is what I heard upon first sitting down at the bar inside Ten Stone last night, a brick-walled, semi-hipster, opened-windowed haunt on the corner of 21st and South in Philadelphia. I was there to meet my friend Katie for a few beers and to catch up on the life we had both lived in each other’s absence since graduating from Shawnee High School in 1999. I ordered a Wolaver’s stout and continued to listen to the conversation as I sipped; and during the twenty minutes or so that I waited for Katie to arrive, these two young men continued to talk about very little else save for the “whores” they were going to fuck this weekend and the ridiculous amount of money they had just plunked down for tickets to the second game in the unfolding playoff series between the Phillies and Milwaukee Brewers. Dressed in workaday jeans and t-shirts, both of them, I did not take these two guys to be exceedingly wealthy; and judging from the vernacular they used and the general vibe of their conversation, I also did not think them to be any older than me, give or take a few years. Just two late-twenties dudes living semi-modestly in the City of Brotherly Love, enjoying a Tuesday night trip to the neighborhood watering hole while talking about sex and sports and the disposable income of youth. No worries.

To my left, however, a completely different conversation altogether was taking place, this one between an older woman and two of her friends.

“I just invested in the market. Like three weeks ago. I’m talking about, I put in a lot of money. And now I’m like, Well shit—what the hell am I supposed to do now?” She had long, black hair streaked with touches of false, strawberry blonde, and her two friends—an early-fifties couple I took to be husband and wife—nodded and um-hmmed with foreboding sympathy. The woman who spoke was slightly overweight, weathered around the eyes, and of the same demographic (if maybe slightly older and less Rittenhouse polished) as her friends. She took up the next ten minutes of their time lamenting the potential woes of her fiscal situation. “I mean, do you know what I really want right now?”

What? they both asked with their wide eyes and shoulder shrugs.

“I want a stable, predictable, nine-to-five job.”

“Really?” the wife said with amazement.

“Yes! I mean, I’m seriously struggling in a starter job right now, working for myself, when I should be looking ahead to an easy, relaxing retirement. And it’s fucking hard.” For the next twenty minutes, these three continued to share their white wine and lamentations (“What the hell is wrong with Wall Street?” or “Where the hell have all the good leaders gone?”) with as much verve as the two young men to my right bragged to one another about the heedless irresponsibility they were about to enjoy this weekend between gulps of pumpkin ale (“I’m lookin’ to be double teaming some sick whores this weekend man.” or “Brian’s housewarming is going to be pussy to the eyes, dude!”)

As I sat and waited and listened to their respective conversations, I asked myself over and over again the same question I have been asking myself for almost a decade now: What is the purpose of this time in which I live? Or better yet, What is this particular time in humanity’s history teaching me about the truths of our inherent nature? And while I don’t think the following observation is a definitive or all-encompassing answer to that question, I do believe it is at least a piece of the puzzle.

Ready?

We are helplessly self-conscious creatures. If this age is to be dubbed with any sort of broad, historical sobriquet whatsoever, it should be dubbed “The Age of Ceaseless Self Consciousness.” Not irony. Not apathy. Ceaseless Self Consciousness. We are so incredibly self aware, so much more in tune than any other time with what has come before us, that both disaster and triumph alike no longer occur in any sort of pure present tense, but in a perpetual loop of the present as it relates to what we have already known; to the past and to what we assume will happen in the future. And I don’t know if this is good for us.

Consider the woman decrying the state of her affairs as it relates to the nation’s current economic woes. “I’m really worried that this is going to be another great depression,” she said at one point. “Really worried.” Aside from being a cliche, this statement is, of course, absurd. What we know of as America’s “Great Depression” will not happen again. It cannot happen again. Sure, the American economy may very well spiral into inevitable collapse, but even if such a tragedy were to occur, the results would look nothing like they did in 1929; not only because the global landscape of economic factors has changed radically over the last 80 years, but because we already know what the quote-unquote GREAT DEPRESSION looked like, if only by proxy of photos and written accounts. There would be no bread lines; no wasted landscapes; no “Grapes of Wrath”-style struggles for human liberation. Instead, we’d probably all stand around wondering why no one looked like the subjects of Walker Evans’s iconic American photographs.

So on the one hand, our self-consciousness has given us the overwrought melodrama of folks like the woman to my left. On the other, it has yielded the dangerous apathy of the twenty-somethings to my right. As members of my generation, I understand where they’re probably coming from. They could care less about the current state of America’s economic affairs, because to them the potential for tragedy has become a caricature of itself; a sad story of fall and rise and fall and rise that’s already been told a thousand times. They have no real, tangible fear of the present moment collapsing around them because they are already living in the future moments when we can all look back and share a laugh about how bad it once was. This generation—my generation—has become impervious to the possibility of real tragedy. It’s all a movie. A game. A story already memorized.

This is why September 11th was so morbidly invigorating (for lack of a better word) to both the United States, because it was the first time in a long time we were forced to process a singular moment without any context whatsoever. Even though there were inevitable comparisons to the bombing of Pearl Harbor, they were ultimately erroneous. The tragedy of September 11th had no precedent and therefore had no prearranged emotional response. The irony, of course, is that we so quickly turned the events of that day into moral and cultural cliche through our inescapable self consciousness. Look no further than the motion pictures already made about that day, all of which were released within just five years of the tragedy’s occurrence! Or consider how quickly the media packaged President Bush’s speech atop the rubble, as if to say, Look! Here is history in the making!

"Attention! This is history in the making!"

It is that sense of “history in the making” I think I find so troubling above all else, because it doesn’t allow us to merely let history take place, to be put in context at a later and more appropriate date, to be reflected upon when it is most needed. When Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address in 1863, the speech lasted less than three minutes, not even long enough for the photographer present to set up his camera. At the time, it was barely a footnote in the events of the day. In fact, Lincoln was widely criticized for being so brief that afternoon. Moreover, he himself felt fickle about the moment, turning to his bodyguard Ward Hill Lamon and remarking that the speech, like a bad plow, “won’t scour”. Lincoln thought the address wouldn’t be remembered the following week, let alone over a century later. But that is what made it so beautiful, so sublime. Lincoln was a man who lived in the perpetual present. He was not self conscious (at least not by today’s standards), nor did he have a desire to be; and that is one of the reasons his legacy has endured so.

I fear we’re in danger of thinking ourselves into oblivion right now. To be sure, it’s important to constantly learn from history while projecting the bright future we desire and deserve; but until we stop behaving with such masturbatory self consciousness, that future will never come, and the past we will be doomed to remember will be one that is littered with the bruises we suffered because we constantly kept tripping over ourselves.

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