“In so far as the culture industry arouses a feeling of well-being that the world is precisely in that order suggested by the culture industry, the substitute gratification which it prepares for human beings cheats them out of the same happiness which it deceitfully projects.”― Theodor W. Adorno
I’ve never been to Lubbock, Texas, and visiting it wasn’t on my bucket list even before I discovered that an online poll had voted it the most boring town in America.
But it feels as if I’ve been there often; as if I have memories of it, very textured and very specific, with a very specific set of emotions attached to them, as if Lubbock, Texas, has been the consistent location of years and years of a certain recurring dream.
I can see Lubbock now. There’s a white church on the left and a gun shop on the right. There’s a CLOSED sign on the door of the diner. There’s a small knot of Mexicans sitting on the curb in the shade of a billboard advertising Coors Light. There are empty acres of baking asphalt outside the strip mall. In the near foreground there’s a shopping trolley with a broken wheel. The barely audible strains of a country song seem to coming from the radio of that black pickup parked outside the liquor store.
In the wide suburbs, one or two bungalows are distinguished from the others by persistent sprinklers defending their front lawns from the encroaching desert. A woman opens a window.
I can’t help feeling that something is going to go down here pretty soon. My hunch is that it won’t be a rom-com.
I spent six years of my life in Pietermaritzburg. But the city that was the backdrop to those three formative years at Merchiston and those three seminal student years at the University of Natal, PMB, has all but disappeared, as if it had never been more than a painted picture on canvas flats, and silent stagehands had long ago removed the props that sustained the illusion of it.
Because only a handful of my boarding school memories are set in the Merchiston of Pietermaritzburg in the early 1960’s. The rest are located in an English boarding school sometime between the end of the 18th century to the beginning of the 20th, a composite of Rugby or Eton welded together from the boarding school tropes of English literature: the arbitrary canings and the awful food, the cold showers and the muddy sports, the dashing prefects and the bullied fags, the homoerotic worship of muscular fly-halves, the unchristian hypocrisy of force-fed Christianity.
My 1961 was Thackeray’s 1822; my Merchiston was his Charterhouse: “That first night at school, hard bed, hard words, strange boys bullying, and laughing, and jarring you with their hateful merriment — as for the first night at a strange school, we most of us remember what that is. And the first is not the worst, my boys, there’s the rub.”
It’s the composite boarding school of Lindsay Anderson’s if…., the film that Charterhouse refused to be the location of, and I’m on the rooftop with Mick Travis, and I have the gym teacher lined up in the sight of my automatic rifle.
They are the deeply personal and wholly universal memories of any young boy at any English boarding school. They are circumscribed by the walls and fences that divide incarceration from the boundless freedoms of out-of-bounds. And they are quintessentially Victorian.
And there was a time in my student years when I knew every turn of every one of Pietermaritzburg’s roads, and its every shop on its every street and its every bar in its every hotel.
With enough mental effort I can recall some of the city’s concrete details: the gloom of St Saviour’s, the bright bitter taste of nasturtium leaves one Saturday in crocodile file on the way to the rugby fields on the banks of the brown Umzinduzi, the lilac carpet of jacaranda petals crushed by the cars passing the gates of the university, the peppered mushrooms on toast that Dave Agar and I would treat ourselves to every Saturday morning in a little café just off Commercial Road, the juicy burgers and fat slap-chips you could get after midnight from an itinerant stall behind the City Hall when you had the munchies and everything else was closed.
The rest of the city has become a vague sprawl across the hot valley that emerges below when you’ve cleared the wet mist of Hilton. Pietermaritzburg has slipped away. There’s nothing to grasp; nothing to hold onto. It has no reality because its reality was never affirmed for me in film or fiction.
But the tropes that make up my picture of Lubbock are readily retrievable. They lie scattered over the surface of the layers of sediment laid down in my memory by a lifetime of film, television, advertising, news and literature set in small towns in America’s hot southern states, as easy to find as shells on the beaches of Ballito Bay.
The discomfiting mental phenomenon of it is that I can see Lubbock in a way that I can no longer see Pietermaritzburg; and I can see Lubbock without the mental effort I need to exert to see Pietermaritzburg; and the consequence of this ease of recollection — because it is a re-collection — is that an unvisited town in America feels more real, more visible and more substantial than the capital city of my youth.
Fifty years before we started paying more attention to the recorded image of a tropical beach than to the physical presence of the same tropical beach, Siegfried Kracauer, the German sociologist and cultural critic, observed that photographs were beginning to do the work of memory: that the mechanism by which we store our past experiences, and which we’ve relied on for so long to shape the retrospective narratives of our individual lives, was becoming obsolete in the way that digital photography made Kodak obsolete.
In Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality, 1960, he goes even further, arguing, as the title suggests, that the recording of an experience redeems that experience from meaninglessness, and that film in particular, because it captures visual and audio experience in real time, has a peculiarly powerful redemptive function — and that conversely, then, by implication, an experience unfilmed or unrecorded is as lost, is as non-material, as Bishop Berkeley’s tree falling unheard and unseen in a faraway forest.
Kracauer, who once had Adorno as a pupil, was a cineaste, an old-fashioned purist who believed film and television were two distinctly different kinds of medium, with different purposes and altogether different aesthetics. I understand where he was coming from. In those days we watched films the way he did, in rooms darkened for purpose of heightening the illusion, as if they were places of worship.
We no longer care about such fine distinctions. We can watch the beginning of a film in a cinema, the middle of it on a desktop and the end of it on the phone in our pocket without feeling cheated.
Sixty years ago Kracauer’s theory would have been of interest to a handful to academics. But now we know instinctively what he means because we are all cameramen, photographers, writers and producers, and the film that matters to us most is the one that each of us is making about our individual lives: the one that began with a montage of baby photographs in the family album, that came alive on shaky VHS, that shared its teenage anxieties on Bebo, that went viral on YouTube, that graduated to Instagram, that will grow old on Facebook, that will spend its dotage blogging in the wilderness, and that will end not with a bang but a tweet.
Socrates said an unexamined life wasn’t worth living. Now it’s an undocumented life that isn’t worth living: as if every moment that passes by unrecorded is stripped of meaning and lost to the void, and we must live with the anxiety of knowing that there is not enough media in all the world to redeem the complexity of a single day from the chaos of insignificance.
No, we can no longer rely on three pounds of squidgy organic matter to save us from existential oblivion. If we are to endure at all it will have to be as terabytes in an air-conditioned server farm sixty miles south of Lubbock, Texas.
Tropes become tropes through repetition. Repetition breeds familiarity, and familiarity, a behavioural economists will tell you, is a currency in its own right.
New York isn’t just a city. It’s a thousand films and ten thousand songs. Long before we glimpse the outline of Manhattan through the windscreen of the airport cab we know everything about it except its smell. Whether we’ve been there are not, Paris, France, feels like a rendezvous with a long lost lover. Ry Cooder’s sublime score makes the one horse town of Paris, Texas, seem like a destination worth going out of our way to visit.
The content of cinema and music, literature, theatre and television, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat, all of it, artistically noteworthy or not, brilliant or execrable in execution, bestows a prestige, a value, a sense of worth on mundane things, forgettable places and unfamiliar dogs and cats and faces. And this mechanism that ascribes a measure of value to all things animal, vegetable and mineral is the same mechanism we can’t help using to measure the value of our lives — the mechanism which is now the decisive factor in so many young suicides.
In this sense, in the nauseatingly reductive language of marketing, everything is a brand. And we ourselves are brands as long as we depend on others to calculate our worth. But brands forget that ugliness, too, is in the eye of the beholder, and that the beholder can choose to look the other way.
The currency of familiarity is no longer an abstraction. Its monetary unit is a Hit. A hundred Hits are worth a View. There are a hundred Views in a Like. The value of the currency is based on the universally recognised Kardashian Standard.
The advantage of the Kardashian system over the old-fashioned system of dollars and cents is that it measures the fluctuating value of everything on the planet and the universe beyond, past and present, living and dead.
Take architectural cladding: a few weeks ago it was hovering just above the poverty line; now it’s right up there with fields of wheat. Soon time will change that too, which is why a currency is called a currency.
Below the poverty line, floating meaninglessly in sub-Kardashian oblivion, are the objects, subjects, ideas, notions, names and places that aren’t recognised by Spellcheck. It’s a trivial thing; it’s a measurement of nothing but the accumulated number of clicks or queries required for a word to register in Microsoft’s dumb neo-cortex. We know and accept that it has an American bias, an English language bias, and a culturally Western bias. We know that it’s a passive recipient: that it’s not an active agent searching for words of significance, not some sort of St Peter dividing the sheep from the goats at the gates of digital heaven.
But we feel its effect, nevertheless. And the more we use Microsoft Word, and the more personal the subject of our composition, the more conscious we become of its determining presence. It’s a cold intelligence passing instant judgement on the validity of every proper noun. It’s unapologetic about its decisiveness. It doesn’t have the search engine’s courtesy of enquiring whether we really meant what we typed into its blank field. It says, “I do not recognise this name, this person, this place, this town, this city, this capitalised thing.” But we feel it saying, “You have made a mistake.” And when we try again it says, “What you are saying is nonsense, it is meaningless, it doesn’t exist.”
I could turn it off, of course. But I want to fight it. It want to tell it again and again that the towns and cities and landmarks on the geographical map of my childhood matter — have always mattered, still matter, will always matter. Adding them to “my dictionary” is not an answer, it’s a capitulation. I want to see those red underlines everywhere on every page. I want them to stand like flags of victory, pyrrhic or not, marking every single one of my raids on oblivion.
We pay a high price for constructing our personal identities. We pay it in the guilt we feel at separating our individual selves from the broader, more comfortable, identity of home and family; in that necessary and necessarily painful wrench away from brother and sister, from mother and father; and then from classmate, school, team, gang, town, city, county and province. We carve it out of work, mobility, property and money — and sometimes out of the granite of society’s indifference. Not all of us achieve that. Most of us will stop somewhere on the journey between. But to go beyond that, to let go of culture and country, is something different. Because to go further would be to sever personal identity at its root, to come face to face with insubstantiality, with what George Lukacs called transcendental homelessness, which locates our identity everywhere and nowhere.
So now, in the brutal economy of the Kardashian system, we feel the absence of digital recognition as an absence of affirmation, an omission of acknowledgement, an erosion of personal value, and, hence, as a loss of the identity we’ve paid so much for. It’s a casual dismissal, a careless turn of the world’s cold shoulder, but it’s felt as an emptying, as a hollowing out, and it’s deeply private, and profoundly existential.
Which explains that sudden thrill we feel when the author of the novel we’re reading happens to mention the name of our home town, or when the camera of the movie we’re watching captures in passing a familiar coffee shop on the familiar street of a familiar city. We know it’s irrational. The coffee shop was there before it was filmed and it’s still there now. But because you sat in that corner and drank that latte and looked out of that window at that self-same street you feel instantly exalted, as if some invisible deity had swooped down to bless you and validate you, and that shiver of excitement is her caress on your cheek with perfumed fingers.
H.G. Wells’s time-traveller flees south from the unrecognisable ruins of London in search of a familiar landmark. He climbs a hill in the hope that the view from the top will give him his bearings. With that same sudden thrill of recognition he knows he is standing on the crest of Coombe Hill, and I share it vicariously because Coombe Hill is half a mile from where I am reading.
At the end of 2012 the survivors on the great boats that have saved them from the apocalyptic flood see salvation on the horizon in the form of a mountain range standing proud above the waters. The title that tells the rest of the audience that these are the mountains of the Drakensberg tells me that the evening sun is slanting across Drakeleigh’s veranda, and that Wendy the Rhodesian Ridgeback is stretched out at my father’s feet, one eye watching his every move, one ear listening to his every breath; and the little ones have gathered around my mother for a story as bottle caps pop in the background and boerewors blisters on the braai; and we are all there, and all of us will always be there.
I may be an outlier, the exception that doesn’t prove the rule, but I suspect that the more remote we are from the production centres of contemporary culture, from New York, London and Hollywood, from the catwalks of Paris, from the design studios of Mila, from Tokyo cool and Silicon Valley, from the East Coast authors and the Nashville songwriters, the more desperately we long for public acknowledgments of our existence and public affirmations of our value. And as long as the will-o’-the-wisp of personal glory remains elusive we will seek out its ineffable grace in the light of its reflections, the intensity of which we can measure precisely in the degrees that separate us from the luminous object. It’s experienced as the lure of bright lights, and its apotheosis comes in a selfie with George Clooney.
The bright lights of Hillbrow inspired me to pack a mattress, a deckchair and a clean pair of socks into my Datsun 1200 bakkie and head for Johannesburg. But I remember it also as an escape, the relief of seeing Mooi River in my rear-view mirror, of putting the lowlands of Ladysmith and Estcourt behind me as I climbed Van Reenen’s Pass.
But maybe I was just more desperate than most, less secure in my identity, more needy for recognition, more susceptible to doubt. Because I did push on past the limits of culture and country, and I lost myself in Sao Paulo and Houston and Copenhagen and Hong Kong, and I made Karine and my children homeless in Mexico City and London. Now my Englishness smirks back at me in the mirror, and English tastes bitter in my mouth.
The painted dreams of American films and English novels cheated me out of the happiness of home. Or maybe I’m just now learning the truth of Adorno’s precept, that “To those who no longer have a homeland, writing becomes home.”